THERE'S A RED 1976 Olds Delta 88 sitting in the yard of Mem Shannon's house in New Orleans's Irish Channel neighborhood that he'd like to sell--perhaps to the Hard Rock Cafe or the House of Blues or some other collector of music artifacts. Interested parties better jump now when the price is right, though, because Shannon is primed to take his fresh brand of the blues into the fast lane. After cranking the engine of a mostly stalled musical career for 15 years, he's finally put the "Off Duty" sign on that vintage Olds taxicab.
In May, roughly half a year after releasing his debut album, A Cab Driver's Blues (Gert Town/Rykodisc), Shannon quit trolling for fares on the surreal and sometimes mean streets of the Crescent City. But he's got enough residual blues from cruising the French Quarter and dealing with the bizarre characters who inhabited his backseat to inspire several careers' worth of material.
"It's like all one big blur to me," he said recently from his home, his gruff voice betraying the detached attention of a seasoned hack. "It takes a lot to shock me, especially when I've been working down and around Bourbon Street."
As he quickly found out, cab driving is a lot more complicated than just driving around town. People tend to treat taxis as confessionals, baring their souls and sometimes a lot more to the reluctant driver, who suddenly must take on the workload of other professions. "Yeah, bartender, psychologist--you hear people's troubles. Sometimes you just catch them on one of their bad evenings or bad days... sometimes they just need a shoulder to cry on. It wasn't gonna hurt me to listen." And listen he did, for 15 long years, taking mental notes and turning his experiences into songs.
With an acoustic guitar stowed in the taxi's trunk and time to kill between fares, Shannon would hone his guitar skills and work on songs. He is a surprisingly supple guitarist whose blues licks are strongly influenced by B.B. King with some Crescent City eccentricity thrown in. He can funk it up, breathe fire when he wants (preferring to avoid the grand gesture), and even etch some delicate jazz stylings. And his tunes resonate with his personal brand of the blues: Amid a litany of state troopers, flat tires, cheap tippers, robbers, and obnoxious fares on "Taxicab Driver," Shannon groans "There's got to be a better way/And if my luck ever changes/I'm gonna quit this cab business someday."
Although the high quality of the music and the novelty of a modern working stiff actually earning his blues on the job would be enough to set Shannon apart, he sought a little lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans, a little something extra. "We had finished all the music and everything, but still I felt like something was missing," he recalled. "So
I thought, maybe
I can get some
real voices to put between some of the songs. I pitched the idea to my producer; he thought
it was a good idea. So I set up a tape recorder in the cab."
From more than 40 hours of surreptitious recordings
in the Olds, he culled the extraordinary slices of New Orleans street life interspersed with the songs on the CD: drunken tourists on the prowl for "dick ties" and a place "where you take it out"; a hooker lamenting her bad night; a gambler who plays the ponies; and an asshole lawyer who demands a discount because he doesn't like the cabbie's personality.
Shannon's matter-of-fact, quite congenial personality was formed by his native New Orleans and the circumstances that first put him behind the wheel. He started playing clarinet as a kid, fell in love with the guitar as a teenager after hearing King, and played in a succession of R&B, funk, gospel, and top-40 bands. But when his father died, he gave up performing for 10 years, instead driving the cab to support his mother and sister. About five years ago he took up music again, playing in Quarter bar bands (then often driving members of his audience home in his cab), and working with his own group. Eventually, though reluctantly, he began singing as well, in his distinctly soulful, deep baritone.
"I didn't wanna do it," he complains. "I just wanted to write the songs and stand way in the back with the guitar. Let somebody else handle it. [But] I said I would do it until we started gettin' booed or gettin' things thrown at us. Nobody's thrown anything yet, so I guess I'll keep goin'."
With a national tour and a new recording planned for the fall, where Shannon's going is way beyond the I-10 freeway that borders New Orleans. He's still at the wheel, but now it's of his blossoming career and his group's van, not a 20-year-old cab. That remains under the watchful eye of his mother back in New Orleans, probably growing more valuable by the day. And what's the current asking price for this chariot of the crazies, this spawning ground of a cab driver's blues?
"Hey," Shannon says. "Highest bidder."
Mem Shannon and his band, The Membership, will appear at St. Paul's Blues Saloon on Friday, July 26; 228-9959.
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