On Saturday night, Memphis was stupid with music made through meaningful partnerships.
At 7 p.m., musicians from around the world gathered at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park to celebrate the music of Big Star’s guitar-playing singer Alex Chilton, who died earlier this year. I didn’t go, but have heard that through the light-to-terrible weather, the surviving band members and guest musicians played a meaningful show packed with heart and respect, revisiting the beautiful obscurity of this Memphis hero’s music.
I missed this epic Memphis moment to help prep and man the merchandise table at the Hi-Tone, selling the new 45 single from Memphis rock band the Bulletproof Vests. This spring, my company Electric Room partnered with the band to release their first album, Attack! Now, people are connecting with the Vests, and in a trend that seems increasingly common with Memphis musicians, this “local bar band” is reaching far-flung, international ears.
The creative force behind the BPV is furiously active, and music is spilling out of them at incredible rates. Before Attack! was even manufactured, they had scores of new songs on the hard-drive at their studio, all screaming to be made into records and mp3s. But Electric Room is a tiny company, neither my partner’s nor my main source of income and really just a self-perpetuating labor of love. We weren’t ready to make a new product so quickly after the first record, but the band lives at the studio and doesn’t sleep, surviving on Miller High Life and Payne’s pulled pork sandwiches.
In an inspiring show of support, Hi-Tone owners invested the initial capital to press the Vests’ new vinyl single Don’t Throw My Love Away. It’s a small run of discs, tiny really, but it wouldn’t have been possible without money from the hallowed music venue. The Hi-Tone has long been seen as the bar that incubates the very cutting edge of Memphis music, but this is a truly amazing act of faith and interest in local art and I hope to see more of this kind of stuff.
The Vests are putting the 45 out on their newly christened High/Low Recordings, and we’re helping them with distribution and marketing details. L. Nix Mastering and Ardent Studios helped create the vinyl master, which is a very specific process that Larry Nix has mastered during his 145 year career in the Memphis music biz. Local media like Memphis Magazine and the Live From Memphis website helped the band get the momentum they needed to break the orbit of the Memphis bar scene. No doubt the band is great and has earned their success through hard work and authentic music, but many elements of our city’s eternally vibrant music industry have contributed to their rise.
The show at the Hi-Tone that hot wet Saturday was perfect. The Vests killed ten or so of their craftiest songs, right there in front of everybody. During their set the bar filled with the audience and musicians from the Big Star benefit across Poplar in the park. Members of Mouserocket and the sadly brief rebirth of Arthur Lee’s band Love were there, and a guy who was in the Reigning Sound. These key players of the local music network squeezed past yuppies and pirates sweating in unison, the audience ranging from 18 to 70. Mike Mills from R.E.M. and Big Star’s Jon Auer joined us near the end of the Vests set and I was told that the actress Joey Lauren Adams was lurking in a booth, but this is unconfirmed.
John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives took the stage after the BPV, and played until 3, while the garbage bins filled with Pabst tallboys. JPK, the band’s frontman and guiding light, kept asking if the audience was tired and ready for bed, but we weren’t. The huge crowd lingered until we were thrown out into the rain. Mills, the R.E.M. bass-player, left with a copy of everything from the merch table, visibly swept up in the thriving, pulsating galaxy of our music.
As I left, a wild eyed kid from New York told me he was having the time of his life. “There’s never been a show like this in Brooklyn,” he said. “People just stand there staring and hating everything. But this…” He shook his arty hair and grinned in amazement.
I know, man. We’re pretty awesome.