Article and Photos By L. Paul Mann
FULL PHOTO GALLERY HERE or at the bottom
One of the oldest music festivals in the United States opened the month-long celebration known as Memphis in May, the first weekend of the month, May 5 to 7. The Beale Street Music Festival has roots dating back to the 1800’s, when African American musicians from across the South would descend on Memphis to perform.
The festival takes place in Tom Lee Park, situated on the edge of the mighty Mississippi river. Memphis has historically been a cultural hub of American civilization due to the proximity of the important waterway. The city also sits at the apex of three converging states, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Outlying areas in all three states offer safe and affordable vacation accommodations for visiting tourists. Tunica Mississippi, about 40 minutes from the park is one nice outlying vacation hub from which to explore Memphis. Located to the south of the city there is very light traffic in the direction of Tunica. The rural Mississippi town has a fascinating history. An actual cotton picking region, it was designated as one of the poorest communities in the country until a series of gambling casinos were approved for the area in the 1990’s. The casinos created an advanced road system and odd one-off Las Vegas like resorts sprouted up across the flat delta cotton fields. Numerous hotel chains moved in offering discount accommodations to bring people to the region. Tunica is also one of the small rural towns that were the birthplace of American blues music. James Cotton called Tunica home.
Some of the best barbecue and local cuisine can be found at the Hollywood Cafe in Tunica. The restaurant has a long, storied past intertwined with the history of blues music. According to the restaurant’s website, “The Hollywood Café, both at this site and its original location in Hollywood, Mississippi, earned fame as a Delta dining institution but has also shared in the area’s musical history. Pianist Muriel Wilkins performed here for years, and she and the Hollywood were immortalized in the Marc Cohn hit song “Walking in Memphis.” Legendary bluesman Son House also performed at this site when the building housed the commissary of the Frank Harbert plantation, where House once resided. The Hollywood Café had neither live music nor a kitchen when Bard Selden opened the business as a bar in the summer of 1969. But over the years the café began to offer dinnertime music as the menu expanded to steak, catfish, and the Hollywood’s signature dish, fried dill pickles (a specialty of Bard’s brother Tait Selden). Muriel Wilkins (1923-1990), an African American schoolteacher from Helena, Arkansas, entertained customers with a wide repertoire ranging from standards to spirituals both at the original Hollywood, seven miles south of Robinsonville just off Highway 61, and at its new location here. After singer-songwriter Marc Cohn joined her in singing “Amazing Grace” and other spirituals here one night in 1985, he wrote about the inspirational experience in “Walking in Memphis,” which became the hit track from his 1991 debut album. In June of 1973 BBC television used the Hollywood as the setting for blues performances on its program “The Friendly Invasion.” The BBC filmed a trio from the Clarksdale area, with Robert “Bilbo” Walker (billed at the time as “Chuck Berry Jr.”), Big Jack Johnson, and Sam Carr, and a Memphis group led by Joe Willie Wilkins with Houston Stackhouse, Sonny “Harmonica” Blakes, Melvin Lee, and Homer Jackson. Bob Hall, who purchased the Hollywood from Selden, brought in Muriel Wilkins and also offered music by the Turnrow Cowboys. After the Hollywood was destroyed in a fire on August 27, 1983, the Owen family bought the business from Hall and reopened the Hollywood in Robinsonville. John Almond and Michael Young acquired the Hollywood in 2006. Both Hollywood buildings had originally been plantation commissaries. The first Hollywood was on the Tate Place and had also once been used as an antique store. Delta blues icon Son House was living on the Tate Place at the time of the 1940 census, and also once resided on the Harbert Place. Robinsonville resident Phoebie Taylor recalled that House performed at the B. F. Harbert commissary, as well as at various houses, stores and filling stations in town. The commissary became the new home of the Hollywood Café in 1984. House often played together with guitarist Willie Brown, his closest musical associate, and the local blues circle also included Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Leroy Williams, Woodrow Adams, Willie Coffee, and Sol Henderson. Wolf sometimes played at his aunt Lula Prince’s house on the Harbert plantation, according to Taylor. Nolan Struck, a Louisiana-born blues and soul singer, moved to Robinsonville in more recent years. Another blues event of note at the Hollywood was attended by B.B. King and Governor Haley Barbour on November 9, 2007, when AT&T presented a $500,000 donation to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. Jackson guitarist Jesse Robinson and the young Tupelo blues band Homemade Jamz performed at the ceremony”.
A storm blew into the southeast Wednesday night before the festival threatening to delay the event. High winds, hail and freezing rain swept across the region along with unseasonably cold temperatures. After a horrible day of weather Thursday that caused extensive flooding just across the Mississippi from Tunica and Memphis in Arkansas, the weather finally cleared Friday morning.
By the time the gates opened at the Tom Lee Park at 5 pm, the sun was beaming although it was still chilly and windy. The music Friday began on time at 6 pm.
The Beale Street music festival is one of the most eclectic pop music festivals in America and also one of the most affordable. With advance tickets starting at less than $50 a day, the festival is worth the price of admission to see any single act, all of which are afforded full set times by the way. There are none of the 30 minute ADD sets that plague many of the biggest festivals in the country. The festival features three main outdoor stages and a blues tent with chairs. There is also a smaller showcase stage for legendary regional blues performers.
The River stage opened the festival fittingly, with a set by Memphis jam band, Freeworld. The eight-piece group merged jazz, funk, and rock into a great sound that motivated the first arrivals at the festival. The stage went on to feature a set by festival veterans, Charles Bradley, and His Extraordinaires. Bradley began as a James Brown impersonator but has come into his own as a bonafide funk master vocalist and performer. His band is a powerhouse of funk rock music. As night fell, the stage changed genres, offering up a blistering set of genuine Bluegrass music, by the Kalamazoo five piece group Greensky Bluegrass. The River stage ended the night with the jam rock regional favorites, Widespread Panic. For many in the large crowd that gathered to hear their extended two plus hour set, they are the consummate Southern rock jam band, heir apparent to the Allman Brothers legacy.
The Blues tent featured three regional blues bands that brought that lit up the house with some phenomenal guitar picking. Classic rock vocalist Peter Wolf, from J. Geils Band fame, closed the tent with a rock laden set.
The second largest Bud Light stage featured bands catering to a younger crowd, with highlights including set by Grouplove and MGMT. For many young concert goers, the Indie rockers Grouplove were the highlight of the evening with their infectious vocals by singer-keyboardist Hannah Hooper and singer-guitarist Christian Zucconi. The band met in 2009, on the island of Crete, at the Ikarus artist commune in the village of Avdou. The five piece band also features drummer Ryan Rabin, son of veteran rock drummer Trevor Rabin of Yes fame. Trevor was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Yes and Ryan seems to have inherited much of his talent. American psychedelic Indie darlings MGMT closed the stage with a well-received set. The band came to prominence with their modern rock anthem “Kids.”
The largest Fedex stage featured mostly Indie rock bands throughout the night. New York post-punk rockers Taking Back Sunday opened the stage with a spirited set that had the crowd moshing early on. Canadian skate punk rock veterans Sum 41 played a furious set next. The band has headlined Vans Warped tour and played countless festivals for more than 20 years now and always inspires the crowd to move to their music. The next band to take the stage was the Arizona group Jimmy Eat World, who has been around even longer than Sum 41, having formed back in 1993. Their crisp pop-rock sound proved to be another crowd pleaser. By the time they need their set a huge crowd had gathered at the FedEx stage, with many festival-goers arriving late.
The final act on the FedEx stage was a triumphant finale by Hip Hop legend and American icon Snoop Dogg. Along with a crack band, backup singers and dancer, and even a dancer in a dog costume, the hit-making rapper wowed the crowd with his popular music. It was a fitting end to a fantastic night of diverse music.
Day 2 of the Beale Street music festival began on a beautiful sun-drenched afternoon with the mighty wind of the days before subsiding. Just after 2 PM, early concert-goers were treated to the first set of the day in the Blues tent by the Daddy Mack Blues Band. The Memphis blues veterans are led by singer-guitarist Daddy Mack Orr, who has been compared to Albert King in sound and style. The band is a fixture on Beale Street and an authentic taste of local blues music. The Blues Tent features its own full-service bar and an IPA beer, and a shot of premium whiskey could be purchased for about the price of a ballpark Budweiser. The tent opens onto the bank of the Mississippi river, and some concertgoers choose to lounge in the sun on the grassy bank. The shelter offers up an impressive view of the shipping traffic along the river and the spectacular bridges connecting the city to Arkansas across the waterway. Next on the Blues tent stage to play was another Memphis treasure, Blind Mississippi Morris, who sings and plays a smoking harmonica.
He was followed by an extraordinary set by Carlos Elliot Jr. and his band. The singer-guitarist who describes his sound as Columbian Hills Blues music has much in common with Carlos Santana in guitar style, but with a Columbian roots music twist. While the band jammed, the animated Elliot would frequently jump into the audience and spend around the crowd even playing on his back. The set sent much of the crowd into a dance frenzy. Virginia-based Corey Harris and his band took over the stage next with an intense blues sound mixed with tinges of Reggae music. Chicago blues prodigy Ronnie Baker Brooks played next. Ronnie is the son of the legendary musician Lonnie Brooks who just passed away a month before the festival. Ronnie showcased his singing and guitar talent and brought out some special guests who appeared on his new album. These included Memphis rapper Al Kapone and rocker Big Head Todd. The awesome set featured Brooks playing his guitar all throughout the tent.
The schedule Saturday featured 26 performances crammed into the five stages, so music fans had to choose which performances to watch, as many of them were conducted simultaneously. The River stage opened with Memphis rockers Dead Soldiers. Their clean southern rock sounds have been compared to rock greats, The Band. In a nod to Cinco de Mayo which was the day before, the next band to play the stage appeared in Mexican ponchos and Sombreros with a bottle of Tequila. The Cape Cod Indie rockers Highly Suspect, played an irreverent and totally fun set jumping into the crowd and crowd surf with abandon. The Los Angeles rockers Silversun Pickups took over the stage at sunset and played a blistering set of guitar-drenched rock, led by charismatic singer-guitarist Brian Aubert. With a vibe not unlike the Smashing Pumpkins, the band is well known for their ferocious live performances and they did not disappoint the Memphis crowd. As night fell the New York Indie rockers, X Ambassadors took over the stage immersed in a stunning light show. The ever growing crowd surged towards the stage as the talented quartet rocking into the night. The Bellingham Alternative rockers, Death Cab For Cutie closed the stage with a set much more intense than they usually play. The large adulate crowd seemed to be entranced by the vocals of lead singer Ben Gibbard.
The Bud Light stage featured a jam-packed diverse line-up for Saturday. Memphis rapper Lil Wyte opened the stage with an energetic set. The Kongos played next. The group of 4 South African brothers may be the heir parents to the African-tinged pop rock sounds of Johnny Clegg and Savuka. That band brought the unique South African rock music to the world in the late 70’s. The brothers have taken the sound into new territory with a much more sophisticated beat. The only act to cater to EDM fans at the festival played the stage next, with a well-received set by Griz. The experimental sax player played alongside his DJ, who mixed dance-inducing beats to the delight of a young crowd in the afternoon sun. Rap wizard Wiz Khalifa closed the stage in front of a huge crowd with a jaw-dropping set along with a tight band of backing musicians.
The main Fedex stage featured a diverse line up as well throughout the day. Memphis musician Amy Lavere opened with a set tinged with classical music and other incorporated genres. The charismatic John Paul White of Civil Wars fame brought his biting and introspective southern rock lyrics to the stage next. Los Angeles Indie rockers Dawes played a pleasing set next. The Drive-By Truckers brought their Athens southern roots music to the stage as the sun began to set. They were followed by an animated set by The Revivalists. The seven-piece New Orleans band are also music festival veterans who know how to wow the crowd. The Kings of Leon closed the stage with their intense rock sound in front of a large crowd. But for many, the closing sets by Wiz Khalifa and Death Cab For Cutie which was occurring simultaneously on the other stages were much more appealing. The musical choices on Saturday seemed to be overwhelming, but most everyone in the audience seemed to find a niche that they enjoyed.
Day 3 of the Beale Street music festival began under warm sunny skies with calm winds. The near perfect conditions brought crowds into the festival grounds early to lounge in the summer like weather, enjoy the many sumptuous food offerings and imbibe their favorite beverages. One local treat being offered up was a giant portion of boiled crawfish with corn on the cob, potatoes, and peppers. The $10 serving was enough to feed at least two hungry people.
The music schedule for Sunday was a bit more relaxed than the day before with less simultaneous sets going on across the vast festival grounds. But it was also the most exciting and eclectic day of the festival with multiple genres and generations of music on the roster. Los Angeles-based R&B singer Lanita Smith opened the River stage as the first act of the day at the festival. Smith was raised in Memphis, so the show was a homecoming of sorts for the local girl who made the big time. Her new album was produced by the legendary Don Was. Smith began her career as a church choir singer and brought her Gospel influence to the early Sunday afternoon crowd. Smith was backed up by a stellar group of musicians and singers offering up a crowd-pleasing set. A very different act came next on the River stage. The three California blondes that make up the group Bahari provide a stunning visual look while providing pleasant folksy pop music. The band’s sound blends well in the early afternoon sunshine. The music took another turn with Los Angeles soul singer Mayer Hawthorne taking over the stage next. His retro sound and dance moves delighted the crowd. Singer, songwriter and successful actress Jill Scott hailing from Philadelphia closed the River stage mesmerizing a huge crowd with her funky crossover pop R&B sound.
A full day of music in the Blues tent featured singer and pianist Eden Brent, singer blues guitarist Super Chikan and blues guitarist extraordinaire Preston Shannon, all Mississippi natives. New York blues rocker guitarist Papa Chubby played a sweaty sunset set. The living legend Booker T. Jones, a Memphis native closed the blues tent with a smoking blues-drenched set of organ, guitar and harmonica playing. Jones wrote the iconic organ laden hit song Green Onion in 1962 when he was only 18 years old and has been a pop blues powerhouse player ever since.
The Bud Light stage also offered up a diverse line-up for the final day of the Beale Street music festival. Swamp soul singer Marcella and Her Lovers kicked off the stage with a funky set of steamy music. Originally from Louisiana and now hailing from Memphis. The child prodigy melds the sounds of two distinct cultures into her compelling sound. She reflects her childhood influences from her father, two-time Grammy winner and Zydeco music maven, Terrance Simien. Feminist folk rock hero And DiFranco took the music in another direction during the next set, playing her folk anthems with a New Orleans jazz drummer. Her distinctive voice and compelling lyrics made for an enjoyable afternoon set. The music took an even bigger turn with the next set by Reggae icon Ziggy Marley and his group of exquisite musicians. Playing his hit tunes as well as his father Bob Marley’s anthems, he was the only Reggae star to appear at this year’s festival. A large crowd sang and danced along to the well-known tunes calling for peace and equality for all. Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals took the music in yet another direction in a beautiful afternoon set bathed in the setting sun. The three-time Grammy-winning California rocker played searing guitar solos on acoustic, electric and slide guitars garnering a tremendous response from an adulating crowd. Recent Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson closed the stage with an innovative country rock music set drenched with guitar solos. The Kentucky native played another real crowd-pleaser.
The main Fedex stage opened the day with a set by young rapper and guitarist Machine Gun Kelly. The animated rapper fronted a strong backup band that fused rock, punk and hip hop music perfectly. The Ohio native even managed to down the better part of a bottle of Jameson whiskey while wildly prancing about the stage. Her rockers Alter Bridge took over the stage next. The Orlando band formed in 2004 features several members of the band Creed along with well know singer-guitarist Myles Kennedy. The band rocked the crowd with a charismatic perforce by Kennedy on guitar and screaming vocals. Veteran Australian rockers Midnight Oil took over the stage for the sunset slot. The band was a regular fixture in the 80’s music scene. The group took a ten-year hiatus at the beginning of the 21st century while lead singer Peter Garret pursued a successful career in Australian politics. The newly reunited band played a fierce and compelling set, and their catchy sound stood the test of time well. As evening set in, a wild-eyed British rocker Gavin Rossdale and his band Bush launched into a grunge laden set of pure energy rock. Augmented by a spectacular light show the band played thundering rock riffs while Rossdale leaped about the stage like a young Pete Townshend in The Who. The evening closed with a triumphant set by Seattle Grunge rockers Soundgarden. The veteran rockers played an extended set exciting the huge crowd to the end. The band was led by singer-guitarist Chris Cornell who was even more wild-eyed than Rossdale in the previous set. Sounding at times like Black Sabbath and other times more like a Grunge band, the innovative group was a powerful and fitting closing act for the 40th Beale Street music festival.