Museums of Memphis / International Blues Challenge

Preface

It is hard to believe that even in 2015, whites in Memphis and the entire Delta area haven’t embraced the blacks for their wonderful spirit and joie de vivre.  Someone told me (I wish I could remember who) many years ago “we must embrace the differences that define us, not let them divide us.”  After attending the IBC, checking out the museums of Memphis, wandering Clarksdale and attending the First Baptist Church service, I say “vive la difference!”

International Blues Challenge

  Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

Mike Clark (far right) with some of his new best friends jamming at IBC 2014.

In December 2013, a few of Mikey’s Juke Joint groupies (including myself) decided to head to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC) to support the Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams, both of who would be representing southern Alberta at the January 2014 competition.  It was a truly amazing experience, not only did Williams win the competition as the best single/solo act and best guitarist, but I developed a whole new appreciation for the history of the blues and the culture of the south that produced it.

This year’s Challenge happens January 20 – 24 with Calgary’s Mike Clark Band and Tim Williams again representing southern Alberta.

The Museums

One of the great things about visiting Memphis is their trio of music museums – Stax Museum, Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Sun Records.

The STAX Museum blew both Brenda (not so much a blues or music keener) and I away with its campus that includes not only the museum, but a charter school and extensive collection.  For anyone interested in the history of 20th century music in North America, this is the place to go. You will learn about the evolution and connections between numerous genres of music – blues, soul, jazz, Bebop, country, gospel, hillbilly, R&B, rock and Pop music.  What I particularly loved about the museum is there is its air of authenticity as much of the history actually happened in Memphis or in the immediate area.  

  STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

STAX museum is located in an older neighbourhood, with a mix of both new and somewhat seedy buildings.

The museum starts with a wonderful 20-minute film, after which you wander at your own pace through hundreds of displays that tell the story of the music with lots of memorabilia.  The highlight was when I complemented an elderly, distinguished-looking man on his great tie.  He thanked me and we got chatting about the museum and how he was visiting with his grandchildren who “wanted to see where their grandfather was” in the museum.  Turns out I was talking to Harold “Scotty” Scott of the Temprees, whose gold record for “Dedicated to the one I love” and other band artifacts we on exhibit.

One take away message I got from this museum was how the pain and hardship deeply penetrated the African American culture of the south and how they sought comfort and solace in their music.

I would recommend anyone visiting the museum, also take an explore a few around the museum, it will reinforced the link between poverty, sense of place and blues music.  The predominately black neighbourhood of empty lots, abandon homes, homes with what looked like religious shrines on the porches and numerous churches looked like many of the images we saw in the museum.

In chatting with Andrew Mosker, CEO, National Music Centre (NMC), who is currently construction a new museum in Calgary, I was told they would be incorporating some of the lessons learned from STAX on how to engage, entertain and educate the public about music.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if the NMC could match STAX museum’s authenticity as most of NMC’s artifacts will be imported from elsewhere. Also a big shiny new museum located in a glitzy new master planned urban community seems diametrically opposed to places that are the catalyst for artistic creativity. Time will tell.

  One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

One of the things that make Memphis' museums great is their authenticity, as they are telling stories that are both local and global. 

  Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

Harold "Scotty" Scott. 

The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institute and located downtown next to the arena provides an excellent overview of the history of Memphis area music from the 1930s to the city’s musical heyday of the ‘70s.  The museum’s digital audio guide offers up over 300 minutes of information including 100 songs that you can listen to while surrounded by artifacts of the time.  It is a total music immersion program not to be missed.

Sun Records, located just outside of the downtown, is easily accessible via the tram and a short walk to the historic building. Like the STAX museum, I think you get a better appreciation for the history and the environment that produced the music when you walk the streets around it.

The lobby of Sun Studio looks like a '50s diner.

What is great and unique about Sun Records is that you get a personal tour led by a local musician.  Sun Records, an American independent record label was founded in Memphis in 1952, by Sam Phillips and financed by Jim Bulliet.  It was here that Phillips discovered and first recorded Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Phillips loved the music of African-Americans and wanted to bring that genre to a mass audience, which changed the world of music, but meant Sun Records struggled to be viable. 

The museum is full of artifacts and your tour guide has amazing stories to tell.  But the highlight of the tour is to stand on in the recording studio where Elvis, Carl, Jerry Lee and Johnny belted out your favourite songs. The building just oozes history - I am sure I heard Roy singing.

The modest entrance to Sun Studio.

One of  the many artifacts from the early days of Sun Studio.

The recording studio is still used today. It looks like a rec room from the '50s. It is hard to imagine that this is place where the legends of '50s and '60s music created their hits here.

Beale Street

Beale Street, truly one of North America’s iconic streets, is home to the International Blues Competition (IBC). The event utilizes 17 different venues along the street for the 250+ entries from around the world.  The street is hopping with music from noon to the wee hours of the morning. 

For me, the highlight of the Challenge were the midnight jams at the Daisy Theatre (every night various musicians from the competition and past winners put on an impromptu concert, the energy was electrifying).   There are certain art experiences that stand out in my life - seeing Baryshnikov dance from the front row of the Lincoln Centre (1984) and the Hermitage Show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1977) - and the IBC jams on Beale Street.

  Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

Beale Street is animated by buskers and bands who provide great street entertainment. 

  The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

The International Blues Challenge midnight jam. 

Clarksdale

No trip to Memphis for a blues lover is complete without a road trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi (90 minute drive), considered by some as “ground zero” for the blues. The entire city is a living museum complete with numerous historical plaques and a self-guided map. 

Clarksdale is home to the crossroads of highways 61 and 49 where legend has it iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.   You can also visit the McKinley Morganfield’s (aka Muddy Waters) cabin on Stovall Road. There are lots of tiny cabins still inhabited that serve as a reminder of the poverty that begat the blues.  

When in Clarksdale check out The Delta Blues Museum, WROX radio station on Main Street and all of the other historic sites around town, it will give you a whole new appreciation of how the blues was germinated.

Ground Zero Blues Club opened in 2001 in an old warehouse building with “manufactured authenticity” complements of an old couch and other bric-a-brac on the porch and the tradition of graffiti-like visitors writing of their names anywhere they can find space. names of people who have been there on the walls.  We arrived mid day (nothing was happening), but we did manage to get on stage and pretend we were performing.

In chatting with Holger Petersen (veteran CBC and CKUA blues broadcaster), after his talk about the history of the blues at NMC a few years back he told me Ground Zero was one of his favourite places to listen to the blues. You could easily spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Clarksdale, checking out the museum, eating dinner and listening to an act Ground Zero and maybe even book yourself a room at the Riverside Hotel, established in 1944, where the the likes of Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williams and Ike Turner had been guests.

It truly is a sacred place.

  Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Ground Zero Blues Club looks like it was part of Clarksdale's heyday, but in reality it didn't open until 2001. It has established itself as the premier place for blues performers to play when in the area.

Panels like these are located throughout the city, creating an informative self-guided walking tour. 

WROX radio
  Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the  Tennessee Williams historic district  of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Clarksdale has numerous music related stores that are fun to explore.  It is a great place to flaneur - you will find everything from the charming Greyhound bus depot to the Tennessee Williams historic district of mega-mansions from the early 20th century. Tennessee Williams grew up in Clarksdale.

Barry (another Mikey's groupie) and I on stage at Ground Zero Blues Club. 

Gospel Revelation

No trip to Memphis is complete without attending a Sunday morning Gospel Church service. While many trek to the well-publicized Al Green church service near Graceland, we were fortunate to notice during our wanderings that at the end of Beale Street is the First Baptist Church (built in 1880, it is believed to be the first brick-constructed, multi-story church built by African Americans).  We like authenticity so this seemed like the perfect choice.

So on Sunday morning, when many IBC revellers were still recovering from their Saturday night festivities, we headed to church.   Wanting to be respectful, we tried toquietly walk in and sit at the back, but that was not to be.  We were immediately welcomed like long lost family, hands were shaken, we were given a program, and by the end hugs were shared and we were part of “the family.”  I have never experienced a more friendly welcoming. 

At the beginning of the service, all-newcomers were welcomed by name and where they were visiting from.  We were asked to stand to be recognized and invited to say a few words. Then amateur singers and preachers started to perform building to a crescendo with a large female choir and professional passionate preacher that made both your body and soul shiver. I don’t think I have ever heard so many AMENs in my life. 

Initially planning to only stay for 30 minutes or so, we were mesmerized we stayed for the entire two-hour service.  We were even invited to join them for lunch afterwards.  It was a magical experience. Amen!

insidechurch

Design Downtown for Women - Men Will Follow

Guest Blog: David Feehan, President, Civitas Consultants LLC

Years ago, when I was the downtown director in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a retail consultant we had engaged named Robert Sprague made a startling statement. “In 1950, 95 percent of the retail sales in the US occurred in downtowns. Today, less than 5 percent of retail sales are made in downtowns.” Sprague made that statement in the early 1990s and it is still true today, even in cities where there has been successful downtown revitalization. Only a few major cities still have downtown department stores and strong retail components - Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC. 

Many theories have been advanced as to why retail stores virtually abandoned US downtowns in a few decades. After all, office buildings were still being built in downtowns during the latter half of the past century. Major attractions – convention centers, ballparks, arenas and museums – became symbols of hoped-for reinvestment in and around downtowns. Other fads came and went – festival markets, aquariums, enclosed shopping malls; and still, downtowns continued to lose the one feature so many saw as they key to success – retail stores.

Some blamed the massive shift in residential development. Others pointed to the building of high-speed expressways that could whisk people to suburban communities quickly and without so much as a stoplight. Still others saw the increase in crime and the urban unrest of the 1960s as the culprit. Many thought that “white flight” – a desire of whites to get away from expanding black urban populations – was killing downtowns and central city commercial districts.

No doubt all of these factors and more contributed to the decline of downtowns since 1950. But one of the most obvious factors has until very recently been almost ignored. Downtowns have, by and large, ignored their most important customer – women – while shopping mall developers designed their facilities specifically for women.

Shortly after I left the presidency of the International Downtown Association in 2009, I started asking questions and doing research in concert with Dr. Carol Becker, who had just completed a survey of business improvement districts, or BIDs as they are more commonly known (BIAs in Canada) on behalf of IDA. Among the questions we asked ourselves were:

  • Are there significant gender differences in the way public spaces are perceived?
  • How important are women in terms of retail decisions, residential decisions and business location decisions?
  • Who really designs the downtown experience?
  • What obstacles are there to women who want to participate in and direct the design of downtowns?

Let me be clear: we were not just thinking about physical design – things like buildings and parks. We were interested in designing the whole experience – things like mobility and access, safety and security, friendliness, aesthetics, activities, opportunities to dine and be entertained as well as shop.

Research Says

Here is briefly what our research revealed:

  • Women control or influence roughly 80 to 85 percent of retail purchases.
  • Women control or influence approximately 80 percent of residential and health care decisions.
  • Women constitute nearly 60 percent of college graduates.
  • Women control more than half of the private wealth in the US.

And yet, women are grossly underrepresented in the professions that design the downtown experience. Architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, engineers, real estate developers and brokers, even construction professionals and lenders are predominantly male. Only 16 percent of registered architects are women. Only 3 percent of engineers are women.

We could not find a “Top 50” firm in any of the above categories in the US that is headed or owned by a woman. But perhaps in government agencies that impact downtown we might find women more represented? Not hardly. In the US federal government, at the cabinet level, there have been 14 Secretaries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but only two have been women. At the Department of Transportation, 2 Secretaries out of 16 have been women; and at the Department of Commerce, only 3 out of 43 Secretaries have been women.

At the professional association level, we had hoped to find women better represented, but this was not the case. Virtually all of the professional and trade associations having to do with the downtown experience (International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, National League of Cities, US Conference of Mayors, International City and County Managers Association, American Public Transportation Association, International Parking Institute and others) were headed by men at the time we began our research. Today, a couple of women have been named to top posts. 

In short, what we have is a terrible mismatch. One only has to look at the things women hate like dirty, dark parking garages, filthy or nonexistent public restrooms, street furniture designed for a person taller than 5’ 9” tall, multi-space parking meters with screens that are too high and hard to read, lack of signage and wayfinding, and a hundred other things that men tend not to notice. 

Last Word

Women are not as involved in downtown design as they should be.

Dr. Becker and I, along with a number of noted co-authors and contributors are set to publish a new book this summer, called “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow.” In the book, we suggest some ways that those of us who care about downtowns and urban commercial districts can begin to change they way the downtown experience is designed and delivered.

The book also challenges decision-makers to not just ask women what they want, but to bring women into leadership positions in the decision-making process.  

Dave Feehan can be reached at: civitas.dave@me.com

Comments:

DEW writes: 

Reading David Feehan's blog brought to mind Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947), the founder of Britain’s hugely successful department store, Selfridges. This American mastermind recognized the female consumer and he understood the public culture of his era. He revolutionized the shopping experience for the public, particularly for women, and in the process of doing so became a multi-millionaire. Many of his ideas continue to be practiced in department stores today (e.g., place cosmetics and perfume at the front entrance,  have merchandise out in the open and not hidden behind glass, carry ready-to-wear clothes, offer novelty etc.).  Mr. Selfridge not only pushed "pink", he also, perceptively realized the social mores of Britain were changing and capitalized on it. He welcomed all British citizens to mingle in his attractive store for commercial enjoyment. This inclusive policy proved effective in two ways: it contributed to the erosion of Britain's class system and it simultaneously increased the department's store customer base. 

Selfridge’s department store provided the upper/middle class women with a socially-acceptable excuse to venture out independently. Women could legitimately go out “shopping” without raising (society’s) eyebrows. And to make the ladies’ shopping excursion pleasant, Mr. Selfridge added an elegant dining area to his department store … men soon followed. Gentlemen frequented the restaurant to either socialize with their companion(s) or to while away the time as their significant others shopped.

Selfridge‘s idea to concentrate on the needs/desires of the female consumer and market to them accordingly worked. He employed various business strategies --- novel and conventional, to reach his target group. Selfridge constructed a grand building with enticing interiors; cultivated outside greenery (his store had a roof-top garden); created an elegant eatery; published tastefully done, but slightly seductive “come hither” advertisements; designed “state of the art” displays against a backdrop of theatrical touches and antics; installed all the latest technological innovations of his time; and organized unique publicity stunts --- all these strategies worked for him. And this winning female concept continues to work, judging by the doubled dividends paid out in November 2013 by Selfridges to its current Canadian owner, Galen Weston, (despite the slight dip in the department stores profits*). 

So it stands to reason, that Mr. Selfridge’s chief business strategy of zeroing in on female needs could be refashioned to suit current downtown urban design plans--- just as David Feehan suggests in his article. If the charismatic Harry Gordon Selfridge were alive today, and was an urban planner, one can be absolutely certain, he would already be in his bomber-jet blitzing the downtown core with his multi-coloured female-friendly confetti --- because it works!

(*Financial Times- November 2013- Duncan Robinson- http://www.ft.com/

Many downtowns like Calgary are creating comprehensive wayfinding maps to help pedestrians find what they are looking for.  Note distances are in minutes not distances; this is very helpful to women who often relate more to time than distance. 

Wayfinding systems like Calgary's encourage downtown visitors to explore other areas in the vicinity. 

Unfortunately dark and dingy underpasses that often link one downtown district to another are not attractive to anyone. 

Convoluted sidewalks, pillars blocking views and dark spaces along downtown streets don't make for a pleasant shopping experience. 

Yes it is nice to have trees downtown, but not in the middle of sidewalks. 

Sidewalk clutter and blind corners don't make for an enjoyable shopping experience. 

Too many downtown public washrooms are not cleaned as often as needed.  In fact, too often it is hard to even find the public washroom as it is hidden away down a hall with no signage.  Most downtown building owners discourage the use of public washrooms. 

  Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Even on a bright day, office and condo towers cast shadows on the street that make it look dark and unattractive.  Railway tracks and barriers make it difficult to walk across the street.

Empty lots with fences like this one are a huge turn-off for women.

Tree grates like this on are common on downtown sidewalks. They are not problem for men in shoes but for women they can be an accident waiting to happen. 

Entrance to this parking ramp is intimidating to everyone, but especially women.  To be fair, significant improvements have been made to parkade design over the past 20 years. 

Unkept parks and plazas are a turn off for anyone wanting to come downtown for shopping, dining or entertainment. 

Sticky sidewalks and plazas are no fun to walk on.

Broken curbs and sidewalks don't make of a pleasant walking experience. 

Designing safe and attractive connections between downtown and neighbouring communities is critical to attracting women to shop downtown. 

Everyday Tourist Note:

While this research is for American cities, I expect same is true for Canadian cities. London, Hamilton and Windsor no longer have any department stores and struggling indoor retail centres.  Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon struggle to make their downtowns viable shopping districts.

We have to rethink how we plan our downtowns from the design of parkades, street furniture and sidewalk, to street signage to wayfinding systems. We talk about making our urban places more pedestrian friendly, when perhaps we should be more specific and make them female friendly. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results – that’s insanity!

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YYC Needs vs Wants: Arena, Convention Centre, Stadium

Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald, in two parts, March 1, 2014 "The high cost of keeping up" and March 8th, 2014 "City can't be banker for lengthy wish list"

By Richard White, March 8, 2014

I think many of us are guilty from time to time of trying to “keep up with the Jones.”  It seems to be an innate human trait.   This attitude is even more pronounced when it comes to the “group think” of city building.  For centuries, politicians, religious figures and business leaders have been building bigger more elaborate churches, palaces, office towers, libraries, city halls and museums than their predecessors and their neighbouring cities, states, provinces or countries.  

The thinking goes like this - if Winnipeg builds a new museum (Canadian Human Rights Museum), we need one also (National Music Centre).  If Hamilton, Regina and Winnipeg can build new football stadiums, why can’t we?  Vancouver and Seattle have great central libraries so we should have one also. 

Edmonton has a new, uber-chic public art gallery, Vancouver is planning one and Winnipeg has had one for decades so what’s wrong with Calgary? We don’t even have a civic art gallery.

When it comes to convention centres, Calgary’s Convention Centre is one of the smallest and oldest in the country - we must need a bigger one. Cities around the world are building iconic pedestrian bridges so we better build two (Peace Bridge and St. Patrick’s Island Bridge).  The same logic is used for investing more in public art, downtown libraries and arenas - everyone else is doing it so should we!

National Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg, Manitoba (cost: $351 million) 

  Rendering of new Royal Alberta Museum (old Provincial Museum) under construction in downtown Edmonton. (Cost: $340 million).

Rendering of new Royal Alberta Museum (old Provincial Museum) under construction in downtown Edmonton. (Cost: $340 million).

National Music Centre, Calgary, Alberta (Cost: $150 million) 

Esplanade Riel, Winnipeg, Manitoba (note the restaurant in the middle of the bridge). (Cost: $8 million)

Peace Bridge, Calgary, Alberta (Cost: $25 million)

Needs vs. Wants

Cities are more than just the sum of its roads, transit and sewers.  Imagine Paris, New York or London without their museums, galleries, concert halls, libraries and theatres, as well as their grand public places.

But can Calgary - or any city for that matter - really afford to “keep up with the Jones” when it comes to major facilities like arenas, stadiums, museums, galleries, public art and convention centres? Maybe pick one or two, but not everything!

How do we prioritize our needs vs. wants? Deerfoot and Crowchild Trails both need billion dollar makeovers, the northwest’s sewer system can’t handle one more toilet and we need billions of dollars to build a North and Southeast LRT.  

How can we balance our wants with our needs? Can we identify synergies between existing urban development and future mega projects? Who will champion these big projects?  Are we willing to take some risks? Can we learn to say “No” sometimes?

Do we need a new stadium?

Let’s strike this one off the list quickly.  How can we justify spending $200+ million to build a new stadium, which will host eight home games (attended by 20,000 season ticket holders and another 10,000 to 15,000 people/game who attend depending on the team playing and the weather)? The stadium can’t be used for much else other than the odd concert or two and maybe a major event like the Olympics every 25 years or so.  Yes it is used by university teams and amateur teams from across the city, but these games attract at best a few thousand spectators; this could easily be served by stadiums like Hellard Field at Shouldice Park. Let’s renovate what we have and live with it.

Winnipeg's new Investors Group Field cost $204 million to build. It will only be used to its maximum for 8 or 9 games a year. 

Do we need a new arena?

It is amazing how quickly arenas become out-of-date these days.  I recall someone telling me a few years ago all arenas are out of date in 15 years.  The good thing about an arena is that it is a mixed-use facility used for both junior and professional hockey, lacrosse, ice shows, concerts and other events.  If built in the right location and right design, it can be a catalyst for other development around it.  Many cities have created vibrant sports and entertainment districts in their City Centre.

That being said, it is hard to accept we really need to spend $400+ million to build a new arena that will seat about the same number of people and probably be within a few blocks of the existing Saddledome (which would probably be torn down if a new one is built)– that just seems wrong.   I am also told the post-flood Saddledome is like a new arena with much of the building’s infrastructure having been totally upgraded.

  Rendering of Edmonton's ultra contemporary new arena currently under construction. (Cost: $480 million) 

Rendering of Edmonton's ultra contemporary new arena currently under construction. (Cost: $480 million) 

This is the old Memphis arena on the edge of downtown operated from 1991 to 2004, when it was replaced by a new downtown arena a few blocks away. It is currently being renovated to become a mega Bass Pro Shop with the city taking on $30 million of the cost of renovations. It opened in 1991 at a cost of $65 million.

Do we need a new/larger Convention Centre? Civic Art Gallery?

Hmmmm….this could be a tricky one.  The current facility is significantly smaller than facilities in other cities our size and stature. Studies have shown there is support for a larger facility in Calgary given its strong corporate headquarters culture and regional and international hub airport.

However, one has to wonder in this age of social media and virtual reality, would a large convention center soon a become white elephant.  Convention Centres are also hard to integrate into a vibrant urban streetscape, because they are large horizontal boxes with large entrances for the huge number of people who enter and exit at the same time (not great for street restaurants, café and retailers) and they require huge loading docks and emergency exits are at street level; this means most of the street frontage is doors and docks. 

However, there are examples of downtown convention centres that are not just big boxes, but are part of a mixed-use complex adding vitality to several urban blocks – think Seattle and Cleveland.  Could a large new convention centre be a catalyst for creating something special in Calgary’s city centre?

Maybe we could kill two birds with one stone! The Glenbow is also in need (want) of a mega-makeover.  Could we create a modern convention centre using the existing Glenbow space and the existing convention spaces allowing the Glenbow to move to a new site and new building, becoming both a museum and civic art gallery in the process (something many Calgarians want and some even say we need)?

Conversely, could we expanded the Glenbow and create a Civic Art Gallery using the existing Convention Center spaces and moving the convention centre to another location?  This options lead to the question - Is there a logical site for a new convention centre?  Should it be on Stampede Park?  Are there synergies with the BMO Centre (trade show special event facility), the new Agrium Western Event Centre and the existing Saddledome?  We could create the first downtown S&M District (sports and meeting).

Another idea floating around is perhaps a good use of the huge surface parking lots along 9th and 10th Ave would be a create mixed-use complex over the railway tracks to connect the Beltline with Downtown. Could a new convention centre span the tracks in combination with a new hotel, office, condo buildings and maybe public space development?  Perhaps a private-public partnership would be a win-win for both sides. 

One of the sites being looked at for a new convention centre in Calgary is the 9th and 10th Avenue corridor. It could be combined with an office tower, hotel and condos to create a diversity of uses that would bring 18/7 vitality to the site. 

  The Seattle Convention Centre is built over top of a major highway, linking two sides of the downtown. The site has some similarities to CPR rail tracks that divide Calgary's downtown and the Beltline. (Cost: $425 million)

The Seattle Convention Centre is built over top of a major highway, linking two sides of the downtown. The site has some similarities to CPR rail tracks that divide Calgary's downtown and the Beltline. (Cost: $425 million)

Ottawa's new Convention Centre. (Cost $170 million)

Edmonton's new Art Gallery of Alberta is part of the growing trend to weird, wild and wacky architecture, especially for cultural buildings. (Cost: $88 million).

This is Calgary's old Science Centre, it could become the city's first civic art gallery. 

Last Word

Calgary seems to be at a “tipping point” in its evolution.  And let’s face it, with over five billion dollars of debt, the City can’t afford to be best at everything – transit, roads, arena, stadium, convention centre, library, museum, art gallery, public art, recreation centres, parks, pathways, bike paths. What to do? We are already committed to the National Music Centre, $150M, an new central library $245M and looks like plans are proceeding to retrofit the old Science Centre into a public art gallery.  While the project is still the very early conceptual phase the budge could very well be on par with the Alberta Art Gallery i.e. $80 million. 

Can the city really afford to champion any more mega projects? The city already faces a long list of capital projects that clearly are the sole responsibility of the city. We already have a history of significant cost overruns and delays on projects e.g. the Pine Creek Water Treatment Plant, as well as projects that seem to cost an excessive amount for what is achieved – the airport tunnel and the Travelling Light sculpture.

The architecture of the San Antonio Public Library has fun playfulness about it.  It opened in mid '90s at a cost of $38 million.

Salt Lake City central library designed by Canadian Moshe Safdie, is monumental in scale and design. It opened in 2003 at a cost of $84 million. 

Calgary's downtown library, which is one of the busiest in Canada will be replace by a new building just a few blocks away. The budget for the new library is a whopping $245 million. 

  The James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University, was designed by the international design firm Snohetta who have been engaged to design the new Calgary Public Library. (Cost $94 million)

The James B. Hunt Library, North Carolina State University, was designed by the international design firm Snohetta who have been engaged to design the new Calgary Public Library. (Cost $94 million)

Perhaps now is the time to get back to basics of municipal governance and focus on the little things that will enhance the quality of life for all Calgarians.  I recall a senior urbanist once saying at an International Downtown Conference that great cities, “do the little things right, as well as the big things.”  Have we been too focused on the big things?

It should be the role of individuals, groups, or the corporate sector to champion the projects that they want? And by championing the project, that means finding the necessary funding to build them. It is always easy to develop grandiose plans when using someone else’s money. 

Q: What should the City’s role be in these projects?

A: It should be the facilitator, not the banker.

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Sleeping Around In Memphis

By Richard White, March 3, 2014

One of the things we do when visiting a new city is to identify and stay at two or more hotels in the city centre so we can better appreciate the unique character of different districts.  Sometimes it can be quite amazing how contrasting a city can be depending on where you stay. This was never truer than our recent trip to Memphis where we chose the Peabody Hotel in the heart of the city centre and the River Inn of Harbor Town on its edge.

Peabody Hotel: The Downtown Mansion

The historic Peabody is best known for its ducks that spend the day in the hotel’s lobby fountain and the night on their rooftop patio.  The ducks draw huge crowds (young and old) twice a day as they “march” to and from the elevator. The duck parade dates back to the 1930s when then General Manager, Frank Shutt returned from a weekend hunting trip and thought it would be fun to leave three live English Call Duck decoys in the lobby’s fountain.  The guests loved it and now it has become legendary.  Lean more.

  The famous Peabody ducks parading from the fountain to the elevator where they will spend the night in their penthouse suite.  Talk about fun, funky and quirky; this is one of the quirkiest attractions we have seen. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The famous Peabody ducks parading from the fountain to the elevator where they will spend the night in their penthouse suite.  Talk about fun, funky and quirky; this is one of the quirkiest attractions we have seen. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The Peabody's rooftop patio is a great place for summer concerts and events. (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

The lobby of the Peabody has many historical collages; this one continues the duck story to its logical conclusion and also adds to the sense of fun. 

What we found most intriguing about the Peabody is that it is more than a hotel; it is like a mansion in the middle of downtown.  The lobby is the living room where people meet, lounge and enjoy a little food and drink as if they were at home - at least that was our experience.  It was January and cold so maybe the lobby buzz was a little magnified, but you definitely get the sense the Peabody’s lobby is like a big living room complete with comfy couches and chairs.  The hotel has several “dining rooms” (aka restaurants), a rooftop “patio” (aka back yard) and hundreds of “bedrooms” (aka guest rooms) just like a huge mansion. 

The Peabody's lobby bar is a great place to sit and watch the world go by. 

The Peabody’s lobby is also home to four Lansky Brothers (better known as Lansky’s) stores (aka closet) – women’s fashions, men’s fashions, souvenirs and women’s accessories.  It is best known as “the clothier to The King,” and yes you can get your own sequined shirt, even a whole outfit if you desire.  The Peabody lobby is simply the best place for shopping in downtown Memphis.

A quintessential Memphis experience is to cozy up in the lobby with friends and order a Jack Daniel’s. The Peabody actually goes to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg TN to personally select barrels of whiskey for the hotel’s Peabody Select.  A whole section of the lobby bar’s menu is dedicated to Jack Daniel’s.

The guest rooms have the same comfort and charm but with wonderful views of the city and Mississippi River.  Our junior suite had a comfy chair with good light for reading (always a bonus) and a desk for writing (much appreciated); the bathroom was spacious and included a bathtub, which, unfortunately for bath lovers, seems to be getting rarer.

But the best thing about our room were the reading lights on the bed’s headboard. We didn’t find them until the last night, as they are so sleek and subtle we mistook them for mere decoration.  A simple chrome rectangle about 8” long and 2”wide that pops out to become a light you can direct to exactly where you need it.  Ingenious. We want two for our home. 

This photo of our room shows the headboard lights, which as you can see can easily be missed given there are lamps on the bedside tables (Photo Credit: The Peabody Memphis)

River Inn: The Downtown Cottage

If the Peabody is Memphis’ downtown mansion, then the River Inn is its cottage.  Located on Mud Island, it is a short cab ride, a pleasant 20-minute walk or a 5-minute walk, then a 5-minute streetcar ride to Beale Street.  The River Inn is the gateway to Harbor Town, a master-planned community that looks and feels more like a cottage town than an urban village. While most North American cities have been creating high-rise urban villages in their city centers, Memphis has created an upscale cottage town on the 132-acre sandbar called Mud Island.  Rumour has it that it is home to several players and coaches of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team.

The River Inn is a quaint 28-rooom boutique hotel that also includes one of Tennessee’s top fine dining restaurants (Paulette’s) and the Terrace, a rooftop bar and “small plates” restaurant.  The Inn also serves as the gateway to Harbor Town’s high street with its pub, restaurants, shops, café and Miss Cordelia’s, a quaint, but well stocked urban grocery. The little Café Eclectic is a hidden gem where you can hang out with the local arts community (the staff are all musicians) and sip on your favourite hot beverage and some great food – love the soups.

The charming River Inn welcomes you as you enter Harbour Town on Mud Island. 

The view from our room of the mighty Mississippi and the bridge to West Memphis in Arkansas. 

The breakfasts in Paulette's were always a highlight of our day.  Brenda loved the blueberry pancakes with Tennessee bacon.  The fresh squeezed Orange Juice was the best we've ever had.  We alway took the muffins for later.  Paulette's serves up a ginger crusted Scottish Salmon and the Roquefort Scallop Potatoes are yummy.  The K-Pie for dessert is big, bold and beautiful.  

The cozy lobby fireplace is a great spot to relax, read a newspaper or magazine. It is just like home.

The River Inn has the “best little lobby on the Mississippi.”  As well as being the entrance to Paulette’s, a grand piano takes center stage in the fireplace-equipped sitting area and the cozy “Little Bar” tucked away to the side. One night when we came home, a symphony of sounds greeted us - chatter from Paulette’s, soft music from the piano player and laughter echoing from the Little Bar’s (yes, it is little, really no more than a hallway from the lobby to Paulette’s)- eight seats.

The staff at the River Inn is, in a word - awesome. When we had a problem with a reservation at another hotel (I told you we like to sleep around), they said “leave it with us go have your breakfast” and while we were enjoying breakfast, they returned saying they were able to accommodate us in our room for the remainder of our stay.  Quickly, quietly and professionally our problem was solved. We were delighted to stay an extra two nights!

There was always a friendly smile at the front desk to greet us when we came home (and, it did feel like home), even at 2 am after coming back from the midnight jam at the International Blues Challenge on Beale Street. 

You could easily stay a weekend at the River Inn in Harbor Town and never leave Mud Island. The hearty breakfasts alone are worth staying there, but add in fine dining at Paulette’s, a happy hour cocktail at the Little Bar, an evening on the Terrace and a walk or jog along the mighty Mississippi or in the town site and you have the makings of a wonderful getaway.  The River Inn is a unique urban experience. 

  The little Cafe Eclectic is just a block from the River Inn. 

The little Cafe Eclectic is just a block from the River Inn. 

Harbor Town is a wonderful place to stroll with lots of ponds and trails like this one.  There is a sense of peace and tranquility about the place. 

Last Word

Sleeping around – whether in Memphis or elsewhere – does have its benefits.  We would never have discovered Memphis’ Harbor Town if we hadn’t stayed at the River Inn. It changed our perception of Memphis as a place to visit in a really good way.

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Struck out in Memphis

By Richard White, February 3, 2014

Too often we judge the success of our vacations by the quantity and quality of the “treasures” we bring home.  We love to find something unique at that off-the-beaten-path vintage or second hand shop or the out-of–the-way boutique or flea market.  We pride ourselves on being able to find an artwork/artifact we love everywhere we go.

In Vegas, we found an artwork in the trash can next to the bus stop after visiting nearby thrift store.   We expect someone purchased it at the thrift store for the frame and just threw out the artwork. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. 

However in Memphis, no matter how hard we tried, we stuck out in our quest for that unusual souvenir.

Downtown

We scoured the streets of downtown Memphis, but there were not many shops of any kind to be found.  First, we checked along Main Street – nothing. Then, we headed to South Main and found few shops, mostly restaurants.  However, we did find Memphis’ historic Central train station, which was fun yet sad to explore.  It was a vivid reminder of how the world has changed - what was once a vibrant meeting place and an economic engine for the city has been reduced to two Amtrak trains a day and a lone staff person keen to chat with us about the past.      

We did check out A. Schwab which is a Beale Street institution, but it seemed too touristy for us.  However, it is a great place to wander, with lots of artifacts from the golden years of Memphis and Beale St. especially if your time is limited.

South Main the area near the Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Hotel is Memphis' hipster district. 

The interior of Central Station is a sad reminder of days past. 

Flaneuring the side streets around South Main, we did find an alley with some very attractive architectural concrete figurines, but they were way too heavy even for me to carry. Alley “shopping” can be lucrative, like when in we found a weathered corbel from an old building in Washtucna, Washington – a great salvage find.  What we also found was a number of interesting warehouse loft conversions happening in the area – a healthy sign for future vitality.

This is the figurine we would have loved to have brought back for our garden. 

Vintage Trolley Experience

Deciding we had to head further afield and having read about a new hipster area called Cooper/Young, we took the $1 a ride Madison Ave trolley east as far as we could and then hoofed it the rest of the way.  Riding Memphis’ vintage trolley is a “must do” experience as they creak and grind their way along the tracks through the downtown.  I expect their maximum speed is no more than 10 miles an hour – it seemed I could walk almost as fast.  An interesting note is that they are not originally from Memphis, but are reconditioned ‘30s and ‘40s streetcars from Porto, Portugal, Melbourne, Australia and Rio de Janerio, Brazil that have been adding charm to the streets of Memphis for the past 20+ years.

The streetcars are the cutest I have ever encountered with their original wooden benches and seats, brass fittings and old weathered straps, some being little more than a very worn strip of leather. We were surprised- an impressed - to discover that at the end of the line, as the driver moved to the other end of the trolley he/she reversed the backs of the single seats so riders always face forward. How brilliant is that?

While the trolley cars are cute they aren't too practical when it come to large groups of people wanting a ride after a basketball or baseball game or when there is something on at the convention centre. 

Inside the trolley are long wooden benches or small single seats.

One of the better straps for hanging on. 

Finally, a Thrift Store!

Though we had done some research before coming to Memphis to see if there might be any thrift stores just outside of the downtown (and found nothing), we were nicely surprised, just five minutes into walking, to encounter a thrift store.  They could probably see the smile on Brenda’s face all the way back to Beale Street. 

Inside, we did find an interesting child’s artwork of a primitively rendered cowboy in a blue metal frame that had potential.  We should have bought it, but it was early in our trip - and day - and given it was on the large size, we both agreed to take a pass, sure that we’d find something else.  That was our fatal flaw!

Central Avenue  

We eventually discovered Centre Avenue (from S Cooper Street to East Parkway) which showed promise with a few antique shops, Flashback (a great vintage store), a junk dealer and a couple of used music/book stores.  Lots of interesting things, but nothing grabbed us.  Hunting for artifacts is an intuitive thing; you don’t know what you are looking for until you see it.

OtherLand cafe was our first sign of bohemia. Interesting place to hang out, but nothing much in the way of exotic finds - keep on walking. 

At Central Ave we found an Urban Outfitter's shop which seemed to be in a strange location with the antique stores. 

This fire hydrant was tempting but again too big and too heavy. Palladio is a huge furniture antique store with cafe/bistro on Central Ave., with a huge warehouse out back filled with architectural artifacts, fountains and fun objects like this one.    

Flashback vintage store was packed with mid-century artifacts, but nothing said "buy me, buy me."

Xanadu looked promising as it is used bookstore, record store and music store.  

I was tempted by the cigar-box guitars, but since I don't play the guitar is seemed silly. 

Our last stop on Central was Paul's Garage (I think that was the name). As you can see it was packed with junk...perfect for Brenda to do a little urban archeology.  No matter how hard she tried - nothing!

Cooper/Young District

Some hours later, after finally making it to the Cooper/Young corner, we found some quirky cafes and restaurants and a great bookstore but no shops, no artifacts. 

Burke's Books established in 1875 had great potential.  Brenda would have loved one of these typewriters, but they were not for sale. 

It seemed just too easy to buy some blues records in Memphis. 

Cabana Cafe offered a quiet place to rest before our journey back. 

Strike three and you're out!

Yes, with tails between our legs, we are ashamed to admit it we struck out in Memphis.  The upside? We saw some off the beaten path places that most tourists don’t. And, we’re darn heck committed to making this “strike out” a one-time wonder!

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Readers' Comments:

CW writes:  "Very interesting idea for a blog, what it means to be a pack rat but come up empty-handed.  As we live more and more digitally, collecting any object is bound to be more and more challenging. We pack rats are a dying breed. I pick up lps, cds and dvds, and occasionally books, all very plentiful now. But I'm open to anything. I think the challenge of being a pack rat is to appreciate the quality within an object - its quality today and, much more difficult, how it will be perceived in the future. It's all about predicting the future - yours and everyone else's, isn't it? Was your difficulty in finding stuff in Memphis about your present? Or about your future? My suggestion for you two when you travel: collect mugs of local businesses, often sold in the smallest thrift stores. Great souvenirs. Forever useful. I've never been unable to find at least one good one." 

Brenda responds: "I buy for the present or near future, i.e. only for my immediate use/enjoyment and/or quick turnover (i.e. largely no longer than a year I will either sell or give away)... NOT some long out future. I guess I am not a pack rat (that's good news for both of us I think... as don't think much about how it will possibly be perceived in the future (who wants to store it? Who wants to move it later on at some point?). As for collecting local mugs, interesting idea  - they are everywhere - too easy, where is the challenge. Mugs don't resonate with my fussiness about what I enjoy drinking my coffee and tea in.  Promotional-stamped mugs never seem to me to meet my high (snooty??) standards re: style and quality. I'm happy keeping the focus on artwork...just have to work harder so there are no more strike out!"

Best Canadiana pub is located where?

By Richard White, January 31, 2014

You would think Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa would have the best Canadiana Pub in the world, maybe even St. John’s or Halifax.  But no, it may well be in one of the most unlikely places - Memphis, Tennessee.  

Yes across the street from the iconic Peabody Hotel (famous for their resident ducks who spend the day in the lobby fountain) is Kooky Canuck.  We were introduced to this Canadian gem when attending the Polar Bar Jam, part of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge, January 21 to 25, 2014. 

Polar Bear Jam

The place was packed (I don’t think they have fire code laws in Memphis, it is amazing how many people they can pack into their bars) for the Polar Bear Jam – it was like a Maritime kitchen party, with Canadians from across the country partying up a storm and it was only 11 a.m.

As soon as we arrived, a beer was handed to us. It wasn’t just any beer; it was a Don De Dieu (the name of Samuel de Champlain’s ship, which translates in English to “gift of god”) from Chambly, Quebec’s Unibroue brewery.  Our Western Canadian travel companions thought it was too sweet, which meant more for us given the first 200 people got a free beer.  The wait staff were warning patrons it had more alcohol than American beer, but nobody told them it was 9%, times the light beer alcohol served up in the 34 oz. jumbo mugs.

The Décor

But I digress.  What makes the Kooky Canuck a great Canadian pub is the décor.  When you walk in, you are immediately confronted by a long log cabin-like wall where not one, not two, not three, but a series of mounted horned animal heads including buffalo, elk, caribou, deer and a bighorn ram– I couldn’t identify them all.  I think the only thing missing was a musk ox.

Down the middle of the room is what everyone referred to as “the forest”. In reality, it was a jail-like wall of birch tree limbs that created a nice separation between the bar and restaurant. The back room truly was like a log cabin with more mounted animals, birds and fish including an iconic Canada Goose. Overall, the décor oozed of Canada’s great outdoors.

The feature wall of mounted animal heads is impressive.

What would a Canadian pub be without an Canada Goose. 

A forest of birch tree limbs separating the bar from the dining room. 

The Logo / The Characters 

The logo is a cartoon of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police like officer carrying a large burger with the words “Big Food! Big Fun!” underneath.  You can’t get much more Canadian than the RCMP. The addition of the beard or is it a goatee makes it even more hip. 

Kooky Canuck attracts at wonderful cast of characters from across Canada and beyond.  It is a great people watching place.

Love at first sight?

This guy is wearing what was referred to by many as the Maritime Tuxedo! 

Kooky Canuck owner Shawn Danko welcomes everyone to the Polar Bear Jam.

The BIG beer guy just couldn't stop smiling. He wasn't alone!

I gotta get me one of these t-shirts.

The Challenge

Kooky Canuck is also infamous for its Kookamonga (sounds Australian to me) Challenge.  The challenge is to eat the Kookamonga burger in less than 60 minutes. 

What is a Kookamonga burger? It is four pounds of fresh ground chuck inside a two- pound bun and 1.5 pounds of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and cheese. Seven and a half pounds of fun! Fries are optional.   FYI - that is a whopping 12,000

Eat the burger in 60 minutes and it’s free (if you don’t eat it in an hour it is $32.99 US), plus you get your picture in the Hall of Fame.  Eighteen people have eaten the Kookamonga burger all by themselves in the required time, some more than once.  Matt Stoney has the record for fastest consumption - 4 minutes and 45 seconds – how is that possible?  As of December 29, 2013, 3,950 attempts have been made and 18 people have been successful.

Shawn holding up the Kookamonga burger.

Only in Canada eh!

Yes there are larger bars, pubs and lounges that have a Canadian theme.  Yes there are places that serve more types of Canadian beers and better Canadian microbrewery pubs.  Fro me, Canadian cities are filled with too many Irish or English pubs and not enough that celebrate their local sense of place.  Too many of our sports bars are full of American sports memorabilia.  When it comes to capturing Canada’s sense of place I think Kooky Canuck nails it. 

If you find yourself in Memphis, be sure to check out Kooky Canuck and see if you agree that it is best Canadiana pub in the world is not actually in Canada. Only in Canada would you find our signature pub in another country!

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Graceland Bah, Humbug!

By Richard White, January 28, 2014

Graceland has never been on my bucket list. But when in Memphis, it seems like the thing one ought to do and we got caught up in the hype.  We, along with thousands of others, including bus loads of elementary school kids (shouldn't they be in school to learn real important things anymore?) arrived at the same time we did, which made for a long line up to get in.  In Disneyesque fashion, we were channelled into holding pens where we waited our turn be herded through like cattle - 20 or so at a time on to shuttle buses.  Not a good start!

Let the tour begin. 

Poor Boy's Taste

The mansion was not as grand as I expected. In fact, it isn’t as grand as many acreages or mansion in many cities in North America including Memphis. I was expecting some extravagant and futuristic home like something from a James Bond movie or a Jetsons cartoon. It is a stark reminder of just how our lifestyles have changed.  What was luxurious 50 years ago is commonplace or even archaic today. As well, I need to keep in mind the house and décor reflected the tastes of a poor boy’s rapid rise to fame and fortune. 

The living room.

The Billiard Room is completely draped in the cloth. Not my taste.

Tacky Tacky

The Jungle room was tacky, the kitchen was primitive and the bedroom would not be considered extravagant by today’s standards.  It certainly lacked the castle-like sense of scale or opulence of a real King.

How many gold records can you look at or how many outfits with flashy buttons/sequins with deep V-neck shirts and bell-bottom pants do you need to take pictures of?

There is a whole room full of gold records. 

Just a few of the costume displays that you will encounter during your Graceland tour. 

There are lots of movie posters in the Graceland tour.

Waste of time

Once out of Elvis’ Graceland homestead you are invited to view his Car Museum, Tupelo (his actual birthplace) History Gallery, two planes and several (surprise, surprise) gift shops at your leisure.  There is also a diner which serves Elvis’ favourite sandwich - grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich, which I must admit, is very tasty.

The Car Museum is good for a 10-minute walk through – what is it about rock and roll stars and their cars, especially Cadillac.  The museum also has golf carts and a tractor - boy toys! The planes are a waste of time in my mind and in that of several others who we befriended on and after the tour. 

Yes this is the pink Cadillac.

Some of Elvis' toys in the Car Museum.

This is the inside of the Elvis plane.  It is dark and drab with plastic over everything...nothing to see here folks, move along. 

Surprises 

Seems like you really should be an Elvis fan if you go to Graceland.  One Chicago woman who was part of our tour, a self confessed Elvis worshipper, said she was moved to tears a couple of times.  A friend who had done the tour a couple of days earlier and who is also a BIG Elvis fan was gaga about the experience.

There were some surprises. Like I didn’t know he had a twin brother Jessie who died at childbirth and I wasn’t alone in this gap in my Elvis trivia knowledge.  I was also not aware of the extent of his philanthropy.  And who knew he had his own racquetball court? 

The racquet ball court with the horse pasture behind.  

Hands-on

As a former museum/art gallery professional, it struck me strange there are no real hands-on or interactive experiences.  Where is the Elvis impersonator (or Elvis tribute artist as they like to be called) performing for you? What about a place to listen to his music and maybe a dance floor? What about “dance like Elvis” lessons?  What about a karaoke opportunity to make you own video? 

What about a pink Cadillac with Elvis in the driver’s seat where you can sit next to him and get your picture taken?  Maybe a place to dress like Elvis and take pictures? There is a tacky mural you can get your picture taken, as you line-up waiting for the shuttle but really, this is the 21st century.

Interestingly, the tour also doesn’t tell the tragic story of the last years of Elvis’ life, which, while sad, should be part of the story.  

Elvis' is buried at Graceland along with some of his family.  If you want to pay your respects, you have to come here. 

Better Tours 

I wouldn’t recommend the Graceland Tour unless you are a diehard Elvis fan and that is not just me talking, I heard this same comment from several others.  Take another look at the images in this blog and you have pretty much taken the tour.  

If you really want to understand the evolution of music in the 20th century the Sun Studio, Stax Museum and Rock and Soul Museum tours are well worth the investment of time and money. You will even get a good appreciation of Elvis' role in the shaping modern music and see lots of Elvis artifacts.

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Don't let the modest entrance to Sun Studios fool you, inside is wonderful tour with some of the best tour guides we have seen in awhile.

The STAX Museum tells the most comprehensive story of 20th century music in a fun and engaging manner.  

Reader Comments:

CW writes:  You made it to Memphis and face to face with the Elvis Conundrum - the beauty of rock and roll and the mess of his home are all the same piece. I believe the way into both is through his relationship to his mother, which you hint at when you mention his twin. Congrats on the visit. I hope to do it someday.

I'm surprised that you were surprised by your visit. I think you were victim to the dictum: if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Tell me, were they selling the Guralnick bio volumes there?

FYI, a really fun essay on the tackiness of Graceland and Elvis memorabilia is found in the book the Elvis Reader, where the author visits people digging through a metaphorical mountain of the stuff. Of course it's the people who are significant, not the stuff - just like the real Graceland. 


International Blues Competition 2014

By Richard White, January 23/24, 2014

Where to go? Who to see? When to see them? The schedule for the competition was finally published yesterday at noon and everyone was quickly scrambling to figure out where and when their favourites were playing.

Tim Williams plays for the judges on Day 1.  Williams successfully moves to the semi-finals. 

Sure enough, the two Calgary participants were playing within a few minutes of each other at different venues – Mike Clark Band (MCB) at 7:20 and Tim Williams at 7:30. Even though the venues are only a block away, it wasn’t really possible to see them both.  Most of the Calgary contingent went to see MCB, but when we got there early, we found the room very loud so decided to check out the single/duo acts at Jerry Lee Lewis (JLL) venue to catch Tim Williams.  Good decision. 

JLL is like a big old southern mansion, with big square rooms on the second floor that are very comfortable for intimate performances.  Good place for one scotch, one bourbon and one beer and to listen to some amazing performers.

The competition was strong and Tim’s set was very good. As one of the people at our table said, “he is unique,” which is so true. Of all the performers so, far he is perhaps the most traditional, playing songs deeply rooted in delta blues history.  However, it was strange to see Tim in a jacket and tie with his fancy saddle shoes.

The three blocks of Beale Street were hopping from late afternoon until after 1 am, with people popping in and out of venues trying to catch as many acts as possible. It was a tough call - do you just settle in someplace or do you want to frantically run around like a chicken with your head cut off?

Ghost Town Blues Band is a spiritual experience. Voodoo anyone? GTBB successfully move to semi-finals.

Pop-in / Pop-out Flaneuring

After a while it is tough to sit any longer and needed some fresh air, so I adopted the “pop-in/pop-out” technique.  I went up and down the street and dropped into a venue when I heard something interesting, stayed until the end of the set and then popped back out to flaneur down the block some more.

This worked very well as I got to see each of the venues and was able to catch a lot of good music. 

By the end of the evening the street was full of guitar cases. 

Highlights of the Night

The two bands that stood out for me were the Ghost Town Blues Band and the Randy Oxford Band.   I am a sucker for high energy and both these bands played their hearts and souls out.

The Ghost Town Blues Band, from Memphis, was a finalist in 2013 and it showed.  The six members have a synergy of the sound and visuals that includes a cigar-box guitar with trombone, sax and fun horn section that results what the program describes as “21st century blues at its best.”

The Randy Oxford Band (South Sound Blues Association) also features a trombone player i.e. Randy Oxford.  Maybe there is something about the trombone and me that I didn’t know.  Reading the program, I learned that the trombone was one of the original blues instruments featured in W.C. Handy’s band in Memphis in the early 1900s.   While Randy is the leader, all of the band members contribute equally to what was a highly entertaining performance – it makes you want to shake and smile!

The surprise performance of the night was Monica Morris and Josie Lowder (Central Illinois Blues Club) who are both from musical families. Monica is the voice and Lowder the fingers.  Together, they created great vocal harmonies.  The svelte Josie effortlessly made her guitar bend but not break and Monica sang with her heart on her sleeve. 

The After Party Jam

At about 11ish, after the competition was over, the after party jams broke out.  I headed to the New Daisy Theatre where the All-Star Jam hosted by John Richardson and Sean Carney.  It was an all-star night with three sax players and two keyboardists who were joined by an ever-rotating number of guitar players and drummers lined up back stage waiting to get on.

The evening was magical with almost everyone crowding the stage for an “up close and personal” experience that would be hard to beat anywhere anytime I expect.

Earlier in the day, we had been to Sun Studio and while no doubt it was a special time in Memphis’ history when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were all playing and recording at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel the 2014 edition of the International Blues Competition (30th anniversary) may become another great moment in the city’s long musical history. Maybe it is just the newbie in me talking?

The crowd at the New Daisy Theatre are luvn the energy, music and comaraderie at the midnight jam.

Calgary's Mike Clark wows them at the Thursday night All-Star Jam. 

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By Richard White, January 21, 2014

The Calgary boys - Tim Williams and Mike Clarke Band - are going to have to "kick-it-up-a-notch" if they want to win the International Blues Competition that started today at the New Daisy Theatre in Memphis.

The Brat Pack from the Philippines set the bar high with a young keyboardist who could be this generation's Jerry Lee Lewis with his flying fingers and infectious smile and enthusiasm.  The entire four person band was on fire, especially the keyboardist and drummer.  The Brat Pack was the only group to get a standing ovation - not bad for a band where all the members are in their early  20s.  The Brat Pack was one of two bands from the Philippines in this year's International Showcase. 

RJ Pineda enjoys the spotlight. His fingers were literally a blur to the naked eye.  He didn't miss a note!

The audience sat attentively.  It was sitting on the floor room only.

From the Brat Pack's Facebook page: 

It is the uncommon blend of old and new that ultimately sets The Brat Pack apart from their contemporaries. Armed with their own unique style, a fusion of blues, jazz, soul, and pop, they can put their own unique spin on modern tunes, and slip comfortably into the tried-and-true standards of yesterday with ease.

Bassist David de Koenigswarter, an Eric Clapton enthusiast whose family tree attests to the fact that music literally is in his blood, being the grandson of the famous Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, Pianist RJ Pineda, who you might remember as one of Promil’s Gifted Children, a child prodigy whose repertoire spans from Rachmaninoff to Ray Charles; Allan Abdulla, a St. Scholasticas Conservatory of Music, also a part of the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra who really takes his drumming to the next level at every performance and Christine Mercado, a spunky/charismatic vocalist who finished Music Production at the College of St. Benilde and has been singing jazz and blues since the tender age of 4. 

The Blues Powder Band from France was ranked second best by the guy from Kansas City sitting in front of us.  He was more than willing to share his rankings with us. This was his second IBC and he said he was hooked after last year's experience.

Lead singer Joe Elbaz and his Blues Angels from Israel put on a great performance also.  The best band competition is going to be tough. 

Surprises

Kicking off the festival was the International Showcase with 12 groups (solo, duo, bands) playing short sets over a three hour period.  As expected, the quality of the music was very high; however the quality of the showmanship was a big surprise. The Blues truly has evolved into an international cult.

What was even more surprising was the audience was almost totally white.  I could have been in Calgary's Blues Can, Ironwood or Mikey's based on the skin colour of the audience.  I couldn't help but wonder "What would Robert Johnson think about the international scope of the 21st century blues scene, if he was still alive?" 

The festival has been going on for 30 years, but it seems to have taken off only recently.  I overheard someone say, "I have never seen so many people in this building." 

Canada is well represented this year. In the International showcase, Tracy K and Jamie Steinhoff from Thunder Bay represented us well, paying homage to Winnipeg's Big Dave McLean as their mentor and one of the most influential blues performers in Canada's blues history.  

Tracy K and Jamie Steinhoff represented Canada well. 

Flex Slim from Barcelona, Spain was a true blues traditionalist.  

Polar Bear Blues

We have also met lots of Canadians while flaneuring the streets of Memphis - Chatham, Winnipeg and Kitchener.  On Thursday, the Ottawa Blues Society is presenting the Polar Bear Blues Showcase (great acts from the north), with the first 200 guests getting a complimentary "Canadian" beverage.  

The competition starts tomorrow, but already the event is a huge success in the eyes of the dozen or so Calgarians who are here ready to cheer on the Calgary Boys! 

The Jan Galach Band from Poland mixed strong vocals and violin harmonies. 

International Showcase program:

  • Herbie & Guitarguy (Netherlands)
  • Kingpin Trio (Philippines)
  • Tim Lothar & Holger Daub (Germany)
  • Tracy K & Jamie Steinhoff (Canada)
  • Joe Elbaz & Blues Angles (Israel)
  • Zamba (Croatia)
  • Naffis & Massarutto (Italy)
  • Brat Pack (Philippines)
  • Felix Slim (Spain)
  • Jan Galach Band (Poland)
  • Chris O'Connor (Australia)
  • Blues Power Band (France)