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Beale Street Music Festival: Legends Old and New

Three Must-Sees At The 2017 Beale Street Music Festival

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Snoop Dogg's America

Reflections on hip-hop's amabassador to the world

On the 5th of May at 11:15 p.m., a legend will appear on the FedEx Stage, bathed in lights, voice booming over Beale Street and beyond. When he appears, you'll see more than a mortal. You'll see the Snoop Dogg of the mind. With Snoop planted into our collective consciousness, it's hard to deny the message of "Legend," the lead track from his 2016 release, Coolaid. "I can die right now/Still a legend!" The album captures our zeitgeist: angry, absurd, lurid, ridiculous. The "Lavender" video depicts a land of rampant, clownish brutality, culminating with a "BANG!" flag pistol fired squarely at a Donald Trump-like figure. And while not all of the album is so political, Coolaid clearly struck a nerve, reaching number five on the R&B/hip-hop album charts.

Snoop is everywhere now, ascended to ubiquity with all of his bluntness and flow — and his contradictions — intact. He's the rapper with the cute name on the morning show; he's the guy in the weed video with Willie Nelson; he's the guy who quotes The Art of War, relishing the power of his weaponry, then exhorts people to love themselves; the guy who speaks of Martha Stewart's warmth and humanity, then reminds listeners that "rap come from the streets, so we can never lose that mentality." A vocal Hillary supporter, he'll exclaim that we desperately need a female president, then launch a rap of sexual humiliation and domination that would make Trump blush. Like Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes.

One way Snoop can cover so much territory is by keeping it lighthearted. Devin Steel of K97 FM says, "You can't really take what Snoop says seriously; he just makes fun party music. You take it more like, 'I wonder, what is he gonna say?' or listen for the word play. It's fun. Nothing too serious. And he still has the art of storytelling in his lyrics."

Perhaps this balancing act between the ridiculous and the sublime comes down to Snoop's uncanny knack for improvisation. He's always been master of freestyle, the branch of rap that plays out like verbal jazz. Rap created on the spot, live before an audience, was perfected on the West Coast, with Los Angeles' Freestyle Fellowship arguably the masters of the style as it gained traction in the 1990s. This was the young Snoop's milieu.

His improvisational powers remain formidable. Boo Mitchell, producer and engineer at Royal Studios, worked with Snoop when collaborating with William Bell and other Hi/Stax Records alums for the 2014 film, Take Me to the River.

"He wrote his rap in 10 minutes," says Mitchell. "I sat and watched him do it."

Mitchell recalls a moment when "...we were rehearsing for a concert after the film's debut. We had a big band, four horns and all that stuff. [Snoop] came in while we were playing, and it blew him away. He started dancing and went into a freestyle as we played." Mitchell, Bell, Snoop, and Cody Dickinson did more sessions earlier this year at Snoop's Mothership Studio — their contribution to Take Me to the River's sequel. Now in production, the sequel will be based in New Orleans, once again pairing eclectic artists from different eras. As Mitchell points out, the early California rappers like Snoop had a special fondness for old-school Memphis soul: Rufus Thomas' "The Breakdown (Pt. II)" was used by N.W.A., for example. Devin Steel agrees: "In the evolution of Southern hip-hop, in the late '80s, what drew people, especially hip-hop artists, in the South to the West Coast was the use of live bass and sampling a lot of Stax, a lot of the Memphis sound. We were drawn to that more than to the East Coast, and that's what married the West Coast and the South together."

For Snoop Dogg, this connection has always had a personal dimension. "I interviewed him backstage recently," Steel remembers, "and it was all these city officials and groupies and a lot of weed smoke there all in the same place. It was a very weird situation — and Snoop was playing Al Green's greatest hits! His family is from Mississippi; that's what he grew up on."

Snoop's father is from Magnolia, and his mother is from McComb. "Even on his stuff with Dr. Dre and 'Nuthin' but a G Thang', sampling Leon Haywood," says Steel, "A lot of that stuff is old soul, borderline blues, and it was perfect for him and his flow and his personality and where he came from."

And as for the show, Steel says, "You have to say you saw him at least once in your lifetime. Because he has so many hits, through the span of two and a half generations, and his show is really, really good. So you kinda say, 'Oh, damn, I forgot about that! Oh, damn, I forgot about that!' He's perfect for Memphis; he's got Isaac Hayes samples and all that. It lights a part of your brain from the feelgood era of hip-hop, where everybody knows the lyrics."

- Alex Greene

Booker T. Jones
  • Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones Comes Home

The architect of Memphis soul reflects on 55 years in the spotlight.

Memphis is a place that has produced more than its share of musical geniuses, but the title of first among equals must belong to Booker T. Jones. He started working as a staff musician at Stax at age 16. In 1962, his song "Green Onions" was a huge hit for the label. It became the landmark instrumental of the rock and soul era. The song bore all the hallmarks of the sound he would help create for Stax: an instantly hummable hook, a groove that is somehow both urgent and laid back, and a deceptive complexity that remains as fresh on the thousandth listen as on the first.

Jones was a child prodigy, and he says it was the musical education he got growing up in 1950s Memphis that propelled him to greatness. "My grandmother taught piano. I had Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt in my home over there on Edith Street. My mother played piano, and her mother taught her to play. I had a Hammond organ teacher who ... I haven't run into any teachers who could come close to her. She was right around the corner over there on Orleans, teaching me how to play how I play now. Her name was Elmertha Cole, and somehow they were able to buy a very expensive Hammond B3 organ and get it into their house. I was very fortunate. I have no idea where I could have found that otherwise. She was something special. She had an understanding and was exacting, and she cared a lot. It was just the right person at the right time."

He says he is immensely proud of the Stax Music Academy, and he remains a tireless advocate for music education at a time when many public schools are dropping programs. "I think a lot of legislators just don't realize all of the things that are subconsciously taught by music. All of the math, the psychology that you learn by playing an instrument. It is taught very subtly. When kids learn piano at a young age or they pick up a flute or a saxophone, at first they entertain themselves. They're engaged ... In our society, we use music for everything. We use music when we feel good; we use it when we feel bad; we use it when we get married; we use it when somebody dies. It's the fabric of our society, and it needs to be taught early."

Music teaches creative collaboration, and very few people have collaborated with as wide an array of artists as Jones. With William Bell, he co-wrote "Born Under a Bad Sign" for Albert King; 50 years later he co-wrote songs for Valerie June's debut album. He played with Ray Charles and backed up everyone from Neil Young to Rancid. People backing him up have included the Drive-By Truckers, Questlove, Lou Reed, and Sharon Jones. In 1977, he produced Willie Nelson's album Stardust. "We realized we had grown up playing the same songs. 'Stardust,' 'Georgia on My Mind' ... those are the songs he got to do as a young man playing clubs in Texas, and they were the same ones I had done in Memphis with Puff Beane and Willie Mitchell. So we wanted to make a record together, but it was tough to get the record company to let us make that record."

Stardust went triple Platinum and made Willie Nelson a household name.

At age 72, Jones is still a road warrior. In the last month alone, he played three nights in Tokyo, the massive Byron Bay Bluesfest in New South Wales, Australia, and shows in Sydney and Melbourne. I caught up with him resting in Lake Tahoe, California, before he heads off to England and Ireland. Then he will return to Memphis to close out Beale Street Music Festival's Blues Tent, Sunday night at 8:35 p.m. "It's going to be a look into what made me who I am today, musically. It's going to be my favorite music I've been involved with as a player and as a songwriter and sideman. 'Green Onions' is still my favorite song. I still love to play the Booker T. and the MGs music. I like to get up and play guitar. I started doing that in Memphis, but of course, I didn't get the job at Stax as a guitar player. I play some songs that influenced me to be a musician, blues songs in particular. It's my life in music up to today. That encompasses a wide range of music, because I've played with a lot of different people. That's what I do on stage. It's a little bit unpredictable, but it usually includes four or five songs by Booker T. and the MGs and music that I've written for other people, like Bill Withers. I might even do a Wilson Pickett song or something I did with Bob Dylan or a Beatles song ... I have a lot of musical influences. On stage, I just enjoy myself, and hopefully the audience goes with me."

- Chris McCoy

Dead soldiers
  • Dead soldiers

Dead Soldiers Throw Down

Don't call these Memphians "country."

Before I interviewed Ben Aviotti and Michael Jasud about the new Dead Soldiers album The Great Emptiness, I had resolved not to ask them the dreaded "genre question." The band, who made a name for themselves in Memphis with scorching live sets, freely crosses styles. Their songcraft bears the stamp of classic rock and outlaw country. Their blistering instrumental workouts skirt the bluegrass line, and rollicking jams sometimes resemble Gogol Bordello's punky gypsy jazz. The Soldiers cut their teeth as a whiskey-soaked bar band, yet they routinely conjure moments of orchestral beauty. They can twang, but they have a soul horn section. They follow Memphis tradition of smashing together any and all musical influences that float down the river. But that means that they are tired of being asked "What are you?" by people whose jobs it is to put labels on things.

For the record, they brought it up. "People thought we were a country band, which was wrong. We're not a country band," says Jasud.

"That's insulting both ways," says Aviotti.

"It's a huge insult to country music, and it's an insult to us," says Jasud.

"It's the worst when you actually have to fill it out for the publishing," says Aviotti. "I'm like, acoustic Christian contemporary has its own subgenre ..."

"... That's the worst one ..." injects Jasud.

"... Then it's just, are you rock or are you country? Are you post-punk shoe gaze, or are you rock or country? Maybe Americana?" says Aviotti.

"So, we decided we are going to call ourselves City Music," says Jasud.

The band formed in 2011, but Jasud says their roots go back farther than that. "Ben's like five or six years older than I. I was this punk-ass 14-year-old kid hanging out around older, wilder music folks. That's when I met Ben."

An eight-piece lineup recorded The Great Emptiness with Toby Vest and Pete Matthews at High/Low Recording last year: Jasud and Aviotti on guitars and vocals (with occasional banjo), Clay Qualls on bass (with occasional mandolin), multi-instrumentalists Nathan Raab and Krista Wroten-Combest providing whatever the song needs, Paul Gilliam on drums, and Nashon Benford and Victor Sawyer blowing trumpet and trombone, respectively. The big-band approach is the key to their slippery sound on new songs like "Teddy Bears" and "Prophets of Doom," which evolved with input from the entire crew. "There are various approaches to music with this band. Nobody has the same perspective. When we go into a song, we're never on the same page," says Aviotti. "We just try everybody's ideas. Nothing is sacred. When everybody agrees that it's good, then it's done."

The group dynamic did not appear overnight. "Our process is, we got really good at arguing with each other," says Jasud. "It was bloody and prolonged and painful, but we slowly figured out how to argue with each other to where it really became just about the ideas. They're not arguments any more. It's just, 'Let's try it!'"

While they can sound ramshackle and jammy, Dead Soldiers sweats the details. Wroten-Combest and Benford played together in Memphis Dawls and brought their experience at creating lush soundscapes to the band. "Krista, to her eternal credit, has played with orchestras and writes scores," says Aviotti. "She's extremely good at orchestration."

The orchestral sound is evident in the closing moments of The Great Emptiness, as the closing tones of "Cheap Magic" modulate upwards toward heaven, as the melody from "The Entertainer" floats through the ether. It's a beautiful moment, but maybe not what you would call heartfelt. "That's a sarcastic modulation," says Aviotti.

"We were writing lyrics that were sarcastic, and we were trying to make the music do that, too," says Jasud.

The lyrics of "Georgia Tann" touch on a dark bit of Memphis history. "Georgia Tann was the head of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, an adoption agency here during E.H. Crump's reign ... They would steal children from their homes and low income schools and whatnot and adopt them to rich people for money. In some cases, it was indentured servitude. There are all sorts of horror stories about torture and kids dying in her care. She died a free woman, but there was a pending case against her for hundreds of counts of wrongful deaths."

Dead Soldiers will bring songs from The Great Emptiness to the River Stage on Saturday afternoon at 2:20 p.m. "Some of these songs are the first songs we wrote as a band, five or six years ago. We're just now finally figuring out how they are supposed to go together," says Aviotti. "But some of them are brand new, hot off the pan!"

- Chris McCoy

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