This year I decided to check out the Goner (http://www.goner-records.com/) Festival in Memphis, TN. I did not know a lot of the bands playing, but I wasn’t too worried about it. Goner Records is a record store/label that you can assume supports/signs good bands. I’ve wanted to visit Memphis for awhile and Goner Fest seemed like a good time to do that.
First things first—when I was trying to figure out a place to stay in Memphis, I checked into some hotels and I was unhappy to learn that their prices were more expensive than I expected. I kept poking around online and came across the AirBnB website (http://www.airbnb.com/), where people advertise rooms in their homes that others can stay in for (I assume most usually) cheaper prices than a hotel and for a more personal experience than one would probably get by staying at a corporate chain. A woman named Misty White had posted information about the Rock Bottom Garden Club (http://www.airbnb.com/rooms/150033) – only two blocks from Goner Records! I wrote to her and lucked out in getting a room at her place.
Misty told me that she would come pick me up from the airport, which I thought was really nice. I met her and a friend of hers when they came to pick me up Wednesday the 21st. I found them to be very friendly and cool right away. We went to Misty’s house/Rock Bottom, which is really close to the airport in the Cooper Young area of Memphis. We had a few beers and some delicious homemade pizza that Misty made. Very hospitable! Then we went off to the Lamplighter Lounge, which opened in 1932 and bills itself as the oldest bar in the city. We saw a band that Misty’s friends are in and hung out for awhile. That was my first show in Memphis, the night before the official start of the GonerFest. The band was really good rockabilly and did a version of “Can’t Hardly Stand It” (a Charlie Feathers tune that I know from The Cramps) that I particularly enjoyed. What a nice first night to start my visit!
Like many people, I knew before even visiting Memphis that it is a music place. It is the “birthplace of rock n’ roll,” after all! But once I got there, I was quickly reminded me of New Orleans (although I do not know the city well) because it has such a strong and pervasive (in a good way) culture of music. Lots of different kinds of music, amazing musicians, and super-talented bands seem to be everywhere you turn and they’re there in a very natural, unsurprising, and almost casual way—the kind of way that music appreciators and lovers and producers spring from with families or cultures where music is a normal and consistent part of their scenes from an early age.
As the days progressed, I leaned that Misty was also a musician and played drums with the Hellcats for a few albums (while poking around I came across their song “I Did My Part,” which reminded me a lot of Razorcake, “We do our part”). She has also played in Alluring Strange and the Chislers. I learned later on that she also played with R.L. Burnside and Tav Falco’s Pantherburns, and I think maybe also with Alex Chilton at some point. She toured with Townes Van Zandt and probably loads of others… good stuff!!
GonerFest started on Thursday the 21st with a free show in a gazebo sitting on the corner near the Goner Records store. Limes (http://www.myspace.com/l_i_m_e_s) played first— although I only saw a song or two so I can’t write much about them. They were followed by Jack O. and the Tennessee Tearjerkers (http://www.myspace.com/officialjackoblivian). I have to say they were totally excellent. They sounded great, with some super rocking songs in a garage-y vein kicked out by guitarist/singer, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and saxophone player. I thought it was a great way to start things off.
The rest of the shows were spread out over three bars—the Hi-Tone (http://www.hitonememphis.com/), Murphy’s (http://www.myspace.com/murphysmemphis), and the Buccaneer (http://www.myspace.com/buccaneer_memphis). Grand clubs, one and all. The Hi-Tone is the biggest and hosted the night shows. It has a big outdoor area for smoking (so strange to me now that in other spots in Memphis you can still smoke inside), with a basketball hoop set up that was the focal point of some late-night, mostly terrible basketball playing and funny drunken hi-jinks. I think most bars/clubs serve ‘til 3 AM there. Murphy’s did a back-and-forth indoor/outdoor thing (one band inside, then one band outside), which kept things moving along at a very respectable clip, but caused me to miss one or two songs by some of the bands on occasion. Bands at the Buccaneer played outside on the corner, where people who paid for an “endless cup” waited in a very long line to get some foamy beer from what may have been a busted tap.
An aside here—okay, sure, it is Elvis mania there. Seriously, he is everywhere and not just on the chotchkes found on touristy Beale Street. To me, not a diehard fan by any stretch, it was kinda funny. At the same time, I liked it; I thought it was a little fantastic. Another thing I noticed was that in Hi-Tone there are lots of photos of people on the wall when you go in and a group of four of them (all next to each other, making a square) were colored in Kiss make-up. In the Buccaneer there were some Memphis weekly papers on the wall in a group of four and all the people on the covers were colored in Kiss make-up. In Murphy’s there was a framed poster of Kiss (appeared to be signed) hanging on the wall. Was it just a Hi-Tone/ Murphy’s/ Buccaneer coincidence or an overall Memphis/Kiss idolatry? Hmmmmmm…
Anyway, some of my favorite bands (keeping in mind that I didn’t see everyone, and I also didn’t kill myself trying to see bands from San Francisco ‘cause, you know, I live in the neighborhood) over the course of the couple days included….
Black Sunday (Memphis, TN) http://www.myspace.com/blacksundaymemphis
Fronted by Alicja Trout of River City Tanlines, Lost Sounds and more. I totally loved this band! They started off the night on Saturday at Hi-Tone and I thought they killed it. I loved how one minute I was getting a drink from the gum-chewing, blond bartender and then the next minute he was gum-chewing and playing guitar on-stage in Black Sunday. They were heavier than they sound recorded, which was likely due to two guitars and no keyboards. Extra points for Alicja ramming the fretboard of her Flying-V against the mic stand. Could she get any cooler? I was in heaven.
Gories (Detroit, MI) http://www.myspace.com/therealgories
Oh yes. Oh yes. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people were psyched that the Gories were playing. Formed in 1986, they broke up around 1999. They have done a few tours/shows since then. Members of this three-piece include dudes from the Dirtbombs and Demolition Doll Rods. I feel like their style is pretty straightforward, bluesy garage. They didn’t bring out anything super weird when they headlined on Friday night at Hi-Tone, but it was packed and the crowd was dancing and having a great time.
Human Eye (Detroit, MI) http://www.intheredrecords.com/pages/humaneye.html
Wow. I didn’t know Human Eye prior to seeing them, but what a delightfully weird treat. The singer, formerly of the Clone Defects, bears a striking resemblance to the actor Clint Howard (director Ron Howard’s brother), if he were on acid and wearing a gold lamé suit. The keyboardist might be an undercover cop. The drummer, holding his drumsticks like a jazzman, was amazing and kept me hanging on his every beat. The bassist held things together nicely, even after the singer donned a rather large vertical mask that had one eyeball popping out and somehow, towards the end of their set, began spewing fruity pebbles (this only after the singer flung gummy worms into the audience). They did songs about how cold Pluto is and alligators dancing. The vampire-y male half of a dashing rockabilly couple who were present throughout the Fest was particularly excited, jumping excitedly and throwing beer around. Totally fucking nutty and awesome. It was a great way to close the night on Saturday.
James Arthur's Manhunt (Desert, Texas) http://www.myspace.com/jarthurjarthur
I have no idea what kind of music they play, but it rocked. The singer (potentially James Arthur, I suppose) sported a lightning bolt guitar strap and had a frenetic disposition. Did he even sing or was he just mumbling a lot of weird shit? Who knows. Lots of reverb and a healthy dose of psychedelia. The bassist and drummer were awesome. Godspeed You Black Emperor! if they took a wrong turn in Death Valley and somehow ended up in a hick town in Texas.
Kitchen’s Floor (Brisbane, Australia) http://www.myspace.com/kitchensfloor
Much better live than what I’d listened to before the show. Post punk Beirut Slump vocals with galloping drums.
King Louie’s Missing Monuments (New Orleans, LA) http://www.myspace.com/missingmonuments
I did not actually realize how prolific a musician Mr. Louie is until recently. He is probably best known for the bands The Royal Pendletons, The Persuaders, and The Exploding Hearts. He was also in the Bad Times, a one-off with Eric Friedl (né Oblivion) and Jay Reatard along with about a zillion other bands. To my ears, Missing Monuments is a little more power pop and a little less garage. Whatever way you spin it, it’s just good tunes written by guys who know how to put together a song. I have to admit that while Missing Monuments were playing I was not actually watching them; I was sitting on a little hill across from Murphy’s with my friend eating mashed potatoes and okra. What can I say? There was all this beer and late nights and afternoon shows and so many good bands—at some point you just have to get food! Regardless, it was actually perfect because from where I was sitting I could partly see the band (perhaps better than if I’d actually been on the ground in front of the stage), and I could hear them perfectly. The sound was great on that little hill! Although, it was a little sad when they played “I'm a Pretender” (Exploding Hearts). It’s an awesome song and I was glad they included it in their set.
Pity Fucks (Portland, OR) http://www.myspace.com/thepityfucks
This was a dance-y, fun band. I liked the singer’s gravelly voice. The guitar sound was really good and the organ just perfect, not too church-y. Surprisingly, their instrumentals were some of my favorite tunes. I particularly liked the last one they played, which had a huge organ intro. Cool!
Reverend John Wilkins (Memphis, TN) http://www.biglegalmessrecords.com/revwilkins.htm
I’ll just say it—I thought the Reverend was pretty adorable. Around seventy years old or so, Reverend Wilkins is a pastor at Hunter’s ChapelMissionaryBaptistChurch in Mississippi. He might also hold services somewhere around Memphis (he told the crowd where we could stop by, but, not being familiar with the area, I wasn’t exactly positive where he was talking about). Needless to say, pretty much all his songs were about God, or the Lord, or Jesus—not lyrical content I’m typically interested in, but certainly not unexpected. I learned that you can call Jesus on the phone anytime. Anytime at all! Rev. Wilkins plays guitar, has a really amazing voice, and was backed up by three female gospel singers (as well as a band)—one of whom did some solo parts that just totally knocked me out. Some kick-ass singing! Most of the songs were really upbeat. There was call and response. There was clapping. There was a request for the audience to put up our hands if we needed help. As the Reverend put it, “I like it when y’all get involved.” It was pretty joyful stuff, even though some of the songs fully recognized the trials and tribulations that God’s children have to go through. Plus, extra fun to see punks waving their hands and getting down.
Sharp Balloons (Memphis)
I really liked this band, which includes Goner label co-owner Zac Ives. They played outside at Buccaneer. Everyone in the band sang, but my favorite was when the (female) bassist sang in a squeaky, angry voice that reminded me of the Tyrades a little. Interesting lyrics that included, “I’m the Indian baby, you’re the papoose, I’m the executioner, you’re the noose.” Rhyme-y! The guitar was raw and fierce and sounded like it was digging a hole and dragging everyone in.
Shirks! (Washington, DC)
I didn’t know much about this band before I arrived in Memphis other than they’re from DC. I certainly did try to find out. Just see if you can find anything about them online! It’s slim pickins. Regardless, when I got to TN, I realized that Mr. Al Budd (who I recognized from his bartending days at Black Cat) was leading the Shirks pack. They played on Saturday afternoon, and were just the thing I (and apparently many others) seemed to need to kind of snap out of a late-Friday-night-many-beers-induced sluggishness. They ruled, and I felt a silly surge of hometown pride. They played kinda fast, loud, abrasive punk. It was totally fun. After they finished everybody was happy and awake!
Straight Arrows (Sydney, Australia) http://www.myspace.com/thestraightarrows
Yet another fun band! Garage-y sounding with really catchy choruses. They played one song with a part that totally reminded me of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” and another song that had a chorus I swear sounded like Minor Threat (minus the hardcore). Curious! Good energy and a good time.
True Sons Of Thunder (Memphis, TN) http://www.myspace.com/truesonsofthunder
What’s up with True Sons Of Thunder? A noisy, distorted metal-y band. They apparently did a cover of Duran Duran’s “Friends of Mine,” a song I didn’t remember until I came home and listened to it (and now I want to hear True Sons Of Thunder do it again!). The singer claimed he was Simon Le Bon and had to kill Willie Nelson to get his number, or something like that. Good lord, TSOT, what are you going on about? The bassist was wearing one of those Rasta hats that have fake dreadlocks sewn into them. Weirdos. Includes Goner founder/co-owner Eric Friedl and appeared to be a hometown favorite.
Some songs by some of the bands that played at GonerFest can be found on “Goner Radio” on the website (http://www.goner-records.com/gonerfest/gonerfest8-hotels.php). They may have some more stuff up (videos, etc.) soon.
I was sad that I had to leave before the official finish up of the Fest (missing Two Tears and Jam Messengers on Sunday), but I had a great time so it was okay. I saw a bunch of awesome bands, picked up some records that I am looking forward to listening to, met a lot of friendly and fun people (many of whom had accents I just adored, seriously), and got to visit Memphis—even if I didn’t get to do all the touristy things I was interested in. And now, after I catch up on my sleep a little, I can start thinking about how fun it will be to go to GonerFest 9…
P.S. On a separate note, I just wanted to mention that I did manage to squeeze in two touristy things. One was a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum (a museum built from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed),which I thought was very well done, informative, and intense. The other was a trip to Sun Studio, which has a great tour and I think would be super fun for any rock’n’roll buff. I recommend both without reservation.
P.P.S. Thanks very much to Jon Chamberlain out of Rubberneck Zine (http://rubberneckzine.com/) for the photos!