South Memphis String Band comes home

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South Memphis String Band
Otherlands Coffee Bar
Memphis, Tennessee
May 9, 2009

One of the finest groups to come out of Memphis in years just wrapped up their first tour, and did so on their home turf, the Bluff City. 

Jimbo Mathus, Luther Dickinson, and Alvin Youngblood Hart may not exactly be worldwide, household names, but across the Mid-South, their project The South Memphis String Band constitutes a "supergroup," so their show at the tiny venue, Otherlands Coffee Bar, was a hard ticket to come by.


Due to a problem with Luther’s stomp box during the sound check, the opening of doors was delayed 30-45 minutes. After it was determined that he would have to go without, the flood gates opened and 200 plus patrons flowed in. Once inside, the packed crowd began pulling chairs out of an adjacent room to form an impromptu seated floor setup. Just when things calmed down and most of the group was seated, the manager announced that everyone would need to put all the chairs back where they came from before the show could start. At that point, everyone dragged the chairs back out, the throng pressed forward against the monitors, and the performers disappeared.

jimd1.jpgDickinson family patriarch Jim opened the show, introduced by a friend who stated that, “If you want to talk there is a CK’s right over there on Poplar Avenue where you can go and have your conversation.” Then he went on to say something about “artist” and “respect” that trailed off into the ensuing drone of disgruntled rumblings. Frankly, the threat of having someone follow you home and kill your dog for talking during the music may have been the most memorable portion of the show. Although the evening’s event did start off as somewhat of a fruit basket turnover….it got better.

Beginning the musical portion of the night, Jim sat down with an acoustic guitar, obscured by the front few rows of fans, and did his thing. Uncharacteristically, Jim did a straight set with little story telling. A sauntering version of "Cocaine," "Fraulein," "Codeine" and "Lullaby" were among the list of songs performed.

Prior to finishing his set, Jim stated, “the chatter from a Memphis crowd could drown out a Marshall stack!” To which someone shouted from the crowd, “we can’t see shit, what do you expect!” Being a veteran of the road, Jim chuckled and said that everyone better do what his aforementioned friend said. “You don’t want him to follow you home and kill your dog.” A Memphis musician and studio manager (who shall remain nameless) in the crowd stated, “It is normally understood that if the artists are seated the crowd should be as well.”

With most of the crowd completely disconnected from the performer visually, it was easily understood why the crowd was noisy. Without further incident, Jim closed his set with one final tune, and relinquished the floor to Luther, Jimbo, and Alvin.

smsb2.jpgJimbo greeted the crowd with a rowdy “Good eve-n’in chillin,” saying that The South Memphis String Band was "gonna sing you songs about outlaws, Dixie darlins, raggedy trains, and old hens." With Luther on mandolin, Jimbo on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Alvin on a lap steel guitar, they broke into a sweet song about robbing the Glendale train called "Jesse James."

Someone shouted, “Stand up Alvin,” oblivious to the fact that he was playing lap steel. Jimbo shouted back, “let your ears do the lookin.”

Next up was "Dixie Darling." Luther stepped up to the mic and said how happy he was to be home, so happy in fact that ”We had to stop by Casey Jones Dinner on the way in to get some turnip greens….illiterate food.”

Jimbo introduced the next song as his political statement. He called it…stop worrying about the whole world and worry about your own back yard. After that, Luther took the mic and said the group would be swapping around instruments and vocals throughout the evening. He said,” The South Memphis String Band is about guitar pickin’, guitar tunin’, and shit talkin’, so get right!”

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Mid-set Jimbo spun around in his chair and commented on the expanding group of patrons who decided the view was better from the street. He said, as he waved to them through the glass, “except for these guys up front…ya’ll have the best view!”

smsb3.jpgThe high point of the evening was the beautiful North Mississippi Allstars tune, "Ship," played in a manner that showcased each member’s strengths as a musician. Luther brought the waves. Jimbo brought the wind, and as always, Alvin brought the thunder.

Unfortunately, the tiny venue spoiled the music.  With the sold-out crowd packed in like sardines in a rusty can, only those up front and standing outside could see the performers.  Sure, you go to a concert to listen, not watch, but when you feel disconnected with what’s going on because you can only see the back of the head of the person in front of you, it can ruin the experience. And, for a hometown show, a concert that everyone KNEW would sell out, a coffee house is an odd choice of venue.

Regardless, every song of The South Memphis String Band’s set was met with rousing applause and appreciative cheers. Each of these guys is a strong entertainer in his own right. When they get together it is nothing short of entertaining.

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