Jumpsturdy News From Memphis
Memphis In May 1999

Memphis NARAS Premier Player Awards

The Memphis NARAS Premier Player Awards were held at the Pyramid last week, and what a time the homies had.  With culinary stars like Corky’s and Jose Gutierrez of the Peabody’s Chez Philippe catering the pre-award reception, one knew this was going to be worth getting out the old monkey suit and putting on the ritz. 

Though it did drag on too long, as most awards shows tend to do, and though the evening’s honoree, Johnny Cash, was not able to pick up his Governor’s Award due to illness, it was still a great evening, showing how the Memphis music community sho’ nuff loves itself. 

Highlights:  Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs performing “Wooly Bully,” and last year’s Premier Newcomer/Phillips Award winner Jackie Johnson bringing the crowd to its knees (I mean, feet) with a Lord Have Mercy version of “A Change is Gonna Come.”  El drago supremo:  the Riverbluff Clan and Reba Russell meeting up in “Jackson.”  Never truly understood this song’s appeal; it sounded tired even as they tried to make it stirring and fresh, and of course no one cared about the answer to the inevitable “Tennessee or Mississippi?” 

Both Russell and the Riverbluff Clan’s Jimmy Davis won the Vocalist Award in their respective categories.  James Cotton gave a short, succinct acceptance speech, as did most of the award winners, Johnny Rivers was everything one could ask for in a host of this kind of show, but some of the ballot-casting seemed to err on the side of caution.  (Too many chapter officers winning awards perchance?  Did I say that?  Hush, Benjy.) 

Nuff said for this year, let’s just wish Johnny Cash the best of health, and more and wider airplay for all of Memphis’s deserving artists.

Spirit and the Blues (Earth Beat! R2 75686)

 Let me just say that if he had been born around the turn of the century in the South (instead of New York in the 50’s or 60’s), and if that feisty ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax had come around and nosed him out, there might be a separate wing in the Smithsonian devoted to this guy alone.  The son of folk artist Leon Bibb, Eric has led the unusual musician’s life of an expatriate:  relocating at a fairly young age to Sweden, where he found a wealth of simpatico players and accepting audiences.  He stayed there for 20 years!!  “Spirit and the Blues” was actually released in Sweden in 1994, but is just now available in the States on the small Earthbeat label.  And Scandinavia’s gain is our loss.  This son of Woodstock and Café Wha? consciously turned his eyes to the sparrow of southern roots, its very essence, the sparrow being that kernel of spiritual folk music that predates blues, gospel and funk.  While he reworks traditional songs such as “Lonesome Valley,” “Meeting at the Building,” and “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” it is the seamlessness of his performance in these cuts as well as his original material that stuns the listener.  He hooked up with a bottleneck guitarist named Goran Wennerbrandt, and Eric finger-picks when he uses no other accompaniment.  One of the healthy aspects of being an expat musician is the cross-cultural winds that blow over Europe:  there are probably more African musicians and students in Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries than there are in all of the U.S. South put together.  Eric’s second recording features a kongoma, which he describes as a “3-key bass kalimba” as well as bouzouki, mandolin, harmonica, accordion and his own guitar behind Goran’s.  It’s a simple recording, all acoustic, recorded live to analog, but nothing I have said can prepare you for the onslaught of Eric’s music, its sheer power to stop you in your tracks.  The timeless beauty and purity of this music is a testament to the maxim that yes, Europeans recognize talent before the Yanks do, but this time, that’s not what is important.  If it had to be smuggled out of Kosovo, this CD would be worth it.  Let’s get Christiane Amanpour a copy to listen to after a long day reporting from the trenches.  The fact that he wrote “In My Father’s House” alone sets Bibb apart from, and way ahead of, other songwriters, and this is not to say that other songwriters are ordinary.  But this song is so extraordinary, and so godalmighty perfect that it takes the traditional songs he covers and damn near muscles them away from the table.  What is it?  Just a simple cabin-holler call and response arranged for Bibb and vocal group the Deacons, backed only by Bibb’s and Wennerbrandt’s 2 guitars.  An a capella testimony of uncompromising faith with a powerful lead vocal and a haunting chorus:

Could be a child of the streets
Could be a rich man’s son
No matter what you’re doing
No matter what you’ve done
When you’ve got no place to hide
No place to hide!
No place left to run
Don’t you know there’s always shelter
In my Father’s house?

And that’s not even the best verse.  In our collective experience, what equals it:  “People Get Ready”?  Maybe.  “Oh, Happy Day”?  Let me think about it.  When I was a younger lass, I once made the mistake, upon hearing Gil Scott-Heron for the first few times, of rushing up to his record company and pleading with them to get this guy to record love songs.  (Stupid, huh!)  Gil was one of the first street poets set to music, he sang about alcoholism, nuclear power, the downfall of Western culture, and South Africa before Mandela's release became a fashionable
cause in the States (“what’s the word?  Johannesburg!  Get it from the drum!  Johannesburg!”), in a clear, striking tenor.  I was convinced, and tried to convince Arista, that if he would just turn his attention to songs of lust and romantic loss, he’d reward them with a string of hits.  Fortunately for Gil Scott-Heron, the staff of his record company paid me no mind, and I am glad of this now.  Because I saw this same beast rise up within me upon hearing Eric Bibb, but I beat it back down.  Hooey, Benjy!  When you’ve got something this true, an artform so finely crafted and perfected, when you find something this good, better not mess with it, I don’t care how hip you claim you are.  Eric Bibb has fashioned a life for himself and his music that permits no deviation from absolute divinity.  If he’s destined to have hits, he will have them.  If not, Eric Bibb has met the right carpenters at the right building and given us something much more precious.  He’s touring the States this year, so let’s go see him live, shall we?

The world of music notes with sorrow that it is two years this week since sustaining one of its greatest losses:  Laura Nyro, composer and singer, goddess in black.  Unholy but unearthly passion in the form of a young girl, she ignited such fellow luminaries as Miles Davis, Patti Labelle, Todd Rundgren, Duane Allman and of course, the Fifth Dimension, who asked us, “Can you surrey?”  Without her, there would be no Eli in “Eli’s Coming,” no “Stoney End” for Streisand, and Memphis would have had to call its annual Stoned Soul Picnic something else.  Don’t let the devil fool you, here comes a dove, Nothing cures like – Time and love, everybody –

Jumpsturdy Klieger

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