Memphis musical marvels

Sun Rising – The Songs That Made Memphis

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 10 – 11

Sun Studios is one of Memphis’ must-see attractions, along with Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel (well those were my tourist priorities anyway). As the recording studio opened by the pioneering Sam Phillips, it featured as pivotal in the emergence and development of rockabilly as a major form of popular music in the 1950s.

Far from Tennessee, “Sun Rising – The Songs That Made Memphis” serves as tribute to founder of Sun Studio and Sun Records, Sam Philips and his musical marvels, guiding audience members through a chronological tour its ups, downs and discoveries. The stories are fascinating, with revelation, for example of the brink of bankruptcy motivation for the sale of Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA to cover a 1953 lawsuit over Rufus Thomas Junior’s male-perspective answer record (with unchanged melody or chord structure) to Big Mama Thorton’s ‘Hound Dog’ and tell of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ a recording of an impromptu jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

The early songs, in particular, sound great. From Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ ‘Rocket 88’ to BB King’s ‘She’s Dynamite’, they are full of toe-tapping rhythms and infections energy. Elvis makes appearance of course, slowing things down with ‘My Happiness’, the song he recorded during his first session at the then Memphis Recording Service, when he was just a good ballad singer. Narrator and front man David Cosma captures Elvis’s vocal idiosyncrasies, especially in a rocking rendition of his debut Sun Records single, ‘That’s All Right’, full of fast rhythm and exuberance. And he is impressive on guitar also, in the enduring classic ‘Mystery Train’.

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From there, energy ebbs and flows through the show’s strong rockabilly rhythms. Adrian White expertly reimagines Johnny Cash’s distinctive sound in the slow weeper love song “Cry Cry’ as much as his ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, just as Adrian Whyte recreates Roy Orbison’s distinctive baritone. They are well supported by upright and electronic bassist Trent McKenzie and Adam Coad on drums and backup vocals. The audience is given moment to shine too, during the catchy audience response number ‘Red Hot’ by Billy the Kid Emerson. Before long things are wrapping up in the best possible way with pianist Damon Smith tearing up piano in his showcase of Jerry Lee Lewis’ mania, inhabiting the artist’s boogie-woogie energy and dynamism in ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Clearly the group knows its audience and the between-tune banters caters for them perfectly. And although they pay homage to the performers, they don’t resort to impersonation. The passion of these ‘few guys from Melbourne’, is irresistible, especially by encore of ‘High School Confidential’, ensuring that everybody’s boppin’ and everybody’s hoppin’ in revel of the roots of rock’n’roll.

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