Beale Street Music Festival, the annual kick-off event for the month-long celebration Memphis in May, is known as much for the crappy weather as it is for the great music. If you’re a gambler, it’s the safest bet you can make – during Music Fest, it’s gonna rain. Last year, it held until the last day. This year though, on Friday afternoon the skies opened up and drenched Tom Lee Park with a mixture of rain, wind, and hail. But it wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the festival revelers.
Nor was the weather enough to keep the peformers from playing. Only one stage, the Budweiser stage, faced into the barage of the elements – thus, Ben Folds and the Roots didn’t even play a note. However, the rest of the day was marred by the rain. The Blues Tent was packed as music fans willing to stick it out looked for shelter – Charlie Musselwhite and Keb ‘Mo both went on as planned and played to a crowd.
But, on the outside stages, bands like My Chemical Romance, Joan Jett, and Sheryl Crow ended up playing to diminished crowds as most people had called it a day.
Saturday rose with clouds, but no precipitation. As eager music fans poured through the gates of Tom Lee Park, they encountered a brown, mud-covered river bank. Rapper Al Kapone opened the Budweiser stage with his Memphis hip-hop. Backed by a full band his energetic set included "Whoop That Trick," his song made famous in the movie Hustle And Flow.
Memphis-based blues musician Preston Shannon put on a decent set to a semi-full Blues Tent just as Canadian indie/pop act Teagan and Sara were taking the Budweiser Stage. The identical twins have great voices and by this time, a crowd had begun to gather in anticipation of Myspace darling Colbie Caillat.
Each year, there’s a featured nation for Memphis in May, and that country has a band that comes over to play at BSMF. For 2008, the country was Turkey and the band was Duman, who rocked the Cellular South Stage. While they sang their entire set (except for the last song) in their native tongue, making understanding the lyrics difficult, music is an international language. By that virtue, it was quite clear what they were saying, and the guys from Turkey blasted through a loud and rowdy set that undoubtedly converted a few Memphians to fans.
Duman was followed by Cat Power, who played a soulful yet somewhat monotonous set. Chan Marshall clearly can sing, and from the moment she stepped on stage wearing a Stax hoodie, that was evident. But, by the time she had wrapped up her set, people had begun to wander away. One can only take so many slow songs in a row at a festival. Had her set been played in a theatre-type environment it would have been more palatable, but being outside on a huge stage at a festival, it lacked.
Regardless, Marshall upped the excitement by bringing Hi Records guitarist Teenie Hodges on stage for the bulk of her set, and as she worked her way through "The Greatest," "Dark End of the Street," and "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long," those still awake couldn’t help but recognize Marshall’s vocal ability.
Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy followed Cat Power, and two things were clear immediately: he’s still got it, and he really loves playing guitar. His solo during "Hoochie Coochie Man" was fabulous, and a wake-up call to those who had dozed off during the preceding act.
On the Budweiser stage, John Butler Trio made a return appearance in Memphis, having played the festival in 2007. From the opening "Company Sin," Butler had the packed crowd jumping to the music. Always the political activist, Butler peppered the crowd with his views over the hour-plus long time slot. From how the US government handled things after Hurricane Katrina ("Gov Did Nothin’") to leading chants of "OBAMA!" during "Zebra," his opinions were evident.
The best music of John Butler’s set, though, came in the form of the instrumental "Ocean" – ten minutes of pure acoustic wizardry. Butler is clearly musically gifted, and so is his band. Drummer Michael Barker is a beast, and his drum solo during "Good Excuse" was amazing. Butler converts fans everywhere he plays, and Memphis is no exception.
Santana headlined the Cellular South stage on Saturday night. While the famed guitarist has had a resurgence of late through his guest-laden releases, this set was pure Santana at its best. His set opened up strong,with Carlos in good spirits. As he pushed his Paul Reed Smith to the limit on "Life is For Living," head up and mouth agape, he swung to the Latin beat.
Over the course of Santana’s time on stage, he covered much of his career, as most big-name artists do in abbreviated, greatest hits-type festival sets. "Incident at Neshabur" was a stand-out song, and while he did touch on newer tracks like "Maria, Maria," they were more streamlined without the help of the pop artists with whom they were recorded. Santana exceeded the expectations of many who thought he would be more of a novelty act, which he clearly was not – his guitar work sizzled.
By Sunday morning, the mud had finally started to dry. For the jam band fan, the Budweiser stage delivered a solid line-up, conveniently staging acts back-to-back all day, alleviating the need to make the mile-long trek from one end of the park to the farthest stage.
The day opened up with Pete Francis. Francis, formerly of Dispatch, played a decent yet redundant set of acoustic rock. He’s a respectable songwriter with a good voice, and it’s amazing how his old band sold out Madison Square Garden after their hiatus. Francis was one of a handful of artists to take the stage all weekend who could make that claim, yet his crowd was small. Perhaps the majority of the crowd was still sleeping off the previous night’s festivities, but more likely they just hadn’t heard of the musician, which is a shame.
Over in the Blues Tent, pedal steel player Calvin Cooke was holding church. Cooke was fabulous, engaging the crowd with both his chatter and his crack playing. North Mississippi Allstars bassist Chris Chew held down the low end for the set. Ironically, over the course of the day, all three members of the North Mississippi Allstars would take the stage, yet never together, or even with the same act. In a town like Memphis with a church on pretty much every corner, Cooke was well-appreciated and by the end of his set. The packed tent was on its feet and clapping along.
Umphrey’s McGee faced the brunt of the poor weather at 2007’s Beale Street Music Festival – during their set, the rain was at its worst. This year, though, nearly every member of the band took the stage in sunglasses. Their set was strong, albeit short. They opened up with "In The Kitchen," and guitarist Jake Cinninger immediately made his mark.
Across the board Umphrey’s McGee has a lot of technical skill, and Jake’s probably got the most. "In the Kitchen" segued into "Syncopated Stranger" without finishing the song, but they eventually wrapped it up after "Plunger." Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) came out, electric washboard in hand, to lend his talents to "End of the Road;" the guest appearance was fun, but didn’t add a lot to the song. Their set closed with a searing "Mulche’s Odyssey."
Umphrey’s was followed by Michael Franti & Spearhead, making their second ever appearance in Memphis just a short time after their first (October 2007). There are few bands that are more suited for the festival setting than Spearhead. Something about their positive message and rock/reggae/hip-hop music just begs to be played in the midday sun on a big stage in front of thousands of people.
From the first notes of their set, Franti was bouncing around like a kid who had just downed a pack of Pixie Stix. He had the crowd boucing to "Hello, Bonjour" and "Rude Boys," he pulled at their emotions with "Tell Me Lies," and delivered his crystal-clear anti-war message with "I Know I’m Not Alone" and "Yell Fire!" He closed up a stellar set with "Say Hey."
While O.A.R. was peforming following Spearhead on the Budweiser stage, local-girl-done good Aretha Franklin was taking the Sam’s Town Stage. It doesn’t make much sense that the Queen of Soul, winner of 20 Grammy awards and the first woman inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, wasn’t closing one of the stages, but apparently promoters felt that Fergie, Michael McDonald, and the Black Crowes warranted those spots more than Franklin.
Regardless, Aretha’s band took the stage first and warmed up the crowd before Franklin emerged and, showing her voice was strong as ever, brought the proverbial house down with a cover of Sly Stone’s "I Want To Take You Higher." Her set was predictably full of her greatest hits, and and she closed with a run that included what she should have gotten more of from the festival organizers – "Respect."
The Black Crowes, touring behind new album Warpaint, closed the weekend on the Budweiser Stage. Having just come through Memphis eight months ago, playing Mud Island Amphitheatre prior to Luther Dickinson taking the guitar spot, it was great for locals to have a chance to see their neighbor from the Allstars play with his new group.
It was evident from the start that this is a match made in heaven. From the set-opening "Wounded Bird," it was clear that these Crowes are anything but. The subsequent "No Speak No Slave" probably melted the tar off the roofs of the houses overlooking Tom Lee Park. Chris Robinson remarked to the crowd folowing "No Speak" that it was nice to see everyone at "the rock and roll show." He hit the nail on the head, because rock and roll it was.
Robinson remarked that the band was going to "keep with our riverside theme," and as the dirty slide guitars ripped into "Walk Believer Walk." Dickinson tore this tune up, but it isn’t much of a stretch – it’s right up his alley given his bluesy background; his licks are eerily similar to those he played on "Lonely Avenue" from the Smiling Assassins’ Defector.
However, the tell-tale sign of the cohesiveness of the new Crowes was written all over the face of frontman Robinson. Always a blur of motion on stage, the flamboyant frontman had a big grin on his face all night long.
The Crowes worked their way through their catalog, dealing out pieces of Crowes history and tracks from the new disc. "Wiser Time" was solid – Rich Robinson and Dickinson showed awesome teamwork, and as their guitars synched up after Rich’s solo, it was clear that these guys are hitting stride as a duo pretty early on. Once they’ve got several years of touring under their belt, it’ll be downright scary.
"O’ Josephine" will definitely morph into the "slow crowd favorite from the new album" over time – that was evident from the crowd response. The Crowes got back into greatest hits mode for the rest of the show, offering up a great version of "Thorn In My Pride," "Sting Me," "Jealous Again," the new "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution" and a show and festival-closing "Remedy."
When all was said and done, the Crowes delivered a great set of rock and roll. When they’re on, they’re as good as any band touring. Continuity has always been their issue, and if they can keep this line-up together, great, great things are in store.
As Beale Street Music Festival 2008 came to a close, tired, muddy, fans poured out of Tom Lee Park. Some wandered over to Beale Street to continue their revelry; others plodded to their cars to make the trip home, wherever that may have been. All, though, had smiles on their faces. Be it soul, rap, blues, or rock – there was something for everyone, and that’s what makes Beale Street Music Fest one of the more underrated music offerings of the year.