When singer/songwriter/guitarist/taxi driver Mem Shannon released his debut CD A Cab Driver’s Blues in 1995, it marked the arrival of a major talent in contemporary blues. Yes, the inclusion of audiotaped conversations from passengers in his cab gave the record a unique twist and earned Shannon a mountain of media coverage, but above all, it was Shannon’s street-wise, insightful songwriting and guitar licks that carried the proceedings. Shannon retired from driving his taxi in 1996 to focus full-time on his music, and his sophomore CD, 2nd Blues Album, was crammed with more idiosyncratic gems and proved that the success of his first album was no fluke. Now Shannon plans to bust out in a big way with his forthcoming third CD, Spend Some Time with Me. It’s no accident that the word "blues" doesn’t appear in the title.
"This was a conscious effort to make people think about putting it in another bin," says Shannon. "I didn’t want to see blues on the cover. I want to see what happens."
It should prove to be the best career move yet for Shannon, who’s never played "straight" blues from day one. His solos are jazzy, stream-of-consciousness explorations that can quote a Latin figure one minute and head into lyrical George Benson territory the next. But most of all, Shannon is funky. While young bands like Galactic, Iris May Tango and All That are spearheading New Orleans’ current funk explosion, Shannon and his band the Membership have been funky all along, and his rhythm playing and arrangements are currently gut-busting tight.
"A lot of people don’t realize I play funk, since I don’t hang out, and don’t gig enough around here. I’ve been playing funk since I picked up the guitar. That’s always been my background, from the Bar-Kays, to Kool and the Gang, to the Isley Brothers."
The opening track on his new CD, "Who Are They," sets the tone for Shannon’s resolve to break out of the confines of the "blues" label. A slinky Leo Nocentelli-like riff gives way to a swelling horn blast, and the rhythm section kicks in with gusto. True to form, Shannon’s lyrics are downright brilliant, detailing his frustration he feels with invisible pundits: "They say everything’s looking real good/Well they must have forgot to check my neighborhood/They say the cost of living is going down/Well how come I don’t see no extra money hangin’ round…Just who are they and has anybody ever seen ’em?"
And that’s just the start. For my money, Shannon’s one of the finest songwriters working today, in any genre. "The Last Time I Was Here (Millenium Blues)" is a dual tale of reincarnation and slavery; "Don’t Talk About My Mama" is a hilarious response to mother jokes, with the refrain "You better not go there"; "Dirty Dishes" is not the Albert Collins classic, but addresses hypocrites from all walks of life; "A Certain Shade of Blue" is a beautiful country song embellished by Dave Easley’s pedal-steel guitar; "Not My Friend" is a heartbreaking tale of burned bridges; and "No Such Thing" brings it all home, proclaiming, "Ain’t no such thing as too much funk."
The overall strength of the record shouldn’t come as surprise. Shannon’s made quite a few friends and fans in the last few years, including Dennis Walker (best known for his work with Robert Cray), who co-produced Spend Some Time with Me. Shannon earned a new record deal (this is his debut for Shanachie), and was even invited to be a featured performer at the Muddy Waters Tribute at New York’s Kennedy Center, where he shared the stage with the likes of Gregg Allman, Buddy Guy, John Hiatt and Charlie Musselwhite. (Mem played Waters’ "Honey Bee.") It was after that concert that Shannon met a legend who reassured him that he was on the right path.
"I met Robert Jr. Lockwood after we filmed that show for PBS. And I spent two hours in his hotel room after we finished, and he gave me a personal concert on 12-string acoustic. He played ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ the way it was supposed to be played, the way Robert Johnson taught him. He had changes in it–it wasn’t I-IV-V–he went all over the place with that song, and had lyrics I’d never heard in the song. And it hit me why I hate that song. Because everybody’s been doing it wrong for the last 50 years. He knows chords, he knows structures, he just knows. I felt like I met history. I met the guy that learned from Robert Johnson and taught B.B. King."
Another strong songwriter and New Orleans bluesman, Andy J. Forest, releases his new Apaloosa CD Letter From Hell this month. The CD features some sizzling, deep-toned harmonica playing and a crack band; most intriguingly, Forest will be simultaneously releasing his novel (!) of the same name…New Orleans’ "Deltabilly swing" guitarist Jeremy Lyons is recording at the Boiler Room Studio this month recording his second CD…Look for Tab Benoit to sign a new record deal any day now; Benoit was recently released from his contract with Justice Records, and with the help of local attorney Justin Zitler, bought back the rights to all his Justice Records and a host of unreleased material, including tracks with Dr. John, and the recent live show recorded at House of Blues that featured Benoit alongside Raful Neal and Tabby Thomas…For live blues in February, check out "Best of the Beat" hot picks on p. ?.
Writing this month’s column was a bittersweet assignment: this is my final installment of "Bluesworthy," and my last issue as a staff member of OffBeat. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost six years that I’ve been with OffBeat–that translates into 67 deadlines. It’s been a great ride, and I’ll look back at my tenure here with fond memories. When I started, there were only four full-time employees (now there are 10) and an average issue clocked in at 56 pages. Now OffBeat regularly tops the 100-page mark each issue, and it’s been an immensely rewarding experience to be a part of the phenomenal growth of this magazine. I know that OffBeat will continue to be the bible of New Orleans and Louisiana music, and I’ll miss riding shotgun as it takes continued strides into the new milennium.
What I’ll miss most of all is the camaraderie of OffBeat. Anyone who works in a small office knows that your co-workers often become family, and that’s certainly been the case for me with OffBeat. I’d especially like to thank OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey for her friendship, encouragement, support, and for giving me a shot when I was the new kid in town; OffBeat editor David Jones for the teamwork and laughs, and all the present and past OffBeat staffers who’ve made working here such a pleasure. Thanks as well to all the OffBeat readers (local and national) who wrote, called, and e-mailed me with suggestions, comments and criticism.
Many, many thanks to all the musicians, who often endured early morning phone calls, aggravating fact-checking questions, and all sorts of crazy queries about their craft.
Thanks again, everybody. I hope to see you down the road.