When he landed in Memphis, Tennessee in 2013 to compete in the annual International Blues Challenge and represent his native Israel, it was a dream come true for guitarist Ori Naftaly. And while victory in his category eluded him, he quickly made some contacts, formed a band, and went on a mini-tour before heading back overseas. He repeated the process one more time, before eventually ending up not needing a return ticket.
“I came to the conclusion that if I just booked myself three or four months ahead of time, I wouldn’t have to go back at all!” he laughs. “It was two years later that I realized I had actually relocated! But it was a dream more than a decision. I just didn’t think it was possible.”
That initial group didn’t work out, but then he met Memphis natives Tierinii Jackson and her drum-playing sister Tikyra, and they clicked immediately. They added another local, Jeremy Powell on keyboards, and then Daniel McKee on bass with occasional horn players.
The newly-minted Southern Avenue (named for the street that bordered the city’s legendary Stax recording studio), also competed in the IBC in 2016, this time representing Memphis.
“Memphis is not just about blues. It’s about soul music and real music,” Naftaly continues. “People compare it to Nashville, but it’s a completely different world. Memphis is real and rugged and Nashville is polished and clean. And that approach is something I really relate to. Memphis has so much American history and culture. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but then I got to understand it, and it made me a better person.”
Alas, victory eluded Naftaly a second time. But the buzz was hot on the group, and they released a self-titled debut album the next year, becoming the first Memphis band in more than four decades actually signed to the revived Stax label. In 2019, sophomore effort Keep On broke them wider, and it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
But blues is only one color in the palette of Keep On. There’s greasy soul (“Whiskey Love”),
ethereal gospel (“Savior,” “Tea I Sip”), raw James Brownian funk (“The Switchup,” “Jive”), deep soul (“Lucky,” “We’re Gonna Make It”), and even unbridled bisexual eroticism (“She Gets Me High,” “Take Over Me”). Social commentary also weaves its way into the uptempo “We’ve Got the Music” and the torchy “We’re Not So Different.”
It’s a much more impressive effort than their first record, and that’s how Naftaly planned it.
“We could dig in more as far as the writing to kick it up a notch as far as our ideas. And I wanted to bring new sounds to the album,” he says. “We used a real analog Mellotron on probably half of the songs. I was always a fan of that sound and the sort of epic energy it brings.”
Words like “retro,” “reminiscent,” and “throwback” are often used in describing the sound of Southern Avenue. But while he fully admits that the band embraces their influences, he makes clear that this is contemporary music for a modern audience. “It’s not something that we consciously do, and we don’t feel comfortable with the ‘retro soul’ description. We don’t try to do something that brings sounds from the past and recycle them,” he offers.
Keep On would not end up winning the Grammy – that went to Gary Clark Jr.’s record This Land. Perhaps that’s partially due to the fact that Clark was by far the biggest name in the category and familiar to voting members. Oddly, the title track also won Clark “Best Rock Song” and “Best Rock Performance.” Naftaly says it didn’t faze the group, especially considering so many of his own favorite acts and records didn't even make the cut that they did.
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Southern Avenue is busy writing their next album (which will come out on the Stax-affiliated Concord label), and breaking in their new bass player, Evan Sarver.
Their upcoming Houston show will be Southern Avenue’s second time playing the city, having opened for the Tedeschi Trucks Band last year at the Hobby Center last year. They went over great, and the TTB has a history of curating some amazing groups to share the stage with them, many going on to bigger things.
“That tour was great, and they are the nicest people. The band, the crew, they’re an example of how to be a super pro,” Naftaly recalls. “To get to see their show and how they approach it and change it up was great. Derek and Susan were great to us. And their fans are real music fans. They got us.”
Southern Avenue play 7 pm. On March 1 opening for Los Lobos and Ozomatli at the House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Call 1-888-402-5837 or visit HouseofBlues.com/Houston. $25-$59.50.