Words: Megan Caruso
Photos: Mandy Pichler
The people of Memphis, TN love good times, good food and great music so it makes sense that the city celebrates itself each year with the Memphis in May International Festival. The month-long celebration, which began in the 1970s to foster civic pride and promote economic growth, offers a little something for everybody.
From the Great American River Run and World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest to an International Week Saluting the Czech Republic and limited–batch seasonal beer releases, Memphis In May appeals to the interests, activities and palates of many people of all ages.
The crown jewel of Memphis In May, however, is its Beale Street Music Festival that kicks of the month-long celebration the first weekend in May. Located in Tom Lee Park, which runs along the banks of the mighty, mighty Mississippi River in the heart of Memphis, three outdoor stages and a blues tent host some of the biggest names in rock ‘n roll, rap, alternative, hip-hop and, of course, the blues.
Once a local blues gathering on the corner of Beale and Third Streets in Memphis, today the Beale Street Music Festival (“BSMF”) is in its finest groove. Over the past four-plus decades it has managed to create a global name for itself in the flooded music festival industry, which is not an easy task. But by remaining true to its blues roots and reflecting the aura of Memphis while simultaneously embracing the sounds of many artists from multiple genres, BSMF has become one of the most relevant music gatherings in the country, if not the world.
In 2017, Everfest placed BSMF on its prestigious World’s 300 Best Festivals list, putting BSMF in the same company as Oktoberfest (Germany), Glastonbury (United Kingdom) and Running of the Bulls (Spain) as well as US-based Burning Man, SXSW, Coachella and Lollapalooza, to name a few.
BSMF18 proved why it’s earned its place on Everfest’s list yet another year. Following is day-by-day account of festival as told by Sly Vinyl contributor Megan Caruso.
Before the music starts, BSMF is smelled rather than heard. The scents of fried ‘taters, simmered greens and Pronto Pup’s corn dogs wafts between the stages as vendors were very well prepared to sate the appetites of festival attendees. Offering foods indigenous to Memphis and the south, the food and beverages are as much a part of this festival as the music.
For many, returning to Beale Street Music Festival is like returning to summer camp: familiar, welcoming and full of memories with new adventures ahead. Lured to Memphis year after year by the historically powerful lineups and the affordable entry fees, festival fans find their place in a community cultivated with Southern hospitality.
On Friday night, the first night, guests were greeted with blasts from eras past. Clutch, Dashboard Confessional and several other artists who made their name in the 1990s took to the stages, providing a little something for everyone. This is the festival’s hallmark, its relentless tenacity to avoid being pigeonholed into a sound or an era.
This is no small feat especially for a festival that began as local blues gathering 41 years ago when people gathered on Beale Street to hear the city’s blues, the Memphis Blues. But fast-forward to the 21stcentury and the festival has found the delicate balance of remaining true to its roots and venturing into new genres to make it a truly special event.
Step into the Coca-Cola Blues Tent at any time over the long weekend and familiar faces move and groove to the Memphis Blues. Fans from all corners of the world congregate year after year at BSMF, making the event equal parts blues family reunion and on-stage performances.
This year, Blind Mississippi Morris returned for the 41sttime. The only musician to have performed at every BSMF since the festival’s inception is a remarkable achievement. (More about Blind Mississippi Morris’s set on Day Two coverage.)
Third Eye Blind rocked to a large crowd at FedEx Stage, which is the second largest stage after the Bud Light Stage (third is River Stage and last, in size not stature, is the blues tent). The band’s vocalist, Stephen Jenkins, paused during the bridge of “Never Let You Go” to ask the crowd to turn to a stranger and say: “I’m so glad you’re here today!” Over the shouts of shared love, he grinned, “Doesn’t that feel good?” Based on the crowd’s reaction, they agreed – it did feel good to be at Beale Street Music Festival (BSMF).
While Third Eye Blind was on one stage, CAKE played on another. Hailing from Sacramento, this quartet remained high on the music charts and enjoyed its fair share of radio playtime throughout the early 1990s. With their unique sound, CAKE, at the time, somehow made alternative rock more alternative. Having not released a record since 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, Cake had been relatively quiet the past few years. Then they showed up in Memphis.
Vocalist John McCrea, known for his monotone sound, sang an appropriate, nearly a cappella rendition of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” But in the end, the sensual serenade of trumpeter Vince DiFiore stole the show during hits like “Never There” and “Going the Distance.”
Now it makes sense that the majority of Alanis Morissette’s set would be tracks from her most successful album, the chart-topping Jagged Little Pill. The album, released in 1995, is currently being transformed into a staged musical directed by the singer herself; it will debut in Boston later this year.
In Memphis, however, Morissette’s piping vocals and emotional energy found harmony with the heavy clouds hanging overhead her headlining set. The crowd reached toward a light, drizzling rain as they belted out, “Isn’t it ironic/Don’t you think?/It’s like rain on your wedding day.”
The set times are staggered at BSMF so seeing a little bit of each band is possible – for the young, quick and spry. The stages are far enough apart that sound doesn’t interfere from one to another, which is the most important (and often most challenging) logistic of a multi-stage festival. Getting to the front row of different stages for different artists can be challenging, though. Fans get to the rail (read: front of stage) early and wait all day to see and hear their favorite band. For many on Friday night, this was the monster band, Queens of the Stone Age.
When the night came to an end, the festivities continued, moving back toward its humble beginnings: Beale Street! With the rightfully owned moniker of “Home of the Blues,” Beale Street hosts late-night, live music at some of the country’s most renowned blues clubs, a few opened (or owned) by blues and rock ’n’ roll legends such as B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“We don’t have room for some of the attractions you see inside other festivals,” said Robert Griffin, director of marketing at Memphis in May. “But outside the park, we’re a music town with attractions like Beale Street, Graceland, Sun Studios, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Rock & Soul Museum, and the Blues Hall of Fame– things music fans want to see.”
The monuments to music coupled with the entrance fee of only $55 per day are the very things Griffin credits as making 2018 the festival’s most attractive year yet. BSMF hosted ticketholders from 22 countries this year, compared to 14 the previous year.
With a hint of pride where pride is rightfully deserved, Griffin added, “We delivered.”
Saturday, like all days at BSMF, was a 10-hour stretch of difficult decisions that started from the very first set.
I began in the past being made present: Tav Falco and the Panther Burns. Wearing shimmery, old school suits and Elvis-era dance moves, rock ’n’ roll veterans Tav Falco and his band opened the main stage. Despite living overseas since the late 1990s, Falco still calls Memphis his home; he made the journey to open up for a small crowd of locals who’ve been following him since his early days, back in 1979.
Later, soulful, revved-up rockers J Roddy Walston & the Business played its swinging Southern rock, complete with a keyboard that almost bent in half under J’s furiously fast fingers. Halfway through his set, J smiled through the mop of hair bouncing over his face as he and drummer Steve Colmus opened up with a cover of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” an anthem sung by the crowd down South with pride.
Guests also got a taste of Memphis in May’s annual International Week, a span of performances and events that celebrate a culture outside of our American roots. 2018 honored the Czech Republic. BSMF joined in this tradition on Saturday with a performance by Dan Barta & Illustratosphere, a bluesy-jazz Czech singer that has won Best Male Vocalist seven times at the Czech Grammy Awards.
Despite other traditions, the most notable may be the blues scene birthed locally from Memphis long ago. BSMF regulars and blues-lovers found sanctuary from the crowds and the sun in the Coca-Cola Blues tent, which hosted long-time legends on an intimate stage.
Blind Mississippi Morris sat in front of his supporting band, a harmonica in his hand and mirrored, silver aviators to complete his suit-and-bowtie look. Guitar slides, crawling bass lines and popping snares were kickin’ the old school blues that even got a woman with a cane up and dancing. Blind Mississippi Morris nodded as a crashing cymbal brought a Clapton-rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” to a close; with a smile he shouted, “That’s blues, children!”
And what pairs better with blues than a little BBQ? If you wandered out of the festival for a sit-down meal (and took advantage of the fest’s open re-entry policy), a little Memphis BBQ went a long way. Central BBQ has ranked in the Top 3 Memphis BBQ restaurants every year since 2003, and their slow-smoked, massive racks of ribs are seasoned with their own signature rubs and marinades. The smoke hangs thick in the air as a tangy compliment to the flavorful meat effortlessly falling from the bone. This is authentic Memphis festival fuel for when the corn dogs just don’t cut it.
Back on the banks of the River Stage, All Time Low opened their pink-haired, pop-punk set with the popular single “Weightless,” and in minutes the multi-colored bras started flying onstage from all angles, one eventually hooking itself to guitarist Jack Barakat’s strings.
In stark opposition to the bra throwing frenzy, David Byrne later stepped up to a podium inside beaded-curtain walls wearing a grey suit and a large human brain in hand. The pseudo-scientist played an almost evenly-divided set of Talking Heads and his solo work, including tracks from his first solo album in 14 years, American Utopia.
Enter the sliver of a bright moon and enter Jack White, decked out in all black and looking vampirically pale under all-blue lights. A mix of solo tracks including new singles from Boarding House Reach along with the Raconteurs, the White Stripes and some extra-experimental jamming ended the night on a unique note of electro-rock fusion. I had to question if Memphis was ready for this divergent brand of rock as the crowd exchanged confused looks and dancing was replaced by shuffling feet.
Still, Memphis roared in appreciation as “Seven Nation Army” came to an end – and they showed up early on Sunday, ready for more.
Music festivals across the country and around the world tend to slow things down on closing days. From late starts and early finishes to slower tempos and less amenities, the last days at other music festivals can feel sluggish and, at times, downright depressing. Ennui seemingly pervades the atmospheres; people appear to be more focused on leaving rather than experiencing the final day of music.
BSMF is not one of those festivals; it prefers to wind things down by winding things up – way up and well into the night. Slowing down on Sunday or dancing any less than the first two days isn’t an apparent option on the banks of the Mississippi. And that was just fine by festivalgoers, who came in droves, selling out May 6, 2018, a first sell-out since 2010.
While impossible to name with certainty any one single band or artist responsible for the ticket frenzy, it may have been fueled by the head-lining artist who has been breaking Spotify’s streaming records and Billboard records: Post Malone.
People proudly declared their love for the rapper as they told me of their drives to Memphis from Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, cross-state Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois and beyond. Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia fame hosted a crowd just as large prior to Post, but fans, while appreciative of Juicy J were all about Post Malone at BSMF18.
Hours before the masses fought their way to Post Malone’s set, Luke Combs humbly announced that he was living his dream of playing country music on stage for a crowd. Nearly every song was about beer, ex-girlfriends, or ex-girlfriends caused by too much beer, but Combs’ deep, melted-chocolate voice can sing the same words over and over, and he’d still charm anyone with ears.
After Combs, MisterWives branded the FedEx stage like a shock to the senses with neon colors and clashing patterns. The five-person band kicked out a set of energetic alt-pop, complete with choreographed dance moves, handclaps and snaps. Vocalist Mandy Lee’s infectious smile and impressive vocal range had the crowd jumping as one. The crowd remained equally as energetic and engaged during MisterWives’ cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams”, a tear-jerking tribute to the late Dolores O’Riordan.
Under any other circumstances, MisterWives would have been a hard act to follow. The sun setting on the Mississippi River, however, was infinitely more phenomenal. The blazing-orange, Southern sunset compelled many fans to turn their hand-held cameras away from the stages, toward the mighty the river. As the sun continued to lower in the sky, fading behind the tree line but still casting its golden glow, the Flaming Lips erupted in a perpetual shower of confetti.
A fitting end to the sunset, the showmanship of band’s vocalist and front man, Wayne Coyne, had the crowd quickly refocused on what brought them here: the music.
The Flaming Lip’s went full-throttle into a psych-rock serenade amidst a blur of LEDs, giant, blow-up mushrooms and dozens of buoying balloons. Later in the set, vocalist Coyne got into his signature bubble suit to hamster-roll over the crowd. When he mistakenly barreled directly at a child atop his parent’s shoulders, he stopped the show to apologize.
“This is supposed to be about fun and love,” Coyne said as the stage cameras focused on the boy who experienced a little bit more than he probably had hoped during the concert. “It’s not meant to be something scary.”
Scary? Not a chance. Overwhelming? Ask the cleanup crew.
Leaf blowers were brought out to clear the inch of Flaming Lip’s confetti on stage to make room for Odesza, a two-man powerhouse of electronic dance music (“EDM”). Under the pulsating glow of a hexagon hovering over the stage like a halo, a synchronized drum line marched across the stage with a beat that ultimately broke into Odesza’s atmospheric rhythms that seemed to freeze time while in reality stretching on for 90 energetic minutes.
Perhaps it wasn’t Odesza’s intention to outdo the Flaming Lips staging but that’s exactly what they did. The light show, backlight screen and endless confetti mesmerized. Even if the music wasn’t to your liking, it was almost impossible to turn away and to not enjoy and appreciate the showmanship of this act.
Then, the lights dimmed and Beale Street Music Festival 2018 came to an end, leaving yet another million pieces of confetti on Tom Lee Park and imprinting the minds of attendees with music memories that will last a lifetime.
Sly Vinyl highly recommends being in Memphis in 2019. It was our first time attending BSMF and it certainly won’t be the last. Beale Street Music Festival has catapulted to the top of our ‘must-attend festivals’.