Rub Punk, blues together and Memphis flame flares

By Bill Ellis
The Memphis Commercial Appeal

There's a new tradition in town. It's an annual fete where city punk and rural blues crash, clang and come together in a celebration of what it means - and sounds like - to be from Memphis. It's the Dixie Fried Festival, now in its fourth unfettered year.

Extolling the Memphis musical id this year are Tav Falco's Panther Burns in a rare local performance; Fat Possum artist and candidate for the world's most cantankerous blues-man, T-Model Ford; Othar Turner's Rising Star Fife & Drum Band; and the North Mississippi All Stars, who debuted their hill boogie sound at the second annual Dixie Fried in a momentous, groove-filled tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. Tonight the All Stars will be joined by their Knockdown Society cohort, Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Who better to headline than Tav Falco, the local forerunner, of the queasy kind of punk, blues and performance art that Dixie Fried glorifies?

Falco, now based in New Orleans after years of traipsing through Europe, has spent his life dissecting (often literally) traditional music one early gig involved chain-sawing an electric guitar during a performance of Leadbelly's Bourgeois Blues. Other times, Falco has altered blues and rockabilly through the art house contrivances of cabaret and theater. Either way, roots music, if for the wrecking

"Rubbing two forms of music together, in my mind that was explosive," says Falco.

"It shows what Memphis music can be," he continues. "It has a potential that goes ... beyond what's so literal, what everyone takes for granted. . . . We (Panther Burns) go beyond that, and that's what W.C. Handy did in a way. He's the grandfather of all of this - a trained musician. I don't know a note from a molecule. I'm not even a musician, I'm a performer."

Panther Burns was conceived nearly 20 years ago by Falco, who is planning an anniversary show next February on a Memphis riverboat. The concert came, says Falco, from his frustration trying to reach Mid-South audiences.

"It's not so easy to be understood," he says.

The experimental group, which boasted Alex Chilton as an original member, played often at the Antenna and, before that, the Well. The Dixie Fried fest is a kind of homecoming for Falco since it will be in the old Antenna building, now called the Madison Flame.

Falco insists the Panther Burns and its anti-art stance - a primary influence on today's punk bluesmen like Jon Spencer - were never meant to isolate listeners. Yet two decades and nine albums haven't lessened Falco's shock of the new.

"It's not that I'm totally anti-commercial," says Falco. "It's just the quality of what one does. If I go to Las Vegas and do the Panther Burns show I want to do before a lot of squares, I'll do that in a minute. If I can do the Christian Science Reading Room with Panther Burns, I'll do that also.

"Music of the Panther Burns is universal. It is for the masses even though it seems that we draw a very select crowd. Thematically, we're rather Shakespearean, themes of lost causes, brother against brother, the betrayed king, the blinded king. Sometimes at the end of our shows, you feel that the stage ought to be littered with dead bodies. In fact, you might wish it were littered with dead bodies."

For its return to Memphis, the band will include original Panther Burns drummer Ross Johnson and Dixie Fried organizer Scott Bomar on bass. The guitarist who may or may not be Falco's Big Easy pal Chilton - is a surprise. Falco will only say, "You can expect the sound of the early Panther Burns rearing its head once again in Memphis where it belongs."

Falco is actually more excited about the rest of the festival lineup. Fife player Othar Turner was a seminal influence, and Turner's drum ensemble was on the first Panther Burns long-player, "Behind the Magnolia Curtain" (1981).

"It's everything Memphis could be for me to come back and be a part of the show with these folks," he says. "If I get to play with these people, I might not want to leave town again!

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