It's not often that you get artists of the calibre of Memphis soul and blues legends Otis Clay, William Bell and Bobby Rush, along with the Hi Rhythm Section, in the UK these days. Sadly, that's a situation that is hardly likely to change any time soon, as the venue for the Take Me To The River show, the Brooklyn Bowl at the O2 in London, was barely a quarter full.
Take Me To The River is a new movie that puts old school Memphis soul artists alongside the new generation of rap artists coming out of the city. Produced by Lawrence Boo Mitchell, grandson of the great Willie Mitchell, as was last night's show, it's a brave attempt to link the soulful music of the older artists with the very different tastes of today's audience. Unfortunately as a concept, judging at any rate by the Take Me To the River show, it doesn't really work. The show didn't attract a younger audience and the inclusion of the rap artists only served to detract from the brilliance of Otis Clay, William Bell and, to a lesser extent, Bobby Rush.
The show began with a couple of numbers by the Bronfield Trio, a group of very young musicians from the Stax Academy in Memphis, who were followed on stage by the full Hi Rhthym Section, including Charles and Leroy Hodges, Ben Cauley and Marc Franklin on trumpet, Lannie McMillan on sax, Steve Potts on drums. Michael Toles on guitar and Archie Turner on keyboards. Veterans of Willie Mitchell's marvellous Hi sound, they produced some sublime sounds on 20-75, Soul Serenade and the Bar-Kays' Soul Finger, with excellent support from three female backing singers. One of them, Stephanie Bolton, then came to the mic and showed that she has a voice to rival any of the female Memphis greats with her version of I Can't Stand The Rain. She was then joined on stage by a slim young female hip hop singer called, I think, Iffy, who joined in on Al Green's Tired Of Being Alone, for no reason that I could fathom.
Rap came fully to the fore with the next act, an established hip hop singer called Al Kapone, who rapped his way through three numbers, including Whoop That Trick, for which he is apparently well known in Memphis. Then, on this somewhat chaotic show, we had British blues singer/guitarist Ian Siegal, a man who has played with a number of Memphis musicians. He was fine on Sitting On Top Of The World, but wasn't really what most of the audience were there for.
At last we got to the meat of the evening with the appearance of the ever brilliant Otis Clay (above), who gave us an impassioned version of Precious Precious, with brilliant support from Charles Hodges on keyboards. Otis was clearly annoyed with the booming sound of bowling balls on the adjoining lanes and I wouldn't imagine that his mood improved when he was joined on stage by Uriah Mitchell, great grand son of Willie, who did his best to spoil Tryin' To Live My Life Without You with his rap interruption. It was great to see Otis again, but if only he had been given a full length set, with no rapping!
Next on stage was the ever youthful Bobby Rush, now 80 but still full of beans. He was joined on stage by Al Kapone (pictured together above) for Push It, Pull It and on this occasion the pairing actually worked well, Bobby's bawdy, bluesy approach has always included quite a bit of saucy chat, and rap did not seem out of place as these two melded well together. Bobby went into blues mode next, with Don't You Wish You Had A Man Like Me, and then did a solo acoustic blues song, backed just by his harmonica, on Garbage Man. A master class if, again, much too brief.
The third soul legend, and one of the very first Stax artists, was William Bell, again looking ridiculously young and fit for a man of 75, wearing a smart grey shiny suit and trilby hat. He spent a lengthy and unnecessary ten minutes introducing the band, to the tune of Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood, before moving to one of his own songs, I Forgot To Be Your Lover, which showed that his voice is very much intact. Once again, though, it was interrupted by the appearance on stage of Al Kapone, with his rap stuff.
Finally the three main stars came together on stage to sing Al Green's great Take Me To The River, a song perfectly suited to Otis Clay's gravelly, soulful voice. They were joined on keyboards by Jerry Harrison, formerly of Talking Heads, who co-produced the movie. It was the perfect way to end an evening which was brilliant in parts, but hard to take in others. Call me old fashioned, but I fail to see how great soul numbers can be improved by the presence of rap music mid way through. But what do I know?
Here's Ben Cauley, survivor of the plane crash that killed Otis Redding and other members of the Bar-Kays.
Archie Turner and Leroy Hodges.
Sax man Lannie McMillan.
Guitarist Michael Toles.
Producer Boo Mitchell.
Impressive soul singer Stephanie Bolton.
Young rapper Iffy (?)
The next generation - the Bronfield Trio from the Stax Academy.
Words and photos by Nick Cobban.