"There must be something happening here," to quote Buffalo Springfield. And "what it is ain't exactly clear." But what I think it is, is damn good music, if here is right here in Huntsville, Alabama, the same weekend U.S. News & World Report named the city the best place to live in America. Maybe so, because that very same weekend, that very same city celebrated the opening of a brand new 8,000-seat music venue called the Orion Amphitheater, featuring a world-class lineup of acts with North Alabama roots, including on Friday: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Emmylou Harris, Waxahatchee, and John Paul White; and on Saturday: Mavis Staples, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Drive-by Truckers, and Brittany Howard; and on Sunday: Huntsville musicians Kelvin Wooten and DeQn Sue, Element XI, Translee, The N.E.I.G.H.B.O.R.S., and the award-winning Oakwood University (where Little Richard once attended) Aeolians. Must be something in that muddy Tennessee River water!
I went on Saturday. There is no other word for the place but COOL! And aside from a few rough spots in the landscaping, everything was completed--on time. Not always a given here in the South. Signs were up. Food and booze stands were dispensing. Staff were super friendly. The sound, the lights, everything was topflight, as it should be in a place dubbed "The Rocket City."
Mavis Staples at 82 was still in fine fettle and set the gospel-inspired tone for the evening, with several memorable Staples Singer hits, including "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There," where famous bassist David Hood (now 78 and the last living member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka The Swampers) reprised his backup performance on the original recording 50 years ago in 1972. A special moment in Alabama music history!
Next came St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a young, neo-soul group from Birmingham who is keeping the old R&B sounds of the 1960s and 70s alive for current generations.
Then came the Drive-by Truckers, a true southern tradition if there ever was one. Touring contantly since 1996, the band plays kickass, dive-bar, southern rock 'n' roll at its loudest, grittiest best. Jason Isbell was once a singer/songwriter with the band that is now led by David Hood's son Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, originally from the Shoals and once roommates at the University of North Alabama in Florence.
Toping off the evening was the new queen of southern funk, Brittany Howard, formerly of the Alabama Shakes and Athens, Alabama. There is simply no one in modern pop music who is comparable. She sings blues, jazz, R&B, and even fellow Alabamian Sun Ra inflected anarchy--all with stunning proficiency and diva-est vocal power and beauty. And when she grabs that guitar and slings its strap over the shoulder of her colorful, floor-length robe you could swear Sister Rosetta Tharpe herself had somehow miraculously descended from heaven to dance joyfully across that bright, new, star-studded stage right here in oh-so-livable Huntsville, Alabama.
Since I didn't have a mother handy last Sunday on Mothers Day, I decided to take in a movie, appropriately enough entitled "Petite Maman."
It turned out to be a haunting, charming contemplation on motherhood, family, lose, and love, all in just a scant 72 minutes.
Ordinarily, I don't like films with kids (too cloying), but damn if the two eight year-old actresses (Josephine Sanz as Nellie and Gabrielle Sanz as Marion, and sisters in real life) don't act like little cutie pies, but instead real children who are open, intriguing, and full of imagination.
And, ordinarily, I don't like films with subtitles, but even my feeble grasp of the French language enabled me to follow most of the sparse dialogue without having to worry too much about keeping up with streaming titles.
And, ordinarily, I don't care for movies with intentional ambiguity and uncertain endings, but somehow writer-director Celine Sciamma easily drew me in, even when most of the time I didn't have a clue to what was imaginative and what was real, much as I vaguely remember so much of what my own childhood was like.
Go see it!
Every spring for the past 40 years Arts Huntsville has thrown a big art and music festival in Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. Hobbled by the Pandemic for the past couple of years, this year's party was truly a coming-out moment for the 3-day event, with record-breaking crowds strolling among the 100+ vendor booths and listening to more than 40 bands and musical acts, representing every medium and genre imaginable.
I took in two hot bands last Saturday evening on the back porch stage of the Huntsville Museum of Art.
Element XI is a local band formed in 2012 by several graduates of the Johnson High School music program, whose director just happened to be standing, but mostly dancing, proudly behind me with one of her other students. To report that the band's unique blend of funk, hip-hop, and soul blew away their audience of family, friends, and many, many others would be an understatement.
Next, was a 10-piece group called The Suffers from Houston, Texas, who played tight, brassy, drum-driven R&B funk that they call Gulf Coast Soul. It's fun, fast, and seductive, especially lead singer Kam Franklin who has a bright future with or without her high-powered band.
And to top off the entire weekend, even though there were a few sprinkles now and then, it never really rained. Which, of course, may be the first time in recent memory when there wasn't the traditional Panoply washout.
The Mark C. Smith Concert Hall, in downtown Huntsville, Alabama, is a big, resonant, barn of a venue where even the sounds of large, multi-instrumental, electrified rock bands like those of B.B. King, Trucks and Tedeschi, and the Temptations can bounce around like over-excited toddlers.
The 2,100-seat place was built more for larger symphony, ballet, and musical theater orchestras. So it was a delight to hear the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra and the 100+ voice Huntsville Community Chorus perform Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, also know as the "Resurrection," last Saturday night in the grand, cavernous hall. You have to give it up for Gregory Vajda, the Symphony's Music Director and Conductor, and for Ian Loeppky, the Chorus' Artistic Director, for packing the stage with as many talented performers as it could possibly hold, including the huge choir behind a full orchestra of seven timpanis, five double basses, two harps, a plethora of horns, strings, and other assorted instruments that, in the piece's most stirring moments, sounded as if they could indeed raise the dead.
"One is first beaten down and then raised on angels' wings to the greatest heights," Mahler wrote following rehearsals for the symphony's premiere in 1895. "The whole thing sounds as if it came to us from some other world. I doubt anyone will be able to resist it." Indeed!
Drove down to Birmingham last night to have dinner with my daughter and her new husband at a Latin joint called Luna. Pretty tasty. Then around the corner at a club called Saturn to hear Samantha Fish out on tour to promote her new album "Faster." Which it is!
Stood with a crowd of mostly middle-age+ white people who may have been expecting the more bluesy Samantha of former days. What they got instead was pretty much straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, played by a pared down band of bass, drums, keyboard, and, of course, Fish's flashy guitar, sans horns. Which, surprisingly, they didn't seem to mind. I think because Fish is such an exuberant performer who manages to throw herself into whatever she plays with increasing power, precision, and professionalism. And, of course, since rock is so rooted in the blues, you hear it in whatever she sings. Regardless, the audience ate it up. One gray-haired guy behind me yelling at her, "I think I love you!" despite his female partner's cold look of displeasure.
There were only a couple of glitches in the show, to be expected as Fish quickly transitioned from one tune to the next while changing guitars, keys, and tempos, all in a matter of seconds.
One note of caution, if you go, show up about an hour late to avoid the opening act, if it's a guitarist named Django, who played last night with a booming sound machine, sort of like guitar karaoke, and who apparently never heard of the dictum "less is more." As my wife was apt to quip about these showoff guitar slingers: "I do believe that boy is a bit too much in love with that there guitar."
Apologies for abandoning the Blog for the past few months. I've been busy putting the finishing touches on my sixth book. Entitled Then Come Kiss Me, it's a coming-of-age novel set in Kansas during the "Swinging Sixties," and features firsthand concert accounts of some of the period's best performers, including: Count Basie, Marilyn Maye, the Drifters, B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, James Brown, and Nancy Wilson, not to mention some regional favorites who some of you Kansas old-timers might remember: Spider and the Crabs, Little Jimmy Griffin, and Roger Calkins and the Fabulous Silver Tones.
I'll keep you posted on the books plodding progress toward publication. Meanwhile, here's a blast from the past, the Fabulous Flippers, a tantalizing teaser of what's to come:
It was hotter than hell in Atlanta on July 1, 1991, when my good friend Jewel Harris and I heard Charles Brown perform at a long-forgotten jazz club in Underground Atlanta. The smooth-voiced former high school chemistry teacher was still in fine form that night, nearing 70, as charismatic as any of those other west coast blues crooners that were popular in the post-World War II years: T-Bone-Walker, Lowell Fulson, Amos Milburn, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
But the songs that the audience remembered the most were those two great Christmas songs that Brown made famous: "Merry Christmas Baby" (1947) and "Please Come Home for Christmas" (1960), both of which Brown reprised on that steamy night in Georgia, to the delight of Jewel and me and the rest of the adoring audience. Merry Christmas Baby!
Charles Farley is an author who lives and writes in Huntsville, Alabama.