3 ways to rock in Memphis
It’s hard to untangle music and history in Memphis. That’s a good thing. For me, the city’s rhythmic roots make the live music experience richer – sometimes because of a performer or venue’s pedigree; other times because of a performer or venue’s split from tradition (which in itself conjures a certain teen from Tupelo, no?). So today, I answer for you not just where to listen to live music in Memphis, but where to listen to live music with a great back-story in Memphis. You’re welcome.
1. Opus One concert series (locations around town): If you missed this video from The Wall Street Journal online, I’ll summarize the bad news/good news for you: Symphony patronage in the U.S. is down, but a few cities are smacking the trend down with unconvention. Memphis is one of them. The city’s initiative is called Opus One, and the formula looks like this: Take the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Add a local musician/band. Set them in places you’d think chamber music wouldn’t be caught dead in (dive bars, nightclubs, an old factory-turned-live music space). The outcome could look and sound like this.
That’s Memphis rapper Al Kapone performing “Whoop that Trick” backed by MSO (and arranged by the orchestra’s own Sam Shoup) during Opus One’s December 2011 concert. For me, it represents what’s most mind-blowing about the Opus One experience: The talent of individual members of the orchestra to create these original arrangements, and the new, powerful identities the songs take on when two (seemingly dissonant) musical forces combine. For my first Opus One experience, just last week, the orchestra collaborated with my favorite Memphis-based band, Lucero. The program was a well-curated mix of symphonic solos from Stravinsky’s Ragtime to variations on Radiohead and The Rolling Stones composed by MSO members. But the show-stoppers were MSO’s arrangements of Lucero’s alt-country anthems like “Fistful of Tears” (imagine the song’s moody beauty intensified by the orchestral accompaniment); the percussive explosion of Mad Cow (composed by MSO’s David Carlisle); and the back-and-forth between the musicians (just before Carlisle and drumming partner Adrienne Park unleashed Mad Cow on the audience, Lucero frontman Ben Nichols promised: “This is gonna be good.” And it was.).
Opus One just wrapped its third season, but full details on the 2012/2013 line-up will be available around July 1. For now, know that the North Mississippi Allstars are committed, and you won’t want to miss that.
2. The Levitt Shell: Only six cities in the U.S. have a Levitt Pavilion. Again, Memphis is one of them. Ours is called the Levitt Shell, and it’s been a performing arts venue since the WPA helped construct it in 1936. I like that of 27 WPA-constructed shells in the U.S., Memphis’ shell is one of the few remaining. I love that of all the venues in the world, Memphis’ shell is considered the birthplace of the rock-and-roll show (when Elvis Presley opened for Slim Whitman in 1954).
By 2008, Levitt Pavilions got involved with Memphis’ shell, helping to fund its renovation and produce several concerts annually that are free and open to the public. The 2012 summer season runs May 17-July 1, presenting concerts Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 6 p.m. Performers range in style from Zydeco to punk, hip-hop to Americana (and of course, blues and soul…personally, I can’t wait to see Cedric Burnside on May 18 and the Stax Music Academy on June 30). While virtually all concerts are family-friendly, Sunday shows in particular are booked with kids in mind.
Though you’ll find a very few benches here, so much of the Shell’s charm comes from sitting on its sprawling lawn beneath a wide-open sky (the Shell is part of Memphis’ historic Overton Park). Bring a blanket, folding chair and even a picnic (though food and drink concessionaires tend to hang out on concert nights).
3. The Center for Southern Folklore: This nonprofit champion of all things Delta is best known for its colorful gift store at 123 S. Main St. (check out the collection of old photos and concert posters) and the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival it hosts annually around Labor Day. But pop in on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find live music on the cheap ($6 for a single ticket/$10 for two; kids under 12 get in free). My pick: Get to the Center on May 25 for the soulful folksiness of Memphis’ Star & Micey. And bring your appetite – the Center cooks up, among other items, greens and cornbread based on the family recipe of its co-founder and director Judy Peiser. As a greens-and-cornbread kind of girl, I go for the music and the food.
One More Thing
If you’re looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of the big city, head east to Brownsville on May 26 for the Exit 56 Bluesfest. Local and regional favorites such as Theo D “The Boogieman,” Sean “Bad” Apple, Eric Hughes, and headliners Elmo and the Shades, will perform from the porch of the home of Blues pioneer “Sleepy” John Estes. Get more details here.
By the way, Opus One is soliciting suggestions for Memphis musicians you’d like to see perform with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Who’s on your wish list?