The Handy Awards ceremony may be Thursday, May 24th, but as far as live music is concerned, the real action might be the next night, when the Handy Festival brings a plethora of national blues names to join some of Memphis' finest in the clubs along historic Beale Street.
Awards host and New Orleans piano man Dr. John will kick off the night's musical offerings with a concert at Handy Park. In the clubs, Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year nominee Deborah Coleman will be at Rum Boogie Café for a three-night stint -- Thursday through Saturday. She'll be joined by Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year nominee Ann Rabson on Friday and Saturday.
Coleman hits town supporting a new album, the locally recorded Livin' on Love (produced by Memphian Jim Gaines). As a young African-American woman who not only sings the blues but is a highly regarded lead guitarist, Coleman confound modern blues stereotypes at every turn, yet she's managed to become a major star on the contemporary blues scene.
Other notable out-of-towners Friday night include Clarksdale native and multiple Handy nominee Big Jack Johnson, whose soulful, eclectic Roots Stew was one of the best blues records I heard last year. Johnson will be performing at one of his frequent haunts, Blues City Café. Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year nominee Larry Garner will be at Elvis Presley's Memphis Friday and Saturday and blue-eyed bluesman Lee Roy Parnell, who performed Dan Penn's "Memphis, Women, and Chicken" at the Premier Player Awards earlier this year, will open for Levon Helm at B.B. King's.
Local artists rounding out Friday night's Beale bill are Blind Mississippi Morris and Brad Webb at the Blues Hall, Kirk Smithhart at Club 152, and Charlie Wood at King's Palace. -- Chris Herrington
Sure, you have lightning-fingered virtuosos like Kenny Wayne Shephard (wake me when he's through noodling). You've got fine traditionalists like Keb Mo. You've got gritty journeymen like R.L. Burnside and soulful pickers like Clarence Spady. But given the fact that most contemporary blues players tend to drive their three chords down the middle of a much-traveled road, I've never been able to muster too much excitement for the Handy Awards. Sure, it was great seeing Ike Turner play an impromptu set at King's Palace last year. And Bonnie Raitt showed why her reputation as a guitar monster looms large at the previous year's all-star jam. But overall, I'd rather just go to Wild Bill's, soak up the Hollywood All-Stars' lurking electric blues, drink Crown Royal, and shake it till my hangover sets in. This year's Handy week, however, provides at least one mighty fine compromise. Handy Award nominee Freddy Roulette, whose insane lap-steel guitar work has invigorated the already vigorous music of Bo Diddley, deepened the already deep sound of John Lee Hooker, and enhanced the performances of any number of Chicago's top bluesmen will be playing at Wild Bill's on Thursday, May 24th. He'll be at Automatic Slim's on Friday and opening for Lucero at the Hi-Tone on Saturday, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see him. But if I were you I'd go to Wild Bill's. Seeing an artist of Roulette's caliber at that tiny juke joint on Vollintine is the kind of thing you'll remember for the rest of your life -- if you remember it at all, that is. -- Chris Davis