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Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys steal the show at SMF

Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys at the Freeway Gardens SMF venue
Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys at the Freeway Gardens SMF venue
Susan Raines

Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys first appeared at the Sacramento Music Festival in 2012. They were an instant hit. With their high energy performances of Rockabilly sets featuring the music of Jerry Lee Lewis as well as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and other greats of the '40s and '50s, they captured the hearts of everyone in the audience at every SMF venue they played.

Dave Bennett & The Memphis Boys at SMF 2014
Susan Raines

Their first appearance was actually the result of drummer Hal Smith's suggestion to the SMF selection committee when his Hayriders band was invited to return but had key band members unavailable. Hal proposed "bringing in Dave Bennett with guitar, bass and drums to play the Jerry Lee/Rockabilly repertoire" in place of the Hayriders. The committee took to the idea and Hal promptly contacted Dave Bennett and the rest is magical history.

Back in 2009, Hal and Dave played a swing set together and ended up discussing the idea of forming a new band out of their mutual love for Jerry Lee Lewis.. This idea was brought to fruition in 2012 when they formed Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys with the addition of guitarist Gino Meregillano and bassist Joe Jazdzewski. Gino and Hal were previously acquainted through their mutual work with the Hayriders as well as Gino's own group The Lone Gunmen. Joe and Hal were also previously acquainted when playing together with the Blue Largo Blues Band, Billy Watson's Blues Band and the Cash Kings Johnny Cash Tribute Band.

The four musicians "gathered in a recording studio in Oceanside, CA in the Spring of 2012 and recorded the first Memphis Boys CD." Without any prior experience performing together in this unit, they clicked at the studio in a smooth collaboration that seemed meant to be. Hal says it "was easy and fun to do." This ease and sense of rightness is part of what draws their returning fans at the Sacramento Music Festival. They have filled the venues in Old Town for three years running and charged up the crowds with standing ovations and cheers. They have become an obvious new favorite, stealing the show with their talent as well as their theatrics.

The theatrics (or acrobatics as Hal calls them) that fans have come to expect include Gino playing the guitar behind the back, Joe playing the bass upside-down and standing on the bass, and Dave playing the keys with his "Jerry-like" kicking over the piano bench, playing with his boot and other fun theatrics that he picked up from watching "The Master." According to Hal, the first time these crazy and popular antics took place, it was an unplanned and spontaneous performance by Joe and Gino. And Hal says, "so far I haven't worked up any theatrics except for standing up on the last chorus of "Whole Lotta Shakin'."

Perhaps the drummer is better left to the natural drama of his drums that maintains the beat and keeps the entire band as well as the crowd driven. The widely read Jazz blogger Michael Steinman says about Hal, "His rollicking beat makes any band sit up straight and play a thousand times better. He listens to his colleagues and doesn't overshadow them. Just hearing Hal play a four-bar hi-hat introduction is a treat. He's an old-fashioned musical drummer in the best contemporary way: he loves the many sounds he can get from his drum set and he generously shares them with us."

Hal Smith is actually a familiar face at the Sacramento Music Festival which refers to him as a "veteran Jazzman." He first played at the SMF in 1977 back when it was called the Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee. He returned in 1978 and then in 1987, '88, '90, and '91. He returned again in 1993 and "hasn't missed one since then." Through the years of performing at the SMF, he has played with Don Kinch and the Conductors Ragtime Band, the Golden State Jazz Band, Golden Eagle Jazz Band, Banu Gibson, Frisco Syncopators, Golden Gate Rhythm Machine, California Swing Cats, Roadrunners, Clint Baker, Carl Sonny Leyland Trio, Hayriders, Chicago Six and International Sextet before the Memphis Boys.

Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys say they "all love playing at the Sacramento Music Festival." Hal explains, "When we all arrive in town, I can count on the first words out of Gino's mouth: 'I look forward all year to playing this festival!' Everyone in the band feels the same way. We only wish we could play in Sacramento more than once a year! The audiences are great, the response (compliments, applause, etc.) could not be better. We have played more than one set where we received multiple standing ovations during the course of a single set, and you can imagine how much of a boost that is for us! Everyone loves that era of music, and I think the audiences in Sacramento can see how much we love it, and respect it, and that we are giving it 100 per cent of our enthusiasm and energy."

It's absolutely clear to audiences that the band loves what they are doing. The enthusiasm of Dave, Gino, Joe and Hal is infectious. Their joy creates more joy and fans frequently tell them that they "look like we are having a ball playing. " And, although the band members live in different parts of the U.S. and have little opportunity to practice together before appearing at different festivals, they have become a true band "family" and are "close enough to each other that it feels more like a 'Band of Brothers' than just four guys playing Rockabilly music." They manage the long distance band relationship by exchanging emails and sending audio files and links to videos to learn new material.

Dave Bennett and The Memphis Boys have not yet been asked to return for the 2015 Sacramento Music Festival. Its too early to know but a multitude of fans will be highly disappointed if that doesn't happen. The only time they didn't completely or nearly fill a SMF venue was this year during their set at the new Turntable Green with a capacity of over 3,000. The 2:00 p.m. midday heat scattered crowds to the cooler Freeway Gardens and other more effectively shaded venues. Another SMF appearance at the smaller, more intimate Firehouse Courtyard venue came as a surprise to both them and their fans. It was nearly impossible to perform their complete routine in such cramped quarters; but, they came in with instruments and hearts blazing regardless and played "as hot and hard" as they were capable in that setting. It's this kind of dedication to their art and their undying passion for the music that endears them to thousands at the Sacramento Music Festival and across the U.S.

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