Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A wrap-up of the week in Memphis

Ok, that is officially one of the wildest weeks of my life. We promised everyone we would blog daily about the Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis Tennessee, and it was completely impossible to do so.

So let’s do a post-conference wrap up, and tell you all in detail how weird our week has been!

In a nutshell, this is what happened:
We stayed in downtown Memphis in a room at the Marriott Hotel, which was completely booked out by folkies for the conference, and we ran a concert venue in our hotel room every night until 2am, and two afternoons. Every half hour a new and fabulous act came and played in our bedroom. We had a half hour slot for cloudstreet in every session. David Ferrard, our friend from Edinburgh, was our other regular act.

We called our venue “The International Showcase Room”, and we mostly booked acts from outside the United States, but we had a few Americans because for us, they are international.

I’ll post the programme of acts on the blog soon, with links, because you have to go and check out these musicians! We enjoyed every minute of the concert time in our room!

The rest of the day and night we were down in the conference area and exhibition hall, chatting away madly to people (all of whom were wearing a name tag which also said where they came from, very helpful), and connecting with them, and also convincing them to come and watch our showcases. We talked to musicians, folk festival organisers, house concert organisers, venue bookers, a man in a chicken suit, and a few Aussies.

On Saturday night we did our “official showcase” with a p.a. in a bigger room downstairs (and it went really well, to an almost full house!), and we also attended some talks, like a “trad peer group” where we met other traditional singers, song collectors and some happy people who get to work in the Library of Congress. We went to a mad, loud reception for folk Djs which was well catered and in a heated tent, and everyone was yelling, and I wouldn’t have been a dj for the world, they were inundated!

What little time was left after that was spent hunting down nutritious food (quite a big deal) and a bit of it was spent sleeping… in the same room where we held the concerts.

Here’s a bit more detail, by topic:

There was some clear, sunny weather and even a day where it got up around 19C, but overall I was very pleased that I brought my ski jacket and some thermal layers and a scarf and hat. And I was glad we were staying in the hotel, because it was frosty outside, not a concept I’ve ever connected with the Mississippi. From our window we could see the mighty river, most beautiful as it caught the light at sunset on clear days.

There were some recommendations in the Folk Alliance emails we got before we arrived, so we checked out Alcenia’s, which is half a block from the hotel and famous for its Soul Food. Alcenia herself started the restaurant as a way of sharing the love, and as a healing project for herself after her son died. The fa├žade is inauspicious, the interior welcoming, but the wait for service used up half our day, so we only visited there once. When we finally got the food, though, it was magnificent. I had spicy grilled catfish, broad beans and white corn, and coffee. I tried corn bread, but it was way too salty and oily for my constitution. The catfish was delicate and scrumptious. Alcenia gave us a hug as we left, its her policy to do so!

We ate in Beale Street after checking out A. Schwab’s store, an experience that harked back to a former era (and made me think of the main street of Charters Towers), where you can buy a lot of things you didn’t know you needed like cowboy hats, saucepans and plates with Elvis on them. Of course, Elvis was from Memphis so he is well represented in pretty much every shop. The Beale street experience led me to think that meat, fried meat, and iceberg lettuce were the only foodstuffs available here.

A later meal further down Beale Street did little to shift this perception although John’s half rack of ribs was pretty good and my steak was lean.

Finally, on a mission to find a post office, I found a large Chinese restaurant which did a buffet lunch for six bucks, and to my relief I had some vegetables and some steamed rice, washed down with Chinese tea, which made me feel a bit more normal.

Getting around
Outside the door of the Marriott is the trolley car. It costs a dollar to ride it, except at lunchtime when it costs 50 cents. Some of the trolley cars are very quaint and tiny, and some of them are exactly the same as Melbourne’s heritage W class trams. They are in good nick and everyone uses them. The slatted wooden seats and warmth inside took me back to childhood visits to Melbourne, while the broad southern accents of the passengers were wonderful and unreal.

Travelling by cab is more problematic in Memphis. Apparently you need to make sure the driver has turned on the meter if you want to pay something close to the going rate. We had one experience without the meter and one with, and I’d say that’s true.

We were warned by several people not to go out walking. They told us the feeling of quiet and safety is just an illusion. There aren’t many people on the streets downtown. When asked to qualify the warning, we were mostly told that we would be ok walking down Main Street to Beale Street (about a 20 minute walk) because the cops are up and down that street all the time. But don’t wander off into less central neighbourhoods. I was a bit depressed by this information as I love to explore cities, but as it happened, we were so frantically busy at the conference, it was a non issue.

Things we should have done, things we did.
Memphis has a lot of famous attractions, most of which we had no time to visit. These include Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland, the Stax Museum of Blues and Soul, and a real southern Baptist Gospel-singing church, which we simply could not get up in time to attend, the day after the conference finished when we had gone to bed at 5am.

But today we had the whole day off. We packed our stuff, scoured our room for leftover flyers and water bottles, stored our luggage, and caught the trolley car to the last stop on Main Street, where I had gleaned good information that there was a terrific restaurant called The Arcade, opened in 1919, and the oldest in Memphis. We went with David Hyams, from Fremantle, for a truly Aussie outing, and when we got there, the guys from King Curly, the band from the Blue Mountains, were there also, taking photos of themselves outside the famous restaurant.

Walking inside, I felt sure I had just entered the set of Happy Days, and expected Pottsie or the Fonz to walk in. We took a booth and sat at the laminex table gazing at the blue sky through huge plate glass windows, then at the menu, which did indeed have a stick-to-the-sides selection of breakfast options. I chose sweet potato pancakes with sausage and poached eggs and grits. John chose country ham with grits, biscuit, fried okra and mashed potato and gravy. David also had the pancakes.

The pancakes came with maple syrup as well as sausage, so you could choose how sweet or savoury the whole effect was, but the pancakes themselves were pretty sweet and nicely crispy along the edges. One bite of John’s biscuit told me two things. They’re a lot like scones, and they’re full of lard. Grits turned out to be almost the same as polenta, but using white corn instead of yellow. Salty, but delicious. Actually, after Memphis I think I’ll need a sodium detox.

After the feast, we walked round the corner to the Civil Rights Museum, which was the Memphis attraction we decided to spend our time in, as we could really only do one thing properly. We decided against Graceland as neither of us really knows enough about Elvis to make it meaningful.

I’m glad we chose the Civil Rights Museum. It was a sobering place, detailing in fascinating static displays the horrifically violent history of America’s South, and yet managing to keep a spirit of hope alive throughout the story. I suppose one of the appalling realisations for me was that the peaceful sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, with violent outcomes, were happening so close to my lifetime. Non-violent protesters were campaigning through the mid sixties, for rights that we don’t think twice about now, with fearful consequences like buses burning, beatings and murders.

The story at the museum finished with a view into the motel room at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was staying, and the balcony outside it on which he was shot. Such an ordinary 1960s motel.

The emotional experience was tiring, but we needed a walk, along Main Street past the Orpheum Theatre (where Riverdance was playing and Robin Williams will be there in 2 days, when we’re gone), to the Marriott.

We took a cab to the Quality Inn near the airport, and checked out the dinner options. The hands-down winner was the free ride in a pink limo to Marlowe’s, an Elvis-themed American diner where I had catfish and John had pork chop. On the way back, the limo driver stopped outside the gates of Graceland and took our photo. Then it was time to sleep for a couple of hours before heading to the airport.


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