Reviews 2007

Commercial Appeal / May 5, 2007:

Killer, Allstars and company in groove - Music keeps hot pace through outage, fights

Jerry Lee Lewis

Beale Street Music Festival / Memphis / TN

May 4 / 2007

By Bob Mehr

The "world boogie" of the Dickinson family proved too powerful a force - at least that seemed to be the case during the opening moments Friday of the three-day Beale Street Music Festival. The Luther and Cody Dickinson-led North Mississippi Allstars - second generation exponents of their father Jim's roots-blues eclecticism - opened the annual event at Tom Lee Park, with a set that, literally, short-circuited the festival.

With a large daytime crowd sweating to the band's frenetic groove, a nearby power grid suddenly blew out during the second song, zapping the juice for the entire AutoZone Stage. The eerie quiet lasted 10 long minutes, as stagehands scurried to fix the problem.

Once the sound was restored the group picked up where they'd left off, the seasoned festival performers unfazed by the delay. With the sun setting, the band - augmented by new keyboardist Kurt Clayton - took the audience both to church and to the roadhouse, alternating the sacred and profane with songs like "Shake What Your Mama Gave You" and "Soldier in the Army of the Lord".

At the same time, another scion of Southern roots and rock, Derek Trucks (nephew of Allman Brothers' Band drummer Butch Trucks) was leading a very loud and powerful combo through a blues-heavy set on the Budweiser Stage. Though his liquid playing - particularly on "Key to the Highway" - was impressive, his virtuosic displays left the chattering crowd seemingly unmoved.

It was an altogether different story in the overheated environs of the TN Lottery Blues Tent, as Popa Chubby took the stage. Looking more like a bouncer than a bluesman, the bald, powerfully built Bronx-born guitarist had the crowd enthralled from the get-go.

After sunset, it was time to see the lion in winter, as Jerry Lee Lewis made his regular appearance at the festival. The singer's veteran band vamped on a couple songs before Lewis emerged from the wings, and walked gingerly onstage to an introduction by radio legend George Klein.

Clad in a silken purple shirt, he opened with a galloping take on Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven", segued into a gossamer rendition of "I Was Sorta Wonderin'" and then returned to Berry's catalog for "Sweet Little Sixteen". Mixing in his own rock and country hits along with the occasional blues, Lewis was acid-tongued and playful throughout, frequently toying with the crowd.

"I know what you want to hear", he said, teasing the audience with a snippet of "Great Balls of Fire". "But when you make love to a woman, you don't run in and just go bop!", Lewis admonished jokingly. "You take your time, build up to it... and then you pay" (perhaps the critics targeting Three 6 Mafia should've been more worried about the 71-year-old piano man's onstage antics instead).

At one point, a scuffle broke out near the stage, and Lewis halted the proceedings. "If you want to fight, join the Army", he barked into the microphone. He bore into a long, charging version of "Rockin' My Life Away", then bounded off the stage twice angrily, as the scuffles continued.

The contretemps seemed to energize Lewis as he came back to finish off "Rockin'" then worked his way through a truly supple version of Hank Williams' "You Win Again".

Closing with his signature hits "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'", Lewis summoned some youthful energy as he banged away at the keys, his familiar glissandos ringing into the night. For a moment, he rose, and looked at the piano with a leer. Had it been 1957 instead of 2007, he might have lit the instrument on fire and kicked it all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi. As it was, he turned and stalked off the stage, his body worn, but still every inch the Killer.

Commercial Appeal / May 7, 2007:

Riley belts lost bits of Sun under clouds

Billy Lee Riley

Beale Street Music Festival / Memphis / TN

May 6 / 2007

By Bob Mehr

"Here I am", offered a breathless Billy Lee Riley, "73 years old and acting like a kid". So began the final day of the Beale Street Music Festival, as the Sun Records veteran kicked off the proceedings with a set on the Cellular South Stage.

Clad in an eye-catching Kelly green jacket and playing his 12th consecutive Music Fest, the perfectly coiffed Riley emerged vamping to Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right Mama" and then charged headlong into his own "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll".

As Riley reminisced about his early days at Sun, one couldn't help but consider his place as the label's lost giant. A true multi-threat, he possessed the myriad musical gifts of Carl Perkins, the unhinged spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, and the punkish insouciance of Elvis Presley, yet fate never rewarded Riley beyond cult acclaim.

"The rest" he said, letting the words hang in the air, "is history".

If Riley didn't quite slay old ghosts, he did remind everyone that it is he - with apologies to Lewis - who's truly the last man standing, delivering an energetic and warmly received set to a crowd that included a mix of both old and young, as well as a large contingent of the singer's family and friends. Riley's effort was aided by a well-chosen set list - which pulled together nuggets from his catalog including "Got the Water Boiling", "Rock With Me Baby" and "I'm Him" - and a crack backing band, anchored by longtime foil and fellow Sun alum, drummer J.M. Van Eaton.

Mid-set, Riley paused to pay tribute to his long-gone label-mate Warren Smith, telling a story about the last time the two performed together at a festival in France. Reading the lyrics from a music stand, Riley made his first ever attempt at singing Smith's "Rock'n'Roll Ruby". The moment proved a powerful reminder that the members of rock's first generation are an increasingly endangered species.

Cloudy skies began to threaten as Riley broke out a harmonica for a mournful version of "Repossession Blues". Later, he added a gospel glint to the opening incantation of "Good Rockin' Tonight", then really came alive during "Flip, Flop & Fly", before capping things with his signature number "Red Hot".

It would seem that the weather gods enjoy rockabilly cats far more than jam bands. A torrential downpour hit just as Indiana hippie-prog outfit Umphrey's McGee began their set following Riley.

Though the rain battered the crowd, sending many scurrying for shelter, a large army of faithful fans stayed behind, bouncing beach balls in the air, sliding in the mud, and generally making the best of a suddenly soaked situation.

The weather caused a delay in soul singer Ann Peebles' set, as members of her band quibbled with festival staff about going on. Her backing outfit - a bizarre mix of regular Joes and ludicrously costumed extroverts - was at times distracting, and the set surely could've done without odd detours like a cover of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is". Still, even with the upper registers of Peebles' voice noticeably diminished, she shined on a clutch of familiar Hi Records hits, including the inevitable, but appropriate, "I Can't Stand the Rain".

Inside the TN Lottery Blues Tent, Watermelon Slim, a.k.a. Bill Homans, and His Workers, were laboring away, conjuring up a skewed roots sound that's made them the most nominated act at the upcoming Blues Music Awards.

"I'm just an old truck driver who found something easier to do", proclaimed Homans, whose colorful background as a Vietnam War vet, gear jammer, melon farmer, academic and Mensa International member has made for good copy. A rugged looking figure cut squarely in the mold of actor Warren Oates, Homans' personal experiences cropped up in the lyrics to meaty, gruffly sung numbers like "Ash Tray" and "Truck Driving Mama".

Alternating between harmonica and an oddly configured lap slide set-up, Homans burned through a dozen tunes, cracking jokes and flashing an outsize character that was hard to resist.

Sunday's closing hours heralded the Memphis debut of Corinne Bailey Rae, the British singer-songwriter who's enjoyed a whirlwind 18-month rise from the jazz clubs of England to multi-platinum sales and Grammy honors. Wearing a shimmering lavender dress, Rae greeted an expectant audience that included a smattering of flag-waving fans from her hometown of Leeds.

Like her look, Rae's music is elegantly styled, marked by a conversion of warm melodies and gauzy arrangements. Conducting a big band that included a horn section and a pair of backing singers, Rae fluttered her way through most of the material off her self-titled album, including "Butterfly", "Trouble Sleeping" and "Like a Star".

Though she's been praised with comparisons to greats like Aretha Franklin, Rae isn't an R&B singer in the Southern tradition. Her warm, glossed-out pop-soul is closer in spirit to Anita Baker than, say, Gladys Knight. While her music may lack grit, Rae's one of those performers who is genuinely comfortable in her own skin, radiating an easy charisma that kept the mood light and the vibe relaxed. / May 7, 2007:

Lewis' Versatility Keeps Festival Rockin'

Jerry Lee Lewis

Tampa Bay Blues Festival / Saint Petersburg / FL

May 6 / 2007

By Curtis Ross

ST. PETERSBURG - Missing a chance for a metaphor of biblical proportions, the skies cleared before Jerry Lee Lewis' set Sunday night at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival.

Think of it - lightning cracking, thunder pealing and torrents pouring onto Vinoy Park as Lewis pounded his - preferably flaming - piano. On the Sabbath, even!

Alas, it was preceding act Percy Sledge whose performance got the drenching. But Lewis' performance was satisfying, even if the balls of fire were in his lyrics and not the sky.

There's no denying that Lewis' voice had a quaver through most of the performance. He is, after all, 71 hard-lived years old. Regardless, he never seemed less than in total command during a 40-minute set that bobbed and weaved through country, blues and Chuck Berry before concluding with his two biggest hits, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On".

Lewis' band, the Memphis Beats - featuring 40-year Lewis band veteran Kenny Lovelace - performed three numbers before The Killer took the stage. Lewis immediately began a familiar pounding piano riff but kicked off with Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" instead of one of his own numbers.

Performances such as "I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight" made a case for those who rate Lewis' country records higher even than his rock'n'roll hits. He sang tunes such as blues standard "Trouble in Mind" in a way that emphasized how his roots reach far deeper than rock'n'roll.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but he whipped out a rousing version of Gene Autry's "Mexicali Rose" as well.

But the set's highlight - arguably - was "Don't Put No Headstone on My Grave", which Lewis began as a slow blues before kicking it into a boogie and bringing it back down again. It was a convincing, defiant performance.

So no apocalypse, no fire and only a little brimstone - it was still Jerry Lee and if you had never seen him before, thank the Tampa Bay Blues Festival for bringing him down.

And thank the deity of your choice the storm that looked set to end the festival during Sledge's set wound up bringing in some cool breezes, a reward for the hearty souls who stuck it out through the rain.