The City Champs
One part Booker T. & the MGs, one part Jimmy Smith, and one part Henry Mancini, Memphis three-piece the City Champs are arguably the top instrumental group in Memphis, a lean, mean soul-jazz machine that brings its own contemporary spin to a classic sound. Organist Al Gamble, guitarist Joe Restivo, and drummer George Sluppick, all respected players with long resumes as sidemen, first hooked up in the Grip, a group rooted in boogaloo, a ’60s fusion of soul and Latin music. But as the two-year-old City Champs, the trio casts a wider net encompassing a wide range of retro musical styles, instrumental and not. Last year the band released its debut, The Safecracker, an effort that got them national attention and resulted in a tour with the North Mississippi Allstars.
The recently released follow-up The Set-Up, finds the Champs augmenting their ranks with a number of guests, including percussionist Felix Hernandez and, from the city’s other retro soul outfit the Bo-Keys, the horn section of Jim Spake, Marc Franklin, and Kirk Smothers and co-producer Scott Bomar on bass. Preeminent among the new players may be percussionist and longtime Memphian Jack Ashford, a member of the legendary Motown house band the Funk Brothers who lends his distinctive tambourine to tracks like the gospel-y, slow-burning “Local Jones.” (Think tambourine is a joke? Go back and check out some of those ’60s and ’70s Motown cuts, where Ashford drives the whole rhythm section with a shake of his wrist.)
The crowded room gives The Set-Up a fuller and looser sound, more like a party than the tightly controlled Safecracker. And it also lets the three composers flesh out their most accomplished collection of songs yet. Though the headline-grabbing centerpiece of the set is surely the band’s boogaloo remake of “Theme From Mad Men (A Beautiful Mine)” from the AMC series “Mad Men,” it pales next to originals like the George Harrison-meets-Burt Bacharach ballad “Crump St.” and the surf-y, danger-filled glory of “Ricky’s Rant.”
The City Champs perform Friday at 10 p.m. at the 1884 Lounge inside Minglewood Hall, 1555 Madison Ave. Cover is $8.
Hill Country Revue
Razor & Tie
North Mississippi Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson put together the Hill Country Revue in 2007 to keep his hands busy when his brother, Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson, joined the Black Crowes, forcing the normally hard-touring and recording band to significantly scale back its activities. Though the band’s name kept it closely linked to the hill county blues that is the Allstars’ forte, the Revue quickly developed its own sound marked by the finely crafted songwriting of original member Gary Burnside, Cody’s stepping out from behind the kit to play guitar alongside Kirk Smithhart, and the magnetic contributions of vocalist/harmonica player Dan Coburn. As heard on Make A Move, the band’s 2009 debut, the result was a more accessible alternative to the Allstars deep blues with shorter, hookier songs and a more pronounced rock sensibility.
That last element gets cranked up even more on the Revue’s second release, the just released Zebra Ranch. Named for the Coldwater, Miss., recording studio built by the Dickinsons’ father Jim and now used by his sons, Zebra Ranch is the latest tribute to the musician/producer/songwriter who died last year. In addition to the nod in the title, the disc ends with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” the original track on which the elder Dickinson famously played.
Much of Zebra Ranch finds that the Revue stays true to its blues roots on tracks like “I Don’t Know About You” and, obviously, “Hill Country.” But interspersed are hard-charging rockers like “Chalk It Up,” which give the record a little bit of a schizophrenic feel.
Some of the change in sound can be attributed to personnel changes. The new rhythm section of bassist Doc Samba, stepping in for original member and Allstar Chris Chew, and drummer Dave Mason play up the Southern rock aspect of songs like “Raise Your Right Hand.” In addition, Burnside, who long ago stepped back from being a part of the band’s live show, contributed fewer songs this time out (just three), leaving the rest of the band, and Dickinson in particular, to take up the slack. The results can be spotty.
“Where You Belong,” with its Joe Satriani fusion guitar leads, is probably the low point. But should the Revue survive the impending reunion of the Allstars in the wake of the Black Crowes announced upcoming hiatus, at least they have begun to forge their own identity to beg off comparison between the two groups.