Two years ago in Memphis I was lucky enough to take a chance on a band I’d never heard of – The Dempseys, in a bar I’d never been to on Beale Street – The Blues City Cafe. This rockabilly trio was amazing, amazing, amazing – one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. They had stunning musicianship, showmanship, a sense of humor and a deep, deep knowledge of American music – they played everything from Buck Owens tunes to Polk Salad Annie. And the night was full of mind-bending medleys, where they’d say “Jimmie Rodgers”, play one of his songs for 20 seconds then say, “Jimi Hendrix.” Then they’d play Purple Haze for 20 seconds and then on and on and on – stream of consciousness, intuitive musicianship, all played crisply and cleanly.
And the guitar player did the same thing with guitar solos – he’d announce “Hank Garland’ and play Hank Garland style, then ‘Merle Travis’ then ‘Roy Clark’, and on and on. And the manic bass player has the best right hand of any bass player I’ve ever seen. AND they’re probably only in their early 30s. If you saw ‘Walk the Line’ you saw the Dempseys briefly- they were Elvis’ back-up band.
And did I mention they switched instruments mid-song several times each set – one memorable moment had the bass player standing on the bass playing the guitar that was still on the guitar player while the guitar player played the bass and the drummer drummed the bass strings – sheesh! Rockabilly on its own is pretty manic, reminiscent of a Warner Brothers cartoon. The Dempseys took it to the next level – a musical version of a Bob Clampett-directed Bugs Bunny extravaganza.
Sadly, they broke up in 2010, but I invite you to take a look at their You Tube videos. This was a band at their best – combining play and passion with virtuosity that comes from persistence into a potent package that raised everyone that saw them up to a better level. You’ll be missed, Dempseys, thank you!