Talk From The Rock Room: July 2021

Friday, July 16, 2021

Now Playing – Memphis '69 - The 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival

“We Don’t Know What the Heat Says, But it’s Cool to Dance.”

Flickering on the flat screen of the ‘rock room’ is a historic piece of celluloid immortalizing three days and two nights of oppressive heat and stunning blues music. Filmed for posterity, on June 6th-8th 1969 the Memphis Country Blues Society put on their annual Memphis Country Blues festival which ran from 1965 for 4 years. The film was once thought to be lost to the ravages of time, though luck would eventually intervene. A casual conversation between ‘Fat Possum Records’ (who will release the film on August 6) co-owner Bruce Watson and Gene Rosenthal from Adelphi Records resulted in these reels of blues gold being excavated, synced up, beautified and released for our listening and viewing pleasure. 

Rosenthal had originally filmed the festival himself, traveling from Maryland with a crew, exhausting his budget and shooting over 40,000 feet of film. The film was shelved and remained in suspended animation as Rosenthal had to sell his gear just to process the media! We are sure glad he did. Because 47 years later all his hard work finally paid off. Due for online release on August 6th and on physical media September 17th, this previously unreleased vibrant capture of blues, brotherhood and music making has been over a half of a century in the making. Order the film here.

Ironically, held only a few days after a Klu Klux Klan rally at the same civic shell, Memphis 69 illustrates the collaborative power of music and how the musicians involved didn't see color. The current timing of the release of this film couldn’t be better considering the fractured state of relations in the United States. This is a rare musical documentary where the blues, the counterculture and all walks of life get it on and let the music guide the way. Featured in the film are special performances by blues legends, Bukka White, Yank Rachel, Furry Lewis, Johnny Winter, Mississippi Fred McDowell and a formative performance by John Fahey. Most of those appearing at the festival were local performers just doing their job. The film offers up a plethora of flashing images of the diverse crowd intermingled with the montage of music culled from the three days of performances resulting in an effective expression of the festival.

The film begins with movement, pictures of Memphis, classic imagery with a radio station acting as the soundtrack while making announcements for the upcoming festival. The antiqued scent of a cracked time capsule fills the ‘rock room’ as each artist is placed in the marquee with the corresponding reels of archival footage. Within moments I am seated on the speeding train flashing over the bridge and placed in preparations for the show. Hippies, blues cats, fine ladies and hipsters stroll through the turnstiles for day one. Before long the grainy footage and movement settles on the steamy stage basked in brutal sun.

The ‘Bar-Kays’ open the proceedings soaked in sunshine, the former backing band for Otis Redding taking the family canine out for a spin while they ‘Walk the Dog’. A bounding groove and a fob twirling Stax swing get me up and getting down. An absolutely triumphant beginning to the film. Soon after, you can feel the heat emanating off of the film as the assembled crowd fan off as Bukka White takes the stage. Bukka the one man substantial band puts on a guitar clinic with his glistening resonator guitar, silvery slide, percussive ham boning and guttural vocalizations.

Estimated at the time of the concert as being 106 years old, Nathan Beauregard takes the stage with his electric guitar for a set of the ‘real’ blues. Protected from the oppressive sun with an umbrella Beauregard gets way down. ‘Rediscovered’ in the late 1960’s in Memphis, this rare recorded appearance allow the viewer, like those in attendance, to deeply experience the blues by someone who had lived it and disseminated it in the prewar era.

The next performers are legendary bluesmen Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel who plays some killer electric mandolin on this track. A pretty young girl holds an umbrella over Sleepy John's head as he cooks up a jambalaya of bubbling blues with his young white rhythm section, illustrating just how wonderful the collaborations were during this long musical weekend. Later in the film Estes and Rachel will be spotlighted again during the evening performance as an acoustic duo swapping licks and vocals. Stunning stuff.

A cut in scene with test tone shows a 'Friday Evening' sign before placing me in a night time seat for English blues woman Jo Ann Kelly and 'Backwards Sam Firk' who accompanies her for Son House's 'Death Letter Blues'. The voice that comes out of this white woman's throat could have been pulled from the rutty grooves of a dusty 78. This is a highlight performance from the film, as it has introduced me to something new and illustrates the talented diversity on display at this long forgotten gathering of musicians. Son Thomas follows with a reading of 'Crossroad Blues' as dirty as the bottom of the Mississippi River. Thomas dredges the depths with his voltaic reading of the blues standard. The film then suddenly cuts to a plea from the stage that equates as a sign of the times. 

A pivotal moment in the film follows when it is announced from the stage that one of the musicians was arrested outside the venue while enjoying a beer. The MC notifies the crowd that there will be a cup being passed around to take up a collection to assist in getting her out of jail. Can you imagine this happening in a modern day venue?  The camera captures looks of concern across the assembled crowd before returning to the songs. A small but telling piece of film nudging me to understand that music wasn't just a side gig for these performers, but a way to survive.

A stunning Lum Guffin solo performance follows as he duets with his finger picks and pocketknife slide for a serrated performance that cuts deep and which draws a handshake from someone close to the stage. Reverend Walter Wilkins and Family follow close behind with a celebratory gospel jamboree.  Cooking over canned heat, the Wilkins family band stomp in close precession for the army of the lord. A fitting conclusion to the films documentation of the first day of performances.

The second day of music begins nestled in pastoral imagery and a sense of calm. John Fahey pulls on a smoke dangling from his lips before revealing to the crowd an emotive solo finger picked prelude. The chiming strings and persistent thump of his bass notes lend a calming soundtrack to the film. A breezy clothesline of portraits of the attendees increases the emotion of the music as well as lending a a deep realism and historic context to the film.

Sid Selvidge with Moloch continue the introspective day two of the gathering. A smooth R and B sound plays against studies of beautiful women and shirtless gentlemen. John D. Laoudermilk sits solo on a stool for a dramatic reading of 'Tobacco Road' undulating between aggressive bass notes, fingerpicking and well timed harp toots. Fields of cotton and farm hands hard at work elicit the true source of the festival as they move in time with Laoudermilks expressive playing. A moving series of moments in a film brimming with them.

Memphis's own Furry Lewis takes the stage next, a man who lived the original Delta blues and a musician who influence reached even the 'Rolling Stones'. Fluid strumming, guitar body percussion and backward hand work on his acoustic neck shuffles out the 'Walkin Blues'.  Lewis moves, jigs and squirms his way through straight Delta blues with no chaser. Once Lewis hits his flow, the tap opens revealing undistilled and crystalline soul music. A second song, 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart' follows and is played as a cross between jump blues and a waltz. Lewis serenades the crowd deeply and in a way the film's viewers as well.  Lewis leaves the stage and returns just as quick with a beaming smile as the crowd urges him back. We get one more number before the MC announces the conclusion of the afternoon performances.

The mood of the film changes with the angle of the sun. People return to their seats as the dusk settles on the crowd like liquid night. Bukka White sits center stage with glorious resonator guitar and his substantial hound dog throat. White digs deep, plays his guitar behind his head and stuns the crowd into honorable silence An even better appearance than his playing on day one. Hot on Bukka's performance, blues legend Piano Red, sits at the blacks and whites, bowler cap perfectly in place and performs 'Rocky Mountain'. Rolling notes and delicious caesura's punctuate Piano Red's highlight performance.  Bukka White shares the piano stool with Red while lending gritty off mic asides and gruff encouragement. I fell lucky to have witnessed this.

The local 'Jefferson Street Jug Band' takes the stage next with John Fahey joining for a rickety back porch jam with kazoos, jugs and clarinet. A screaming and ragged reading of Country Joe and the Fish's', 'Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag' brings the crowd to their collective feet. 'Insect Trust' follows next and is a wonderful and fitting representation of the festival. The band is a full electric whirling dervish of blues, rock, jazz conglomerate with a saxophone and a hearty female vocalist.

Another well timed interlude takes place with a plea from the stage that while 800 people paid to get into the festival there are 3,000 attending. The voice announces that these musicians have been working their whole lives for recognition and that there is going to be a hat passed so that the performers can get something for their art. As these pleas are executed, the film pauses on crowd shots, an effective approach, and successful in making me want to pay for my own ticket!

Moloch, who appeared earlier in the film play a harmonica driven slab of blues rock with a full band and a singing drummer. Staying thematically consistent as the MC reads a poignant poem to the crowd, 'Johnny Winter Band' and his '300 amps' take the stage. Winter's 'blues trio' sizzle in the evening air. Winter disseminates series upon series of brisk prickly blues riffing. Winter's rhythm section puts eight ball in the corner pocket while Winter breaks the cue over his knee. Once Winter, just a young lad here tugs on the musical tread everything unravels magnificently. The camera scans the front row of the crowd, there are no phones, iPads or drunk floppers. Just a series of young impressionable faces and fully engrossed music fans. A blue howl of feedback segues the film into the closing Sunday morning as snippets of cells from the final day of the festival coagulate on screen.

'The Salem Harmonizers', a gospel vocal group sound just like a glorious Sunday morning with only guitar accompaniment. The camera pans across the early morning assembly all ages, colors and denominations clap hands and sing collaboratively about 'old time religion'. This is church. Now performing in the grass as opposed to the stage Mississippi Fred McDowell sits on a chair and states, 'These folks behind me are all nice Christian people, you see I'm a Christian too but I play the blues'. Armed with amplified hollow body guitar and slide McDowell is easy on a Sunday morning with a slowly swaying jump groove. McDowell's slide work is patient and orchestrated and as smooth as the silver on his ax. This is a legend, up close and intimate. McDowell's set concludes, people applaud, faces smile and we are then placed in the back of the venue looking at a clearing stage.

In this age of instant gratification, Memphis 69 is a film that took a decades long gestation period. Not really lost, just never found. The film as we have explored, is a diverse collaborative of the blues players and admirers from the Memphis area and beyond. The film can also be viewed as a metaphor for what we as music lovers and people may have lost in the interim. While the documentary focuses on the art and performers, through the music and images captured it also illustrates to the viewer empathy, collaboration, faith, and creativity. That being said, on the outskirts of the magic of music there is also prejudice, disrespect and entitlement. These elements can sometimes be held in check by the power of song. Memphis 69 allows us to feel all of these divergent emotions with a visual soundtrack of historic proportions.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Elvis Presley – ‘Closing Night’ -September 3, 1973

Jamming this evening in the ‘rock room’ is a live Elvis Presley performance hailing from the closing night of a 58 show season at the Las Vegas Hilton. This particular recording is a well-balanced reel to reel in contrast to the usual Presley cassette soundboards to circulate. This concert is also an official release by the Follow That Dream label, a subsidiary of RCA for serious Presley collectors and to ‘steer fans away from bootleg products. Many if not all of these FTD’s quickly go out of print as they are pressed in limited fashion. In the case of the October 2004 title Closing Night, reviews and attitudes were mixed but the release nonetheless remained in high demand. On the Closing Night cd the first seven tracks hail from Presley’s dinner performance with the rest of the CD featuring the Midnight show. The recording is a clean soundboard line tape from reel to reel, a little bit sterile, but with a respectable balance of instruments.

A caveat emptor, this review will be a bit longer than some as there is a lot to unpack on this evening. There are both psychological and musical aspects to the concert as well as a plethora of dialog and a substantial amount of musical highlights.

A bit of historical context regarding the performances featured on the recording is needed to fully appreciate the concerts. Reportedly prior to the show Presley had said to others around him that he was done playing Vegas and was fed up with the Colonel’s tactics. The magnetic tape reflects these repressed emotions of the King through the performance with Presley’s playful and tipsy mood is underlined with a dose of angst. 1973 is a year when everything was coming to a head for the ‘King’. This was his 9th Las Vegas season and he was getting fed up with Vegas, Parker and personal issues including but not limited to his increasing reliance on prescription pills. Following this Vegas residency Presley would take five months off of touring. When he would return there would be set changes and a temporary improvement in his Vegas stage show. But really, this particular show in the 'rock room's opinion, is where Presley started to pull away from being a commodity. Unfortunately it was already too late.

The media line regarding Presley during this time is not simple, there is strata to be revealed by peeling away layers of myth. Admittedly 1973 was a strange year for Elvis, subpar performances, An upcoming divorce, and a deeply buried longing for something that not even he could not discern. The ‘rock room’ doesn’t deal in tall tales, we listen to the sounds. The band is crisp and Presley is on for the most part. But this is not the usual Presley performance as his emotions get the better of him. The September 3rd dinner show which as previously stated begins the CD is pretty chill with ‘E’ in a goofy mood. He does at times song slightly medicated but typical to other shows of the time pulls out more than a couple slam bangers for the crowd. The dinner show is just a precursor to the main event, but regardless the entire collection allows for an insider’s view of the entire event.

Admittedly there are much better performances Presley available, but only a handful so revealing and charged emotionally. Presley, the consummate showman, usually left his luggage at the door, but for this one Las Vegas evening he revealed more than usual while putting on a memorable evening of music. The ‘TCB’ band is as to be expected, professional, brisk and ass kicking.

The dinner show begins with the usual for the era ‘CC Rider’ opening which spits up gravel in a jittery version highlighted by James Burton chicken pickin’. Presley is turning the key for a cold engine and it takes a bit for him to get cooking. Presley remarks, ‘Is this the right song?’ toward ‘CC’s’ conclusion. A brief intro and the beginning of Presley’s humorous dialog for the evening.

Elvis comments about destroying his microphone before entering into a chat with Charlie Hodge which gets a great laugh from the crowd. Presley mentions being ‘straight’ for those who had not witnessed the show before to which Hodge responds, ‘I’ve never been straight in my life’. Inside jokes and silliness prevails early on. Presley slurs his way into a fluid ‘I Got a Woman’ that lays so far back that it almost lays down. Glenn D. Hardin’s piano is a major highlight on the tape as well as the vocal dive bomb By J. D. Sumner (backing vocalist) that became a great place of amusement for the ‘King’ during concerts. Sumner’s ability to reach subterranean depths of bass with his voice placed him the Guinness World Book of Records and during this particular show Elvis got extra pleasure out of it and had J. D sing it again!

Another set list standard follows with ‘Love Me’ which is as loose as is the show thus far. Presley takes the opportunity to smooch with some female fans while some off mic giggles continue to litter the stage. James Taylor’s ‘Steamroller Blues’ follows and the things begin to get wrenched down on the stage. Again, Glenn D. is a superstar, with some dirty saloon stylings leading into a typically stellar James Burton Tele solo spot.

While Presley’s voice is not as strong as the later show, ‘Steamroller Blues’ gets him fully invested and ends up being a strong version. The band flattens everything in the Hilton playing a swinging rendition of a ‘rock room’ Presley on stage favorite. Highlight.

‘You Gave Me a Mountain’ follows and continues the upswing of the first show. This reading is sung well and played dramatically with Presley exhibiting some superb vocal strength. Oddly enough, Elvis sings midway through the number, ‘The sound system in this hotel isn’t worth a damn!’, then apologizes to his own long time sound engineer Bill Porter following the performance.

The final featured song from the dinner show tape is a good one. Presley jumps into ‘Trouble’ played for the first time since the 1968 Comeback Special, the original featured on 1958’s King Creole soundtrack. Prior to the song beginning Presley remarks to the crowd, I’d like to do a medley of Spanish folk songs for ya’ to a limited response. This Leiber/Stoller classic has, in keeping with the theme of the concert has a chill vibe but a fully present Elvis. The band plows through the 12 bar with a gritty Telecaster spotlight solo on Burton and Presley crooning free.

Thus ends the available tracks from the dinner show and we are placed in the midnight show already in progress. Photos show that Presley begin the midnight show by coming on stage with a stuffed monkey on his back! The aural evidence is not present on the FTD release, but the symbolism of Presley's statement makes too much sense. The ‘rock and roll’ medley begins and Presley is in the same sort of mood as the preceding performance. The band sizzles through the changes connecting each classic seamlessly seguing verses of ‘Long Tall Sally/Whole Lot of Shakin Going On/You’re Mama Don’t Dance’/Flip Flop Fly/Hound Dog’. No surprise to the ‘rock room’ James Burton is en fuego with a plethora of heady playing.

Giggle and snorts are the order of the day as the show begins its descent into the alien land of strange. ‘Fever’ follows and finds Presley swapping out lyrics, snorting, embarrassing his stage mates and just plain being odd. I find myself laughing out loud during this unique rendition.  I'm sure the assembled crowd was blown away by the Elvis show on this twilight zone evening.

Just when you think the late night show can't possibly get any stranger, according to reports following 'Fever' a bed is then rolled out to center stage.  Yes, a bed in which Elvis gets comfy and performs a fitting 'What Now My Love' laying down (with questionable movements). Howls of laughter and a confused response from the crowd litter the performance. Actually, not a bad performance that concludes in a massive conclusion. Hmm.

What happens next could be one of the weirdest moments on a Presley stage. James Burton picks out the opening lick to 'Suspicious Minds' and Presley promptly starts to sing the lyrics to 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'! This segment is admittedly kind of painful, but definitely funny and you can discern that Elvis is having a good laugh at both Tom Parker and the Hilton's expense. Presley quirks to the orchestra director, "I gotta stick to one song or the other'. After calling the director lovingly a 'son of a bitch' Presley decides on 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and again flubs lyric after lyric before completely forgetting them  and causing the crowd and back ground singers to collaboratively sing the words back to Presley! Classic. Presley emerges out of the fog and proceeds to sing the shit out of the rest of a powerhouse reading. Proof positive of why this is such a mercurial concert and how much of a emotional yo yo Presley was at this point.

'Suspicious Minds' finally gets its chance and is played fast and carelessly. Not even a shadow on the 1970 versions. It's unfortunate that we cannot see what is transpiring on stage! Presley is reverberating between Yin and Yang at this point because as he prepares to introduce the band and notices some sheet music on the floor of the stage. When someone goes to pick it up, Presley starts calling out members of the mafia to come out and pick up the music stand, 'There's 25 other employees around backstage!' The band grooves on behind the King as he continues the introductions while also acknowledging friends and family in the audience. 

What comes next many consider to be a highlight of the two closing  Fall 1973 Vegas shows is Presley's reading of 'My Boy'. Elvis had covered the song on his 1974 LP Good Times and played it on stage during this Vegas run while also dedicating it to Lisa Marie Presley. You can tell Elvis connects deeply with the song and like flipping an emotional switch he grabs the crowd and holds them in the palm of his hand. There is no joking here, just prime Presley. Elvis is obviously content and feeling it as he takes the opportunity to thank Charlie Hodge with a comment that when he sings with Elvis that 'it sounds like one voice'.

Elvis is feeling it as we now hit the home stretch with a series of tight but loose performances beginning with a hearty 'I Can't Stop Loving You' with horny punctuations from the orchestra. At the songs conclusion a disappointed Elvis says, 'Thank you for the light applause'. You can just feel that Elvis is searching for a different venue, audience, direction, anything on this particular evening. 'American Trilogy' follows, always a highlight, but here it takes until the song conclusion to reach a boil as Presley is back with messing with the words in an obvious response to the crowd. By the time the song hits the 'Hush little baby' lyric, Elvis pulls up his boot straps and digs in.

Presley quickly calls out 'Big Hunk' and Glen D. bangs the ivory's for 'A Big Hunk O' Love' a 1959 single from Presley's one and only military recording session. Here is a brisk version with Presley sweetly slurring the verses and the band popping through the syncopated licks. In contrast, Elvis then introduces 'a favorite' of his with 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face', a song made famous by Roberta Flack and a 1972 single for Elvis as well as the 'B' side to 'American Trilogy'. Presley is fully invested in this song and you can feel it. The show now takes a strange but welcome turn as Elvis bets big and cashes out bigger. Elvis concluded the song with, 'I hope you like it, it don't make no difference'. 

As what was rumbling beneath the surface during 'My Boy' with Presley's mood, he is in fine fettle and sinks himself into the song with total aplomb. Then, at the song's conclusion Presley takes a small break to draw attention to the chain around his neck which he said was given to him by the staff of the Hilton for playing a third show the evening prior. Elvis then mentions a Hilton worker named Mario who presides in the Italian restaurant who is going to be fired after Presley's stand at the hotel. Presley states plainly, 'I don't want him to go, he needs a job, and I think the Hilton's are bigger than that'.

Presley calls out 'Mystery Train' and then precedes to devote the evening's energy and his performing energy to Mario's cause as the band peels through a sidewinding version on 'Mystery Train/Tiger Man' medley. Ronnie Tutt is all over the kit with tribal explosives and the rest of band and the bank vault tight proving why they are the best in the land. The energy pouring off of the recording as James Burton pulls out a series of  reverberant twang laden licks. 

What happens next is a major highlight of my personal 'rock room' collection and any 'bootleg' recording for that matter. Presley has the band bring it way down before calling out over the undulating groove, 'This next song is dedicated to the hierarchy, the staff, of the Hilton Hotel' as he roars into 'Tiger Man' leaving no doubt as to who is the king of the LAs Vegas jungle. Classic stuff.

Presley hitting his stride continues as he introduces the 'Stamps' quartet and introduces a 'gospel number', which is 'How Great Thou Art'. A usual concert highlight, this performance is no different and similarly to the preceding songs is wonderfully performed. Elvis displays his vocal power and control and its obvious to the 'rock room' where Presley's true heart lies. There is some distortion on the tape here but this does not deter from the stellar musical display. The song concludes to great applause to which Presley replies, 'Thank you, thank you, you're very nice, you finally showed some appreciation for something. The King is definitely not being clandestine with his feelings toward the Hilton, the crowd, or his situation. Elvis then asks the crowd, 'Do it again?' The band and Elvis then look skyward with a second substantial conclusion, to which Elvis says, 'I'll sing it all night' and enters into a second reprise!!! Amazing stuff. 

The concert settles into a mellow introspective vibe, with the expected closer of 'I Can't Help Falling In Love' providing the finale. Presley first sings the always welcome 'Help Me Make It Through the Night' wonderfully before another special concert moment.

'Softy As I leave You' continues the unique aspect of the performance as this is the 'song's' debut with Presley reciting the lyrics as opposed to a full band version which would be the case when he recorded it the following year. Obviously, something is haunting Presley throughout this evening and 'Softly as Leave You' is dictated with great feeling. A unique and special performance. An expected and well sung rendition of 'I Can't Help Falling In Love With You' brings this idiosyncratic show to a well played conclusion. While putting on his usual fully invested performance Presley exercised some demons on this particular Las Vegas concert stage evening. 

A concert like this particular 1973 Elvis Presley show offers as much to the artist's personality an off stage existence as it does to the performance. Shows that blur the line between the art and the artist are always interesting glimpses in the window's of the artist's soul we enjoy and idolize. Jim Morrison and the Doors in Miami 1969, Keith Moon at the Cow Palace in 1973, are just a couple examples of how rockers played out their own issues in front of paying fans on a concert stage. It's shows fans and listeners the human side of rock as well as illustrating that these artists are not infallible. The 'rock room' will leave you with a Presley quote following the performance of 'A Big Hunk O' Love' that we feel sums up the entire experience on this Closing Night, 'We kid a lot, and have a lot of fun, but we really love to sing and play music and entertain people. That's the name of the game. As long as I can do that I'll be a happy old son of a bitch!"