A trip to New Orleans is a regular pilgrimage for many Memphians in search of novel music, cuisine, and culture. Visiting the Big Easy scratches an itch that can't be satisfied elsewhere. But it's rare that we get a slice of New Orleans coming up our way. This Saturday, July 15th, will be a notable exception, when the Wild Magnolias bring Mardi Gras to Cooper-Young to cap off the Beauty Shop's 15-Year Anniversary Party. As one of the premiere African-American "tribes" that emerge in full-feathered glory at Carnival time every year, the Wild Magnolias bring a long tradition of deep funk and street marching with them.
Karen Carrier, the Beauty Shop's owner, has always drawn on Crescent City culture for inspiration, and music has always been central to her experience. It was at the 1976 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival that she met her future partners in the original Automatic Slim's eatery in Manhattan, and she has attended dozens of Jazz Fests since. During one of these visits, she befriended Bo Dollis Sr., the Wild Magnolias' Big Chief from 1964 until just before his death in 2015. Now his son, Bo Dollis Jr., leads the group. "We played when she first opened her restaurant," he recalls. "I was young at the time, but I still remember it."
That, of course, was before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and scattered most members of the Mardi Gras tribes. It took little time for them to regroup. "Me and my tribe, we came right back the same year as Katrina. That was the hardest Mardi Gras ever. You saw more people crying because they thought this or that person was dead." It was also a challenge, says Dollis, because tribes typically work for a full year readying themselves for Mardi Gras, and months had been lost. Now, with the tribes in full swing again, such preparations still preoccupy him. "Everybody's sewing right now, trying to get ready for Mardi Gras," he notes. "These suits take a long time. It takes all year to get these suits together. Right now in New Orleans, it's sewing season."
The tribe's handiwork will be on full display this Saturday night: a five-piece band accompanied by two "Indians" in all their feathered splendor. At 6:30 p.m., they will lead a second line parade on Cooper, followed by a performance later that night at the Beauty Shop's sister venue, Bar DKDC.
While the group naturally performs Mardi Gras parade music, they have been associated with more eclectic sounds for decades. The first Wild Magnolias album, released in 1974, was a clarion call for Crescent City funk, with the band, known as the New Orleans Project, led by the legendary Willie Tee. The sounds of percussive clavinet and metallic vocoder vocals gave a near-disco quality to their biggest hit from that era, "Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke it Right)."
Their releases since then have been few and far between, but 2013's New Kind of Funk showed that the spirit of experimentalism was alive and well. By then the group was led by Bo Dollis Jr., but, as he recalls, "That last album was dedicated to my dad. Some of the songs are his that I just revamped. Some of it's hip-hop, some of it's country, some of it is just straight Mardi Gras Indian. There were two originals that were mine, and the rest, like 'Coconut Milk' or 'New Kind of Funk,' were songs he did a long time ago, and I just revamped them." Unpredictable synthesizer and guitar textures abound, though all are grounded with powerful live drumming.
Dollis says the group is now working on a new album. "For the next album, it'll be straight Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras Indian. We're just getting in the studio. It's been like a month now that we've just started working on it. I'm looking at probably Mardi Gras time that we'll release it, so probably around January; if not that, then maybe Jazz Fest time."
And as for this week's performance? "It ain't just Mardi Gras, because I put some funk into it. I might put some oldies-but-goodies into it. It's just a big party. So I tell anybody who comes to my show, don't never come dressed up, because you gonna be dancing. My Indians gonna make you dance. I'm gonna make you dance. I might even get in the crowd with you and dance. It's just a big, fun type of party, but at the same time it's the New Orleans beat behind it." Dollis' parting words of advice: "Let 'em know to come comfortable, because you gonna get a workout."