It’s borderline blasphemous, but it’s true: I’m a music fan who’s never been to Jazz Fest in New Orleans.
It’s not for a lack of interest; obviously, Jazz Fest ranks up there with the best of the best when it comes to music festivals. It’s merely a matter of convenience – Memphis’ Beale Street Music Festival is always the first weekend in May, landing on either the first or second week of Jazz Fest. Until the folk with Memphis in May, the presenting organization, stop doing such a good job of delivering a solid line-up at an underrated event, there’s no reason for me to get in my car and trek down to Louisiana.
However, the achilles’ heel of Music Fest is always (and I mean always) the weather – it’s guaranteed to rain during the weekend. In 2011, though – with a strong line-up that boasted groups like Mumford & Sons, Lotus, The Avett Brothers, Wilco and Gregg Allman – we nearly dodged the wet stuff.
Seriously – it’s like Swiss clockwork. It always rains the weekend of Music Fest. Read any of our reviews of the festival, from 2010, or 2008, or any other year, and it’s a central theme. This year, though, it could have been different. Never mind the fact that tornadoes had ripped through the region the week before, or that the Mississippi River was bulging to the point of overflow and flooding was imminent. The forecast, for once, seemed to lean towards dry weather. Sure, it had rained the day before, muddying the banks of Tom Lee Park. The weather during fest weekend had a rosy outlook. Rains were on tap for late on Saturday (after the fest closed for the night) and intermittently on Sunday, but for anyone who had attended in years past, that was a solid forecast.
As far as Beale Street Music Festival reviews go, this isn’t going to be the strongest in terms of song names, setlist commentary and the like. Historically, the lineups have been packed with bands that are my sort-of "go-to’s" – the Gov’t Mules, North Mississippi Allstars…bands I see several times a year. In 2011, though, the lineup had a few of my current favorites for sure, and then a ton of buzz bands that I’ve been looking to see but didn’t know.
When festival gates opened on Friday afternoon, Tom Lee Park was awash with sunshine – the park’s 30 acres of grass had yet to turn to the muddy bog that has been the annual norm. With the gorgeous weather, the first day was at near capacity. While the festival is held on a pretty large area that’s about a mile long, it’s only about 400 yards wide, so things get congested quickly when it’s crowded.
Atlanta, Georgia’s Manchester Orchestra opened the musical proceedings on the Horseshoe Casino Stage, there was not an ominous cloud in sight. While the weather didn’t affect their set, it didn’t go off without a hitch. At one point, the stage lost power completely, so frontman Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell strode to the front of the catwalk, and full-rockstar-style, stood back to back with guitars behind their heads. Hull told the audience that "now’s the time for the pictures," and the two posed for those in the photo pit and the multtude of camera phones held high in the crowd. All in all, the indie rock band put on a great set and kicked the fest off on a good note.
The Music Fest crowd was swelling at this point. With great weather and a solid first night schedule, there were crowds at all stages. Cake was mesmerizing their fans over on the Bud Light Stage, and Bowling Green, Kentucky’s Cage The Elephant followed Manchester Orchestra. Cage’s crowd was in a frenzy from the first notes to the end of the show. Lead vocalist Matt Shultz nearly spent as much time diving into the audience as he did thrashing around on stage, and he had the audience in the palm of his hands as the band ran through a raging set that included "Indy Kidz," "Tiny Little Robots," and the hit "Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked."
Few bands with Memphis ties have had as much buzz recently as MGMT, so there was a huge crowd. Lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden is a native Memphian, and even came on stage wearing a Grizzlies/Tony Allen t-shirt, apropo since the team’s first chance at clinching a play-off series was going on a few blocks away.
Simply put, I wasn’t blown away by MGMT, and I expected to be. Perhaps it was because every fiber of my being wanted to be watching the Grizz take on the Spurs – the city has morphed into full-on Grizz frenzy. A sold-out Orpheum audience even booed Spurs players who showed up at the Arcade Fire show the night before the game.
So, while I watched a few songs of MGMT’s set with anticipation of being moved, it never happened, and once I heard that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department had a mobile command center with a big flat-screen showing the game, I made the easy decision – find some food and find the game. After talking to several friends the next day who stuck around and watched all of MGMT, it sounds like I made the right call because everyone seems to think MGMT was pretty boring.
One of my favorite parts of Music Fest is the food. It’s not great by any means, but it’s the one time of year I let myself indulge in three days of eating what amounts to crap. Where Jazz Fest seems to succeed immensely (as I’m told) is the local flavors. Music Fest – not so much, which is a shame as there is no better BBQ anywhere. Texas, Kansas City, Carolina…they may all lay claim to the best BBQ, and maybe it’s just local bias, but Memphis is the best – case closed.
So for three days every year, I stuff my face with what amounts to fair food.
Like funnel cakes?
There are several carts peddling them.
You can buy them by the truck-load.
But my personal favorite is the Pronto Pup, your run-of-the-mill corndog. It’s borderline disgusting – I know. I don’t know why I like ’em, but I do. So I grabbed one, covered it in mustard, and found the game. The Grizzlies clinched the first round, the 750 or so fans that had gathered to watch erupted, and I bolted back to the Horseshoe Stage for the Flaming Lips.
I’ll preface with I’m not a fan of The Flaming Lips. It’s just too much for me. Frankly, I was torn between closing my first day of Music Fest with the Lips or Stone Temple Pilots, and in the end, the Lips won out for two reasons – they were on the same stage as MGMT, and I knew that in terms of illustrating the fest through photos, the Lips won by a landslide. The Lips pulled out their standard fare, from "Yoshimi" to "Race For The Prize," and MGMT’s VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser joined the band for a cover of their own "Kids."
In the end, The Lips’ sideshow circus overshadowed their music for me yet again. With all of the dancing Wizard of Oz characters, smoke, balloons filled with confetti, and the Coyne’s now-cliche’ hamster ball, I was reminded that I like my music pure and simple – a band on stage pouring their hearts into their craft, not the sideshow.
The weather on Saturday was solid as well – two days and no rain just might be a Music Fest record. Lotus opened up the day on the MATCU Stage, and after getting some minor technical difficulties out of the way, they kicked off their set to a decent but unspectacular crowd. It was the first time I’d seen Lotus since they became a four-piece and honestly it took me a little to warm up to them. But, by the end of the set, they had the audience moving in unison.
Following Lotus’s set, my stomach was rumbling, so I grabbed food from one of the few local Memphis vendors, Uncle Lou’s Chicken and made my way to the FedEx Blues Tent for Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition.
Mathus and his band ran through a set that defied my expectations. For a guy born and raised in north Mississippi, his music during the set was anything but bluesy, and I wasn’t into it at all. Mathus had good command of the crowd, but when I parked myself in the Blues Tent I was looking for blues, and this wasn’t it, so I made my move toward the MATCU stage for The New Pornographers.
On the way, it was like walking through a packed sea of wall-to-wall people. At a certain point on Saturday, they stopped letting patrons into the festival – the day had reached a capacity crowd of 42,000. One of the things that makes Beale Street Music Fest great is that it’s a true music festival. Short of country music, all nearly all genres are represented, from rap to metal to pop to jambands to blues. Hence, the large crowd.
Furthermore, of those thousands of patrons, all walks of life attend. From the oldest blues fan who spends his entire day in the Blues Tent to the dreadlocked reggae fan, there really is something to offer nearly any music fan. It makes for wonderful people-watching if nothing else.
At this point, the weather finally affected the day. For about 20 minutes, there was a steady rain, but 20 minutes over two days is nothing in the grand scheme of Music Fest.
The New Pornographers are an act that I haven’t listened to much – my exposure was limited at best. I enjoy everything I’ve heard from Neko Case, but went into this set as a relative newb and thus can’t really comment much on setlist strength. I can say that this Canadian act was tremendously talented and enjoyable to watch.
The crowd of the night though had to be at the Mumford & Sons set. They took the stage at the same time as Eightball & MJG and Macy Gray, so with completely different kinds of acts on the other two main stages, anyone who wasn’t into rap or R&B was there for Mumford & Sons, and it was probably the largest crowd I’ve seen at a Music Fest set…probably about 20,000 people.
When Marcus Mumford and company took the stage and kicked off their set with "Roll Away Your Stone," the crowd erupted. With only one record on shelves, the set was heavy on tracks from Sigh No More, and the audience ate up every single note.
For a band that’s playing bluegrass-style acoustic instruments, Mumford & Sons is a powerhouse of a band. "The Cave" and "White Blank Page" are utter beasts live, and "Little Lion Man" turned into a ginormous sing-aong; the band had a horn section on stage with them as well, so the version of "Winter Winds" was true to the album version.
Along the way, the band broke out several new numbers from their forth-coming disc. It’s a risky proposition, playing new songs the first time that a band goes to a new market. The audience responded well, though, which had to be encouraging for the band and certainly points to a really solid fanbase.
The entire set was one big highlight, the most show-stopping moment was "After The Storm," awe-inspiring but ironic given that, for once, there had yet to be a major weather event at Music Fest.
Saturday night was headlined by John Mellencamp and Ke$ha, but I had my fill by that point and called it a night. With thunderstorms and tornado warnings on the horizon and the best day’s schedule on Sunday, my eyes were on the Weather Channel for the next several hours, and the forecast was bleak.
Sure enough, overnight there was rain and come noon on Sunday, there was a steady downpour and blaring tornado sirens. With tornado warnings dotting the map, and given the tragedy in Alabama a mere four days prior, it was nothing to ignore.
The music was scheduled to kick off at 2:15 with JJ Grey and Mofro, but according to social media, things were getting pushed back to allow for the weather to clear. At any rate, I wasn’t about to head into a storm, so I played it safe and let the weather clear.
Mofro? Missed ’em.
Ziggy Marley? Missed him, too, but heard his set was decent.
Gregg Allman was scheduled for 5:10, and was pushed back, but the weather was due to return, so I was truly on the fence.
Finally, around 5:50, I checked weather.com and saw that the forecast was calling for the rain to come later that evening, so I hopped in my car and sped down the highway to fest grounds. I got there, and it was clear that the crowd was infinitely thinner than the previous two days. It also stank to high hell – Memphis mud mixed with the day’s collection of porta potty refuse, garbage and food don’t make a welcoming aroma.
With the requisite mud covering festival grounds, if you didn’t have mud boots, your shoes…well, just toss ’em in the garbage. There were fest goers diving through mud puddles wherever they were to be found…and there were tons.
I figured I’d miss Allman & company, but didn’t take the weather delays into account, so I got there just in time to catch the last half of his set.
Gregg Allman‘s solo band is a completely different animal than his "other" gig. This act brings a much purer blues aspect, and they do it extremely well. Allman had local saxophonist (and Mofro band member) Art Edmaiston on stage, a nice treat.
I arrived in time to see them break into "Whipping Post," and while it will never measure up to the Allman Brothers warhorse, I still enjoyed the bluesier take. Edmaiston and regular band saxophonist Jay Collins were phenomenal as a duo, and the rhythm section, drummer Steve Potts and bassist Jerry Jemmott, was nothing but stellar. They closed the set with "Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’," and while I’d really have loved to see the entire set, I was stoked by what I had seen.
The Avett Brothers took the stage following Allman, and they were amazing. They came out and immediately launched into "Tin Man," roping the audience in right away. Over the next hour and change, the band delivered a solid set mostly comprised of tracks from I and Love and You and Four Thieves Gone. "Head Full Of Doubt" was amazing, and had the entire audience singing along, and the band’s cover of John Prine’s "Spanish Pipedream" was a welcome treat.
The Avetts are obviously a really talented band and over the course of their set. They jumped around from instrument to instrument, none more so than Scott Avett, who played banjo, harmonica, and piano, the latter of which on a gut-punching version of "Colorshow."
Their set finished up with "I and Love and You," which literally brought some fans to tears. With that, the band left the stage and the audience shouting for more.
Remarkably, the Avetts actually returned for an encore, a rarity at Music Fest. Perhaps they cut their set short in order to accomodate an encore, but regardless, they launched into "Talk On Indolence," putting the finishing touches on their fabulous Music Fest debut.
Wilco followed the Avett Brothers, but at this point, I was spent. Reports were that Wilco put on a solid but unspectacular set, so that made my fairly insane decision to skip them sit a little better in my soul.
All told, it was one of the better Beale Street Music Festivals in recent memory. Sure, Sunday could have become a borderline trainwreck had a tornado actually surfaced on fest grounds. But, any Music Fest veteran would be more than satisfied with two beautiful days out of three. In the end, while I missed some acts I was pumped for, I was exposed to some music I hadn’t really ever digested, and that’s what music festivals are about – exposing you to stuff that normally may not be on your radar. So, from that standpoint – it was a huge success.