Beale Street Music Festival, Memphis in May 2010
Tom Lee Park, FedEx Blues Tent, Memphis, Tennessee
May 2, 2010
April, indeed, may be the cruelest of months, but I doubt that a blue-blood like Thomas Sterns Eliot ever spent the sweaty seasons in Hell that are Spring and Summer in the cultural fault line of the United States: Memphis, Tennessee. The weather there in the Mississippi Valley is as conflicted as the region's psycheserene and as beautiful as Eden one moment, and defying John Milton's description of Hell the next. Typically, it works like this: Moisture from the Gulf of Mexico flows up ahead of a northwestern cold front bearing down through Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, riling the Native American gods into fantods so terrible that the Arkansas River Valley and points east are either leveled or trembling from that special grace.
Such was the case for the 2010 edition of the Beale Street Music Festival, held the weekend of 31 April to 2 May, 2010 in Tom Lee Park on the banks of the Mississippi River. The weather was a constant threat, and flash flooding along Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis dramatically affected the festival lineup. However, much great music was performed and the inclement weather did not deter tens of thousands of the dedicated from attending. Tom Lee Park was a muddy mess and rubber knee boots were de rigueurthe women sporting colorful fun ones and the men, the ones they wear to deer camp with a couple of hip waders thrown init is the American south, after all.
The Beale Street Music Festival formally kicks off Memphis in May, a month-long celebration of all things Memphis, focusing on music, food, culture, and education. Now in its 33rd year, the Music Festival has become a draw for both well established bands and up-and-coming talents on their way to the same. The audience attending is also impressive, with people coming from all over the Midwest to witness the three-day event. Almost biblical is the gathering of spirits at this special bend in the mighty Mississippi.
A Brief Digression...
Memphis, not Cleveland, is the rightful home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cleveland seems to claim the Hall because the city was the home base of WJW radio disc jockey Alan Freed, who coined the term "rock and roll" (having lifted it from the African American colloquial pool). Cleveland hosted, with Alan Freed, the first rock and roll concertThe Moondog Coronation Ball, March 21, 1952. And finally, Cleveland was Elvis Presley's first appearance outside of the Cotton Curtain (February 25, 1955 at the Circle Theater...that is if you don't count Presley's Valentine's Day appearance that same year in Roswell, New Mexico, but that fact interferes with the romance of the Cleveland's claim).
Compare that pedigree with that of Memphis: Memphis has Sun Records, 706 Union Avenue, where the first rock and roll recording was made. Which one, you ask? Both of them: Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats "Rocket 88" (recorded 3 March or 5 March 1951) and Elvis Presley's "That's Alright (Mama)" (recorded July 1955, released 19 July 1955) were waxed in the Sun Studios on Union. Memphis was also the home of the Stax/Volt labels, whose house band, Booker T. and the MGs provided session services to Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Albert King, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, and Delaney and Bonnie. That's R&B and Soul music, you say? Where did rock and roll come from, then, Nimrod, Led Zeppelin?
Another prominent record label from Memphis was former Sun Records producers Joe Cuoghi, Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch's Hi Records who hosted Al Green's 1970s material, including Let's Stay Together (Hi Records, 1972) and I'm Still Loving You (Hi Records, 1972) and Call Me (Hi Records, 1973). In addition to Presley and Green, Memphis has played home base for many musicians like Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Sleepy John Estes, Johnny Ace, Aretha Franklin, and we never even got to Elvis Presley.
Memphis also hosted another recording studio in addition to Sun, Stax and Hi. The American Sound Studio, 827 Thomas Street, was where Elvis recorded his comeback From Elvis in Memphis (RCA, 1969) and his last number one single, "Suspicious Minds" (RCA, 1969). American Sound also hosted B.J. Thomas' recording the David/Bacharach "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," (Sceptre, 1969), Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" (Universal, 1969), Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" (Atlantic, 1967) and the late Alex Chilton and the Box Tops' version of "The Letter" (Mala, 1967). Almost equal with From Elvis in Memphis was Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis (Atlantic, 1969), recorded there in September 1968.
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 Band 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 Othar 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.
Just a few of the notable places Russell's finger prints may be found are on the Beach Boy's Pet Sounds (Captiol, 1966), Glen Campbell's Gentle on My Mind (Capitol, 1967), Joe Cocker's Joe Cocker! (A&M, 1969) and Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M, 1970), the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed (London, 1969), B.B.King's Indianola Mississippi Seeds (MCA, 1970), The Flying Burrito Brothers' Burrito Deluxe (Edsel, 1970), The Concert for Bangledesh (Capitol, 1971), are you beginning to get the idea? Russell, more or less quietly shaped music during the 1970's with his Midwestern soulful vision.
This much experience has left Russell with a lot of important friends and a repertoire that cuts a mile-wide swath across American music. Not only is his songbook packed with his own compositions now considered rock standards, his covers represent a body of interpreted music surpassed only by his associate Joe Cocker. Russell took the Blues Tent stage with his quintet, guitarists Chris Simmons and Beau Charron, bassist Jack Wessel, and drummer Brandon Holder and launched into an abbreviate "Jumpin' Jack Flash" coupled with "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." As far as openers go, it was most exciting, if a bit scripted. Russell, dressed in light pants and floral shirt, signature cowboy hat and sunglasses, came out and took control from the get go.
Russell's physical appearance is as dramatic today as it was at the Concert for Bangledesh, if not more so. His long mane and beard have long since gone white, giving him a sepia-toned aura of substantialness. At the end of his life, Johnny Cash was often cast as an Old Testament Prophet who has seen all and been alllikewise for Russell. If John Cash is the firey, wild-haired Elijah, warning all of certain due, then Russell is the mystical, windblown Ezekiel divining dreams and explicating harbingersThe Master of Space and Time.
Russell and his band swiftly (but with no haste) gave definition to American Popular Music since 1930. After the opener, Russell navigated the introduction of "Paint It Black" directly into "Kansas City." "Sweet Little Angel," "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," "Wild Horses," and "I've Just Seen A Face,"all covers that have been part of his concerts for years. But it was not all covers. Russell peppered the performance with many of his own compositions. "Back To The Island," "Hummingbird," "Lady Blue," "Delta Lady," all made appearances. But it was not all Russell, either. Guitarist Chris Simmons gave a bracing solo spin on Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" that blew like a quiet hurricane through the hot Memphis Night. Russell then took a solo"A Song For You."
Russell has been at this a long time as evidenced by the sleek, streamlined, no-frills show. He is the complete professional and business man, still touring long after he no longer needed to and still acting as a vibrant muse in music. Russell closed his show with "Stranger in a Strange Land"Do you recognize the bells of truth / When you hear them ring / Won't you stop and listen / To the children sing...