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Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings, Memphis 2001

Richard Beck reports

A field report from the opening night of Memphis's First Annual Great Southern Beer Festival

A new concept which initially puzzled me, as there are NO great Southern beers. Having said that, it turns out to be an expo featuring 75 domestic and imported brews. OK. And two music stages. One stage featured "up and coming acts" while a main stage for the big shots was the Mud Island Amphitheater. A first class architectural marvel which is an integral part of a Mississippi River Theme Park.

The entire park (featured prominently in the movie version of John Grisham's The Firm) is sculpted like a sand castle from the soil of this hangnail peninsula forged by the currents of the mighty river as it churned up and deposited acre upon acre of mud over the last century. It lies about a hundred and fifty yards off the cobblestone banks where riverboats once took on mountains of cotton bales back during a time when cotton was King around these parts. Now, sheltered from the muscular currents by the island, there lies this quiet lagoon and docking port for riverboats which are loaded now with human cargo of tourists.

The public access to the island is by monorail shuttling between a two-storey terminal and the island's museum/entertainment complex. From there it is a short walk along the spine of precipitous man-made ridge which eventually becomes the high-rising rear of the sloping amphitheater. As you enter the gate you can gaze out over the river barge traffic as it passes under the piercing lights of the Arkansas-Tennessee bridge which looks like a glimmering giant stretched-out "M" straddling the state line. When you turn around you have to look down to the stage, which is dwarfed by the backdrop of the downtown skyline. At night, this spot is the most spectacular view within the surrounding 150 miles of Southern crop lands. You just gotta love it.

I was arriving at the departure terminal during the waning minutes of intermission between a performance by Cheap Trick and the headlining Rhythm Kings as the sound crews were still busy sputtering "Check one, check two" into the stage mikes.

From my approaching monorail car I could see that I would have no problem finding a seat in the front row as I was peering in amazement at a virtually empty venue. This did not bode well for prospects for the Second Annual Great Southern Beer Festival. Not good at all. Next year they may have to call it the Great Southern Beer and Titties Festival to bolster attendance. This town is saturated with Festivals. Blues Festivals, Music Fests, River Fests, Octoberfests, Barbecue Festivals, and more that I just can't recall at the moment. I just don't think this town has gotten a handle on this latest invention and people are staying at home in droves. Maybe watching The Firm on video.

Selecting a seat closest to Gary's obsequious keyboard (but clearly out of spitball range), I was relieved to find that the day's searing heatwave had surrendered to a pleasant tropical breeze provided courtesy of the river. I felt embarrassment for my hometown as I peered around at the meager 300 or so spectators huddling in a clump for protection from the surrounding sea of ghostly empty seats threatening to wash us all down into the orchestra pit which loomed like chasmal storm drain in front of the stage.

Minutes later the Rhythm Kings strolled on to the stage and as soon as the music started flowing the crowd came alive with enthusiasm. We tried to make a big noise, perhaps thinking we might fool the band into hallucinating a sellout crowd. But the cordial onstage vibes quickly began to sour as loud and persistent squeals of feedback had irate musicians turning desperately to technicians and pointing to the stage monitors like they were hungry crocodiles running amuck. Fortunately the sound man regained control by the second number, Jitterbug Boogie which shucked and jived and kept the audience pumped up. Oh yes, these boys are consummate professionals who put on a show as if it were a packed house. At least until several tunes into their fifty-minute set, when Georgie Fame got pissed off and pleaded through his open mike for a stage tech to come out and unplug a "piece of shit" monitor that was driving him nuts.

I had a sense that this was not a particularly pleasant tour-wrapping moment for the Rhythm Kings. But they still played their hearts out. The band was laid back and then vibrant as the music dictated, but always tight except in Mystery Train where they threw in an impromptu bit of That's All Right Momma, which was too loose on the turnarounds. I don't think the band could hear each other very well onstage. But the sound out front was a superb blend of all the instruments and vocals, with even Terry Taylor's acoustic guitar clearly audible in the mix

Each member took their turns in the spotlight and showed us all that they were simply the most awesome ensemble of virtuoso performers to ever grace that stage. And I have to credit that little audience with being as enthusiastic and appreciative as any. Like true gentlemen the band even treated us to an encore ("for those of you who stayed"). Wyman walked out to the microphone and said that he was reminded of early tours with The Rolling Stones when they were booked into stadiums where only a few hundred fans would show up. "But when we returned again they were packed," he said, perhaps hinting that this was the Rhythm Kings' first American tour but not their last. He then introduced each member back on to the stage. When Gary walked out Mead noodled a few opening notes of AWSoP and that was all we were to get for the night.

There was also a sense that this was roots music being performed in homage to a town where Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Carl Perkins, and Delta Bluesmen helped bring Rock and Roll into the world. And I felt like this was one band that appreciates Memphis as a part of the musical heritage that was exploding in England just as these guys were picking up musical instruments and were exchanging imported recordings to cop their first licks.

Okay, okay. What about Gary Brooker? Well, you know he was great. You KNOW that. I watched and listened to him, realizing all the while that he belongs to that music as much as he belongs to Procol Harum's music. I can't help praying that he keeps one foot in both genres forever.

As should we all. Party on, people!

Thanks, Richard!

Order the single Love Letters from Amazon UK

Order this CD from Amazon UK

Rhythm Kings: 1998 tour, 1999 tour, 2000 tour, 2001 European tour; 2001 US tour

More Rhythm Kings information here

Wyman / Brooker interview excerpts here.

Bill Wyman talks to Record Collector about Gary Brooker

Rhythm Kings on record

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