Nestled between Memphis' many music festivals, Acoustic Sunday Live doesn't always get much attention. But don't let that lull you into indifference. For a quarter century, this labor of love has been bringing some serious talent to town, always to the benefit of local causes.
Bruce Newman, the founder and chief organizer of the series, describes its origins: "We started out about 24 years ago with a Woody Guthrie tribute. I had Richie Havens, Odetta, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Tom Paxton. And then, over the years, we've had Guy Clark, Gretchen Peters; last year, we did Kathy McCay and Tom Paxton again. Jonathan Edwards one year. Just acoustic artists."
- Joe del Tufo
- Dave Bromberg
Each show in the series is a benefit for a different local institution. "It's always for a cause," Newman notes. "Like last year's show at the Halloran Centre was for Indie Memphis."
The artists tend to be of the ilk featured on Newman's weekly radio show on WEVL, Folk Song Fiesta. And this year is no different, with this Sunday's concert featuring Dave Bromberg, Tom Chapin, Shemekia Copeland, Bobby Rush, and John Kilzer. The beneficiary will be Protect Our Aquifer, a nonprofit "dedicated to protecting and conserving the Memphis Sand Aquifer," the source of Memphis' drinking water.
Newman notes that this year's beneficiary is more "political" than most. "Even though," he adds, "I don't even see why it should be a political issue. It's our water, right? This is an asset that just has to be protected. Doesn't matter what side you're on."
One of Sunday's star performers is Dave Bromberg, who's no stranger to combining politics and music, being one of the most distinct voices to emerge from the New York folk scene of the 1960s. Still, that association doesn't quite sit right with Bromberg. "I don't know that I was ever really a folkie, past 1960, but I've always been accused of that," he says. "The term is very limiting, because there are many radio stations who have decided that's who I am."
Ironically, Bromberg's love of all things musical played a role in his leaving show business for an extended time. After writing and performing with the likes of George Harrison and Bob Dylan, among others, he notes, "I got really burnt out from performing too much. And at the point where I was really doing the most, and playing for the largest audiences, and getting the most radio play, I completely stopped playing for 22 years. All I knew was, when I wasn't on the road, I wasn't practicing, I wasn't jamming, and I wasn't writing. I questioned that and decided I didn't wanna be one of these guys who drags himself onto the stage, doing a bitter imitation of what he used to love." He changed course into work that he does to this day. "I decided I had to find another way to lead my life. What I wanted to learn was how to identify different violins. It's like art appraisal. You have to recognize not only the brush strokes but the chisel strokes to really get an idea of what's what."
In recent years, Bromberg has eased back into recording and performing. Two years ago he released The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues, which, with its full-band, Chicago-style jams, should break the "folkie" tag once and for all. Yet he remains a master of solo performance and plans to play acoustic versions of many of the album's tracks Sunday night. And as for the politics of our aquifer, Bromberg's only too happy to support the cause. "The water thing is only now beginning to be important," he notes. "It's gonna get a lot more important. We're almost over oil. But water, I don't know if there's a way past water."
The Concert to Protect Our Aquifer, Sunday, December 9th, 7–10 p.m., St. John's United Methodist Church, 1207 Peabody Ave.; Tickets, $50-$100.