With great lineups scheduled for all three days, but limited time and resources, we opted to attend Saturday and Sunday and unfortunately missed Friday's calm weather and lineup that included Cake, Cage the Elephant, MGMT, B.o.B., Jason Mraz, the Stone Temple Pilots and Flaming Lips, among others. We arrived late Saturday afternoon and hit the grounds in Tom Lee Park beside the swollen Mississippi armed with ponchos and rain boots (the official fashion accessory of the often muddy festival), just in time for a highly anticipated set by Brit breakouts Mumford & Sons.
The quartet from London, which has gained tremendous popularity in the States, did not disappoint with a lengthy set highlighting the best of their unique blend of angsty folk rock. "Winter Winds" was the perfect melancholy soundtrack for the dark clouds swirling across the river. "White Blank Page" built like slow rolling thunder, and the crowd was inspired by "Awake my Soul," rain boots stomping as the sky settled into a misty purple haze as if magically on cue.
After Mumford & Sons incredible performance, we were content to linger near the South stage, forgoing the throngs at Ludacris for the soulful crooning of Lucinda Williams. Her band was fabulous and the perfect blend of country blues to get us in the mood for headliner John Mellencamp.
While Ke$ha desecrated the stage at the other end of the festival, we planted ourselves front and center for Mellencamp, who proved why he is so deserving of his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's easy to forget just how many great hits he's had, and he played most of them, along with choice cuts from his acclaimed new album, No Better Than This.
Mellencamp's band is as energetic and amazing as he is, particularly standout violinist Miriam Sturm, who plays to his every move in perfect harmony. Their duet on the soulful, emotional "Jackie Brown" was understatedly perfect.
The stage lit up with string lights like a country barn dance, Mellencamp gave the South a taste of his classic Midwestern rock and roll, plowing through favorites like "Authority Song," "Check it Out," "Paper and Fire," "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Pink Houses," and "R-O-C-K in the USA." He put a new spin on what is probably his most popular hit, "Jack and Diane," turning the 80s rock anthem into a cheerful country dance tune, proving that he may have gotten older, but he's only gotten better.
Charged up from a great show, we wandered up Beale Street to B.B. King's Blues Club to cap off the night with a set by the B.B. King All Stars and a plate of fried pickles.
Sunday's weather radar didn't show much promise and the Festival's earliest acts, Amos Lee and Drowning Pool, were canceled amid brewing storms. We took to the entrance hoping to catch J.J. Grey and Mofro just as tornado sirens began to ring across the riverfront. Surprisingly the band was still playing and the police and security were not evacuating the park. Slightly concerned as to whether to run back out or keep walking toward the still-playing band, I asked a security guard, "What are we doing?" to which he replied, "Partying."
As J.J. Grey wailed on his homage to his hometown, "Lochloosa," tornado sirens accompanied and an ominous swirl of clouds gathered above, the wind changing direction on a dime and the temperature dropping a good 20 degrees in about five seconds. There aren't many options for "shelter" at the festival unless one wants to ride out a tornado in a port-o-potty. We just kind of stood still and watched as the mass blew over downtown. Grey finished the song and then he and the band stepped offstage for a "safety break." After about 10 minutes, they returned for one more song before the sirens began again.
With the music on hold and the weather severe, we trudged back up to Beale Street for some indoor time, drying off and watching a blues trio and the weather radar on TV at Wet Willie's.
When things seemed reasonably safe (and festival organizers announced the music resuming on Facebook), we made our way back down in time to catch Ziggy Marley. From then on, it was smooth sailing (muddy, but smooth). Channeling his father, Marley's positive vibrations seemed to literally lift the clouds away. He paid homage with Bob Marley classics like "Jammin'" and "Get Up Stand Up," as well as pleasing his fans with his own hits including "Tomorrow People" and "True to Yourself."
Feeling less threatened by the weather, we migrated to the second stage to catch some of Gregg Allman's set. Along with his great band (including a full horn section), he played solo favorites like "I'm No Angel" as well as Allman Brothers Band classics like sweet and soulful "Melissa" and a funked-up version of "Whipping Post."
Making a hard decision, we departed that stage, soon to welcome the Avett Brothers, to catch some of Cee Lo Green, who struggled with great dignity through a set rife with technical difficulties. The mic kept giving feedback and the sound was just off; but he was gracious and did his best, playing a shortened set including Gnarls Barkley favorites like "Crazy," his most recent hit "Fuck You!" (the audience providing lyrical assistance) and a special appearance with his early rap group, Goodie Mob. He kept everyone's spirits high, accompanied by an all-girl backup band. He was a blast to watch, despite the technical issues.
We heard the very last sweet notes of the Avett Brothers as we stomped through the inches-deep mud back to the middle stage to stake our spots for a prime view of headliners Wilco. Drawing a large crowd, Jeff Tweedy and Company hit the stage and proceeded to deliver a stellar show -- the band's first since October, according to Tweedy. He seemed in a particularly jovial mood -- engaging in playful banter with the crowd. They kicked off the set with "Ashes of American Flags" from what is probably the band's best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, also including other favorites from that record such as anthem "I am Trying to Break Your Heart," "War on War," "Jesus, Etc." and "I'm the Man Who Loves You."
Getting in the Memphis spirit, Tweedy declared, "These songs just sound better with the smell of barbecue wafting in the air. From now on we're going to be like the anti-Morrissey. He'll stop the show if meat is being cooked. We'll stop the show if meat is NOT being cooked."
Other highlights included "Shot in the Arm," classic "Monday," "Hoodoo Voodoo," and set-closer, a cover of Big Star's "In the Street" (aka the theme from That 70s Show).
The energy of Wilco was the perfect way to end a great weekend of music (weather be damned) at the 35th Beale Street Music Festival. As always it was a great time, and probably the most reasonably priced festival with single day tickets running only around $30. If you go next year, just make sure you bring your rain boots.
All photos by Joanna Kleine. See more at my Facebook page.