Beale Street Music Festival
Memphis in May International Festival
Tom Lee Park
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
, 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.
Blues and Funk Mistress Popovic has been burning things up since her first of eight solo recordings Hush!
(Ruf Records, 2002.) A YouTube darling, Popovic is very much a complete package: superb guitarist, technically and spiritually; accomplished in all styles, both in performance and composition. She is beautiful, with a powerful and virile stage presence, commanding attention immediately. While concentrating on material from her more recent recordings, Can You Stand the Heat
(In-Akustik, 2013) and Unconditional
(Delta Grooves, 2011), the former recorded in Memphis where Popovic has since made her home. There is little point in discussing Popovic's influences. Her playing is fluid, containing Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan
, Freddy King, Buddy Guy
and a vast assortment of other string benders. She is as comfortable in the traditional 12- bars as she is in the resulting funk and R&B that were the logical outgrowths of the blues. Her covers of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Navajo Mood" and Jimi Hendrix's "House Burning Down" perfect dissolve with her original material. Taut and muscular, Popovic is no-nonsense and proved it in her set in the Horseshoe Casino Blues tent, just before one Dicky Betts and Great Southern took the stage offering another musical dichotomy against Popovic's smooth R&B sensibilities. Two very different versions of the blues, though a Venn intersection exists.
A founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, Betts embarked on his solo career in earnest in 2000, first with the Dickey Betts Band and later the reincarnation of Great Southern. The 71-year old Betts, affable and in superb form, took the Blues Stage with a band featuring three
lead guitars, two Gibson Les Pauls to his one famous burgundy SG, in addition to a standard rhythm section with a second drummer, expanding the band's sonic thrust by an order of magnitude. The sound this band made was tremendous. After opening with a trademark Betts instrumental, "High Falls" from the Allman Brothers Band Win, Lose or Draw
(Capricorn, 1975), Betts allowed no dust to settle before he and band launched into "Statesboro Blues" sung capably by keyboardist Mike Kach. A nice touch, but not the last of the show. Betts reprised a recital of all Allman Brothers material for the concert, concentrating on his significant contributions to the band. Whether it was the searing "Blue Sky" or a barn-burning "Jessica," Betts and company were nothing but large and in charge of the material. Betts approached his set's coda with "One Way Out," again sung my Kach, followed by "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "No One to Run With" (from Where it All Begins
(Sony Music, 1914)), his encore being his signature song "Rambling Man."
Another regional dichotomy was illustrated in the back- to-back sets played on the sponsoring Bud Light stage on Saturday, with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and Jerry Lee Lewis
. The former band is an Alabama- based neo-Memphis soul review featuring the irrepressible singer Paul Janeway. Janeway, rooted in the best sacred tradition of Southern peckerwood Pentecostalism, had early intentions of being a preacher before hearing a different call from the spirits of Sam Cooke
and Otis Redding
to take up the mantle of the only true soul: Memphis/Muscle Shoals. Speaking of Muscle Shoals, the band's inaugural four-song EP was recorded there and released in 2012, produced by Ben Tanner, touring keyboard player with the Alabama Shakes (who help close the proceedings at the music festival, more on that later). This and YouTube brought the band the attention needed for the traction, resulting in the full-length release of Half the City
(Single Lock Records, 2014), that album's material showcased in Memphis this sunny weekend. The Broken Bones are a unique sextet made up of a drums-bass rhythm section with keyboards, guitar and a brass-heavy horn section of trumpet and trombone. Central to the band's sound is guitarist Browan Lollar, who hails from the Muscle Shoals area, previously playing in Jason Isbell's 400 Unit (Isbell also in Memphis for this festival). His impeccable feel for the Memphis Stax/Muscle Shoals sound makes the band's music more than a tribute...it makes it an evolution revolution.
Of Jerry Lee Lewis: Nick Tosches, in Hellfire
(Grove Press, 1982): "I want to see Elvis...you just tell him the Killer 's here." Jerry Lee Lewis? What introduction does The Killer
need? He is the last member of Sun Record's "Million-Dollar Quartet," having out lived Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Lewis remains part of another living quartet, that when gone, will signal the end of rock and Roll (with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino). At 79- years old, Lewis shows his age but no lack of anger and fire, the same he showed so brilliantly on Live at the Star Club, Hamburg
(Imports) some 50 years ago. Lewis is a true Southern and American original, still commanding attention and respect.
Saturday's early evening brought spirited performances by Carolina Chocolate Drops
, Blues Traveler and Buddy Guy. The comparisons and contrasts are many. The Chocolate Drops are a Piedmont-period performance staple specializing in the music arriving from African and Scotch- Irish immigrants before the blues exerted its gravity on all American music (not that they fully escape that pullbut do not mistake this for the Delta variety). The 2014 edition of the band includes founding members banjo and fiddle player/vocalist Rhiannon Giddens and multi- instrumentalist Dom Flemons, joined by cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett. The band's dirt-floor string band set included selections from their most recent recordings, Leaving Eden
(Nonesuch, 2012) and Genuine Negro Jig
(Nonesuch, 2010) as well as the concert staples "Hit 'Em in Style" and "Cornbread and Butterbeans." Giddens' electric presence quickens the performance with her instrumental authority and well-studied approach. This is music for people looking for a different type of Americana.
The 1990s2000s mainstay Blues Traveler, led by a vastly slimmed down John Popper, drew the largest crowd of the day to that point. The band's 70-minute set was punctuated by molten covers of ZZ Top's "La Grange" and Radiohead's "Creep," plus razor sharp performances by the band's own "Run-Around" and "Hook." The virtuoso Popper served up a dish of delight, warming up the responsive crowd to the baddest man appearing on Saturday, Buddy Guy. At 77-years old, Guy is one of the last representatives of the electric Chicago blues invention sparked by the arrival of Muddy Waters there in 1943, not long after cutting his famous Library of Congress sides for Alan Lomax and just shortly before the Delta fully arrived in the Second City, electrified, and changed the world. Guy's association with Waters began in 1965, appearing as a session guitarist on Folk Singer
(Chess, 1964), this shortly after playing bass on Howlin' Wolf's monumental The rocking Chair Album
(Chess, 1962). Guy's solo career began in 1965 with the landmark Hoodoo Man Blues
(Delmark) with harmonica player and singer Junior Wells. He recorded steadily for the next 50 years while touring worldwide.
In Memphis, Guy arrived with a crack band that he was in complete control of. Guiding the dynamics of a blues performance is no mean feat. It takes an awesome mastery to maintain swing, momentum and drama and Guy proved to be beyond the match. His set list was heavy from Muddy Waters' and his own book, using the latter to open the show with a seriously earthy "Damn Right I've Got the Blues." Guy is a trendsetter and deal-breaker guitarist with an incendiary style all his own, one that lays its own special waste to those in his wake. Outstanding were his re-arrangements of some of Waters' greatest songs. Included were are a straight "Hoochie Coochie Man," a too-funky-for- Buddy Bolden "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and a nuclear meltdown on "Sweet Little Angel." Guy's performance dynamics were pitch perfect and remain awesome as the artist approaches Fall.
Sunday at Tom Lee Park offered a mixed bag of musical goods that found Jason Isbell, the North Mississippi Allstars and Alabama Shakes following one another. Jason Isbell is possibly the finest songwriter performing. An equal of John Prine without Prine's sense of humor, Isbell penned the group's finest songs during his stint with the Drive-By Truckers ("Goddamn Lonely Love," "Decoration Day [performed in Memphis]," "Tour of Duty"). After some fallow time in the 2000s, Isbell cleaned up after the release of the uniformly excellent Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Live from Alabama
(Lightening Rod Records, 2013) and produced the well received Southeastern
(Southeastern Records, 2013) upon which his Memphis performance was based. Isbell turned in a well balanced set, promoting his new recording and giving this audience a crystal clear idea of what he is made of.
The North Mississippi Allstars, led by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of Little Rock, Arkansas' son and Memphis music producer Jim Dickinson, play a specific brand of the blues found in the hills of North Mississippi, pioneered by the likes of R.L. Burnside and Bukka White, both of whom the band covered in their afternoon set. Luther Dickinson performed on both guitar and his homemade lowebow, a cigar box guitar comprised of two wooden rods projecting from a cigar box, each one string: a bass string and a standard acoustic guitar string. This set-up allowed Dickinson to pluck a one-string bass and a one-string guitar at the same time. Each of the two strings has its own individual electric pick-up that feeds into the amplifier. Dickinson proved his prowess on this instrument, channeling 100 years of homemade instruments being used in the Mississippi Delta, bringing 2014 that much closer to its origins in the previous century.
Loosely paired stylistically with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Alabama Shakes, led by the powerful prophetess Brittany Howard, stormed the evening with their unique brand of R&B- influenced neo- soul. Howard, a Twenty-First Century cross between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Hildegard von Bingen, is a powerful vocal and guitar presence fronting a quintet intent on pounding out simple yet swingingly soulful original material. Only the lamest will compare Howard to Janis Joplin, which is simply not a refined enough comparison. She is something new and fresh with just a whiff of the past. Covering the majority of their debut Boys and Girls
(Rough Trade, 2013) which provided "Hold On" along with "Always Right" as original songs nominated for Academy Awards for their part in Silver Linings Playbook
(The Weinstein Company, 2012), the band blew through its set at a gale speed. Like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Alabama Shakes plays a type of neo-soul that draws from the past without wholesale replication of it. Howard channels Sam Cooke effectively on "Rise to the Sun" and Otis Redding on "You Ain't Alone," making a convincing argument that soul music remains alive and well.
From Tony Joe White to Anthrax, Blind Mississippi Morris to Snoop Dog, Memphis flexed its musical muscles in the once, and finally benevolent, southern sunshine to show that the Crossroads may really be at the junction on Interstate 40 and the Mississippi on the first weekend in May 2014, and all of the music made there is of a sacred quality enhanced by the holy ground upon which it is made at the apex the America's fertile crescent.