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The Lord and Mr. Memphis


Monday, June 12, 2017

By Ken Maiuri

Two longtime locals recently released new records: Lord Russ, aka Russell Brooks, the outgoing frontman of the currently defunct Aloha Steamtrain (and more recently an Elvis impersonator, solo performer, and owner of The Green Groomer Dog Salon); and Johnny Memphis, former WRSI deejay and host of the Valley music radio/TV showcase “Homegrown” (as well as a sideman with such bands as Big Bad Bollocks and Check, Please!).

When I first met Lord Russ in the mid-’90s, he’d just returned from a soul-enriching stay in Hawaii, long-haired and carrying around a cassette of his songs as a calling card. An open-hearted ’60s spirit has always been a big part of his music and personality, and it takes the spotlight on “Have You Heard,” his new collection of cover songs.

The twelve-tune record has been in the works for at least a couple years, and it’s a pure distillation of his own “inner light,” to borrow a song title from George Harrison (tunes from three of the Beatles are represented on the disc), with some topics popping up more than once: the sun, the wind, animals, dreams, being free.

“Relax your eyes, for after all, we can but share these minutes,” Lord Russ sings quietly at the top of the album, before tantalizing the ears with multi-tracked magic on his Beach Boys cover, “I’d Love Just Once To See You.” He’s a one-man chorale, joined by harps and harpsichords, upright bass, a buzzing jungle of percussion and bird sounds echoing around the treetops.

His Hawaiian island past is a strong current throughout the album. He sings The Kinks’ “Mr. Songbird” while accompanying himself on ukulele, his version of Donovan’s “I Like You” has a chorus that evokes wandering over a sand dune and witnessing a breathtaking vista (perhaps populated with friendly cartoon critters), and he sings John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” in the style of Lennon’s good buddy Harry Nilsson (sharing a vibe with “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” from their collaborative “Pussy Cats” album).

Lord Russ sings all the parts (including what sounds like a children’s chorus on a couple tunes) and plays all the instruments. One of the most beautiful tracks is his version of King Crimson’s “I Talk To the Wind,” a hypnotic oasis of bouncing tabla drums, nylon stringed guitars and mellotron. 

Even when the record gets psychedelic and grand (like on a mind-altering trip through the Bee Gees’ “Holiday”), it feels personal and intimate. Instead of trying to bowl you over with overwhelming pulsing chaos, the universe of “Have You Heard” invites you in with homespun wonder.

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The Johnny Memphis Band has a new six-song EP called “Rarities” (“There are only six songs so they must be rare!” Memphis quips in his press release). It shows off the frontman’s sense of humor and his love of music that gets its inspiration from the dance floor. 

“Rambunctious and danceable” is how he describes his quintet’s sound, whether they’re playing vaudevillian country swing (“Let’s Not Fall In Love”), a cajun beguine (“Do,” written and sung by the band’s guitarist, Dave Pinkerton) or peppy polka (the true tale “Somebody Stole My Kielbasa”).

The latter song shows that Memphis isn’t afraid to streak through a minefield of silly double entendre, but he also gives a heartfelt doo-wop-flavored tribute to his pal and fellow deejay, Buddy Rubbish, who passed away in 2008. “Doin’ the oldies show / you made the dial glow,” he croons, as the band and guest vocalist Janet Ryan sing a string of shang-a-langs in the background, like in a timeless Jonathan Richman song. Witty couplets abound here, as they do all over the album: “If you needed ‘Mellow Yellow’ or Annette Funicello / he was the man with the cure.”

“I’m takin’ it every other day at a time / so I don’t go every other day out of my mind,” he sings on the opening track over a jaunty two-step created by Katherine First’s fiddle, his own mandolin pickin’, guests Pete Nice on pedal steel and Paul Kochanski on upright bass, and drummer Jason Smith clickety-clacking on the rim of his snare like a horse casually hoofing around on a sunny lazy day.

Another song playfully laments how Mr. Memphis has never actually been to Memphis, though he’s excited to eventually make the trip. Over a laid-back rock beat he sneaks in references to Elvis, as well as hits from the city’s legendary Stax record label: “Never been to Graceland / never seen The Jungle Room / but I got Memphis on my jukebox / ‘Green Onions’ my ringtone / No I’ve never been to Memphis / someday I’m gonna go / I’m gonna do the Funky Chicken / they say they do it everywhere / I’m gonna take me to the river / ah you know I’ll take you there.”

His musical friends Chris Haynes (Young@Heart band, accordion), Rick Page (Trailer Park, sax) and Jim Armenti (Lonesome Brothers, clarinet) also appear on the album, adding to the freewheeling get-together.

Speaking of which, the Johnny Memphis Band will celebrate the release of “Rarities” with a concert tonight at the Parlor Room In Northampton at 7 p.m. (Doors at 6:30 p.m.)