The scene in Ardent Studios in Midtown last week resembled some strange, never-happened recording session from the distant past: Devon Allman, strongly resembling his father — lead singer and organist in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame band the Allman Brothers — was overseeing an overdubbing session with Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News fame.
“We met by the coffee machine,” says Allman of the happenstance that led to Lewis stepping into Ardent’s Studio C Wednesday to lay down a part on “Could Get Dangerous,” a funk-pop track from the upcoming sophomore release from Allman’s band Honeytribe. “He heard the tracks, and we kind of hit it off. We had this track that was just screaming for him, and he came in and blew harp on a song. Nailed it in like one take, too.”
The halls of Ardent Studios have been crowded since the New Year as Allman and Lewis and his band the News have taken over the building to work on two very different projects — one an affectionate look back at their roots by a band with nothing left prove; the other a startling attempt to reinterpret the blues for the 21st century by a young artist seeking to establish an identity apart from his famous surname.
“(Lewis) is doing something that really nods to the past, and we’re doing something that’s really trying to boldly go into the future,” says Allman of Space Age Blues the “science fiction blues record” he hopes to release in May.
The record, produced by Ardent regular Pete Matthews, takes the traditional blues-rock sound Honeytribe forged on their debut album, Torch, and dresses it up with the modern “ear candy” of bands like Wilco and Mars Volta. To help set the futuristic vibe, Allman decorated the studio as “the mothership” with 2,500 purple Christmas lights and life-size Star Wars stormtooper figures.
“The concept of Space Age Blues is to kind of make the blues cool for kids again, something that’s sort of a Trojan horse to get them into good music,” says Allman, 37. “If we can get kids to listen to Stevie Ray and B.B. King out of this, then mission accomplished.”
This is not the first time Allman has set foot in 44 year old Ardent. (The 44-year-old studio moved to its current location in 1971.) In 2006, Honeytribe cut its debut album there with Matthews. But before that, Allman got to the see the studio up close as a teenager when his father came to Memphis to record the Allman Brothers Band’s Shades Of Two Worlds in 1991.
“I actually lived here in Memphis for awhile,” recalls Allman, who played in the band Smash Alley during his extended stay. “I remember coming to the sessions everyday, watching Tom Dowd, and sitting out in the atrium with my guitar. I think I knew all of 10 chords and I was already writing songs. I can just remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to make a record in a place this cool.’ So to come full circle and record here is really neat.”
Down the hall, Lewis and the News are less obviously awe-struck by their first foray into the legendary Ardent Studios, where Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Stevie Ray Vaughan, and numerous others have recorded. The Grammy-winning nine-piece band has recorded eight studio albums over their three decades together. But for the band’s first new record in nine years, a Stax tribute album, the band felt compelled to be as close to the source as possible.
“I don’t think we needed to be down here,” says Lewis, 59. “But we’re trying to do it right, and I think if you’re down here you’re a little bit more careful.”
The band dug deep into the Stax catalog for songs from William, Bell, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, and Rufus Thomas as well as a handful by non-Stax artists Solomon Burke and Joe Tex, kindred souls on the Atlantic label, which distributed Stax’s records for a time. Mostly, the band has settled on more obscure gems like Bell’s “Never Like This Before” and Floyd’s “On A Saturday Night.”
“It’s a tough one,” says Lewis of the daunting task of approaching a body of work as familiar as that produced by the Memphis soul label in the ’60s and ’70s. “Certain tunes you just can’t touch, obviously. And you want to be faithful. And you want to turn people on to this music as well, so it’s good to do more slightly obscure things. But you want it to be accessible at the same time.”
To longtime fans of Huey Lewis and the News, a Stax tribute record should come as little surprise. In the band’s salad days, when it was turning out a string of mid-’80s radio hits including “The Heart of Rock & Roll,” “If This Is It,” and “Power of Love,” the News’ R&B infused rock stood out in a era dominated by synth pop and hair metal. But as the band has entered its third decade, it’s more comfortable wearing its influences on its sleeves.
“We’ve always loved soul music and R&B, so this project is a labor of love for us,” says Lewis, who ducked out of recording early Wednesday to pay his respects at the memorial service of Hi Records soul producer Willie Mitchell.
“Our parents were listening to psychedelic rock, and we rebelled by listening to R&B and soul. At age 12 or 13, we were listening to KDIA in Oakland. I now know that KDIA was the sister station of WDIA. So in some cases the first two stations that some Stax records got on — and Hi Records, too — were WDIA and KDIA. And some records never went past that. They’d float ’em out and test them at those stations and see what the response was. I got Rance Allen songs that nobody’s ever heard, but I thought they were big hits.”