(Jason Lent has forsaken the island paradise of Hawaii to follow us around for a few months. I have happily placed the tour diary in his capable hands. It should bring a new perspective to our ramblings.)
Chicago to Memphis is a haul so I left a day early. A night in Memphis sounded like potential fun. Then I glanced at a map and decided to keep the car running and make for the crossroads in Clarksdale, MS. The trip odometer hit 666 miles about ten minutes short of town on an empty stretch of highway with delta fields stretching to the horizon. Falling quickly towards that horizon was the blood-drenched host described in the writing of Flannery O’Connor. I had never seen a sun like this one but stopping for a picture would mean being out at the crossroads alone after dark. I pushed forward.
Clarksdale is a hard town with more vacant buildings and crumbling brick than most. The breeze only amplified the effects of the scorching heat that clung to everything and everyone. I sauntered into the first juke joint I found and Kent Burnside, grandson to the legendary R.L. Burnside, was holding court. It was the delta blues, country to its core with a fiddle player keeping up with the guitars. The beer was Bud Light and it tasted grand.
The modest Riverside Hotel served as a black hospital until after World War II. Bessie Smith was rushed here after a car accident on a way to a show in the delta and died in one of the rooms. After the war, it became a hotel that was popular with blues acts working the delta. Sonny Boy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner (he recorded the “Rocket 88” demo here), and many others have slept in the rooms. These days, “Rat” looks after the hotel his mother started and serves as much as curator as manager. The furniture, and even what people have left in the dressers, tells the story of the blues better than any documentary. I sat on Rat’s couch and listened to his stories. I slept in John Lee Hooker’s old room. In the morning, I walked over to the defunct train station and visited the Delta Blues Museum.
Coming out of Clarksdale and riding Highway 61 into Memphis, I made the requisite visit to Beale Street. The temperature was lapping at triple digits and the garbage in the alleys was cooking. The stench was overpowering but the only refuge was cheap gift shops and theme bars. Any music history that once existed here has long been replaced by a Disney style re-creation. Thirty minutes was too much.
Opening tonight’s free outdoor show was the children’s act The Boogers. Billed as the anti-Barney, they sang children friendly lyrics over Ramones songs. An interesting idea and they played it well. The sloping lawn remained full of families and the crowd probably eclipsed 4,000 by show time. The band kept the children engaged with “Hunted” as the lively little tykes down front tossed balloons about. It was a casual night on the lawn and the band kept it straightforward. Once the temperature slipped below 90 degrees, it became an almost pleasant evening in Memphis.