Stax: The Next Generation
Toward the end of Thursday night's performance of "Go Down Moses: A Tribute To Isaac Hayes," the first concert in the Stax Music Academy's SNAP! After School program's 2008-2009 season, New Direction Christian Church music minister Dave Hollister and Terreigh Barnett, backed by the academy's teenage rhythm section, wrapped their silky tenors around "Never Can Say Goodbye." Hayes had made the old Jackson 5 hit his own on his 1971 Stax Records double-album Black Moses.
It was a wrenching reminder of the place Hayes, who died in August at the age of 65, held in the hearts of the Memphians, music lovers, and especially these children whom he had helped mentor in his final years. Despite the song's sentiment, the students did indeed find a way to say goodbye to the man they considered not just an inspiration but also a friend.
About 600 people turned out for the concert at the Germantown Performing Arts Center, a star-studded affair whose real stars, nevertheless, were the 85 participating students of the academy.
All four of the SNAP! ensembles took part in the show, starting with the vocal group the StreetCorner Harmonies who, dressed in bedraggled costumes that represented the long struggle of African Americans, began the night with the spiritual "Go Down, Moses."
From there the show settled into a satisfying rundown of familiar Hayes' hits. With vocals by StreetCorner's Maurice Jordan, the full Soulsville Swing Band performed "Walk On By" a number from one of Hayes' favorite songwriting teams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, famously covered on his Hot Buttered Soul album.
The real fire of the night, however, came next from the Stax Academy Rhythm Section. Bassist Reginald Mitchell and drummer Kenneth Cunningham were particularly in the pocket during this stretch, with Cunningham showing a syncopated virtuosity that would put much older drummers to shame. Also shining, however, was guitarist Nrsimha Bromfield, who thrilled the crowd by playing part of his "Do Your Thing" solo with his teeth.
The pared down rhythm section also backed up most of the adult guest stars, including academy artist-in-residence Kirk Whalum, who kicked things up a notch with a sax heavy take on the Hayes-penned "Hold On, I'm Coming," with Hollister and Barnett playing the parts of Sam & Dave. Guitarist Garry Goin also got in on the act, wading into the audience for a playful version of the Shaft cut "Café Regio."
The finale of the program was a full-blown treatment of Hayes' signature song, "Theme from Shaft," featuring all four academy ensembles plus the Stax charter school's Soulsville Symphony Orchestra with members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, guest star Ben Cauley of Bar-Kays fame, and conducted by Hayes' longtime music director Lester Snell.
But the emotional climax of the night came just before, when academy officials presented Hayes' family and his longtime Stax songwriting partner David Porter with its first, posthumous Soul Circle Award. Introducing the presentation, Whalum perhaps summed up the night's theme of a continuing legacy best.
"Stax is not a past thing," he said "Stax is a now thing, and, as you can see, Stax is a future thing."