Levitt Shell Opens Spring Season

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

The Levitt Shell opens its spring 2012 season with a kid-friendly schedule shift and an serendipitous focus on music and dance groups with roots in Africa. The new season will include as many free shows as the previous season, however they are spread out over a longer period of time, May 17 through July 1.

The Levitt Shell presents a number of African band and musical ensembles as well as kid-friendly events this spring. All shows are free and open to the public. Clockwise from top: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Tinsely Ellis, The Wandering. (Photos: Courtesy of the artists)

“We’re going a couple weeks later than we usually do and the reason is that we are doing four shows a week instead of five shows,” said Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell. “With our kids’ programming we’ve always had a one-hour kids’ show attached to another show day. This time we’re making Sunday our family days.”

Pitts noted that the schedules have been evolving over time to accommodate the schedules of performers as well as the audience. Previously, kids’ shows were also held during the hottest part of the day. Now they will take place on Sunday evenings. While all shows held at the shell are meant to be family-friendly, Pitts wanted one day a week to be something special for the entire family. One such group is the March Fourth Marching Band on June 3.

“It’s a feast for the eyes and ears,” Pitts said. “It’s a 28-piece marching band with a cross between big band sound and a traditional marching band sound and a little bit of funk.”

The band performs on stages around the country instead of in parades, but rarely confines itself to the stage.

“They have stilt walkers,” Pitts said. “I saw them perform in Austin and it was incredible. Everybody was up dancing. It’s a whole body experience.”

Only one Latin band, Vivaz!, is scheduled for the season. Previously entire days have been devoted to Latin music groups. Pitts said that was just the way the touring schedules worked out this year.

“We’ll have more in the fall, but for this season we’re pretty excited about Vivaz!” Pitts said. “They have a really unique style that blends Latin and a little bit of the New Orleans influence.”

The group was formed in New Orleans, but its members hail from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Venezuela. They take the stage on May 25. Meanwhile, a number of African groups will play the shell for the first time, including Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars on May 31.

Brought together by regional conflict in West Africa, the band set its members’ survival stories to music and found international fame.

“This group is pretty incredible,” Pitts said. “It’s West African reggae and Afro-beat. They started playing music and spreading the story of what’s going on and the next thing you know their doing world tours.”

Two days later on June 2, the group is followed by Bandan Koro, a Dallas-based ensemble expressing the African diaspora through beat rather than lyrics.

“This is purely African dance and drum ensemble,” Pitts said. “They come from Texas and they’re a group of kids and adults who are practicing these traditions and preserving them to share their love of rhythm.”

Guitarists of varying genres are slated as well including rock/blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis on May 24 and blues/soul guitarist Ruthie Foster who is returning for her second Levitt Shell show on June 1.

But the locals aren’t to be outdone.

Todd Snider’s What the Folk Fest will unite the best of Americana singers including Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Hayes Carll, Will Kimbrough and Elizabeth Cook on June 16.

And on May 19 a new band, the creation of Luther Dickinson called The Wandering, will bring together a handful of Memphis’ most celebrated young singers including Amy LaVere, Sharde Thomas, Shannon McNally and Valerie June.

“It’s a new project and this is going to be the first time they perform in Memphis together,” Pitts said. “They’re all incredible musicians and they’re heavily influenced by British music.”

All but Thomas have played the shell previously. As always, all shows are free and open to the public. Thursday, Friday and Saturday night performances begin at 7:30 and Sunday shows start at 6 p.m. Visit www.levittshell.org for the entire schedule.