Singer-guitarist and former New Orleans cabdriver Mem Shannon established himself as a master storyteller with his out-of-nowhere 1995 debut, A Cab Driver’s Blues. Its gritty vignettes (“The Miserable Bastard,” “$17.00 Brunette”) were unsparing but not scornful, leavened with compassion for the down-and-outers, drunks, and bitter, foul-mouthed streetwalkers who populated them; it might not have been ethical for Shannon to include conversations he’d surreptitiously taped in his cab, but there’s no question that they sharpened the disc’s realism. Musically, the album wavered between 12-bar boilerplate and relatively dense horn-seasoned funk, and Shannon never quite seemed comfortable in either. But this tension was eased by his deep, relaxed vocal timbre, with its combination of soulful resilience and heartfelt sincerity, and by the understated emotional fire of his crisp, probing guitar lines. On this year’s Memphis in the Morning (Shanachie), Shannon’s fourth album, his lyrics are less barbed, but the feeling runs just as deep; he also sounds more at home with its various styles, which range from country to southern soul. On “I Smell Something,” guests Andrew Love and Wayne Jackson–better known as the Memphis Horns–prod Shannon with their patented blend of hard funk and melodic grace; on the title track, they riff languidly behind him as he tells his lover it’s time for him to hit the road again, his voice constricting into a cracked wail. “I Love the Way You Love” sounds simultaneously lusty and ethereal: while Shannon’s bedroom croon smolders and his solo quivers with bluesy string bends, his rippling chords evoke the gentle melancholy of a rain shower at midnight. In the country-tinged “Tired Arms” the main character, who’s been raised by his grandfather, sits at the old man’s deathbed and listens to his advice (“Give your son the love you gave to me”); the song could’ve been unbearably bathetic, but Shannon’s resonant vocals and tender yet resolute guitar work give it the integrity of folk poetry–like something you’d find carved into a headstone in an old rural churchyard. Sunday, September 2, 9:30 PM, B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted; 773-528-1012 or 773-525-1112.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Olivier.