Two of Memphis’ heaviest blues-inspired rock bands are set to perform at Minglewood Hall this Saturday, December 29th. The Dirty Streets will open for Tora Tora, and there is sure to be wah pedal aplenty at this last Saturday-night concert of the year.
Both bands recently recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service on Madison, and Tora Tora are gearing up to release a new album, Bastards of Beale
(Frontiers Records), their first new recording in years. “The last studio album we did for a label was in ’94, when we were on A&M Records,” guitarist Keith Douglas says. “We felt like we picked up right where we left off.” That was the band’s third record, their last on A&M, Revolution Day
, which the label shelved for years. Tora Tora eventually released the album themselves on FnA Records, “a small label out of Nashville,” in 2011. “Right around that time, in the early ’90s, when grunge hit, record companies shed a lot of their rock bands,” Douglas says. “We got shown the door with everybody else.” It’s not as though that was the end of the story for Tora Tora, though, and Douglas doesn’t sound bitter or critical as he references the end of that chapter for the band.
The new album’s title refers to the band themselves. As a hard rock band that often performed in the blues-centric venues of Beale Street, they were something of an anomaly. But the members of Tora Tora have a long history with the blues — it clearly informs their sound, even if they don’t play the straight-up 12-bar variety — and they have a long history with Beale. “We were hanging out down there before we were old enough to be in bars,” Douglas says, explaining that, even as friends before the formation of Tora Tora, he, Anthony Corder, Patrick Francis, and John Patterson would hang around Beale, soaking up the music. It’s a time-honored Memphis tradition — loaf around Beale taking in the music and the raucous energy. “That was in our blood from when we were kids,” Douglas says, but he also admits to other influences, name-checking Tom Petty and Styx. But the lessons learned on Beale never seem far from Douglas’ mind. “Lights up the River,” from Bastards of Beale
, is a blues performer’s perspective on Memphis, a rural musician determined to play his way to the bright lights of Beale. “A lot of it is about Memphis,” Douglas says of the new record.
Though Douglas points out that much of returning to write and record with Tora Tora has felt comfortably familiar, the recording process was something of a break from tradition. The band, as was standard operating procedure for bands signed to major labels at the time, spent long hours, even weeks, in the studio, and usually did most of their tracking at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Bastards of Beale
, though, was recorded in a much shorter period of “six or seven days” at Sam Phillips. There was some continuity to the sessions, though; Tora Tora brought on Jeff Powell, who has been producing and mixing records for 30 years, and whom they worked with before at Ardent.
“We’ve got a lot of history with Ardent,” Douglas says. For a performer who has played on major label tours, Douglas shows a fondness and familiarity with the city that’s been his band’s home base, and talking about Ardent sparks some memories — like when Tora Tora performed at the Levitt Shell in 2015 as part of “Press Play: A Tribute Concert to John Fry and John Hampton.”
“We miss John Hampton and John Fry both,” Douglas says. “[Hampton] was so great for us. He helped us develop.” Douglas remembers Hampton sometimes turning up at the band’s rehearsals, making suggestions. Douglas goes on, mentioning a long list of Memphis musicians, vocalists, producers, and engineers he’s worked with over the years.
But for all the history in the rear-view mirror, Tora Tora have big plans for the new year. The group already has some concerts lined up in Texas, and Bastards of Beale
will be released on February 22, 2019. Douglas says the band plans to mix in some new songs at Saturday night’s concert, but fans should expect to hear a lot of Tora Tora’s classic material.
The Dirty Streets
The Dirty Streets will open the concert at Minglewood for Tora Tora. It’s a tasteful pairing: two bands on the rougher, rawer side of rock, with a heaping dose of blues in their backgrounds but with a willingness to experiment and embrace other genres. Both bands have a flair for energetic performance, and the Dirty Streets also recently recorded an album at Sam Phillips.
While Tora Tora’s new album is as yet unreleased, the Dirty Streets self-released their fifth album, Distractions
, in September of this year. It’s a strong showing from a band that has steadily grown and evolved since their first outing, Portrait of a Man
Their first record was released in 2009, shortly before I first saw the Streets perform, their rumbling Fender amps crammed between shelves of vinyl in Shangri-la Records. Portrait of a Man
was recorded at the Hi-Tone over a holiday weekend, when the bar was closed. Andrew “Buck” McCalla engineered the album. The sessions went well, but the recorder ate the files, forcing the band to wait for another holiday before re-recording the entire album in another marathon two-day session, with McCalla again behind the soundboard.
“We’ve never recorded an album without at least one major malfunction,” frontman and guitarist Justin Toland says. “We’re five albums in, and now I just expect things to go wrong.”
Toland reels off a list of irrecoverable files, blown amps, and guitar solos lost to studio gremlins, chuckling as he does so. The singer and guitarist has the air of someone who’s learned not to try to force a sound or idea. Rather, Toland has a performer’s grace, ready to roll with whatever the gremlins throw at him. “It’s all about funneling that tension,” Toland elaborates, saying he and bandmates Thomas Storz and Andrew Denham have learned to channel frustration back into the performance. Those time-honed skills are evident on the self-released new album, which is brimming with ready-to-cut-loose energy.
“We’ve always had crazy strict deadlines,” Toland says, continuing on the theme of past recordings, but, he says, the Streets decided not to rush Distractions
. “We took our time on this one,” Toland says, describing a relationship the band has built with producer Matt Qualls over the course of a (so far) three-album collaboration.
Toland says Qualls came on board on their third album, Blades of Grass
, which was when the band began to focus more on production, adding layers of instrumental tracks. That process of layering helped build the Dirty Streets sound — beefy guitar riffs that vibrate the listener’s skull like buzzsaws. The collaboration continued through the Streets’ stellar fourth release, Whitehorse
, and into 2018’s Distractions
. The result is a full-bodied sound that bolsters the Streets’ natural talent for raw energy without detracting from the immediacy of the songs; the tracks on Distractions
sound no less live for the extra production. Rather, the tasteful work by engineer Wesley Graham, Qualls, and the boys in the band only serves to help capture the ear-ringing, bone-shaking roar that is a live performance by these psychedelic blues-rockers.
And there will be more Dirty Streets concerts to come in 2019. Toland says the band plans to tour in the spring to support the record. In the meantime, the next time Memphians can catch the band is at Minglewood Hall, this Saturday.