A Report From Memphis In May

Memphis, Tennessee, May 2004

by Paul Hanson

I couldn't do it. Walking around with a small notebook and taking notes while bands entertained thousands of people throughout the weekend, playing their songs with energetic style, just didn't seem like the right thing to do. Instead, I spent my five days in Memphis drawn to the accommodating people that I met and talked to, both inside and outside of the festival. Everywhere we went, very quick service, always with a smile, or an obnoxious waitress, like the one that served us our delicious cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Café for our Saturday lunch downtown. While the weather often did not accommodate the festival, it didn't seem to matter. Walking past the famous Peabody Hotel, eating at the legendary barbecue restaurants -- an empty glass at whatever table we were sitting at didn't seem to exist unless we were getting ready to leave to head to the next round of beer. The group I was with visited at least 20 bars. At approximately $12 per round, we definitely contributed to the Memphis economy.

However, even before the festival, there was electricity in the air. After a ten hour drive, we ended up at a local pub called the Cock-Eyed Camel. The talented guitar duo Carson and Poole (http://www.carsonandpool.com) were getting ready to start their final set when we walked in. Among the covers on their set list, they played, "Goodbye," from their CD Jump In. The melodies and harmonies intertwined as guitarists David Pool and Kevin Carson accompanied the music at this gig with a programmed drumbeat that helped round out their sound. They sounded excellent. Grinning and with a sigh, they launched into the required cover "Freebird." The crowd appreciated the way in which their vocal lines supported each other. While Kevin Carson provided an acoustic guitar foundation, David Pool contributed scorching electric guitar leads, venturing into the dance floor before returning in time to harmonize with Carson. The duo also play with a band, which would be worth catching. "Goodbye" showcases their talent and their collective experience in the music industry.

To summarize, during the three day festival, my three friends and I walked around from stage to stage, hearing songs from the bands we wanted to see and enduring the often rainy weather. The grass quickly gave way to a muddy mess. Not all of the crowd thought that was a bad thing. As a friend and I stood waiting for the other two in our group, two 20-something females walked by in muddy tank tops. When they saw us shivering in the rain, they announced to us that the cure for being cold was to wrestle. We grinned and wondered who would let their mud-caked clothes into their car. Those girls are typical of the three day festival - a gung-ho party. The atmosphere has a thick "what's going to happen next?" atmosphere. Balanced with the wild antics of females getting muddy were incidents like when we walked with a father who was walking to hear Salivia with his five-year old son. The father knew the band and had been given passes to the event.

The music was worth hearing. Inside the festival, and in no specific order, the Porch Ghouls, Shinedown, Smile Empty Soul, Styx, Salivia, Betty Lavette (in the blues tent), Live, G Love and the Special Sauce, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Gov't Mule, and the vulgar Three 6 Mafia, were just some of the bands I watched for more than a couple of songs.

Of the bands mentioned above, Styx was just one of the bands that I will remember specifically as having a good time on stage. The band raised the crowd's roar when they launched into stand-by classics like "Renegade" and "Lady," the band also played a medley of 18 songs that provided a glimpse into the band's powerful and long-lasting impact on popular music.

Another excellent band was Shinedown. In fact, as the hard rocking quartet launched into their final song, "Left Out" (which conveniently includes the lyrics, "Have you ever been left out in the rain?")the skies opened and the already saturated crowd got drenched while bobbing up and down to the pounding drumbeat. This quartet slowed things down with a heart-wrenching cover of "Simple Man," one of my favorite songs of all time.

Another excellent band was Smile Empty Soul. The crowd appreciated the band's energy. Reflecting on the stage's lineup, the singer asked, "Are you ready for Trapt?" The crowd roared approval. "How about Chaka Khan?" The crowd roared disapproval. "How about Styx?" The crowd was about 50/50 approval/disapproval. "That is a crazy lineup," he remarked before launching into the next song.

Over in the blues tent, Bettye Lavette thrust and belted out her music, often covering songs but making them her own. The keyboards player, guitarist, bassist, and drummer warmed up the crowd with a scorching instrumental before she sauntered on stage and tore the place up. At one point, she commented that "Paul Simon sings this song . . . but I sing it better." Perhaps she did. She also covered a RL Burnside song that won the crowd's approval.

Over on another stage, G Love & Special Sauce, a trio, was impressing the crowd with an odd mixture of rap, blues, and rock. The nerdy antics of the drummer gave a first impression that he didn't belong. The bassist played a stand-up bass while G Love paced the stage with his guitar. They slipped into an instrumental jam from which the drummer started a mini-drum solo that provided the foundation for the next song.

Memphis hometown favorites Salivia came on next, peppering their set with sincere appreciation for the crowd and hard rock that won an enthusiastic response. Their final song "Always" generated the most response and the most people screaming back the words to the band. It was a successful return.

The bars on Beale Street yielded some fine jams from bands as well. The bar kitty-corner from the Hard Rock Café had a guitar/bass/drums trio and when we walked in, "Hey Joe" was coming from their instruments. The guitarist took an extended solo, which allowed the drummer to provide evidence that he was talented.

The hard-rocking trio Hect was playing a free gig at the Budweiser outside amphitheater on Beale Street as we walked from bar to bar on Sunday. I would have paid to hear them, especially after their guitarist/vocalist Eric slipped me their 3 song demo, creatively titled "2004 Demo." While only 8:38 minutes in length, the material showcases a trio grounded in the post-grunge rock movement with a lot of promise. Starting with "Addict," the most driving riff on the CD, percussionist Tim and bassist/backing vocalist Matt provide a groove over which Eric riffs. While the second track "Try" (the shortest at just under 2:00)could have easily been expanded with something as simple as a musical interlude, I am impressed with this band's material. Reminding me of a raw Alice in Chains, I expect that a full length CD from this band would yield fruitful results. I look forward to only good things from the band. You can get in touch with the band through their email address: hectband@yahoo.com.

On Sunday, we stopped at Graceland, Elvis' mansion that he bought for $100,000. Even if you are not a big Elvis fan, the place is worth the $18 ticket. Most impressive is his racquetball building. What used to be the racquetball court has been transformed into a gallery of his awards. One wall that seems to rise forever is just for his international awards. The comment was made by Elvis' record label CEO that Elvis achieved billions of sales in a pre-Internet age. To see where he ate, where he played, where he rests in peace -- all worth it. Just remember no flash photography.

From left: Paul Hanson, Jamie Wipperman, Phil Smith, Mike (Serbi) Serbousek.

There are many other events that happened that I will not forget:

¢ the kids with the wild hairdos
¢ talking about drum corps
¢ Bela Fleck & the Flecktones starting early and playing a 90-minute set
¢ the Three 6 Mafia bringing 30 people on stage and sounding good
¢ hearing the Steve Miller Band play "Jet Airliner"
¢ hearing the Offspring play "Self-Esteem."

When asked what my favorite part of the trip was, I have to say it was the Budweiser Total Interactive Music Experience, or whatever the thing is called officially. A semi-trailer has been converted into a place where you can create music. In one of the rooms, there was a drum set, a guitar, a bass, a keyboard, and a couple of microphone stands. Whoever was in the room could start playing. On Saturday, I played drums with an excellent guitarist, a Marine who has not pursued playing in a band. A bassist joined the jam session and it was tremendous. At one point, I ended up with a bass guitar around my neck. Never having played bass before, I slapped the strings and did my best to imitate every visual I'd ever seen a bass player use to spice up his performance. The sounds were ugly. Later, I was back behind the drum set. The guitarist asked me what I knew. I said, "Anything." He said, "You know 'Hot for Teacher' by Van Halen?" I frowned. "How about something else. He launched into the riff of "Ice Cream Man," which was better for me. We also made our way through "Enter Sandman," perhaps my favorite song of all time. My friend had to drag me out of the room. My smile was literally a mile wide.

The entire trip was a complete success -- excellent music throughout the five days we were in town. The local Memphis musicians I heard play all had talent -- the bands on the stages inside the festival were all excellent as well. The organizers of the festival probably wished for better weather -- I admit I did too at some points -- but I definitely believe the festival was a success. If you have any opportunity, it would be in your best interest to head to Memphis in May.

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