Photos by Lou Montesano
Southern Avenue in the city of Memphis is many things. It’s a major east-west thoroughfare that runs past shopping malls, churches, parks, a college campus and a country club before merging, fittingly, onto East McLemore, where the legendary Stax recording studio once existed. Even though the original building at 926 East McLemore was torn down long ago, fans of rock and soul still cherish the site as the spiritual home of the label and hallowed ground in American music.
Southern Avenue is also a new band that takes its name – and inspiration – from this Memphis street and the sound associated with it. It’s only appropriate that this largely home-grown quintet signed with a resurgent Stax label less than a year ago and has now released a self-titled debut album that is focusing renewed attention on the Memphis music scene.
Perhaps as much as anything, Southern Avenue is a state of mind, one that musically reflects the short ride it takes listeners to go from classic to contemporary, gospel to secular, black to white, east to west, north to south and back again. It’s the journey of a lifetime, and this is a band whose music and whose very existence serves as the representation of hope in dark times.
Musically and visually, the band is driven by the powerhouse talents of sisters Tierinii and Takyra Jackson, Memphis natives who grew up singing in church and who are certain to make heads turn whenever and wherever they perform. Proof positive of that statement was recently witnessed live at New York’s Mercury Lounge. Tierinii was out front, singing and moving like the second coming of Tina Turner. On this particular night her hair was dyed rock and roll red, flying wildly as she moved on four-inch spike heels. Sister Tikyra set the beat from behind her drums, adding strong backing vocals and a smile that lit up the stage.
Southern Avenue’s guitar man is Ori Naftaly, a slick picker who arrived in Memphis from Israel four years ago. Naftaly fronted his own band for a time before connecting with the Jackson sisters and discovering the joys of close collaboration. His playing channels the most sophisticated Southern blues roots with improvisations hitting some of the sweet, clean, jazz influences pioneered by the likes of Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. Jeremy Powell adds smooth soulfulness on the organ, providing a proper church vibe. Similarly, the rock bottom bass of Khari Wynn rises right out of gospel roots.
The band opened their set with “Wild Flower,” a sharp punch of funkiness, followed by Naftaly’s stinging guitar leads on “What Did I Do.” A cover of the great Ann Peebles’ “Slipped, Tripped and Fell” sounded fresh and soulful.
Mid-set came some timely musical optimism, with “It’s Gonna Be All Right” and “Peace Will Come” as Tierinii preached the message that “we have to teach our kids we are all human, we are all the same, and we all need love. I’ve got a feeling that peace will come.” Amen to that.
A cover of “Rocksteady” dared to take on the Queen, Aretha Franklin, and the band did the number justice, anchored by Takyra’s beats and backing vocals (“what it is what it is what is”) and Khari Wynn’s popping bass line. “Blood On The Dance Floor” preceded a slow ballad, “Love Me Right,” before closing the set with “Don’t Give Up,” another poignant message song that soared with Powell’s organ swirls and Wynn’s bass laying down a groove for Naftaly’s over-the-top guitar solo.
A working band for less than a year, Southern Avenue has written funky originals and added smart covers. They’ve recorded a winning album worth checking out, but this is a band to be experienced live for a strong dose of healthy rock and soul with much-needed optimism capable of lifting spirits and bringing people together.