Mem Shannon and The Membership

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There's the entire New Orleans musical tradition, and then there's Mem Shannon. Clean, simple but transcending genres, he channels the spirits that inspired Fats Domino, Prof. Longhair, the Funky Meters and The Neville Brothers. I'm From Phunkville is the fifth album by a man whose day job was his night gig. For 15 years starting at age 22 he drove a cab in the heart of New Orleans ' French Quarter from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. "I learned to read people pretty quickly," says Mem. "When you're in a cab, that's something you just happen to learn along the way. You learn how to size people up in their different degrees of sobriety, and it all applies to everything I've done since then. I'm still watching and learning from people."

At Tipitina's 8th floor studios in the center of the most musically alive city in America , Mem captured the spirit of New Orleans funk with its pungent soul, hot salt water rhythms and deep revelations of the heart. Such influences are the cornerstone of I'm From Phunkville, Mem's first completely self-produced CD. Only Mem could produce a slice-of-life that features his barber and longtime friend A. C. Gayden, Jr. on guitar on the same record with percussionist Billy Martin from Medeski Martin & Wood supported by Mem's own band The Membership. He takes extreme liberties with the concept of groove. Can a groove be beautiful? Can it let a melody breathe and support a rich baritone voice singing lyrics snatched from life to cover a song like hot chocolate on sorbet? Can his barbed wire and Vaseline guitar runs lift the listener? Mem does just that on I'm From Phunkville. "I've learned to listen for clarity," says the New Orleans veteran singer/songwriter about his role as his own producer. "You can have a big cluster of instruments, but if they're blocking the main focal point, the voice of the particular soloing instrument, you've got to correct the levels - I learned that from working with Grammy Award-winning producer Dennis Walker on two of my albums."

On the album, Mem declares "A Perfect World" just can't be, "cause in a perfect world, there would be no you, there'd be no me." The title cut advises the listener, "You better be prepared to move to the groove 'cause we love to see your body move." The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" is the only non-original of the 13 songs. Mem's been listening to that song his whole life, but it wasn't until he saw the lyrics in print that he decided to record his version of the rock classic. "Loneliness, that's what it's about," he says. "I can relate to that. I've been lonely, and I just wanted to put my stamp on the song jokingly telling my friends I fixed the song for the Beatles."

Mem doesn't escape reality in his music; He incorporates it into his songs and lifts them in a lilt that's funky but light. "I'm still telling stories," says an artist whose first album in 1995 A Cab Driver's Blues featured snippets of conversation with actual passengers in his cab. Its Everyman theme touched a cord with new fans around the world, landing him features from "CBS Sunday Morning" to "This Morning" on Europe's Granada TV. Downbeat Magazine caught an early performance at SXSW, stating that, "although the musical emphasis was on young alternative rock acts, it was a veteran New Orleans taxi driver who ultimately drove away with the rave reviews….Shannon's autobiographical blues approach…effortlessly cut through the pretensions and hype with a sound that was as novel as it was sincere."