Musically, Memphis is best known for legendary recordings made by local artists in local studios. But, from the early blues and jazz on Beale Street to Elvis Presley's public debut at the Overton Park Shell to the emergence of the Midtown post-punk scene, it's long been a great live-music town as well, the city's concert history filled with famous (or infamous) concerts by touring acts such as Ray Charles, the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, and, ahem, G.G. Allin.
As a music fan, I've long cherished records more than live shows, but through two stints in Memphis I've seen lots of memorable concerts. Here, in chronological order, are the 10 I remember best:
1 The Country Rockers at Antenna Club, fall 1989: A few weeks after moving to Memphis from a small Arkansas town, 15-years-old and entering a new world for the first time. A friend and I were there for some forgettable alt-rock band called Scruffy the Cat, which came on too late for us to see anyway. But the freak-show scene -- the club, the videos, the band, such a peculiarly Memphis mix of rootsy weirdness -- was quite an eye-opener.
2 D.I. at Antenna Club, 1989/1990: A hardcore band I'm sure I would find utterly ridiculous now, but they had been in the Penelope Spheeris punk movie Suburbia, which was quite meaningful at the time. When they did "Richard Hung Himself," the lead singer pretended to strangle himself with the mic chord. Very outré.
3 The Replacements at the New Daisy Theatre, 1990: My fave band at the time and the only chance I had to see them. On their final tour and with only two original members, but it might as well have been the Stones in '72 as far as I was concerned. They led with my favorite of their songs (then and now), "I Will Dare," and just kept getting better.
4 Iris Dement at Hi-Tone Café, 1998: Back home after college and freelancing for the Flyer, I previewed this show, and it's still one of my favorite interviews I've ever done. I'd seen Dement in Minneapolis the year before at a 1,000-seat theatre. Here at a tiny club, the building was full, with a line outside the door three hours before showtime. Dement came on around 9:30, opened her mouth and broke hearts around the room. Elvis Costello's Hi-Tone shows got lots of attention. This was about 100 times better.
5 Lucero CD-release party at Hi-Tone Café, 2000: Still a great live band with a huge local following, but the string of shows culminating with the December 2000 release of their debut album were special. There was the sense of a great new local band coming into its own, and the shows felt epic for the modesty of the setting.
6 Sonic Youth at Beale Street Music Festival, May 2001: Following Mavis Staples on a beautiful Sunday night. I had retreated from the over-crowded Bob Dylan show the next stage over to find a smaller but more humane outdoor rock-show audience than these kinds of festivals usually draw. I've seen the band many times, but their art-noise guitar attack has never sounded so optimistic or gorgeous as it did this night.
7 The White Stripes at Earnestine & Hazel's, September 10, 2001: They hadn't conquered MTV or modern-rock radio yet but were still big enough that seeing them set up on the floor in the middle of this crowded South Main bar was completely surreal. Then the next morning happened.
8 The Dixie Chicks at The Pyramid, Summer 2003: I loved the Dixie Chicks -- live and on record -- long before lead-singer Natalie Means decided to take on the president. But this post-"controversy" show was more than a concert: It was a public dramatization of embattled citizenship that morphed into a victory lap.
9 The Drive-By Truckers at Newby's, Friday, October 17, 2003: My fave Drive-By Truckers song is Mike Cooley's "Zip City," sung in the voice of a small-town 17-year-old boy frustrated that his younger girlfriend won't "put out" and more so by the sense that his life isn't headed anywhere. The Truckers closed their show this night with "Zip City," but Cooley didn't sing it. Instead, in an act of weird, invigorating inappropriateness, they brought a 12-year-old girl named Audrey Brown (a member of their local "street team," a publicist later told me) on stage, who sang the song completely without guile as the band riffed gloriously behind her.
10 Bob Dylan at AutoZone Park, 2005: Bob Dylan has been making music for more than 40 years and got saddled "Voice of a Generation" almost exactly four decades ago. But he doesn't go through the motions, or at least didn't on this night. He closed the show with "Summer Days," from 2001''s "Love & Theft," and the crowd ate it up, as they should have. Is there any other classic-rock icon who could close a show today with a recent album track to wide audience approval? No way.
I also asked other Flyer music writers about their most memorable Memphis concert experiences, and here's what some of them came up with:
Andria Lisle: Suicidal Tendencies at the Antenna Club, May 1987. "I attended that instead of the prom." Public Enemy at Mid-South Coliseum, 1990. "Flavor Flav pulled out an effigy of a KKK member and everyone was hollering 'Kill whitey!' Great and scary all at the same time."
Stephen Deusner: Guided by Voices at Last Place on Earth, 2000. "The first concert to make me feel old. My friends and I left after two hours, but Robert Pollard -- nearly 50 and very drunk -- kept going for another hour or so. Highlight: starting the show with rarity "Titus and Strident Wet Nurse."
Bianca Phillips: Tori Amos at The Orpheum, 1998. "I have never seen anyone get quite as into their music as Tori does. As she played, she was practically humping her piano, occasionally bursting out orgasm noises in the middle of her songs. (She kind of does that anyway, but it was way worse this time.)"