It's fun to see how people react to our music," says drummer Beau Crouch of Memphis-grown jam band Delta Grass. "That's the best thing about doing what we do. Everybody who's involved in the family of Delta Grass has already given each other success, so it's a nice little bonus when you see people happy and, you know, shocked a little that we're doing this."
Delta Grass took me by surprise too on a recent Sunday evening. It was just another night, drizzling and cold, and I assumed I wasn't in for much -- just another band, another night I would go home disappointed or, at most, unaffected. But there was a bit of ambience contributing to the scene inside Earnestine & Hazel's. Set up in a corner under a neon sign in the brothel-turned-bar's large picture window, the band was a perfect silhouette emitting a red glow. Tuba-player Sean Murphy was sitting on a large pillow, lighting incense while everyone else set up.
The opening act, a singer-songwriter named Andrew Couch, sat on a stool with his guitar, strumming out some really wonderful songs that echoed Nick Drake. At some point, Beau Crouch joined in and, one by one, the rest of the band followed.
I can't say exactly when Delta Grass took over and satellite member Couch acted as accompaniment, but in the transition the experience morphed into something much different from my expectations.
Perhaps it was the tuba or Crouch's intuitive drumming. Maybe it was keyboardists Gerald Stephens and Gokhan Somel exchanging noodly improvisations or bassist J.D. Westmoreland's voice. Whatever happened, it affected everyone present, even the group of six or so who came in just to eat and were bent on being as loud as possible. They ended up standing there with their to-go boxes, riveted to the floor, when Murphy got on the didgeridoo.
Delta Grass' music is both thoroughly composed and loosely composed, worked out beforehand and worked out in the middle of a gig. It can be chromatic, traveling the half-steps of the Western scale, but you will also hear hints of the Middle East, Australia, India, and China as well as European folk, traditional Memphis, Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans.
"And that may be in one song," Stephens says with a laugh.
The band does not stick to a rigid set list. The music changes depending on the night you happen to hear them, depending on who is playing with them, depending on what mood they are in, and depending on the audience and venue. "We do have songs. It's just that we may decide to play them this way one night and that way the next," says Murphy.
Like many in the band, Murphy is a formally trained musician. He also taught himself to play the Aboriginal didgeridoo about three years ago using the same circular breathing technique he uses for the tuba. Murphy learned the technique, which involves taking air in through the nose continuously while breathing out through the mouth, on the way home from band camp in high school. (Murphy makes his didgeridoos out of PVC pipe, but they are traditionally made from eucalyptus branches hollowed out by termites.)
Delta Grass didn't become a full-fledged band until about a year ago, when longtime friends Westmoreland and Crouch rekindled an old ideal: a band making music constantly changing yet rooted, changed (and rooted) by its place, its culture, and its members. A band that resists traditional hierarchies in favor of one whose individual members contribute equally.
"A lot of times in bands there's a certain role-playing that goes on, but, for our ears, we're listening to a song and taking turns making the gestures, like you would try to communicate in a conversation," says Crouch, who contributes vocals in addition to drumming duties.
Crouch and Westmoreland started playing together some 12 years ago, during which time they played for the experimental percussion ensemble Patoombah. Four months after they became Delta Grass, Stephens and Murphy started playing with them. Since then the band have become regulars at a host of local bars and clubs as well as festivals in other states.
Like many Memphis bands, Delta Grass can't be tagged by genre. There is no nice, neat label they can be filed under. And because of the wide-ranging tastes and influences of each of its band members, they are hard-pressed to come up with a label for themselves.
"I don't think we want to get stuck labeled a 'musician's band' because we do care about sending a message out to everyone's ears, not just musicians' ears," says Crouch.
Westmoreland, whose solo album, Soon Be Crows In the Garden, was released in March 2000, recalls a festival the band played in Georgia where a group of onlookers said loud enough for him to hear, "I don't know what they're doing. I've never seen anything like it before."
"I couldn't tell if they liked it, disliked it, or what, but they were there. They didn't walk off," says Westmoreland.
Delta Grass is a core group of musicians, but these guys will be the first to let you know that the band also includes a diverse group of satellite musicians, including Somel, whose new composition, "Alone," was recently debuted by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Other sometime members include Jason Leftwich on flute, Jamie Beiber on cello, and Didem Somel on violin, along with PR-man Brent Wolverton, who, the band insists (though he doesn't play an instrument), is a member.
And the group doesn't seem intent on hardening the parameters of this communal style anytime soon. "[Doing it this way] is just more fun than saying this is MY thing. This is MY act," says Stephens. The rest of the band nods in agreement.
Information on Delta Grass, including performance dates, band info, and recordings of live performances, including the single "Antipop," can be heard on their Web site, Deltagrass.com.
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
Perhaps you've read about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals held at the Overton Park Shell back in the late '60s in Robert Gordon's alternative history It Came From Memphis. Or perhaps you remember them firsthand. Well, this weekend brings an event that can't help but evoke those legendary bills as local independent promoter Brent Harding presents The Overton Park Shell Country Blues Festival on Saturday, March 30th, at the venerable venue, with a lineup that boasts some of the area's best blues talent.
Octogenarian and local treasure Othar Turner and his Rising Star Fife and Drum Band will kick things off at 2 p.m. They will be followed at 3 by the Beale-and-beyond duo Blind Mississippi Morris and Brad Webb, joined here by Robert Nighthawk. Exciting up-and-comer Richard Johnston, with new band The Foothill Stompers, will play at 4:30. Oxford-based R.L. Burnside collaborators The Kenny Brown Band will take the stage at 6. And the show will be closed out by the blues-based Cosmic American Music of Alvin Youngblood Hart, who will play from 7:30 to 9.
Admission to the event, some of which will be broadcast by live remote on 107.5 FM "The Pig," is $10 in advance and $12 the day of the show. Advance tickets are available at Shangri-La Records, Tater Red's on Beale, and Uncle Buck's Records in Oxford. --Chris Herrington