The story of Memphis, Tenn., is the story of sonic righteousness thriving unnoticed.
No one was looking as sage producer Sam Phillips recorded first Howlin' Wolf and then Elvis Presley in the 1950s. Nor were they watching in the '70s when power-pop homesteaders Big Star cleared the way for R.E.M. and the Replacements to follow.
This weekend, while the eyes of the American music industry are focused intently on Austin, Texas -- home to the nation's premier rock 'n' roll conference, South By Southwest -- the Delta city is once again playing host to raw genius as unhallowed sons the Memphis Goons perform together for the first time in more than two decades.
"The sound is still weird -- very weird," said Goon founder Xavier Tarpit by phone from his former hometown of Memphis on Friday morning. "We really play well together, but we're all very weird, so the sound together can be very strange."
Twenty-five years ago, the Memphis Goons' off-kilter, experimental rock was rebuffed by even the town's allegedly progressive FM radio station. When the band arrived in Memphis on Thursday, another local station attempted to make amends by playing the Goons' "Bring the House Down" in anticipation of their two weekend gigs.
The Goons' contributions to Memphis music lore were born in 1968, when Tarpit began probing the boundaries of rock with collaborator Wally Moth; they were soon joined by Jackass Thompson.
For eight years, the three multi-instrumentalists labored in obscurity, following a strict creative regimen of "write, record and move on" that resulted in hundreds of hours of tape -- material that, in retrospect, is clearly the antecedent for modern greats such as Pavement and Sonic Youth.
Twenty of the band's admittedly most accessible tracks were released last year as Teenage BBQ on the Shangri-La label. The Goons' shows this weekend -- a Saturday afternoon sidewalk gig and an evening performance at Club Barristers -- will highlight a 10th anniversary celebration for Shangri-La.
"It's going to be challenging music," said Tarpit, still groggy from an 11-hour practice the night before. "Some of the songs are very tight, short and centered. But then we have these jams that are very weird. We did a jam last night on an old song called 'Shin Tone' that lasted for half an hour. It was one of the weirdest things I've ever heard."
Saturday's shows will also feature the debut of the newest Goon, The Artist Formerly Known As Stringbean. While members plan to switch instruments round-robin style, the general four-piece lineup will feature six-string, 12-string and lap-steel guitars, plus bass.
New songs such as Moth's "In the Delta" and "Simple Life" are likely candidates for the rare performance. While the Goons may wade into older work such as "Children of Danger" and "Big Bad Businessman Blues," Tarpit said they will avoid seemingly obvious song choices such as "Bring the House Down."
"We're not necessarily audience-responsive," he said, an obvious understatement to those versed in the legend of the Goons' lone public performance in the '70s -- a backyard gig that prompted neighbor kids to pelt the group with rocks.
Although the Memphis Goons have been reunited for less than a day, they are making every effort to consecrate this weekend's events. Shortly after arriving in town, the band made a pilgrimage to the Clarksdale, Miss., home of the crossroads of Routes 49 and 61, where Delta bluesman Robert Johnson purportedly relinquished his soul to the devil.
The musicians, however, were searching for an anointed home of a different sort: a block of establishments -- Goons Grocery, Goons Liquors, Goons Furniture -- owned by Cambodian immigrant Charles Goon.
"He's the spiritual father of the Memphis Goons," Tarpit said. "He sold us a sign from Goons Grocery and we made him an honorary member."