BluesTube: Richard Johnston takes Beale Street online



Richard Johnston
  • Richard Johnston
Why would I simply tell you that Memphis bluesman Richard Johnston is planning to launch a new video project when I can relay all the pertinent information in the form of a pithy personal anecdote with a good punch line? It all began when Johnston, Beale Street's uber-busker and the subject of an Award-winning PBS documentary titled Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour, showed up at my house. He's been my neighbor in Uptown for a few years and we have been known to talk at length over the fence. Still, I was somewhat surprised to find the tightly wound musician ringing my doorbell and vibrating at an even higher than usual pitch.

Johnston is one helluva one-man-band and nobody is more aware of that than he is. The scruffy electric blues virtuoso has played alongside Hill Country legends like R.L. Burnside and the She Wolf Jessie Mae Hemphill. He even ran Junior Kimbrough's juke joint until it burned in 1999. He's a tireless torchbearer for electric trance blues and even on a good day his conversations can be as one-sided and explosive as a shotgun blast. This time he was more revved up than usual because he'd just finished tweaking the sound design for Unmanagable, a live-from-the-sidewalk video project he's been working on in an attempt to showcase the authentic sights and sounds of Beale in the raw. Johnston's never been the least bit shy about telling wallflowers like me when they should uncross their arms and dance. In the same spirit he'd dropped by my house to tell me I needed to preview his forthcoming web series right away. And so I did.

It's difficult to know for sure whether Unmanageable is named for Beale's famously chaotic nature or for Johnston's own singular approach to music and show business. Either way the show I took in—both the live and recorded versions—was well worth a walk down the street to Johnston's converted firehouse apartment.

“It's different on the street than in the clubs,” Johnston insists explaining the many ways his show is

Steven Seagal tests Johnsons rig
  • Steven Seagal tests Johnson's rig
different from other attempts to capture Memphis music on film. He runs through a litany of reasons why Beale is a unique, family-friendly place where people from all around the world can get their full freak on. “The first episode's a half hour long and I only say 'motherfucker' once,” he says emphasizing the wholesomeness of a true Beale Street experience.

To be fair, the first installment of Unmanageable probably isn't going to win any awards for cinematography or editing. At it's best it looks like PG-rated outtakes from Girls Gone Wild with plenty of shots of tight shorts and shaking booties. At its worst it looks like a vacation video somebody posted to Youtube. But this first episode isn't as much about the sights as it is about the sounds and it sounds just like Beale at its absolute best. Johnston's fans certainly won't be disappointed by a typically electric performance that finds him alternately wearing out his store bought guitar then teasing unbelievable quantities of sound from a handmade two-string diddly-bow.

Sometimes Johnston calls Unmanageable a variety show and sometimes he calls it a reality show. The first installment is a straight up block-party style concert vid shot in front of The New Daisy theater with blues, soul, and hip hop performances. The episode's high point is an appearance by Disco Felix (Felix Larkette) a Beale St. fixture famous for his unusual dancing style. This time around, however, there is no dancing. Instead Felix's sings an original song accompanied by Johnston on guitar and Cara Laughlin on cello. The simple, soul-stirring performance is a perfect Memphis moment and strong proof for some of Johnston's more extreme claims.

“I believe Beale Street gathers, consistently, one of the most culturally and economically pluralistic, international groups of people on the planet, throughout the season April - October every year. And, when stimulated properly, Beale Street can yield some of the best times one can have on the planet,” Johnston says. Watching the crowd take to Felix you believe him.

“Anyway, you were the first person to review my CD and that meant a lot to me,” Johnston said at length, offering me a beer and then realizing he was out. “That's why I thought it would be cool if maybe you could write something that I could use in a blurb for Unmanageable.” Suddenly it dawned on me that for all of these years we've known each other Johnston thought I was Flyer Music Editor Chris Herrington.

“You do know I'm the OTHER Chris, don't you?” I said, and his jaw dropped. This certainly wasn't the first time someone has made that mistake but it's officially the longest running case of Herrington/Davis confusion that I know of.

“Don't worry about it,” I said trying to minimize the embarrassment. “If it's any consolation I've written about you too.”

So finally after all these years proper introductions have been made. Good neighbors know each other and Unmanageable —a raucous look at Beale Street by someone who knows it better than most— is tentatively scheduled for 6 episodes that will go online on 1st and 3rd Saturdays beginning in August and running through October. Nothing has been finalized but Johnston hopes to recruit T-Model, Robert Belfour, The Black Diamond Heavies, The Burnside Brothers, and The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band to appear as special guests. The show will be distributed online via the extensive email list Johnston has assembled playing in the street. Anybody interested in finding out more can sign up for email updates here.

“Of course the goal is to be the number one music show on Hulu,” Johnston says, hoping he can eventually find a more high profile platform for his latest project.

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