Festival review: Rockin’ and rollin’ on the river at the Beale Street Music Festival, May 5 and 6
Thousands of music fans made their way to the “land of the delta blues” last weekend for the annual Beale Street Music Festival. This was my fifth time attending the long-running fest, part of the city’s month-long Memphis in May celebration in Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The violent storms and flooding of the past two years were replaced this year with sweltering heat and humidity, having fans wallowing in sweat instead of mud. The temperatures weren’t the only thing that was hot, however — the lineup was pretty amazing too. Unfortunately, we had to miss the opening night of the festival, which included heavy-hitters like guitar legend Johnny Winter, jam kings My Morning Jacket and indie diva Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine.
Arriving Saturday afternoon, we made it to the Bud Light Stage just in time to see our own hometown heroes Son Volt bring a little slice of the ‘Lou to Memphis. A decent crowd of Farrar loyalists gathered up close as the band took the stage — Jay looking a bit like Johnny Cash, clad all in black with thick sideburns. The band fought some loud feedback as they began, but it was quickly rectified as they eased into “Down to the Wire” from the band’s most recent album, “American Central Dust,” the twang of Mark Spencer’s pedal steel guitar cutting through the thick, humid air.
Son Volt played for just over an hour, turning out a comprehensive set spanning its catalog of material, including a suite of songs from the acclaimed debut album “Trace” to the delight of old school fans. A set highlight was the gorgeous “Highways and Cigarettes” from 2007′s “The Search,” featuring Spencer’s pedal steel married with Gary Hunt’s mandolin and Farrar’s haunting vocals. Farrar humored Uncle Tupelo fans by closing out with the classic “Chickamauga.”
In Memphis, music and BBQ go hand in hand, and the festival offers many options for local fare. We opted to singe our taste buds with some of Uncle Lou’s Famous Sweet and Spicy fried chicken, licking the fiery sauce from our fingers as blues legend Buddy Guy tore up the Orion Stage behind us. At 76 years old, Guy can still shred on the guitar and work the stage like the pro he is — even coming down into the crowd to play for a bit to the delight of fans. In addition to his own classics, he played inspired covers of “Fever” (appropriate considering the heat) and Cream’s “Strange Brew.”
Next we headed back to the Bud Light stage to check out ’80s Brit rockers the Cult. Lead singer Ian Astbury looked out of place in the sweltering Memphis sun in a thick black jacket and jeans, two fluffy foxtails dangling from his belt. His voice sounded relatively unchanged and guitarist Billy Duffy proved he is still worthy as well on classics like “Fire Woman,” “Wild Flower,” “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine.” A few tunes from the band’s brand new album, “Choice of Weapon,” seemed to fall flat with the audience, however, including the dark “Lucifer.” Having grown up on the Cult, it was fun to hear some of these songs played live again, but overall, they seemed to be trying a bit too hard to at times to relive their glory days.
With the sun finally setting and the full “super moon” rising above the trees, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals took to the stage. I admit, I’d never seen Potter before, though many have told me how great she is live. She indeed lived up to the hype. Alternating on the guitar and keys, tossing her long, blonde hair around as she belted out songs like her hit “Paris (Ooh La La),” Potter and her band proved they can hold down a festival crowd of thousands in addition to the smaller venues they play more frequently.
Still, for this festival veteran, it was all just a warm-up for the evening’s headliner, Jane’s Addiction. A personal favorite and one of the most seminal rock bands of the last quarter-century, Jane’s drew the largest crowd of the day. Having caught their recent sold-out show at the Pageant, I knew what I was in store for, and couldn’t wait for more. It took the crew quite some time to set up the elaborate staging for this tour, which includes multiple video screens, complex lighting, and moving parts like swings (for girls in lit up flowing skirts to sit in), a hanging ladder and a platform that acted as a mini-stage for various theatrics.
Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” pumped from large speakers as the crowd watched with anticipation while the last pieces were put in place and instruments were sound-checked. Finally the band emerged to great applause, its fearless leader (and Lollapalooza creator) Perry Farrell wearing a red, ruffled jacket (which he quickly tossed aside to display his bare chest), and guitarist Dave Navarro clad only in black leather pants, boots and a hat, his numerous tattoos on full display.
They kicked the set off with “Mountain Song,” immediately infusing the crowd with their heavy, high-energy sound. When they finished, Farrell pointed at the sky, and in his nasally voice declared, “Heavy metal under a heavy moon.”
Their set was rife with hits, including classics from their 1990 album “Ritual De Lo Habitual” such as “Been Caught Stealing,” “Ain’t No Right,” “Three Days” and “Stop.” They also sprinkled in favorites from “Nothing’s Shocking” including freaky-groovy “Ted, Just Admit It,” during which twin bondage girls danced on a couch on the perched platform. The light show was positively entrancing, and Navarro’s guitar work was nothing short of amazing at times.
Not to disappoint devoted fans, for an encore they went acoustic for the song that bears their name, “Jane Says,” with drummer Stephen Perkins on the steel drum. Then, already after midnight, Farrell declared, “it’s not that late. Let’s get animalistic,” before the rest of the band members beat on drums while he howled and made various animal noises (that full moon again). It seemed a fitting end to a long, wild day of music on the Mississippi.
On Sunday, with the bands not starting until later in the afternoon, we took a musical side journey to tour Sun Studio, where legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins recorded for the first time — regarded as the birthplace of rock and roll. For a mere $12, we were treated to a 40-minute piece of musical history that was chill-inducing fun.
We hiked a good mile from the Studio down to Beale Street, stopping for some grub at Miss Polly’s Soul City Café, then high-tailed it down to the festival grounds in time to catch Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The former Black Crowes front man’s new lineup, which includes standout Black Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall, drummer George Sluppick, guitarist Neal Casal and bassist Mark “Muddy” Dutton, has a much more mellow, laid-back vibe than the Crowes and it’s nice to see Robinson doing something a bit different. Though the scorching mid-afternoon temperatures made it difficult to stand through his set, it was enjoyable, particularly his groovy cover of “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The highlight of the day for me came next with one of my all-time favorite artists, Michael Franti and Spearhead. San Francisco native Franti, a towering presence at 6’6″, is a gentle giant with a tender voice singing soulful songs about racial and religious harmony, peace and love. He and his band, Spearhead combine reggae roots with rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B. As they took the stage, Franti declared, “We know it’s hot out. We promise to give you everything we’ve got if you’ll give us everything you’ve got.” He more than delivered, as usual. Franti’s shows are notoriously upbeat, and this one was no exception as he continuously encouraged the crowd to jump up and down and even ventured out into the audience frequently to get down with his fans.
He worked through a string of favorites like his anthem, “Yell Fire!” and recent hit “Sound of Sunshine,” during which scores of beach balls were released for the audience to toss around. Always a favorite of kids, he found two adorable ones in the crowd and brought them onstage to help him sing “Say Hey (I Love You),” bending low to share the mic with them before closing out the set with “Long Ride Home.”
Next up on the stage was jazz great Herbie Hancock. We gave our legs a rest on the grass while he played some of his cool hits like “Watermelon Man” and “Rockit,” before moving on to catch the last couple tunes from Nashville singing-songwriting duo The Civil Wars. Made up of Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars performed tunes from their Grammy-winning for debut album, “Barton Hollow,” as well as a smooth cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” their voices blending in perfect harmony.
The Civil Wars were followed by an artist they declared as a huge inspiration — Alison Krauss and Union Station. The award-winning country/bluegrass singer and fiddler with an angelic voice brought a bit of Nashville to Blues City along with her incredible band, including guitarist/singer Dan Tyminski (most well known as the singing voice of George Clooney’s character in “O’ Brother Where Art Thou) and renowned dobro player Jerry Douglas.
One of my only complaints about this festival would be the timing/positioning of the bands playing opposite each other on the main stages. While they are spread out over the grounds, the stages are not that far apart, and the sound carries. During Krauss set, Primus began theirs on the next stage and the thundering of Les Claypool’s bass was easily heard over Union Station’s mellow, acoustic sound.
As lightning began to strike across the river, and the wind started picking up, we walked down to the middle stage to hear a few songs from Primus. With two giant spacemen flanking either end of the stage, Claypool laid down his signature bass riffs and encouraged fans to not keep their eyes on the band, but rather turn around and watch “Mother Nature’s lightshow” instead. By the insane amount of glow sticks being tossed around in front of the stage, though, it seemed the fans were putting on one of their own.
With storms looming in the distance, we took our queue to exit and wrap up another successful festival journey. The only downside to a fest of this magnitude with multiple main stages is that you must make choices. Seeing one great band means that you are inevitably missing another one down the road. For all the great acts we caught, there were many that performed we just couldn’t make it to, including: Little Richard, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Black Lips, Cold War Kids, Al Green, Gary Clark, Jr., Old 97s, Bush, Wiz Khalifa and Robert Randolph. The beauty of the Beale Street Music Festival is that it offers something for every taste — with some BBQ on the side.