Memphis is woven more deeply into our show’s DNA than you might imagine. Our co-founder Todd grew up there. We’re always listening West to the River City for inspiration, bands and the muses of rock and soul. You couldn’t do a roots Americana show in Middle Tennessee and not feel its gravitational pull. In many ways Nashville and Memphis are the twin suns of a binary system that’s lit the whole world. So it’s not just awesome to have Memphis so close by and so relevant to our field; it’s a responsibility. Two of our five guests this week came from the city; the rest showed unmistakable influence and homage. It was a unique show with scarcely a wisp of country music and no bluegrass or folk. It was funky, bluesy, horny and wild. It had hustle and flow. It was Music City Roots, all right. But maybe that Music City was Memphis.
I’ve been standing on the corner with a bullhorn for a while trying to tell the world about The Megaphones. This big brassy Nashville outfit (9 pieces in this configuration) just oozes influences from all points on the Americana Music Triangle (see my previous column for this reference), including our fair city, New Orleans and Memphis. The beats are large and deliciously complex thanks to the prominent role of percussionist Yamil Conga on bells, timbales and, uh, congas. (No that is not your real name!) The three-man horn section got deep with jazz-man charts and effortless precision. But the band gets its style from its twin vocalists: rapper Crisis and singer Jason Eskridge. Their yin-yang delivery elevated and amplified all four of the band’s self-written songs. The wordplay on “Drama Queen” was particularly striking. The cooing-three-part brass intro section to closer “This Is Your Time” evoked the opening of “Try A Little Tenderness,” but it was far from the only Memphis allusion in this celebratory, large and danceable set by a great Nashville outfit.
At first I thought Seth Glier rhymed with ‘outlier’ but I was wrong (it rhymes with ‘beer’) and while he was the only Yankee and the most pop oriented of our artists on this night, he was no odd man out when it came to soul. His pure voice soared and his songs were engaging and heartfelt, mingling passions personal and public. His opener “Standing Still” was in fact about NOT standing still in the face of injustice. He moved from keyboard to acoustic guitar for the next tune, showing skills with a pedal board that let him build ambient parts and harmonies. Speaking of harmonies, Seth’s only musical companion was Joe Nerney, a blind gentleman with white hair, great sunglasses, a slick black suit and an arsenal of saxophones. His singing was velvet, making some really impressive duet parts with an artist decades his junior. Glier cited their close friendship as an influence, and it was really nice. He sealed the deal with an a cappella number with a foot stomp and shaker that felt like a sweltering Southern day 100 years ago. The set earned Glier (rhymes with ‘cheer’) a standing ovation.
On a night of discoveries, Jarekus Singleton stood out. First, it was a joy to meet him and speak at some length with him on Roots Radio, along with his label boss and mentor Bruce Iglauer. You could tell this was a guy with a sense of purpose. I learned he had been an accomplished point guard, so his telepathic leadership of his band had a backcourt backstory. On stage it was even more intense and focused and fiery than I’d hoped. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a more emotionally direct and revealing performance on the show. There was a dialogue among his voice, his guitar and the audience. His slowest number “Crime Scene” may have been the epitome of this; it floored me. He was patient, stretching them out with passages that steered between restrained and blazing. His dynamics, so exciting, reminded me of Buddy Guy. His guitar tone was icy and brazen. He fits in so perfectly with the long line of masterful musicians at Alligator Records, and as Iglauer noted, Jarekus is young and developing rapidly. I refuse to lose touch with this important new blues man.
The Tough Act To Follow Award goes to John Paul Keith who solved the problem by bringing a totally different palette to the stage. His style was lean and vintage (you’re off on the right foot with a guy when he can’t shake your hand because he’s applying pomade). The music was steeped in the Memphis power pop legacy of Big Star and Van Duren. I wanted to take “Everything’s Different Now” home on a 45 and play it over and over. Keith offered a slow, slurry country waltz with the crafty “90 Proof Kiss” and got all surfy and early Elvis Costello with “Anyone Can Do It.” His Telecaster was colorful and jangly in that good old Southern way. His lyrics though are what seal Keith as a master of smart, short pop songs that feel like they’ve been on your turntable forever.
You have to strap in for a Jason D. Williams set. There’s nothing like it. He and his nimble, ultra-responsive three-piece band hit the stage with “My Gal Is Red Hot” and then rolled into “Money Honey” about goings on that I shall decline to explain. His boogie woogie “I’ll Fly Away” got a standing ovation, while “Jesus On The Mainline” led to neck-jerking shifts of tempo, mood and sanity. In the end he was standing on his piano in a black SUN Records Jason D. Williams sleeveless t-shirt. He cajoled the crowd up out of their seats and up to the front like a rockabilly altar call. I think the thing I really took away was a result of my great view of his right hand on the piano. The guy is really crazy good at his instrument, which keeps the whole thing from flying off into nowhere.
We had a little mixed message on the finale so our segue to the Nashville Jam wasn’t the smoothest ever, but hey, we’re live and on the fly and there was no wrinkle in the good time. The assembled did “Jambalaya” to round out an exciting night where many striking talents traveled a long way or else organized many human beings in order to play one of our funkiest shows ever. To them and our fans, as a certain Memphian used to say, thangyavuramuch.