Beale Street Music Festival 2010
Geographically, Memphis has more bona fides than Cleveland if only from Southern author David L. Cohen's divining of the region from Where I was Born And Raised (Houghton Mifflin, 1948): "[The Mississippi Delta] begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." A separate sage description more accurately defines the Mississippi Delta as a triangle whose base extends from East Monroe, Louisiana (..."then she must be in East Monroe, I Know" Robert Johnson) to Yazoo City, Mississippi ("I'm goin' where the Southern cross the 'Dog'" Charlie Patton) and where each side meet at the apex in the bar at the Peabody Hotel. All American Music was born in this cradle of American Civilization. Beat that, Cleveland.
Memphis In The Meantime
Friday night saw performances by Limp Bizkit, Blues Traveler, Jeff Beck (who is enjoying a late career resurgence) and Wide Spread Panic. Saturday had Jerry Lee Lewis, Drive By Truckers, Colbie Caillat, North Mississippi Allstars, Gov't Mule, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, and Savoy Brown. Cancellations included Alice in Chains, Hall & Oates (after two songs, due to the threat of tornado), and the Flaming Lips. Sunday dawned with the threat of inclement weather, but none occurred. Instead, the sun came out and a sticky Southern humidity descended on Memphis like and Old Testament plague, making it necessary for the crowd of 90 thousand to consume bottled water and Tall Boy Budweisers in alternating fashion, one after another.
With Three Doors Down, Alison Krauss, and John Hiatt stranded four hours away in Nashville (no Dixie Moses here to part the waters covering Interstate 40), the musical pickings circled sharply into focus. Earth, Wind & Fire, led by Memphian Maurice White, delivered a spirit trip down memory lane for an hour-and-a-half. But the real music took place in the friendly confines of the FedEx Blues Tent, the only covered venue in the festival. On folding chairs, approximately 1,000 fans were treated to the rural blues of 70-year old Robert Wolfman Belfour. Belfour was a young contemporary of Otha Turner, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbroughall leading components of the North Mississippi Hill Country blues tradition, one characterized by percussive music with rolling momentum and the use of alternated guitar tunings outside the realm of slide guitar.
Belfour performed originals and blues standards, while seated, playing a electric guitar. His repertoire was heavy on Howlin' Wolf as was Wolf's longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin who, following Belfour, was backed by Memphis native Eric Gales, whose opening numbers included Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" and "Red House" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," which he concluded with a blazing ride through Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Sumlin opened with the Wolf classic "Sitting On Top of the World," treating the crowd to the guitar playing that made him and Howlin' Wolf famous. "Spoonful" and "Little Red Rooster" (with Blind Mississippi Morris) round out the set.
Next in the Blues Tent was uber-slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. Landreth came to fame playing guitar in John Hiatt's band The Goners. Playing with a simple power trio, Landreth displayed amply why he should be considered the greatest living slide guitarist. Landreth revolutionized slide guitar playing the same way Eddie Van Halen did for standard guitar playing. A master in multiple tunings including minor keys and cross tunings, Landreth displayed a technique that is only approached by Derek Trucks. While Landreth's vocals are weak, his song writing and execution are beyond compare. His hour-and-one-half show was divided into one-third instrumentals and the remainder his wispy vocals on humid, swampy themes.
Following Landreth was blues vocalist Janiva Magness, the 2009 National Blues Foundation B.B. King Entertainer of the Year and Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year. With her band, Magness burned the tent up, accelerating her acetylene with "Burn Your Playhouse Down," "Wang Dang Doodle," and "Home Wrecker." Maybe a bit too much Koko Taylor hero worship, but, then again, can there be too much of that?
The evening concluded with the draw of the day, Leon Russell, the consummate session man and musical fixer. A musical polymath like Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, Russell has touched all atoms of Rock music from playing keyboards on Jan and Dean's Surf City (K-Tel, 1963) to his upcoming collaboration with Sir Elton John, Bernie Taupin and T-Bone Burnett. Like Charles and Nelson, Russell possesses a voice so unique that it could be identified light years away from a single note. It is a voice full of the Oklahoma dust of his Lawton home. The Midwest permeates Russell's art from his singing voice, to his guitar and piano playing, and to his composing.