By Robin Zimmerman
Photos: Howard Greenblatt
Southern Avenue at FitzGerald’s: L to R -- Ava Jackson (vocals), Ori Naftaly (guitar), Tierinii Jackson (vocals), Jeremy Powell (keys), Evan Sarver (bass), Tikyra "TK" Jackson on drums
I’m not sure where any of the big local fests are at in terms of booking acts for next year but I sure hope that Southern Avenue is on the radar for the Chicago Blues Festival or Blues on the Fox. This band brings it, and they certainly earned their turn on the big stage at one of the area’s major fests.
But y’all better act fast. It seems like Southern Avenue’s schedule gets booked up quickly. These road warriors recently wrapped up a tour with Sheryl Crow and have wowed crowds everywhere from Bonnaroo and various blues cruises to a slew of prestigious festivals all over the world.
So, it was a special treat to see this band in a smaller venue such as FitzGerald’s when they played there on Saturday, September 23rd. While a reunion was raging on outside in the patio area, Southern Avenue was inside blowing the roof off this converted old roadhouse on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn.
Truth be told, the club wasn’t as crowded as it should have been for an act of this caliber, a fact that our waitress also noted in the afterglow of Southern Avenue’s incredible show. There’s always so much going on the first weekend of fall. But I, for one, am grateful that my plans included seeing Southern Avenue play live at a beloved local establishment.
So, who is Southern Avenue and what makes this band so dynamic? Let’s begin with some of their awards and accolades. This Memphis-based band was the first local act to be signed by Stax records in over 40 years. After joining the legendary label in 2016, their self-titled debut album quickly went to the number one position on I-Tunes “Top Blues Albums” This was followed by a nod for “Best Emerging Artist Album” at the 2018 Blues Music Awards.
Their 2019 release, Keep On, was even more successful and garnered the group their first Grammy nomination for “Best Contemporary Blues Album.” Their third full-length album, The Love You Want was released by Renew Records/BMG, in 2021 gaining the band more acclaim.
While Southern Avenue looks great “on paper,” their live shows are even more impressive. With a repertoire ranging from gospel-tinged ballads and blues-based original numbers to their unique take on several cover versions like Phil Collins’ “That’s All,” Southern Avenue is one of those bands that needs to be seen in person.
Southern Avenue features an incredible front woman in Tierinii Jackson, who has a voice like an angel, down-and-dirty dance moves, and an undeniable stage presence. While Jackson’s a natural entertainer, it might come as a surprise to learn that she was raised in a religious household where only church music was allowed, and dancing was frowned upon.
Dynamic lead guitarist, Ori Naftaly took a different musical path by way of his native Israel. He was immersed in soul and blues music at a young age and trained with Tony Pearson, a touring member of James Brown’s band while still in his teens. Steeped in Memphis-style soul-blues, he headed there in 2013 to compete in the International Blues Challenge. After that, he opted to stick around the southern city. He met Tierinii Jackson soon after that and founded Southern Avenue in 2015. After this professional partnership, they made it personal and married in 2019.
Taking their name from a famous street in Memphis, Southern Avenue successfully merges music and family life on many other levels that includes two additional Jackson sisters making valuable contributions to the band. Tikyra “TK” is a versatile and dynamic drummer with Ava recently coming on board to serve up some sweet harmonizing vocals.
Southern Avenue also boasts a killer keyboard player in Stax Music Academy grad Jeremy Powell as well as some mean bass-playing by way of Evan Sarver.
Their cohesiveness and artistry were on full display at FitzGerald’s from the get-go. They led off with the upbeat “Push Now” followed by a suitably funky version of “Switch Up.” They moved on to “We’re Gonna Make It,” which showcased the Jackson sister’s incredible gospel-tinged harmonies.
After this run of original numbers, they summoned up their southern soul side and treated the FitzGerald’s faithful to a wonderful rendition of “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love.” This song perfectly captured the partnership between Naftaly’s guitar skills and Jackson’s impressive vocal range and eye-popping dance moves. Powell also did his alma mater proud with some fine keyboard work.
But they weren’t done with killer song covers as they broke into a rousing version of “Rock Steady” that showcased TK’s drumming ability. Prince’s “Kiss” was another stand-out that started out as a slow ballad before segueing into a full-blown, guitar-driven frenzy. They also unveiled a fresh take on the eighties-era classic “That’s All.”
That wasn’t all that Southern Avenue had to offer as they soon dove back into a strong live version of “Survive.”. They also took on Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” which featured standout vocals and some impressive instrumental solos by all members of this talented band.
They added a final dash of feel-good with the inspirational “Don’t Give Up.” As we joined the band and sang along in joyful affirmation, this moment provided the perfect ending to an evening that had Southern Avenue mastering every different musical direction they took us on.
About the Author: Blues enthusiast Robin Zimmerman, a.k.a. Rockin' Robin, writes a Blues Blog and is a regular contributor to Chicago Blues Guide