One of these years, it was bound to happen. 2012 was that year â€“ the year that, finally, weather would agree with the organizers of Memphis in May. The year that the tens of thousands of music-hungry Mid-South residents would get to descend upon Tom Lee Park in Memphis and watch their favorite bands from steady terra firma rather than a mud puddle.
Yes, 2012 was the year that Beale Street Music Festival went down as designed: a three-day smorgasbord of the finest genre-spanning music around, played to perfection along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. Eventually, as the festival wound down and the last headliners had been on stage for an hour, the inevitable lightning did pierce the night sky, and the overdue precipitation did finally pour down from the heavens. But, for three days, fest-goers were able to enjoy music without having to don a poncho. So we’ll give Mother Nature a pass.
The last time that there were three days of dry weather during BSMF was 2001. It had literally been over a decade since there was a rosy forecast. So, when the fest gates opened at 5 pm on Friday, May 4, there were smiles everywhere and nary a rain boot in sight.
FRIDAY, May 4
The North Mississippi Allstars opened up on the Bud Light Stage, and almost as strange as the forecast was seeing the Dickinson brothers take the stage with a bass player other than Chris Chew. As Luther (guitar/vocals) and Cody (drums) ran through their set with new bass player Pierre Wells [Chris Chew is on hiatus from the band], it was a bittersweet moment for the Mid-South. The Allstars are as local as it gets at Beale Street Music Fest. The band grew up playing blocks away, and their family name is as big as it gets in Memphis and north Mississippi. So, while numbers like “Shake ‘Em On Down” and “Mean ‘Ol Wind Died Down” sizzled like always, it just wasn’t the same. Chew finally did take the stage midway through in what turned out to be a mildly awkward moment; Wells stood at the side of the stage and watched. Either way, Luther and Cody are amazing musicians who can play with anyone or no one on bass and still turn out a blistering set of music.
The surprise of the night shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, but Florence and the Machine â€“ who had the unenviable task of taking the stage right before My Morning Jacket â€“ absolutely demolished the Bud Light stage (following a mediocre set by generic alt-rockers Needtobreathe). It’s generally hard for such a huge name to out-do their reputation, but that’s precisely what Florence Welch and company did. Welch was a tornado of activity, sprinting from one end of the stage to the other as she powered through her hits. While the set-opening “If Only For A Night” and the hit “Dog Days Are Over” showcased the singer’s stellar pipes, the biggest cheers of the set may have come from her a capella cover of Elvis’s “That’s All Right.”
My Morning Jacket hasn’t played Memphis in ages, so they had a big crowd when they closed down the opening day of BSMF and delivered spectacular set. Leaving no stone from the last nine years unturned, the crowd got the “Golden” and “Wordless Chorus” that they expected, but despite the relative predictability, it didnt matter. As the manes of Jim James, Carl Broemel and Patrick Hallahan waved in the breeze coming off the Old Man River, the crowd ate up every last note.
As MMJ closed Friday’s festivities with “One Big Holiday,” anticipation was high for Saturday. Having witnessed some amazing music already, the first full day of music promised a solid line-up of music and another sunny day.
SATURDAY, May 5
The sun was shining on Saturday, and it was hot. Sunscreen isn’t a usual necessity during Memphis in May, but there was more than one scorched, passed-out fest goer asleep on the river bank Â as the day progressed.
The legendary John Hiatt was first up on the Orion Stage. It’s always a pleasure to see a legend in a relaxed environment like a festival, and Hiatt brought his A-game. Running through a brief hour-long-set, he held nothing back, and was one of the few acts to get an encore over the weekend. Of course, it was a built-in encore, but after closing his set with the obvious “Memphis in the Meantime,” he and his band left the stage before returning for “Riding with the King.”
For acts with catalogs as expansive as Son Volt, a short festival set can be an exercise in monotony. However, with a tight group of songs, Jay Farrar and his bandmates made both the casual and hardcore fan happy, starting with a scorching “Down To The Wire.” Farrar’s seminalÂ TraceÂ was well represented;Â “Drown” and “Tear Stained Eye” were performed with as much heart as they were when they were fresh. While Son Volt has gone through a slew of lineup changes on guitar and pedal steel over the years, the collective that showed up was a tight-knit outfit and turned out one of the better sets of the weekend..
Plenty of actors try to make music, and plenty of musicians try to act, but it takes someone special to proficiently do both. Donald Glover, aka “Troy Barnes” on NBC’s Community, aka Childish Gambino, is one of the few who has successfully made the jump from screen to stage. His hip hop persona brought him to the Bud Light Stage, where he ran through a set that showed off his skills on the mic but eventually began to drag.
Scheduling at a festival can be a difficult task, but at a fest as diverse as BSMF, it really shouldn’t be an issue. This is why it was perplexing to see the Cold War Kids and Dr. Dog on different stages simultaneously, as there is a decent-sized fan base crossover, causing conflict for many fans of both.
Philly’s Dr. Dog has some serious momentum and a new record in the can. Over the course of their set, they delivered a cohesive set that was well-executed from front to back. Peppering songs like “Stranger” with tracks from their new album Be The Void, it was a demonstration of just how good Dr. Dog is. The crowd was involved from the beginning despite unfamiliarity with the new material, and the vocal harmonies and instrumental prowess were top-notch. Scott McMicken (guitar) and Toby Leaman (bass) had huge smiles as they stood toe to toe â€“ it was clear the musicians were enjoying themselves, which translated to one great set.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are no stranger to Memphis. They’ve gone from playing smaller clubs like Newby’s to bigger rooms like Minglewood Hall. This would be their first Beale Street Music Festival, though and it was not their best set. With limited time on stage, the Nocturnals played exactly what you would expect – “Paris,” “Medicine,” and “Oasis” were standard fare. They also included several new songs, which were nice enough but not proper for the abbreviated festival setting. Grace and her Nocturnals get an A for effort but a B-minus for delivery.
The evening was capped by Jane’s Addiction, Pitbull and Anthony Hamilton on the main stages and Gary Clark Jr. in a packed FedEx Blues Tent. Clark arrived with enormous buzz, and did everything to back it up. This year, organizers did a much better job of booking the Blues Tent. Rather than retread acts that have played the city and fest countless times, they booked more “buzz worthy” bands like Clark Jr and Robert Randolph, who would headline the tent on the last night. It was a brilliant move that was frankly long overdue.
Austin, TX’s Clark opened with an electrified “When My Train Pulls In,” a tune that was delivered acoustically on his stellar EP, Bright Lights. Leading the band in with a tasty solo on his cherry red Epiphone, Clark Jr. immediately had the crowd rapt. Equal parts Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins, it was nine minutes of pure electric blues bliss from one of the new faces on the scene. He followed it with an Texas-sized “Don’t Owe You A Thing,” and from that point on, illustrated why he may be the next savior of blues rock.
For a second day in a row, the weather was cooperative. Sure it was hot, but considering the routinely oppressive 100-degree Memphis summers, what’s 90 degrees? The music was solid across the board regardless of personal taste, and the best was yet to come.
Sunday, May 6
Sunday promised the best day of music of the weekend, and probably of the last decade. Jamtronica buzz band Zoogma opened the Orion Stage, while The Old 97s were putting on a veritable clinic on the Horseshoe Casino Stage. Alt-country at its very finest, the band delivered a solid set chock-full of hits like “Victoria,” “Time Bomb,” and “Every Night is Friday Night.” The heat was already pretty oppressive, but that didn’t stop frontman Rhett Miller from working the entire stage and playing his acoustic guitar windmill-style.
The next musical conflict arrived in the form of Chris Robinson Brotherhood vs. The Head and the Heart. With the Black Crowes on hiatus, Robinson has put together a crack band, with Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal, fellow Crowe Adam McDougall on keys, bassist Muddy Dutton and Memphis local/ex-Mofro drummer George Sluppick. The band had a decent but relatively small crowd in front of their stage, which was a bit of a surprise given the popularity of all projects Robinson. But, a mosey on over to the Horseshoe Stage provided a different scenario.
The Head and the Heart had some pretty lengthy technical difficulties to open their set; it took about ten minutes to get the monitor sound correct as it seemed that volume was too loud in some band member’s set-ups and too low in others. But after the delay, the band got right to it in front of a pretty big crowd and put on one hell of a show. One of the rare bands that can translate a stellar studio effort to the stage, the band was razor-sharp on songs like “Cats and Dogs > Couer D’Alene” and “Rivers and Roads.”Â Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen’s vocals blended into a syrupy sweet sound, and after a few songs, the sound problems were a distant memory.
There are few musicians who can convert the uninitiated into a fan quicker than Michael Franti. His concoction of roots, reggae, and rock is that engaging. It’s been an interesting ride for Franti and Spearhead. For better or worse, the days of the angry, political Franti are by and large a thing of the past. These days his sets are comprised of sunny, happy songs. His BSMF set was a solid but unspectacular showing. Spearhead started promisingly enough, with their powerful message of unity delivered via “Everyone Deserves Music” and “Hello, Bonjour.” Â Franti was a ball of energy per usual, bounding off the stage and into the massive crowd multiple times. He had the crowd jumping during “Yell Fire!,” singing along during “The Sound of Sunshine,” and smiles were on every face.
All that said, Franti’s set has turned into somewhat of a routine. Setting aside the “how ya feelin” chants, which are still ever present, there are new cliched aspects that seem to turn up at every show. Strangers to a Spearhead show may have been shocked when the band ceded the stage to a few guitar-strapped teenagers who led the band through “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” diverting attention so Franti can take his guitar into the audience. The misdirection has been done countless times, and anyone who has seen Spearhead live has already seen this move.
That said, it’s a small gripe, and Franti and Spearhead gave 100%, just like they always do. If sunshine did indeed have a sound, it would be Franti and Spearhead.
There were few, if any, artists at Beale Street Music Fest in 2012 that could deliver the vocal harmonies that poured out of the speakers during The Civil Wars’ set. The duo was amazing. They joked, they crooned, they harmonized…from the opening notes of “Tip of My Tongue” through the set-ending “Dance Me To The End Of Love,” it was a jaw-dropping exercise on just how good music can be with nothing more than one guitar and two voices â€“ Joy Williams and John Paul White probably do more with less than any act out there that’s not a solo performer.
Working through the bulk of Barton Hollow, “Safe & Sound” â€“ their contribution to the “Hunger Games” soundtrack, and a few covers; their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was not exactly unexpected, but it was fun nonetheless. Thousands stood mesmerized as Williams and White traded vocals at times and synched up to form a thick sound at others. Williams had a hard time containing herself as she stopped mid-song to tell the audience that White had just called her fat (she’s pregnant).Â The duo had ear-to-ear grins the entire time, and it was clear that they enjoyed performing as much as the audience enjoyed watching them perform.
If there was any one artist on the bill that could conjure thunder, it was Les Claypool. Primus closed down Music Fest on the Orion Stage, and from the opening, thumping bass notes of “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers,” Primus had an imposing presence. From the two giant inflatable astronauts to the lanky, bounding Claypool, there was a ton of visual stimuli. It was hard to take your eyes off of Claypool, who bopped around, bowler hat and all, delivering his famed bass work whileÂ guitaristÂ Larry “Ler” LaLondeÂ provided the color and drummerÂ Jay Lane acted as the backbone.
Eventually, though, the rain did come, cutting short several of the headlining sets.
Despite the damp ending to the weekend, this was easily the best Beale Street Music Fest in years. Attendance was actually down despite the stellar weather, but that could be attributed to the fact that the fest organizers thought outside of the box this year, getting acts that get little to no radio play in the Mid-South. Bands like Dr. Dog, The Head and the Heart and Gary Clark Jr. get a ton of critical acclaim but no air play because there are zero radio stations in Memphis and the surrounding area that play anything worth listening to.
But, for those in the know, this was one of the best line-ups in ages, and perhaps karma finally rewarded the true music fans, those who soldier on year after year, braving the mud and muck to take part in the best single weekend of music on the Memphis calendar. Hopefully those same folk won’t have to wait another decade for dry festival.
Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the show by Josh Mintz…
(Jane’s Addiction photos by David Shehi)