who: Tav Falco and the Unapproachable Panther Burns, with the Krektones and Pleasure Chest
where: Asheville Music Hall
when: Thursday, June 27 (Doors at 9 p.m. Show at 9:30. $15/$18. Pre-show book reading at Battery Park Book Exchange, 4 p.m. Free.)
It could only have happened in Memphis, where country music and rhythm & blues collided in a train wreck known as rock ‘n’ roll, where blues and jazz riffs had floated up and down the Mississippi with each passing steamboat, a once-relevant cultural hub. One day Memphis awoke and music history had moved on — to Nashville, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans — taking the music and leaving only the history to crumble in upon itself amid an uncaring populace.
Entire books have been written about this tragedy, and if you’re in the mood for a sad tale, there’s one to be found. The last chapter, however, the epitaph of a grievous history, was yet to be written. While a thick melancholy floated in the humid Memphis breeze, Tav Falco, staggering through midtown replete with pompadour and razor-thin mustache, formed the Unapproachable Panther Burns in 1979.
Tav had moved from the nearby farmland of Arkansas several years earlier, finding a Memphis filled with dust-laden oddballs like William Eggleston and Alex Chilton. Artists creating for the hell of it more than any financial gain, and more than one bottle of cheap whisky was certainly drained while lamenting now forgotten heroes of The South’s not-too-distant past: Bobby Lee Trammel, Johnnie Burnette, Leadbelly.
What Tav Falco started as an art video collective aimed at bringing attention to the underappreciated evolved into a musical tribute group, honoring and eventually performing with the likes of Charlie Feathers and Jessie Mae Hemphill, preaching their forgotten gospel to the next generation.
Alex Chilton had returned to Memphis after a stint in New York, working amid a burgeoning punk scene, still wounded from a mainstream disregard for Big Star. He brought the musically like-minded and still unknown Cramps to Memphis to produce their first sessions, a twisted take on rockabilly that sparked a sleeping musical ethos buried deep under the grit and broken glass that littered the streets — a conscience that could not be denied as much as the city might try.
An underground scene began to evolve, where musicians and artists came together in a working-class alternative universe centered around the dive bar known then as The Well, later renamed Antenna Club. The Well provided the drinks, Tav Falco, Alex Chilton and an evolving army of enthusiastic amateurs provided the noise, embracing unbridled enthusiasm over sterile musical standards.
At their best (or worst), the Panther Burns combined anarchist literacy, Dada humor and antiestablishment disdain into a swirling Southern Gothic psychedelic country mishmash. Though easily and often dismissed, the band defined the Midtown Memphis scene for years and set the stage for a still thriving musical underground.
That was all nearly a lifetime ago, and these days most devotees know the music of The Cramps, The Gun Club, even Charlie Feathers, yet the Panther Burns continue to ply their trade in relative obscurity. This may be the secret of their longevity, but it’s more likely the unfettered drive of a half-insane Arkansas curiosity, dressed as an Argentine tango dancer, quoting Antonin Artaud.
Because he resides primarily in Europe, where the dressing rooms are cleaner and the audiences more astute, bringing Tav Falco to America, let alone our town, is noteworthy, probably money-losing and unlikely to ever be repeated.
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