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