Photos by Lou Montesano
Nashville is known as “Music City,” but Memphis is Tennessee’s other home of musical heritage. The former has become a hub of songwriters and musicians who have migrated from the across the country to feed the country music industry while the latter hews more closely to its grittier and bluesier traditions. Southern Avenue is the major east-west thoroughfare that runs through Memphis and merges, fittingly, onto East McLemore, where the legendary Stax recording studio once existed at 926 East McLemore. The original building was torn down long ago, but fans of authentic rock and soul still cherish the site.
Paying homage to the city’s musical legacy, Memphis-born sisters Tierinii and Takyra Jackson now front Southern Avenue, a powerhouse quintet that is beginning to attract national attention as they tour in support of their self-titled debut album, released on the reconstituted Stax label. The sisters grew up singing in church, but the stage presence of Tierinii is the second coming of Tina Turner. On this particular night at New York’s Mercury Lounge, she danced, jumped and swayed on four-inch spike heels as her rock ‘n’ roll red hair flew from side to side. Sister Tikyra on drums was more subdued but no less talented, adding strong backing vocals and a smile that lit up the stage.
Southern Avenue’s guitar man is Ori Naftaly, who arrived in Memphis from Israel four years ago and fronted his own band before connecting with the Jackson sisters. Jeremy Powell adds smooth soulfulness on the organ, providing a proper church vibe. Similarly, the rock-bottom bass of Khari Wynn rises right out of gospel roots.
Together for less than a year, Southern Avenue has written funky originals and added smart covers. From the opening punch of “Wild Flower” to great covers of Ann Peebles’ “Slipped, Tripped and Fell” and Aretha’s “Rocksteady,” the band had the audience on their feet and dancing. The optimism of “It’s Gonna Be All Right,” “Peace Will Come” and “Don’t Give Up” was particularly poignant given the current national mood.
After experiencing such talent and energy up close, we came away feeling that Southern Avenue is, as much as anything, a state of mind, one that musically reflects the short ride it takes listeners to go from classic to contemporary, gospel to secular, black to white, east to west, north to south and back again. It’s the journey of a lifetime, and this is a band whose music and perhaps whose very existence may be the perfect representation of hope in dark times.