Ed: Last weekend, the Beale Street Music Festival welcomed one of the stranger lineups of the season to Memphis: Cee-Lo Green, Ke$ha, Mumford & Sons, John Mellencamp, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Gregg Allman and more. We sent Katie Moulton on a last minute road-trip and she brought back this tour diary. Read part one here
Saturday, April 30. Continued...
Lesson 6: Legends are Overrated As curious we were about Jerry Lee Lewis - his battled mix of sin and piety, his fiery piano-playing - and as entrenched in Memphis musical history as he is, we're still somewhat suspicious of "living legends" trotted out to fill in festival bills. Even if it was the 35th anniversary of the Beale Street Music Festival. When the Killer still had yet to appear after his no-name warm-up act kicked into its third song, it was time to find new digs.
We bypassed Hinder growling out its emotional-affair radio hit and assessed the crowd: clean-cut and casual, sprinkled with underage girls in torn neon. Even these Ke$ha-terrestrials knew to wear galoshes.
Lesson 7: Everyone's Got an Agenda. Make Your Own By 6 p.m., we were taking in the New Pornographers. The power-pop supergroup sounded light and upbeat, and it was fantastic to see Neko Case in her blazing redheaded glory. While I was able to receive texts from friends parked at the back - "red blanket, right of soundstage, by the tree" - by the time we were ready to wade out of the crowd, they were already on their way to claim a spot for Mumford and Sons.
Lesson 8: Follow the Crowds Huge crowds streamed in for Mumford and Sons' 7:15 p.m. show. Backed with drums and horn section, these breakout Brits sounded polished and professional. Playing most of album Sigh No More, (including swelling "Winter Winds," which wasn't played at last summer's all-acoustic Off Broadway show), the lads also slipped in new numbers from a second record that can't come soon enough for Mumford's now-legion fans, gathering closer in the field with each stormy harmony.
Lesson 9: Don't Follow the Crowd While much of the crowd moved out the way to watch Ludacris, nothing would tear us away from finally seeing Lucinda Williams, who commanded the stage like a classic rock bandleader for the ages. "Blessed" from her latest album infused the night with plain-spoken, powerful folk. I love that every act got more than an hour to play: very democratic.
Lesson 10: Life Goes On Festivals are all about hard choices. Inevitably you will have to decide between two or more simultaneous performances, both of which you really want to see. By 10:45 p.m., when Ke$ha, in blue lipstick, ejaculated glitter over at the Horseshoe Stage, I found myself exhausted and in an enviable position: under cover with plenty of seating, free beer and a clear view of John Mellencamp. So I stayed where I was, marveled at the bottom-fill Bud Light drafts (wasteful? awesome?), and watched the crowd sing along to an acoustic outtake from "Cherry Bomb," as well as other bluesy takes on Mellencamp's beloved heartland catalog.
Sunday, May 1 - MAY DAY!
Lesson 11: Plan for Rain We woke up to a downpour and newly-formed creek outside the hotel window. We left without knowing if the festival would go on (or how long we would stay), but first, we joined the festival fashion masses by buying rain boots. It took five stores before we found one that hadn't been wiped out of boots, and we set off equipped with galoshes, trash bags...and an unused poncho found on the festival grounds. Ready for Memphis in Mud.
Lesson 12: Pay Homage We swung past Sun Studios, then south to bow our heads at the gates of Graceland. Despite the threatening clouds, it didn't appear there were any more fans than usual crowding onto the mini-buses. When we re-entered the riverfront park with a trickling crowd, we went straight for the FedEx Blues Tent - what's more Memphis than that? The Lee Boys (minus two players) got funky while the Big Muddy rush by like a mile-wide locomotive.
Lesson 13: DON'T FUCK WITH TORNADOS Around 3 p.m., we were stepping out to grab some Gus' Fried Chicken on Front Street (where we had also found free street parking). That's when the tornado sirens started howling. The wind picked up, the sky to the west was black and moving across the river, the temperature plummeted. After speaking with so many Memphians about the dangerous storms they'd been experiencing in just the last few days, we weren't about to fuck around with the weather gods. Leave that to Drowning Pool. (Or don't, that band and Amos Lee had to cancel their sets.)
Part of me wanted to stick around to see what happened, to join those dancing in the rain to JJ Grey and Mofro, but instead we high-tailed it for the park's exit. First, however, we ran smack into a long line. Damn the tornados, Beale Street Music Festival was going to enforce its re-entry policy. In case the storm blew through, we didn't want to be locked out. So we stood in line to get our hands stamped and new re-entry tickets, while less patient music lovers barreled through shouting, "I got my ticket, I ain't waiting in this shit!"
Once ensconced in a downtown hotel, we watched the news report of severe potentially-tornado-producing weather sweeping through downtown, warning everyone on the riverfront to seek cover immediately.
Lesson 14: Never Give Up! We missed our spot in line at Gus', but by 4 p.m., when it became clear no funnels were touching down, we headed back to Tom Lee. Under gray skies, we caught the rock of Lucero, anchored by Ben Nichols' raspy rally cry. Then we sunk into the collective chill (or was that the mud?) in front of Ziggy Marley, who peppered his set with Bob Marley classics. The river may have been high, but this crowd - and its spirits - floated above.
Lesson 15: Do What You Love Sure, Cee Lo Green was getting crazy, bringing out members of the Goodie Mob over at another stage. But I couldn't - wouldn't - miss the Avett Brothers, one of my favorite bands playing today. The North Carolina quartet delivered, milking songs predominantly from latest I and Love and You that still illustrated its range of influences, including a rowdy rendition of John Prine's "Spanish Pipedream." As the sun went down, the raucous crowd was stomping in the mud pit, demanding just one more song.
Lesson 16: Give It Up We were in the front row for the start of the following set - by St. Louis favorites Wilco. But after three songs by Tweedy & Co. failed to ignite our blood, we went in search of someone who would. We found the fire-starter in the Blues tent in the form of a 65-year-old powerhouse: Bettye LaVette. There were plenty of empty seats, a few rows of dancing people close to the stage, but no one could escape the soulful songstress's masterful grasp. A highlight included a track from Interpretations, her recent album of Britpop covers: "Isn't It a Pity," by George Harrison. Slow-burning and deliberate, LaVette imbued each word with the force of a gale wind.