Beale Street Music Festival: Lessons Learned By An Unwitting Music Writer (Part One)

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FROM BEALE STREET IN AN EQUALLY WET PREVIOUS YEAR. PHOTO BY THEOGEO
  • From Beale Street in an equally wet previous year. Photo by theogeo

Be prepared. Every festival-goer should take to heart this bit of Boy Scout zen. But when a pair of multi-day passes for the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Tennessee fell into my lap on Friday afternoon, I had too little time or brainspace to get prepared or even properly analyze a weather report. Which meant I had to rely on another pillar of music festival wisdom a bit more than I would have liked: Go with the flow.

Even if it's a flash flood.

Saturday, April 30:

The early drive down I-55 is littered with storm debris and signs of what is to come. Seriously: metal billboards mangled and blown horizontal on their posts.

Lesson 1: Do Not Book Lodging Last Minute* We found a last-minute hotel room at the Sleep Inn East Bartlett, eight miles out from downtown Memphis. Though reasonably priced and convenient to the highway, the neighborhood doesn't consist of much besides a pawn shop, a combination car wash-and-pager store and something called Club Medallion. Pack your own lunch.

Lesson 2: Leave Everything Fun At Home: After cruising down Beale Street past the Elvis Presley statue, we try to enter riverfront Tom Lee Park, only to be turned away by a college kid because our camera has a small detachable lens. Also not permitted into the festival: food, drink, containers, coolers, lawn chairs, strollers. There is also a ban on "thrown objects," in case you had big ideas about footballs or Frisbees or Chinese throwing stars.

Lesson 3: Know Somebody Armed with 24 ounce beers and Pronto Pups (the tastiest fairground corn dogs ever), we make our way towards the south end of the park to catch the end of Amy LaVere's set. Before we reach the stage, I'm spotted by a buddy who drives the Bud Light party truck to festivals and events all around the country. We watch next to the VIP tent while the Mardi-Gras-masked LaVere sings jazzy-sweet and wields the upright bass.

Lesson 4: Improvise When it starts raining during 4:05 p.m. set by roots-rock songwriter (and mom-favorite) Paul Thorn, I realize: I am poncho-less. Never fear: my blanket, the one useful item I brought, has a plastic underside. I huddle beneath my impromptu tarp and get back to the music.

Lesson 5: This, Too, Shall Pass (For Now) The rain pelts down and just as suddenly it lifts. Meanwhile, Tupelo-born Thorn is putting on a show packed with charm. In a condensed version of his storyteller style, Thorn and his band thump through their straightforward country-rock. Whenever Thorn speaks in a gravelly drawl about tornadoes in Alabama or his uncle the pimp, the enthused crowd of middle-aged women near me seems to experience a communal hot flash. For set-closer "Mission Temple Fireworks Stand," Thorn incites an "old-fashioned revival": as the damp crowd shakes its hands in the air, shouting "Holy Ghost! Big Bang theory!" we give ourselves over to a weekend on Beale Street and all of the South's crazy and marvelous contradictions.

To be continued...

*Lesson 1a: Don't be surprised when you return to the Sleep Inn at 1:15 a.m., and someone else has been sleeping in your bed. And don't expect any money back: Goldilocks doesn't do reimbursements. A pair of Pentecostals will give you their unused room when they depart at 1:30 a.m., so they can make it back to Austin in time for church.

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