With all of the great music that went on during the first few days of Beale Street Music Festival, the opening event of Memphis in May, the real talk wasn't anything that took place on stage – it was the fact that rain was nowhere to be seen. Yet, just when festival goers thought they were free and clear, the skies opened up on Sunday, and drenched Tom Lee Park before the music stopped.
Friday opened the festivities, and even the performers noted the then-dry festival grounds. "I thought this was supposed to be Memphis in Mud," said Tom Higgenson, frontman of the Plain White T's, referencing the extremely reliable thunderstorms that seemingly put a damper on things year after year.
However, the skies were blue, and the music was great.
The first day was a Southern rock fan's fantasy, as the Allman Brothers Band, Gov't Mule, the Derek Trucks Band, and the North Mississippi Allstars were all on the bill. However, a severe scheduling blunder had the Allstars and Derek Trucks scheduled on different stages at the exact same time. This was a huge oversight, as festival organizers clearly did not take into consideration the bands had identical fan bases.
Opening the AutoZone Stage was the North Mississippi Allstars, a local product that honed their craft in the smoky bars on Beale Street and the juke joints of neighboring Mississippi. Their set proved powerful, musically and physically, as the PA system blew a few minutes into their second song, "Soldier." Regardless, they put on a great set when things resumed.
Augmented by Kirk Clayton on keyboards, the Allstars ran through their repertoire old and new, from Shake Hands With Shorty's "Goin' Down South" and "Shake 'Em On Down" to The Barnyard soundtrack's "Hillbilly Holla," with some well-played cover tunes like "Love and Happiness" thrown in for good measure. "Ship > Gloria" was the standout, with searing guitar leads from Luther Dickinson.
Meanwhile, over on the Budweiser Stage, the Derek Trucks Band was putting on a sizzling set. Derek's signature guitar tone could be heard across the park, and jaws were dropped across the crowd.
Vocalist Mike Mattison's immense vocal range was showcased on "Soul Serenade," and "Key To The Highway" featured Trucks at his best.
One of the best facets of Beale Street Music Fest is the blues tent. Beale Street has a rich history, from WC Handy to BB King – it's only fitting that a festival bearing its name be deep in the genre.
Friday's roster under the yellow-and-blue tent featured Koko Taylor and Popa Chubby, but arguably the best set was that of Hubert Sumlin and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player, performs with an energy that belies his age. He ran through a great set, interacted with the crowd, and looked like he was having the greatest time. These blues legends seem to be leaving us at an all-too-rapid pace, so it's always great to be able to catch them live.
Gov't Mule is a Beale Street Music Fest favorite – Warren Haynes and co. have played three of the past four festivals, the lone break being in 2005. When they took the stage a little past 9:00, the crowd was stacked shoulder to shoulder. The band kicked their set off with "Hammer and Nails" and then slowed things down with "Banks of the Deep End."
"Effigy" was great, and had an instrumental tease of "Folsom Prison Blues" sandwiched in the middle, which immediately got the Memphis crowd screaming. "Bad Little Doggie" was its frenetic best, as Warren played incendiary solos over the steady, chugging drumming of Matt Abts and Andy Hess's grooving bass lines. "Brand New Angel" was phenomenal, one off of High & Mighty that will surely stick in the band's live repertoire. "Soulshine" closed the set, to no suprise.
The Allman Brothers Band took the stage following Mule, and closed out the day, staring off with "Hot'lanta." All of the requisite casual fan favorites were played, from "Statesboro Blues" to "Trouble No More," and from "Midnight Rider" to "One Way Out." However, the Brothers did please the die-hards with songs such as a monstrous "Woman Across the River," which featured a great guest appearance from Mule keyboard player Danny Louis – it was nice to have a capable key soloist on board, even if for just a few songs.
During this year's Beacon run, the Allmans added a few sections to a few songs, and both were on display. "Black Hearted Woman" was intense, as the band segued from that song to an "Other One" jam, and back into "Black Hearted Woman." After, "No One To Run With" had the new extended instrumental section at the end, where Derek Trucks played a great solo, and just as the band started to slow down, it picked back up and charged into a section where Haynes took the reins and played a great solo of his own.
After a brief encore break, Gregg came back out with an acoustic guitar, Oteil, Warren, and Butch Trucks, and they ran through "Melissa," and were then joined by the rest of the band to close out the show and the day with a scorching "Whpping Post."
READ ON FOR SATURDAY >
The weather held again on Saturday – in fact, it was hot. The combination of and the breeze off the river made for a pleasant afternoon, which was kicked off by Canadian act the Duhks.
Pronounced the "ducks," this band typified energy. Hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the band came on a few minutes late because of the same electricity problems that plagued the North Mississippi Allstars the day before. The crowd was sparse, but as their set proceeded, what used to be a small crowd turned into quite a nice number.
Part bluegrass, part folkk, part Celtic, and all fun, they powered through songs off of all three of their albums, from "Green Fields of Glentown" to "Down to the River," a great and fitting cajun tune written by Keith Franks. However, the song that got the crowd moving most was not their own – it was a spot-on cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," which was utterly amazing in the context of fiddle and banjo. Vocalist Sarah Dugas' voice was perfect, and the whole set was a great time.
The Duhks were followed by jam circuit favorite Keller Williams, who also fell victim to the nasty electrical problems of the stage.
After "Crater in the Backyard," mid-loop he found himself playing instruments with no juice. Ever the showman, lack of power wouldn't stop Keller. Instead of leaving the stage like the Allstars the night before, Keller led the crowd through a capella versions of "The Banana Boat Song" and Sublime's "What I Got," then ran to the back to get a djembe, and with the crowd's help, made up a brand new song, aptly (and unofficially) titled "Got No Electricity." After running out of ideas, he shrugged and walked off stage for a few moments.
The busy crew got the system up and running again, and Keller returned to finish his set, quipping "Y'all still here?" "Freaker by the Speaker" was met with excitement, and the set-closing "Celebrate Your Youth" was appropriate given the younger age of the audience.
Australia's John Butler Trio followed Keller, and offered up tracks mostly from his last two albums, Sunrise Over Sea and late March's Grand National. John Butler's a great performer – skilled on his instruments, and a solid storyteller. "Treat Yo Mama" had the crowd moving from the start, and the dancing continued through his whole set.
"Ocean," a tune he wrote long ago while busking, is just amazing to watch. Just Butler, his guitar, some finger-tapping and foot stomping, and beautiful sounds.
The lightest moment came during "Peaches and Cream," a song written for his daughter. During the tune, she crept out on stage and sat with her daddy. At the end of the song, Butler got up from his riser, picked her up, and brought her to the lip of the stage to look out at the thousands gathered to hear her song. He commented how she knew the song was hers, and liked to come out and stare during it. It was a great moment.
Butler closed with the popular "Betterman," and a stellar set came to a close.
The promoters obviously underestimated the attraction of another Australian band, Wolfmother, and booked them on the Budweiser Stage, the big stage with the smallest viewing area. The crowd packed in tightly and fed heartily off of guitarist/singer Andrew Stockdale’s amazing riffs and commanding vocals. As Chris Ross tossed around his keyboard with reckless abandon, sometimes standing it on end or dropping it to the stage, Myles Heskett’s beat kept the crowd moving to favorites like "Joker and Thief," "Lovetrain," and "Woman."
Later in the evening on the Cellular South Stage, to a tired but packed crowd, Steely Dan took the stage to close out Saturday's music. Only the brave attempted to get a good view of the multitude of performers on the stage; quite a few people were content to sprawl out in the grass with blankets away from the masses and calmly listen to such classics as "Hey Nineteen" and "Reeling in the Years."
Saturday was a success just like Friday. However, the torrential downpour that seems to plague Beale Street Music Fest each year without fail would rear its ugly head on Sunday.
READ ON FOR SUNDAY >
By Sunday morning…well, let's just say the uncommonly gorgeous weather that had stuck around all weekend was gone, giving way to the usual: rain, and lots of it. However, the thunder and lightning that did surface came and went fairly quick.
Those that played early were the ones that fell victim, although at least the Lee Boys stayed dry – they played under the safety of the Blues Tent to a packed house of those dodging the rain.
However, bands on the stages were standing on the equivalent of large lightning rods and that meant Umphrey's McGee.
The crowd was thin for the wait before Umphrey's set, but by shows end it was a packed house – not bad considering they had not been to Memphis in three years. Between the massive downpour, lighting, mud, lack of towels, and tons of equipment trouble on stage, the show was a success. Umphrey's handled the problems like professionals and keep playing through the troubles.
There were obviously lots of first timers there and you could tell, a lot of converts too. The band ran through great versions of "Resolution," "The Fuzz,"
"FF," and "Partyin Peeps." Though their set was no more than an hour, they made their mark and said "We'll be back soon." Here's to hoping to won't be another three years.
After Umphrey's had finish and the rain had subsided, Guster hit the stage to a relatively small crowd. Along with Edwin McCain, the Counting Crows, and the Barenaked Ladies, Sunday certainly satisfied the pop music crowd.
Meanwhile, rapper Project Pat wais playing on the other end of the park. He did what most Memphis rappers seem to do on stage: yell into the mic just a little too loud and wave a towel in the air. Regardless, the crowd just couldn't get enough and the
energy was through the roof.
The aforementioned Counting Crows and John Legend were the big names that closed out Beale Street Music Fest, and despite the fact that a large portion of the crowd was soaked to the bone, it was another successful year and a great kick-off to Memphis in May.