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Beale Street Music Festival 2014

C. Michael Bailey By

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Beale Street Music Festival
Memphis in May International Festival
Tom Lee Park
Memphis, Tennessee
May 2-4, 2014

For most of us, even those born and raised here and rooted to the soil like one of Faulkner's oaks, the South no longer exists. In fact, nearer to the truth, it has never existed. The South, as we know it, is a collective fantasy that lives in us as much as we in it... The little things that make Southerners seem like a people unto themselves are no more insular and confounding to the outsider than the comparable quirks of any distinct populace. For every West Virginia ramp supper, there's a Minnesota meat raffle.

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius ("The Southern Gentleman: A Primer," Okra, retrieved May 9, 2014)

Don't call what you're wearing an outfit;
Don't ever say your car is broke;
Don't worry about losing your accent;
A Southern Man tells better jokes...
Don't sing with a fake British accent
Boy don't act like your family's a joke


—Jason Isbell ("Outfit," Drive By Truckers Decoration Day, New West Records, 2003).

How to resolve these two disparate visions of an historically existential region? A cultural reconciliation does exist similar to the quantum mechanical wave- particle duality, mathematically expressed for elementary particles in nature. Where the unifying element in quantum physics is energy, the unifying principle linking Fitzgerald's and Isbell's Southern visions is a product of both: music. Which position is right? Well, both of them...a paradox. I don't know about a Minnesota meat raffle, but I will pick a West Virginia ramp supper, or, in this case, a Memphis barbeque cook-off any time. That said, there can scarcely be a better place to experience both this paradox, the music, and barbeque than in the rightful home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Memphis, Tennessee, on the first weekend of May.

The 2014 Beale Street Music Festival, part of the larger Memphis in May International Festival, met for its 38th celebration with 67 musical acts appearing over five stages in Tom Lee Park on the East banks of the Mississippi River. The first Beale Street Music Festival was celebrated in 1977 at the corner of Beale and Third streets in downtown proper. The same year, the first Sunset Symphony was held, with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing in the smaller confines of the then underutilized Tom Lee Park.

It was not until the next year that the Beale Street Music Festival became part of Memphis in May with the Sunset Symphony added, sporting a firework display and a spectacular grand finale featuring the "1812 Overture," which became an event mainstay (as it since has in Little Rock, Arkansas' Riverfest. Also in its second year, Memphis in May added its third signature event, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which started with 20 teams and $1,000 in prize money on a vacant lot by the famous Orpheum Theatre, and has evolved into something much greater.

In 1990, with more acts, sponsors and attendees, the Beale Street Music Festival moved to Tom Lee Park and by 1995, the weekend event had grown to more than 50,000 attendees, doubling by 1997, and nearly tripling in 2001, with crowds of 165,000 selling out the three-day affair. Now, it is expected that the Beale Street Music Festival will elbow its way to the rail with The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as the premiere music festival south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And it typically does so unless the Mother Nature's unruly and powerful temper expresses itself in the form of thunderstorms, tornados and the heat and humidity of Hell's Kitchen (the real one, not that in NYC). Spring can be most unkind regionally. But 2014 had none of that. It was pristine weather by any Southern standard, clear and not too warm, perfect for music.

This Beale Street Music Festival offered a variety of dichotomies to consider, beginning on Friday, May 2nd, each demonstrating the depth and breadth of the talent pool assembled. The Memphis Connection offered several paired interests: the first, Michael Jordan Houston, aka, Juicy J (late of the Memphis duo Three 6 Mafia) and guitarist Ana Popovic (late of Belgrade, formerly Yugoslavia and now Serbia, moved to Memphis in 2012). Juicy J was all funk and swagger as he took the FedEx Stage where he surveyed over 20 years of Dirty South Hip Hop, born in Memphis. With a light and sound show laying waste to those famous of '70s—'90s arena rock concerts, the rapper paid tribute to his breakout career with DJ Paul and Lord Infamous with performances of "Stay Fly" and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," the Academy Award- winning Best Original song from the movie Hustle and Flow (New Deal Entertainment, 2005) as well as selections from his more recent solo concerns, Stay Trippy (Columbia, 2013) and The Hustle Continues... (Columbia, 2014). Juicy J played to one of the largest and most appreciative crowds of the weekend, illustrating both his dedication to and appreciation by Memphis.

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