Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Friday, May 3 Concert Review

Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Friday, May 3 Concert Review

Friday afternoon along the flooded banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis’s Tom Lee Park, Hall & Oates, Alice in Chains, The Wallflowers, Yngwie Malmsteen, Sheryl Crow, Deftones, The Joy Formidable and more performed on a cool and rainy first day of the Beale Street Music Festival… 

In its thirty-seventh year, the Beale Street Music Festival marks the beginning of the summer concert festival season.  Taking place downtown in Tom Lee Park, the fest celebrates contemporary music in all forms with artists this year ranging anywhere from ZZ Top to  the Smashing Pumpkins and Bassnectar to Hall & Oates (not to mention a blues tent featuring Ronnie Baker Brooks, Coco Montoya, Charles Bradley and more).

Situated immediately alongside the Mississippi River (the flooding near the Illinois/Missouri border just off I-55 was particularly incredible to see on our way south), the festival actually has one of the more scenic settings this side of Coachella in Indio, California.

Friday night, it was easy to make your way from stage to stage catching at least some of just about any act you wanted to.  At a bigger festival like Lollapalooza, if you want to see acts performing simultaneously on opposite ends of the festival, you basically have to decide in advance which you’re going to skip.  While it’s entirely possible that crowds Friday night were negatively impacted by the cold and rainy conditions, it’s worth pointing out that it was pretty easy to navigate throughout the afternoon and evening.

Hall & Oates ended their set at 12:30AM and as we departed the festival grounds, music continued to ring out in the blues tent.  Beale Street looked to be at capacity and revelers appeared primed to keep the party going into the wee hours of early Saturday morning.

With more rain in the forecast for Saturday, and grounds already a muddy mess (far worse than the muddiest conditions I’ve ever seen in Chicago at Pitchfork or Lollapalooza), it will be interesting to see how the grounds hold up (and what measures organizers take) for what I’m assuming will be even bigger crowds on a longer concert day that will see headlining acts like The Roots, ZZ Top and The Black Keys.

Memphis in Mud - Beale Street Music Festival 2013, Day 1 - Friday, 5/3/13

Photo by Jim Ryan

With so much music and culture to soak up in Memphis and so little time to do it (Sun Records and the Peabody Hotel are on deck later in the weekend), Friday night was about the food.  Following the first of what I hope will be approximately fifty barbecue meals this weekend in Memphis (we got started around the corner from our hotel at Tops BBQ which recently celebrated it’s sixtieth anniversary) it was off to check out the festival.

Onto the music…

The Joy Formidable – Almost as if the festival gods were looking down on Memphis, rain ended as we waited to enter the grounds never to return Friday night.  Left in its wake was the obvious mix of mud and spilled beer though large areas in front of each stage were lined with thick plastic keeping the mud at bay.

Frontwoman Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan may have been slightly more subdued than she was about a month ago in Chicago at the Vic Theatre but was nevertheless a stick of dynamite onstage and the perfect way to get the cold crowd into the spirit of the festival opening day one of the Beale Street Music Festival and Memphis in May.  From Wales, Bryan made reference to the fact that the band is quite used to the bad weather they were experiencing.

What I continue to marvel at is just how much fun this band seems to have onstage and just how much noise only three people are capable of creating.  Bryan’s smile was in place throughout as she jettisoned across the stage tormenting her bandmates, as always, in the process (smashing the cymbals of Matthew James Thomas with her guitar and trying her best to knock over bass player Rhydian Dafydd as he crouched down at one point with his back to her).

“Cholla” set the pace early while another extended jam session made “Whirring” one of my highlights of day one.  As her bandmates continued onstage, Bryan jumped down and joined the festival throng up front pointing out fans, guitar in the air, as she did.

The Wallflowers – Featuring as many as eight musicians onstage at one point, in 2013 The Wallflowers have actually began to replicate something loosely resembling, or at least greatly influenced by, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.

Getting started with a cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It,” the Jakob Dylan led outfit eventually hit on their own singles including “Letters From the Wasteland” followed by a rendition of “Three Marlenas” that was equal parts Velvet Underground (“Sweet Jane”) and Bob Dylan (“If Not for You”).

There were covers too… Members of Edward Sharpe’s Magnetic Zeros joined The Wallflowers, lending a horn section to the band’s take on Joe Cocker’s “The Letter” though their closing version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” left some to be desired.

Yngwie Malmsteen – I can’t tell you what Yngwie Malmsteen played.  Honestly, I have no idea.  What I can tell you is that he played loud, he played fast and was in the midst of a monumentally great hair day (even for Yngwie Malmsteen).

Clearly, from his prancing, preening, and posing, it’s obvious that Malmsteen has spent a great deal of time honing not only his incredible guitar playing… but also his stage presence in front of the mirror… and for just a moment, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985.

Oh, and the fog machine guy brought his “A” game too.

“This man came here thirty-five years ago with a toothbrush and a guitar!” boasted Malmsteen’s keyboard player.  So there’s that.

Sheryl Crow – Sheryl Crow has definitely figured out that the best way for an aging female rocker to make a buck in 2013 is by going country.  And her band resembled that adding a twang to familiar hits like “Can’t Cry Anymore” and Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest.”  As always, she struggles live to hit the high notes but her band is ridiculously tight and together they put together a perfectly medicore set Friday night.

Beale Street Music Festival 2013

Photo by Jim Ryan

Deftones – The Deftones continue to craft a unique form of hard rock that blends the worlds of metal and shoegazer flawlessly underneath vocals from frontman Chino Moreno that, whether a death metal scream, subdued hush or series of nu-metal raps, remain incredibly passionate at all times.

Following the recent death of longtime bassist Chi Cheng only weeks ago (Cheng was in a semi-comatose state for nearly four years after a 2008 car accident), the band sent “Change (In the House of Flies)” out to him.  “This one’s for Chi” said Moreno.

Hall & Oates – The hardest choice of the weekend for me came early:  Alice in Chains or Hall & Oates?  Having seen both, and armed with the knowledge that AIC will be back later this summer as part of the Rockstar Uproar Festival, I opted to watch Daryl and John’s set in its entirety.

The crowd at a Hall & Oates show remains one of the more interesting things about the band with its range of sixty-somethings and teenage hipsters (both groups clearly well versed in all of the band’s live material) grooving together to the live music.

With six number one hits under their belt and their distinction as the best selling duo of all-time, Daryl Hall and John Oates returned to the Beale Street Music Festival for the first time since 2010, a set that was cut short due to poor weather.  “Last time we were here we got two songs in” said Hall.  “I don’t hear air raid sirens” quipped Oates back.

Friday night, temperatures may have been cold and the river may have been flooded but the duo got through their entire set.  Starting with “Kiss on my List,” the pair continued through the 80’s portion of their catalog with hits like “Family Man” and “Say it isn’t So.”

From there, it was off to the 70’s where the unpredictable nature of the festival setting was soon on full display.  Clearly catching both Hall and Oates initially off guard was Sheryl Crow as she ran on to the stage bowing at Oates’ feet and ultimately serenading Hall during “She’s Gone.”  Eventually she was (presumably stumbling backstage for more wine) and the hits continued with “Sarah Smile.”

Once dubbed “The Hall & Oates Orchestra” during Live Aid, Hall & Oates’ backing back continues to impress, able to stretch out songs with solid playing, speed things up or stop on a dime.  And the key to all of that remains saxophone player extraordinaire Charlie “Mr. Casual” DeChant who has performed with the band since the early 70’s.  DeChant gave “Say it isn’t So” a jazz-like swing and literally took center stage powering a rousing rendition of one of the band’s biggest hits in “Maneater.”  “I Can’t go for That” took on a meandering path as the band jammed, Hall calling the shots from behind the keyboards and DeChant answering with extended turns on sax.

On March 26, 1977, Hall & Oates tallied their first number one hit with “Rich Girl.”  Nearly thirty-six years later, the band had a capacity crowd on it’s feet singing and dancing along to the song once again.

– Jim Ryan

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