On paper, it seems perfect.
An April/May music festival on the banks of the Mississippi River – one of the most gorgeous sites eyes can behold – from April 30 to May 2, before the weather gets so hot that clothes seem like a chore.
A strong line-up from top to bottom – heavy hitters like Widespread Panic and Jeff Beck; a meaty mid-level band line-up with the likes of Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi; up-and-comers like Truth & Salvage and Elmwood. And that’s just on the main stages; there’s the two blues stages as well.
What’s the one thing that could bring it all crashing down to the muddy floor?
The rain – LOTS of it.
It’s like clockwork, a certainty like taxes or death. EVERY year, it rains the weekend of Beale Street Music Festival and Tom Lee Park, where the festival is held, turns into a bog more fit for a monster truck rally than a music festival. 2010 was no exception.
Early weather reports cast a pall over a weekend that boasted arguably the best line-up that festival organizers have ever arranged, regardless of musical preference. If you liked 80s soft rock, The B-52s, Hall and Oates and Michael McDonald were on the bill. For those with a taste that skewed towards popular music in the last two decades, Alice in Chains, Colbie Caillat, Limp Bizkit, The Goo-Goo Dolls, Three Doors Down and Seether were scheduled to play. Rap your thing? Yo Gotti and Al Kapone lined up to take the stage. Legends like Booker T, Jerry Lee Lewis and Leon Russell all had slots as well.
For me, though, it’s like they took my favorite acts and stacked them up, one after the other, over the course of the weekend.
In setlist parlance, I looked ad the grids, and immediately saw Blues Traveler > Jeff Beck > Widespread Panic on Friday. I saw Alvin Youngblood Hart > The North Mississippi Allstars > Drive-By Truckers > Gov’t Mule on Saturday, and Sunday looked like John Hiatt > Sonny Landreth > Band of Horses > Jerry Douglas sitting in with Allison Krauss.
Except, like any fest, it never goes as planned. The Flaming Lips were scheduled to headline Saturday night, but because of Steve Drozd’s health emergency, they pulled out. With that, my festival experience got turned up a notch as my favorite act of all, Derek Trucks, took that headlining slot.
The days leading up to the fest were spent watching the radar. The outlook this year looked worse than others; by Thursday evening, there was a 100% chance of rain for the entire weekend.
Yet, despite the bleak outlook, Friday afternoon came, and when festival gates opened up at 5:00 PM, rain had yet to fall.
Beale Street Music Festival is an interesting event in and of itself. Amid the three main stages, the blues tent, and the relatively new Southern Comfort Blues Shack, you find a cross-section of the American experience. The two food sections boast a wide array of choices – from the giant corn dog to the staple of the Memphis diet, BBQ. The Marines were recruiting on fest grounds a mere stone’s throw from a hippie clothing tent. If you chose to ignore the actual music audible from nearly every inch of the festival grounds, you could go pick up a plastic guitar and try your hand at Guitar Hero.
But, Beale Street Music Fest and Memphis itself is about the music, and while the threat of weather was eminent, Blues Traveler opened the Sam’s Town stage at 6:30 PM as scheduled. While John Popper may be a fraction of his former self, his larger-than-life persona and skill on harmonica are the same as they’ve always been. From radio hits like "Run-Around," "Hook," and "But Anyway" to the rocking "Carolina Blues" to Sublime’s "What I Got" and Radiohead’s "Creep," Blues Traveler ran through a set that touched on their entire catalogue and delved into covers that delighted the crowd.
New Orleans’ MuteMath was a band I’d heard of, but never actually heard. On the recommendation of a friend, I checked them out over on the Cellular South stage, and was pleasantly surprised. Their blend of rock and pop (with a keytar thrown in every now and again for good measure) seemed like it’d really be a fun show if you knew their music, which I clearly did not – I can’t tell you a single song they played in the twenty or so minutes I gave them my attention before ventured back across fest grounds to catch Jeff Beck.
En route to Jeff Beck, I ran across the Blues Shack, which was populated by Kenny Brown at the time. Brown’s always an enjoyable performer to watch. No stranger to the Memphis crowd, he had a good-sized audience in front of him while he brought north Mississippi up the road to Tom Lee Park.
I really wanted to enjoy Jeff Beck‘s set. I did. I’d never seen the legend in person, and expected great things. It just wasn’t meant to be, though. Jeff Beck is an amazing guitarist, but not even his chops could break through a setlist that should have been fun with great cover choices like "Rollin’ and Tumblin" and "A Day In The Life." It was a complete snoozer, and I felt compelled to walk away and refuel for the band that would follow him – Panic.
Widespread Panic‘s set was a race against the weather. A few songs in, the skies finally couldn’t hold off any longer, and a steady rain fell upon the thousands crowded elbow to elbow in front of the Sam’s Town stage. Fortunately, the weather relented, and the shower only lasted for a minute or so, but it would return with a vengence later on. As such, Panic seemed to respond by quickly blasting through their set.
The message board critics the next day were clearly not pleased, and there was some justification. John Hermann did look asleep behind his organs (they were playing until the wee hours the night before in New Orleans, so this isn’t a shock), and they did only play for about an hour and a half, but perhaps they knew what they’d be up against weather-wise.
Panic’s choice of setlist seemed more song-oriented rather than the jammy fare their fanbase has come to expect. Only one song (which was really two) breached the ten-minute mark, "Protein Drink/Sewing Machine;" otherwise, it seemed more as if they were trying to cram as much music into their time on stage. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but not a "normal" Panic show either.
The message board critics were clearly not pleased by Panic’s set, but I had a good time. It may have been because I haven’t seen Panic in a few years, or maybe I’m just a bit more forgiving, but I thought "Radio Child" was great – Jimmy Herring pushed the song with his frenetic guitar work while Schools thundered along, driving the rhythm section.
"Pilgrims," to me, was the song of the set. By the time John Bell got to the solo section, the band had really settled in nicely. Herring’s solo was beautiful, and culminated in some tasteful keyboard work from JoJo, who by this point apparently decided to join the rest of the band.
The rest of the set seemed to be geared towards pleasing the locals, because it was full of local references and covers by regional artists. They ran through a decent "Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)," and by the time JB sang the opening line, "drivin’ in the walkin’ rain," a real-life drizzle began to fall.
They followed it up with a bluesy "Smokestack Lightning" by Howlin’ Wolf, born down the road in Mississippi, payed homage to another regional blues legend Junior Kimbrough with "Junior," and "Blackout Blues" saw JoJo "movin’ back to Mississippi." Their set closed with their semi-standard cover of the Talking Heads’ "Live During Wartime." JB flubbed some of the lyrics, but by this time, the drizzle had turned into full-on shower, and perhaps the band was just trying to get off stage and out of the rain.
Yep, it was Beale Street Music Fest, alright. Good music marred by poor weather, and things would take a turn for the worse overnight.
CLICK NEXT FOR SATURDAY’S COVERAGE AND THE FESTIVAL PHOTO GALLERY
Around 4:00 AM Saturday morning, I was woken up by the tornado sirens. Memphians are used to hearing them at noon every Wednesday and Saturday, when the county runs their regular tests, but it’s mildly frightening to get woken up by them in the middle of the night. All that weather that had played relatively nice on Friday evening decided it was time to play dirty, and the rain was coming down by the bucket-load. Turns out that no tornado ever touched down, but the threat was there, and the weather crews on every network said it was more a matter of "when" rather than "if."
The rain finally broke mid-morning, but the Memphis in May folk decided to play it safe and push the start time back two hours to 4:00 PM. The tornado warning would stay in effect most of the day and the forecast called for more rain a few hours later, but at the very least, the rain broke long enough to re-open the festival.
Due to the delayed start-time, a few acts got pushed back or were given shorter time slots. Alvin Youngblood Hart was scheduled in the Blues Tent at 2:15 but was given an abbreviated set an hour or so later. Hart’s as underrated as they come, and when he took the stage with is group, Muscle Theory, he had full command of the audience.
Trudging through the mud in my rain boots – after all these years, I finally learned that they’re borderline necessity for Beale Street Music Festival – I approached the Budweiser Stage for the North Mississippi Allstars. The crowd was noticably smaller than usual, due to the inclement weather.
But, as if Allstars patriarch Jim Dickinson sent a blessing down from above, the downpour that was near certainty just never came (yet). Gray skies to the right over in Arkansas, and gray skies hovered over inland Memphis, but over Tom Lee Park, we actually saw a bit of blue break up the dreary sky above.
The Allstars always bring their A-game to Beale Street Music Fest, it seems. They tore threw a torrid setlist of goodies, from the Chris Chew-sung "I’d Love To Be A Hippie" to "Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down," which showed Luther Dickinson at his very best, wrangling every note out of his guitar with a ferocity that has been emerging with each year on the road. Like most local North Mississippi Allstars shows, this set turned into a family affair when the band invited Hill Country Revue mates Ed Cleveland and Kirk Smithart joined them for "Goin’ Home."
"Po Black Maddie > Boogie > Po Black Maddie" were the Allstars at their very best – locked in as one playing perfect tension-and-release electric blues. If there’s anyone from the Mid-South primed to carry the torch lit by the older generation, it’s these boys.
The Drive-By Truckers, a band I’m just not on board with, followed the Allstars and (for the first time ever) I found myself enjoying one of their rock shows. Despite my leanings towards all things Southern rock, I just never cared for the Truckers, but this set was pretty solid. Touring behind their new disc The Big To-Do, there was some stuff in their setlist I wasn’t too familiar with, but "Let There Be Rock" and "Shut Up and Get On the Plane" were solid, and "Three Dimes Down" was hot enough for me to re-think my aversion to the band.
Gov’t Mule followed the Truckers and put on the set of the weekend, courtesy of bassist Jorgen Carlsson, who’s turning out to be a true difference maker in a band that spent a few years treading water. It’s hard as hell to replace a core member of any band, let alone one that was so tied to the group’s identity many Mule fans will say the band died with Allen Woody. Carlsson, though, has filled the role perfectly. He brings the thunderous, rumbling basslines that were trademark Mule at its inception.
The set kicked off in true Mule style, with "Blind Man In The Dark," Carlsson’s Gibson bass sending shivers down the spines of the packed audience. Not to say anything bad about Andy Hess, but in his five years with the band, that dirty bass tone disappeared, and from the first minute of "Blind Man," it was so clear that it was back, and in full force. Once Warren Haynes drove the band towards the guitar solo section of the song and the band was chugging along – locked in from the very first song – it was a beautiful site to behold.
Carlsson’s growling bass tone was prevalent in the whole set but no more so than during "Broke Down on the Brazos," a show-stopping snapshot of Mule 3.0, a song that EASILY could have come along during Woody’s years. The interplay of the entire band, from Warren’s stellar guitar work to Danny Louis’ keyboards, was phenomenal, and as the song chugged along, it was Mule at its very finest.
As with most Mule shows, there was a degree of predictability; "Soulshine" closed the set and there was the staple "When Doves Cry > Beautifully Broken," but Cody Dickinson and his electric washboard (or "alien" washboard as Warren Haynes put it,) came out for a blistering take on "32/20 Blues," with an instrumental tease of Beck’s "Loser." Dickinson blended right in with the band – it’s gotta be tough to work a washboard into the Robert Johnson-turned electric blues song, even if said washboard is electric itself.
"We’re going to show you now what happens when you take a bunch of hippies and play an Al Green song," said Hayens right as the band dipped into "I’m A Ram," and followed it up with "Mule," with a verse of Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love" stuck in the middle for good measure. All told, it was a stellar Mule set.
By the time Mule was done, reports were coming in of inclement weather to the west. The Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band took the stage anyway, and dove right in. The husband-and-wife team have put together a crack touring band that includes both Burbridges (Kofi on keys and Oteil and bass), Tyler Greenwell (formerly of the Codetalkers) and Trucks’ vocalist, Mike Mattison.
Trucks, on crutches because of an injured foot, sat on a stool during the show, which unfortunately was cut short three songs in – a recorded voice came over the festival PA system evacuating Tom Lee Park because of a tornado warning. Fortunately, the 30,000 people in the park filed out in an orderly fashion.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t play nice in Tennessee late Saturday into the wee hours of Sunday morning. The heavy rains caused flooding across the Mid-South and into Nashville. Parts of I-40 were shut down between Memphis and Nashville, and as a result, John Hiatt and Allison Krauss, both scheduled to play on Sunday, weren’t able to make their designated slots. Band of Horses was bumped from an evening slot to take Krauss’s place. Three Doors Down was scheduled to headline another stage Sunday night, and couldn’t make it to the fest either. However, all things considered, the fest went relatively smoothly considering the devastation that the rains caused in parts of Tennessee. Sure, some bands couldn’t play, but it could have been much, much worse.
Maybe someday they’ll move the date of the festival – organizers state that "Memphis in April" just doesn’t have the same ring as "Memphis in May," but is the cost of keeping a name worth the thousands of dollars lost in attendance money when it rains EVERY year?
To some, though, rain and mud are just part of the Beale Street Music Festival experience. Hell, they’re nothing that rubber boots, a good rain coat, a beer, and some good tunes won’t cure anyway.
Click the thumbnail for the photo gallery