29 June 2008

Stax, Memphis, TN

The Stax Academy Band visited Canberra today and brought a touch of Memphis soul and popular music history.

It’s a great era of black pride, luscious grooves and powerful, gospel-infused voices. Stax was a famous record label of the period. It’s now closed, but the premises are used for an academy (sounds to me like a high school/college in Canberra terms) with a music theme, and serving a local inner-city community. In the words of the promo, “the Stax Music Academy … uses music education as a tool to mentor primarily at-risk inner-city youth”. Honourable work, and the result is good, down to earth, entertaining music. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is also associated with the Academy. Looking at the brochure for the Museum, I can see that Memphis is a place to add to your tour. There’s the Stax Museum, but also Gracelands down the road, Sun Studio, a museum to Rock’n’roll and the National Civil Rights Museum. Interesting.

The band played with verve and enjoyment. In the black soul tradition, there were strong voices, dance routines, infectious rhythms, horn lines and the like. The tunes are mostly ones you recognise even if you can’t put a name to. They also did a tribute to Australian music, which was a bit incongruous and not particularly soulful, but it went down well. It was a medley with tunes by ACDC, LRB and others, and of course the inevitable reggae-ish “Land down under”.

The music was infectious, but sadly, Canberra didn’t do it justice. Llewellyn Hall is a BIG space, and it needs a decent PA for amplified music like this. It provided one that would be more than adequate for a bar or wedding (perhaps 500W per side) then proceeded to mic drums, bass, guitars, horns, vocals, the lot. There was also no foldback in front of the main vocal mic, but maybe they were monitoring in-ear. I missed most of the horns and keyboards, vocals got lost amongst a heavy, muddy rhythm section, and I even struggled to hear some lead vocals. The bass and bass drum must have sucked up most of the power when they kicked in. The problem was obvious, and it was a topic of conversation in the foyer after the concert. It wouldn’t even cost that much to fix: a few more wedges and more powerful, full-range front-of-house speakers (and a decent PA tuning job) is probably all that’s needed. I don’t envy the mixer fighting with the inadequate equipment. Sad; we can easily do much better. But it’s well known the music school is skint.

But the concert was fun, the players were keen and the music infectious. Thanks to the US Embassy for sponsoring the tour. It’s a nice bit of cultural promotion. They are not the top players (it is a school band, after all) but they are enthusiastic and perfectly capable, and the tour serves both performers and the audience, and the music makes such great memories. Nice one.

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