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June 11, 2009
Memphis strikes again.Â And not in a good way.Â Not in a “the birthplace of rock and roll comes out to support two up-and-coming bands” kind of way.
More in a “a market known for not supporting touring bands” kind of way.
Yep, Outformation and Cornmeal came through Memphis on June 11, and played to a room of 15.Â Maybe it was 18.Â It’s really hard to count that high when the room is so packed.Â And, it’s a shame, because the show at Newby’s was a great show – a pair of great bands, not really of the same genre, booked together so that over the course of the show a little bit of everything graced the ears of the few in attendance.
Memphis has a reputation for being a hit-or-miss tour stop.Â Sometimes the room is packed with folk eager to get their dance on, but more often than not, bands show up and get luke-warm reception from a handful of fans. It’s quite bizarre, actually.Â Without Memphis, there’d be no rock and roll (Elvis).Â Or blues (BB King).Â Basically, there’d be no music.Â Sell-out shows are few and far between in nearly all cities, but in Memphis, it’s like spotting Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster.
It didn’t help the cause at Newby’s, venue for the Out411/Cornmeal show, that buzz-band MGMT (which is fronted by a local Memphis musician) was playing to one of those rare sold-out houses that same night at Minglewood Hall.Â Bonnaroo kicked off that night as well, which may have been the dagger in the heart.
Regardless, Cornmeal came out of the gate firing, and immediately impressed all in attendance (writer’s note: this is fact, not generalization; there were literally three people there at that point…me and two friends). Frankly, it’s always bizarre to find a bluegrass band from a place like Chicago, but this act really is bluegrass by instrumentation only – to label what they do as “bluegrass” is an injustice to this band.
Sure, they’ve got a kick-ass fiddle player in Allie Krall, who sawed away at her instrument like she was trying to spark a fire.Â Kris Nowak’s a great acoustic picker, as is Dave Burlingame on banjo.Â Their five-part harmonies are fabulous.Â But, then they break the mold with the addition of a drummer.
Then there’s the music, which is anything but traditional gather-around-one-microphone bluegrass; their sound is just as much Workingman’s Dead.Â Knee-slapping, foot-stomping numbers like “It Ain’t Me” and “This Old Town” definitely showed that Cornmeal’s well-versed in more conventional bluegrass, although Nowak’s guitar solo on the former was run through an effects pedal that gave it a more electric tone.Â The breakneck pace of “Doin’ My Time” also showed that this band can get down and dirty, old-school, as well.
However, during the 20-plus-minute “Black Smoke Rising” Krall and Nowak weaved in and out of each other’s playing in a trippy manner much more at home in San Francisco than Appalachia. Burlingame’s banjo punctuated this stand-out tune, serving as a constant reminder of the more traditional artform, but Nowak’s sizzling guitar solo took the tune to places not often ventured by an acoustic picker.
By the time Outformation took over, the crowd had quintupled, to a solid 15 to 20 people.Â It was sad, to say the least, because back when guitarist Sam Holt was constantly compared to Mike Houser, the Panic rats filled the room.Â Now that the band’s got its own identity, though, it’s like they were the first to jump ship.
Outformation has gone through a personnel change since the last time they played Memphis. Gone is key man CR Gruver, and Benji Shanks has come aboard as a lead guitarist, a move that has further defined the band. They’re now a full-on Southern rock band, and that’s a good place to be because the scene just doesn’t have many of them right now.Â They fill the void left by Tishamingo, who hasn’t been touring very much (ironically Holt’s other project is playing with Tishamingo’s Cameron Williams.)
This is mainly due to Shanks, who’s a great guitarist.Â Where Gruver brought a more (for lack of better terms) Panic-like feel to the band with his barrel-house style playing, Shanks serves as the perfect guitar foil for Holt to play off of.Â The two have developed a great rapport, and the sound seems more streamlined despite not actually having less band members on stage.
The band got down to business immediately, with a new instrumental tune that worked itself into “Game On.”Â Outformation nimbly delved into “Edgewater,” never breaking stride, and here the harmonizing dual guitars really shone, playing off of each other as if they had been in a band together for years. Bassist Grady Upchurch drove the groove to near dizzying heights and the jam culminated in a blistering Holt solo, then peaked and settled back down.
Shanks’ stamp was all over the show, especially on older tunes like “Carnac.” He’s a great player, and his tasteful guitar solos were a bright spot of the show.Â Aside from his own great playing, he clearly pushes Holt; the two often found themselves going toe-to-toe over the course of the show, standing in front of each other mid-stage as if to coax each note out of the other.
“Into My Arms,” and especially their cover of Bloodkin’s “Mercy Train To Bogart” showed off Shanks’ expertise on slide guitar.Â The songs brought out a more Southern-fried side of Outformation that just didn’t exist before.Â His greasy playing fell somewhere between the raunchy, guttural notes churned out by Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes’ cleaner toneÂ – in short, the best of both worlds. “Mercy Train To Bogart” was one of the better songs of the night, mostly because of Shanks’ soaring, searing slide solo.
There is one advantage of having a small crowd – you can basically do what you want on stage.Â You can take more risks musically, you can play whatever you want, and apparently you can take a bathroom break at pretty much any point in the show.
“‘Bout My Money” started off as usual, with its funky, wah wah sound.Â The band tore through it per usual, with Upchurch laying it down and the dual percussion team of Jeff Lane and Lee Schwartz pounding it out.Â The band got through the meat of the song, and the string players all left the stage for the drum solo section.Â At this point, Upchurch jogged off stage, through the (small) crowd, and headed for the bathroom – not the one backstage, but the one the audience uses.Â He then emerged, went back on stage, and Shanks followed suit, came back out and headed back for the stage, at which point the drum solo ended and “‘Bout My Money” resumed.Â Ah, the benefit of playing to nobody.
The band really gained steam by mid-set and as they played into the wee hours of the morning, they gave the diminutive crowd what they came for – a good rock show. Outformation was really locked in, and it showed most of all on “Toy’s Song,” which featured the entire band in synch, ebbing and flowing.Â The entire rhythm section was in the pocket, and Holt drove the jam into “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky” before the group found their way back to “Toy’s Song.”
After a solid “Burned Faceless” meandered into a blistering “90,” the show was over; it didn’t take too long for the remaininig patrons to file out and head home.
Despite its colorful, storied history as a music town, Memphis is a hard, hard market to break into, and it has to be especially discouraging when bands to play to tiny audiences. The macro issue is that everyone gets killed when no one shows up, because more often than not the band is getting paid whether they play to two people or 200.Â The venue loses a ton of money when they fork over a guarantee and don’t make it back at the bar.Â The fan loses out when the band sees that no one shows up, thus is in no hurry to return (which happens in Memphis a lot).Â It’s a safe bet that Cornmeal won’t be back any time soon, since they played to just a handful of folk – a shame because they’re a phenomenal band.
Despite the poor turnout, both Outformation and Cornmeal gave it their all and put on a great show. Those that did show up appreciate it, because it was a great night of music.
Cornmeal: Long Hard Road, It Ain’t Me, This Old Town, Doin’ My Time, Black Smoke Rising, Stand Up
Outformation: Instrumental > Game On > Edgewater, On Yer Mind, American Spirit, Eleventeen, Carnac, Tina Funk > Into My Arms, Mercy Train To Bogart, Dark Severinsen, ‘Bout My Money > Drums > ‘Bout My Money, Toy’s Song > Blue Ridge Mountain Sky > Toy’s Song, Burned Faceless > 90