Friday, February 4, 2011

Memphis to New Orleans via Mississippi


Orpheum interior
Today was a very long haul to make it to New Orleans by early evening via a stop in Oxford, Mississippi.

We said our goodbyes to Memphis, passing the infamous Orpheum Theater on our way out of town.  The Orpheum, originally built in 1890, has been a cornerstone in Memphis life and its existence has been threatened many times over the years.   In 1923, the Orpheum burnt to the ground during a Vaudeville show gone wrong. In 1928, the Orpheum was rebuilt, twice as big and glorious with gilded moldings, crystal chandeliers, fit for live theater.  Vaudeville acts gave way to movie screenings from 1940 until 1976, when conversations began to discuss demolishing the building to build an office complex.  The Orpheum was spared and in 1982 was renovated at the tune of $5 million to bring her back to her old glory. Today, the Orpheum is the main venue for Broadway plays, ballet,opera, and on this Saturday, the finale to the International Blues Challenge. 

Once we were on the road, A. Paul & I were amazed at the beauty of tall pines silhouetted in a cool haze as we slipped into the state of Mississippi.   About an hour into our drive we rolled into Oxford, Mississippi. 

Oxford, incorporated in 1841,  is the home of Mississippi's first state university, U.M, which still continues to educate students today.  During the Civil War, the town was set afire, burning the courthouse and surrounding homes.  Today, the rebuilt courthouse stands center in the heart of its downtown to greet its visitors.    Boutiques, bookstores, saloon style restaurants, and coffeeshops line the square around the courthouse. 

Southside Gallery

Courthouse Square
Oxford, MS
It is here, in Courthouse Square, where Oxford holds its calendar of arts venues such as the Double Decker Arts Festival in April,  when music artists and visual artists fill the streets.  All through the year, Oxford (home to Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner) hosts book conferences and art talks,  Shakespeare Festivals, and Art auctions. You can check out the calendar of events at   

We dropped into the Southside Gallery on the square and met up with Wil, son of the gallery owner, who gave us a bit of information about the Oxford art scene. After a southern salad of black eyed peas and smoked catfish at Ajax Restaurant, A. Paul & I eased our way back onto Hwy 55S for a 5+ hour drive to New Orleans.  On many stretches of the highway, our only companions were birds in flight over rolling fields sandwiched between what I began referring to as"ghost trees."

along Hwy 55S
This stretch of road was so serene that I began to wonder how such a beautiful and calming landscape could be attached to so much human sorrow throughout history. It is comforting to know that small communities that dot this landscape find cause to join together in celebration of its talents, be it whatever they may be.

As darkness enveloped us, we passed over the last bridge into New Orleans.  Once settled, we took a quick cab ride to the French Quarter to see what was happening on Bourbon Street  on this cool Friday evening. Though I have never been to New Orleans, A. Paul visited about 20 years ago.  He was surprised at the changes along Bourbon Street, commenting what used to be home to jazz clubs now have a more contemporary feel with venues seemingly geared to a younger crowd.  Still, we walked, took in a few of the sights and grabbed a light dinner before heading back to the hotel.

Bourbon Street

inside a shop on Bourbon Street

 Tomorrow, we explore the Contemporary Art Center (CAC), New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), and are hopeful to participate in the Saturday evening gallery stroll. 

Memphis Tennessee--Brooks Museum & International Blues Challenge

MBuya Mask
Africa DRC

Rhythm Pounders - Male & Female
After our night out with the McClure's listening to Bluegrass in Nashville, A. Paul & I were just a bit rough around the edges when we headed out for Memphis this morning.  The gray sky made the hibernating landscape appear cold and lifeless until we arrived at Memphis' oldest art museum, the Brooks Museum of Art. Though there was a definite chill to the air, the sun's reflection on the museum's Georgian marble Beaux Arts facade was warm and inviting.

The Brooks Museum was built in 1916 through an endowment from Bessie Vance Brooks.  The museum is situated within the Overton Park about 15 minutes outside downtown Memphis. Over the last 85 years, the museum expanded three times--1955, 1973, & 1989 to its current 29 galleries, 2 art classroom, a print study, and research library.  The Brooks permanent collections range from antiquity to the present on three levels.  The rotunda of the 3rd level houses an impressive African Art Collection. The entry level galleries exhibit early American & European works up to the 20c  in period rooms displaying visual arts with decorative arts. The lower museum level houses the traveling & special exhibits.

Italian Renaissance & Baroque works comprise the majority of the European collection with Early American painters' landscapes & portraiture comprising the core of the American collection.
"Au Pied de la Falaise"
William Adolpre

The modern and contemporary galleries are a survey of  American and European arts ranging from 1900s to present but its focus is mainly pre-1945.
"Waterfall #1 Maui"
Georgia O'Keeffe

The curation of the collection is worthy of a visit if you are in the Memphis area.  You can visit the Brooks Museum website at


Vince Johnson & Plantation Allstars
With the Nashville bluegrass harmonies still reeling through our heads, we rolled into downtown Memphis right in the middle of the International Blues Challenge. What luck!  There was absolutely no way that A. Paul & I were not going to drag our bodies down Beale Street to take in the sights and sounds. 

For a street that already rarely sleeps, the IBC kicks it up a notch or a hundred.  On this night, the second night of the challenge, 100 blues bands from all over the world come to compete to make it to tomorrow's semi finals, and eventually to the finals on Saturday.  A $10 silver plastic bracelet gives you entry for one night into all 11 venues that are hosting the event.  A $100 pass takes you through the entire 5 days of the event. We literally dropped our bags and headed off, first to eat at the City Blues Cafe (yes, we did try the BBQ) then off to see musicians from all walks of life play their hearts out.  We weaved our ways through a very cold street for over 5 hours, soaking in all the blues one could ask for in Memphis. 
Beale Street

Randy Oxford Band
Some of our favorites of the evening were listening to the cool vibes from Memphis own competitor, Vince Johnson & the Plantation Allstars; the phenomenal trombone and sultry sounds of Randy Oxford Band;  and singer/songwriter Ezra Charles Band with his three female horn section at B.B. Kings. Each band arrived to Memphis by winning in their own regional contest and ,in this event, must play all original songs, with one cover song option.  The bands play 30 minutes with a short  5-8 minutes changeover to set up.  It was, to say the least, an inspiring and satisfying way to be greeted in Memphis.   Though there is an  announced after hours jam session this evening (and every evening during the event), A. Paul & I simply ran out of steam.  Tomorrow, we head out to New Orleans but Memphis thank you for the arts in all avenues that you provided us today.  A big thank you to Gail, Jimmy, and Ken  for offering two weary travelers space at your tables.
Kerry & Ken, judge asst at Hard Rock

I'd like to leave our blog readers this evening with the promised sound clip from John McClure of Nashville with his daughter Leslie on vocals, but John, I need it as an url if possible.  I couldn't upload the mp3 so if you have an itunes url or similar I think it will work.   Sorry you and Annie weren't here for IBC, you would have loved it.

Good night everyone until tomorrow.