Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Saturday, May 4 Concert Review

Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Saturday, May 4 Concert Review

Rain continued to fall on Memphis as artists like Patti Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mavis Staples, The Black Keys, ZZ Top, The Roots, Porter Robinson and more performed on the second day of the Beale Street Music Festival...

"Remember, it wouldn't be Memphis in May without mud" said a friend and Tennessee native as I packed to leave for Memphis.  She couldn't have been more right.  Conditions Friday at the Beale Street Music Festival were already muddy.  And then more rain fell early Saturday afternoon and again late Saturday night.  The south end of the festival was literally almost entirely mud.  You couldn't tell where the concrete path began or ended because everything was covered in it.  And there's more rain in the forecast for Sunday.  It should be an interesting afternoon for fans of the Smashing Pumpkins and Flaming Lips.

I finally made it to Beale Street where I was astounded to find not only live music in just about every small bar and club but also THIRTY-TWO ounce Yuengling drafts for only $5.50 (with a souvenir cup) outside of B.B. King's Music Club.  In Chicago, we don't have Yuengling.  So I was excited... and drunk.  It's the little things.

Memphis in May 2013 - MUD - The Beale Street Music Festival

Onto the music...

Heartless Bastards - Got a later start than I wanted to as a result of the aforementioned availability of large, cheap beers... But I caught about the last twenty minutes of the Heartless Bastards (one of the band's I was most looking forward to seeing on Sunday).  There must be something in the water in Ohio because some of the coolest bands (and some of the best new garage rock in general) performing at the Beale Street Music Festival are from Ohio (The Black Keys, from Akron, performed later Saturday night).  The vocals of Erika Wennerstrom were passionate and made for a great start to a long, wet, muddy day of live music.

Jerry Lee Lewis - My first scheduling dilemma of day two:  Patti Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis performing at the same time.  I've seen Patti Smith perform with R.E.M. (albeit only one song) and "The Killer" is pushing eighty so I opted for the entirety of the Jerry Lee Lewis set.  "The Killer's" backing band, led ably for more than forty years by Kenny Lovelace, opened the show for about fifteen minutes before being joined by Lewis himself.  Affable onstage as he joked about the weather and those in the crowd with the gall to shout out requests to him, Lewis handled the piano and lead vocals very capably.

My first thought was just how much better he was live than fellow rock n' roll legend Chuck Berry was when I saw him at a now infamous performance in 2011 at the Congress theater.  As I thought that, Lewis launched into a cover of Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."

It's worth noting that of all the acts I've seen so far on the first two days of the festival, Jerry Lee Lewis had by far the largest gathering of fellow performers and other curious folk gathered off to the side of the stage.  In fact, there were so many people trying to fit onto the side of the stage to catch a glimpse of the legend himself that they spilled over behind the band.  And Lewis aimed to impress continuing with iconic hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."

Watching "The Killer" stand up and kick back his piano bench toward the end of "Great Balls of Fire" as he began to make his way offstage is definitely one of those live concert moments I'll never forget.

I made it back to Patti Smith's set just in time to watch "The Godmother of Punk" close with "Gloria."

Mavis Staples - Day two at the Beale Street Music Festival belonged to the legends, a trend that started with Lewis and Smith and continued with Mavis.  "How 'bout them Grizzlies?!" shouted Mavis to rile up the Memphis crowd.

Having seen Staples perform five times previously in her hometown of Chicago (dating back to a 1999 performance as part of The Staples Singers), I was curious to see how well Mavis's set would translate outside of "The Windy City."

She didn't disappoint.

Prepping for the release of her new album One True Vine (her second under the direction of producer Jeff Tweedy of Wilco), Staples mixed songs from that project (the first single is a cover of Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That") with tracks from her 2010 Grammy winning, Tweedy produced LP You Are Not Alone as well as covers and a few Staples Singers numbers.

I feel so fortunate every time I have the opportunity to see Mavis Staples perform live.  You can't help but leave the performance feeling good.  Mavis just has this contagiously positive attitude that you simply can't ignore while watching her perform.  "We're gonna make ya feel good for a while..." she said at one point.  "For how long?" she responded to a query from someone up front.  "How about six months?" she said laughing as the band continued on.  Once again, even outside Chicago, Mavis had that crowd eating out of the palm of her hand.

At seventy-three years of age, Mavis now patrols the stage at times with the assistance of a cane... But nothing can stop that powerhouse voice.  "I won't have to go to church for a year after this!" joked a Memphis native next to me leaving the set.  And it's a sentiment that I hear echoed every time I see her perform because her presence is so powerful that that's what it feels like.  It's a special feeling.

Watching the interplay between Staples and guitar player/band leader Rick Holmstrom is also impressive.  Mavis calls the shots but Holmstrom guides her and it's clear that she depends on him greatly, leaning on him throughout the set.  The two just smile at each other and it's not something that can be faked.  It's obvious there's a real affection there.

As always, Mavis had the crowd testify to the great Levon Helm with an uplifting performance of "The Weight" as members of Gov't Mule watched from the side of the stage.  From there it was on to The Staples Singers for rousing closer "I'll Take You There."

"I'm still standin'!  I'm on that path!  And I'll be there 'till Dr. King's dream is realized!" she exclaimed near the set's finale.  A fitting end to a show in the very city where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed only blocks away.

Beale Street Music Fest 2013 Crowd shot

Photo by Jim Ryan

The Black Keys - One of the sets I was most excited to see this weekend was that of The Black Keys, as I've never been able to catch them live despite ample opportunities in Chicago over the past few years.  As I walked toward the stage, hearing the familiar sounds of Allan Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," it was clear that the rest of the festival felt the same way.  Without question, the biggest crowd that I've seen all weekend was in front of the stage for The Black Keys.  I was so far back for this set that the impeccable sound and near to the stage vantage point that I had come to expect all weekend was not even a remote possibility.

Nevertheless, The Black Keys opened their set with "Howlin' for You" from the 2010 album that turned them into one of the biggest rock acts in the land:  Brothers.

Dan Auerbach (guitar and vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) were augmented to start the set by an additional three members on numbers like "Gold on the Ceiling."  From there, it was back to basics as Carney and Auerbach performed as a duo for older deep cuts like "Thickfreakness," Carney's energetic drumming propelling the performance underneath Auerbach's rocking blues guitar.  It was on tracks like this where the band's true blues influences were most apparent.

Following the slow, almost hushed opening to "Little Black Submarine," ten songs into the seventeen song set, I headed to catch some of Gov't Mule but could hear the band close with "Lonely Boy" and "I Got Mine" from a distance.

Gov't Mule - One of the more rock oriented in the jam band sphere, Gov't Mule appeals to a much broader audience because of the simple fact that they've got hooks.  Yes, they can drag a song out for an incredible amount of time... but it doesn't come off as entirely self-indulgent in the way that someone like a Phish can, quite possibly the result of Warren Haynes' and Allen Woody's time spent as members of the Allman Brothers Band .

Warren Haynes tore it up on guitar and led the band through a rendition of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" as well as Gov't Mule's 2009 hit "Broken Down on the Brazos" during the twenty minutes or so that I saw of their very satisfying set.

Coco Montoya - The vibe at the blues tent at Beale Street Music Festival is ridiculously good... Not to mention the fact that it offers fans a chance to sit (the tent is almost entirely seated) and get out of the elements.

Montoya, a lefty, wails on the blues guitar while performing songs of a more rock leaning fare than many of the other delta blues inspired guitarists I've caught throughout the weekend in the tent.  His cover of The Marvelletes' "Forever" was particularly good.

ZZ Top - I caught about half of ZZ Top's set where it was clear immediately that the band has an affinity for the city after spending a good deal of time in Memphis early in their career.

The band was into the Eliminator portion of their career performing "Gimme All Your Lovin'" as I approached.  And the amount of young people in the crowd familiar with that era of the band's career acted as a great reminder of just how well ZZ Top handled the dawn of MTV when Eliminator was released in 1983 nearly fifteen years into the band's career.  It's possible that no other established rock act handled that new medium as well as ZZ Top did and it probably explains in part the band's continued appeal in 2013, forty-four years after they began.

Another reason for that appeal is the continued cool of one Billy Gibbons.  Some performers just have "it."  And Billy Gibbons is one of those guys.  He has a style (in his playing for certain but also just in general) all his own and everything he does is accompanied by a unique swagger (his words, his walk, his look... everything).

"Gimme All Your Lovin'" was followed by "Chartreuse," the single from their most recent, Rick Rubin produced EP, Texicali from last June.  The song found the band once again exploring their blues roots and was received by the crowd well.  "Legs" followed and got the crowd moving again too.

Their take on "Viva Las Vegas" followed "Tube Snake Boogie" to open the encore which ultimately closed with a rollicking take on "La Grange."

Porter Robinson - Electro house DJ, Porter Robinson closed out day two on the south end of the Beale Street Music Fest, the festival's muddiest, sloppiest area, a factor that didn't even remotely begin to phase those who stuck it out for a trippy set that raved on until 1:15AM.

In the live setting, an electronic music performance is something to behold... or rather, the amazingly energetic way that the crowd responds to a man with a laptop is something to behold.  Weaving sounds from artists like The Prodigy into his beats, Robinson had the crowd moving well into the earliest hours of not just a Sunday morning performance but an experience.

- Jim Ryan

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