Le­vitt Shell kicks off free au­tumn con­cert series with a busy sched­ule

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - FRONT PAGE - By Bob Mehr mehr@com­mer­cialap­peal.com 901-529-2517

On Sept. 13, 1936, Mem­phi­ans gath­ered in Over­ton Park to wit­ness the ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony for a new and im­por­tant civic re­source. The Orches­tra Shell, as it was then known, was funded through a part­ner­ship be­tween the fed­eral Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Mem­phis Park Com­mis­sion and the City of Mem­phis. Co­or­di­nated by then-mayor Watkins Over­ton and built by De­pres­sion-era relief work­ers, the triple-arched white con­crete struc­ture was de­signed to host “sum­mer opera, con­certs and other mu­si­cal en­ter­tain­ments.”

“For many years, Mem­phis has fos­tered the love and en­joy­ment of mu­sic among its cit­i­zens through out­door band con­certs in the parks, where thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren have min­gled in na­ture and melody in their leisure hours,” noted the pro­gram com­mem­o­rat­ing the open­ing. “This Orches­tra Shell, a pledge to the fu­ture of mu­sic in Mem­phis, will long re­pay the city for its con­struc­tion in the plea­sure its fa­cil­i­ties will pro­duce to the half mil­lion vis­i­tors who en­joy Over­ton Park each year.”

Nearly 80 years later, that pledge is still be­ing

ful­filled. This week­end, the Le­vitt Shell — re­stored and re­named in 2008 by the Mor­timer Le­vitt Foun­da­tion — will kick off its free fall con­cert sea­son.

The 17-con­cert series, spon­sored by the Orion Fed­eral Credit Union, will launch Satur­day with WLOK-AM 1340’s 42nd annual Stone Soul Pic­nic and con­tinue Sun­day with the 10th edi­tion of the ben­e­fit event Rock for Love.

The first full week­end of the fall sea­son will fol­low Thurs­day, Sept. 8, with start of the In­die Mem­phis Mu­sic Film Series (which will screen a

rarely seen doc­u­men­tary of the 1969 Coun­try Blues Fes­ti­val filmed at the Shell), and per­for­mances by blues-roots combo North Mis­sis­sippi All­stars, South African band Civil Twi­light and folk-rock­ers Delta Rae.

As is cus­tom­ary, the fall Shell sea­son of­fers a mix of artists and events, with an em­pha­sis on Mem­phis-con­nected per­form­ers. High­lights in­clude the Rhodes Col­lege Jazz Band with hard-bop tenor­sax leg­end Ge­orge Cole­man on Sept. 17; re­united in­die-rock­ers Snow­globe on Sept. 24; and the Univer­sity of Mem­phis and Blue Tom Records’ “This Is Mem­phis” con­cert Oct. 2. The sec­ond of two annual tick­eted “Stars in the Shell” ben­e­fit con­certs will be Oct. 15, fea­tur­ing retro R&B big band St. Paul and Bro­ken Bones and head­liner Mavis Sta­ples (the show will be pre­ceded Oct. 13 with a screen­ing of the doc­u­men­tary “Mavis!”). The sea­son’s fi­nal week­end will close with gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama, singer­song­writer Eleanor Tal­lie, and world mu­sic out­fit Balkan Beat Box.

The Shell will for­mally mark its birth­day Sept. 13. At noon that day, the Shelby County His­tor­i­cal Com­mis­sion will un­veil a marker on site com­mem­o­rat­ing 80 years since the Shell’s open­ing. That night, Cedric Burn­side and Sons of Mud­boy will per­form a spe­cial con­cert. “It’s go­ing to be a cel­e­bra­tion,” says Le­vitt Shell ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Anne Pitts.

For Pitts, who has headed the Shell since it re­opened, this year has been a par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful one, fol­low­ing the start of some $4 mil­lion dol­lars in fa­cil­ity re­de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing the in­stal­la­tion of new light and sound sys­tems, an im­proved back­stage area and load­ing dock, and an ex­pan­sion of crowd ar­eas and ameni­ties.

“It’s been a huge im­prove­ment over­all,” Pitts says. “It’s been a big im­prove­ment for the artists, for our pro­duc­tion crew, and for our au­di­ence. We have a lot more con­ve­nience built in. The new load­ing dock has freed up a lot of space, and en­abled us to cre­ate our com­mu­nity lawn that al­lows for food trucks and other ven­dors to be brought into the ex­pe­ri­ence. Now you don’t have to leave the con­cert to get your burger or your beer.”

Pitts adds that in­te­grat­ing the In­die Mem­phis Con­cert Film Series into the fall sched­ule is “ac­tu­ally some­thing that we’ve wanted to try for a while now but couldn’t fig­ure out how to make it work,” says Pitts. “It makes a lot of sense for us, but also for In­die Mem­phis be­cause it leads right into their annual fes­ti­val in early Novem­ber.”

Af­ter eight years, the Le­vitt Shell has be­come that rare project that has ful­filled and ar­guably ex­ceeded all its goals in terms of at­ten­dance (roughly 130,000 pa­trons a year), do­na­tions and pub­lic sup­port. Pitts is es­pe­cially proud to present events like the Stone Soul Pic­nic and Rock for Love, and of the part­ner­ships es­tab­lished with var­i­ous groups — the Stax Mu­sic Academy, the Univer­sity of Mem­phis, Rhodes Col­lege, the Mem­phis Sym­phony and Bal­let — that have made the Shell a nexus for lo­cal art and civic ac­tiv­ity.

“We were pretty adamant about that from the very be­gin­ning,” says Pitts. “Not only do we want to present the 50 free con­certs each year, but we want the Shell to be that cen­ter­piece for com­mu­nity life. The place for gath­er­ing as Mem­phi­ans. That was the orig­i­nal in­ten­tion when the Shell was started 80 years ago. Hope­fully, peo­ple will be able to say the same 80 years from now.”

The Le­vitt Shell’s fall con­cert sea­son will in­clude 17 con­certs, fea­tur­ing per­for­mances by the North Mis­sis­sippi All­stars and Blind Boys of Alabama.

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