Southern Avenue returns to Asheville for Downtown After 5

OPEN-ENDED: Following a European tour, Memphis-based Southern Avenue is working on material for a new album, “focused on writing whatever comes to our hearts,” founder and guitarist Ori Naftaly, second from left, says. “We tried to do some more funky stuff, some more soulful stuff, more rock-y.” Photo courtesy of the band

Southern Avenue doesn’t want to change your life; the band just wants to change your night. Whatever happened earlier in the day, the musicians want you to come together with strangers under the steady groove of their signature, Memphis-infused blend of blues, funk, roots and rock music, and feel better about life for a while.

No doubt they’ll be doing just that when the group rolls back into Asheville on Friday, Aug. 17, for Downtown After 5. This will be Southern Avenue’s second show in town; last time, the outfit shared a bill with Marcus King at the Asheville Music Hall.

Having just finished a monthlong tour in Europe, the band’s founder and guitarist Ori Naftaly says those weeks away from the States helped members to “see more about how special a group of people we are, as characters, as musicians.” Now they’re resting up before heading back out, on a jaunt around the South, and Naftaly says they’re looking forward to returning to Asheville: “It’s a town that we love so much, but we just never get to spend time there.”

Southern Avenue formed after Naftaly, who had a successful solo career in his native Israel, came to the U.S. to participate in the International Blues Challenge. A lifelong devotee of the Memphis sound that was nurtured by Stax Records and its many legends — Otis Redding, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, and the list goes on — Naftaly determined to stay in Memphis and form a band that could round out his music and make the sweet blends of sounds and styles he was hearing in his head.

“I hired Tierinii [Jackson] to be the face of the band and for us to write songs together,” he says, “because I don’t sing. I needed a voice. … I [told her], ‘I think you’re going to be the best blues singer in the business in a few years if you just stick with me,’ because I knew the blues community and I knew everybody inside of it. She was like, ‘No, I’m not a blues singer, no way.’ I said, ‘Look, you just need to sing — if it’s blues, jazz, R&B, soul [doesn’t matter]. A lot of singers try to imitate Koko Taylor or Etta James or Nina Simone, and they tried to imitate men singing the blues. But Tierenii didn’t grow up listening to Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters or anything. She just did it. So when she sings the blues, she really sings it. She doesn’t try to imitate a man singing.”

Soon, Naftaly added Daniel McKee on bass, and it wasn’t long before he realized he had something special  — especially after Jackson brought in her then-19-year-old sister, drummer Tikyra Jackson, who was in college at the time and had to take a crash course in being a professional musician. But the six years between the sisters meant that Tierinii had the opportunity to teach her little sister, with whom she’d sung for years at church, about music and the music business in a meaningful way. Now 23, Tikyra is involved in the band’s songwriting and decision-making and is doing so with greater confidence, putting her signature stamp on the group’s sound.

“My goal,” says Naftaly, “is for Tikyra to have the best career she can, same as Tierinii. Whenever Tikyra comes up with anything, immediately we jump at it and try to make it happen. … I feel like I’m very lucky and those [women] are amazing.”

Indeed, the group that Naftaly originally started as an expression of his own creativity soon grew into its own entity — an expression of a group of people with rather diverse musical backgrounds and interests, expressing their unique vision through their music. Eventually he determined that it was no longer his band alone; the group had become a family and was growing into its name: Southern Avenue.

Southern Avenue is an arterial that runs east to west through the city, past the University of Memphis, straight to the original home of Stax Records. And there is some sweetness to the fact that Naftaly came to town in pursuit of that Stax sound and his band is now recording for the legendary label.

Now, four years in — with Jeremy Powell, a graduate of the Stax Music Academy, recently added on keys — Naftaly feels confident about the groove Southern Avenue’s members found with one another, the respect and trust they’ve fostered within the band and the level of creativity that’s emerging from recent jams and songwriting sessions.

They’re working on material for another album, “focused on writing whatever comes to our hearts,” Naftaly says. “We tried to do some more funky stuff, some more soulful stuff, more rock-y. … We really went with every direction that we like. We don’t have any genre that we’re trying to stick with because we’re all so different.”

To boot, he and Tierinii have recently become engaged. “They were raised right and they’re great and they trust me, and I trust them,” Naftaly says. “Now we’re all real family. We’re stuck together, whether we like it or not.”

WHO: Southern Avenue with The Fritz
WHERE: Downtown After 5, Lexington Avenue at the I-240 overpass, ashevilledowntown.org
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 17, 5 p.m. Free

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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