Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Sunday, May 5 Concert Review

Memphis in May - The Beale Street Music Festival: Sunday, May 5 Concert Review

Rain continued to fall and despite obvious attempts by organizers at cleaning up/drying festival grounds, Sunday made for the sloppiest day yet as artists like the Flaming Lips, The Black Crowes, Phoenix, the Smashing Pumpkins and more closed out the 2013 Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis… 

Despite the rain and muddy conditions, I have to say that, overall, the Beale Street Music Festival is one of the more fun, fan friendly and easily traversable festivals that I’ve attended.  An early bird price of only $65 before fees for a weekend pass makes the fest an absolute steal in comparison to something like Lollapalooza where a three day pass can fetch as much as $235.  The staff was friendly (even the beer vendors had time to chat), the stages were laid out in a manner that allowed concertgoers to catch at least some of just about any band that they hoped to, I never had to wait in an obnoxious line for a bathroom or drink and at $5 for a sixteen ounce can, beer prices were reasonable by concert standards.

It should also be noted that while fans of some major U.S. music festivals often appear to be in attendance to be seen rather to see, hear or comprehend great live music, those attending Memphis in May seemed genuinely into the music.

In fact, Beale Street itself is a music lover’s dream – The drinks are cheap and there’s live music going all day during festival weekend at nearly every bar you happen upon.  Outside B.B. King’s, I paid $5.50 for a thirty-two ounce Yuengling draft in a souvenir cup.  Yuengling isn’t available in Chicago, so my inner-beer snob was satiated.  At the Rum Boogie Cafe I enjoyed gumbo and a blood Mary for breakfast while gazing starstruck at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar hanging above me (plus Pam & Terry played my request – John Hiatt).

Sun Studios made for an outstanding photo-op (though we didn’t have enough time for the hour tour).  And while we simply ran out of time Monday morning before our ten hour drive back to Chicago (which kept us from entering the National Civil Rights Museum), just gazing at the Lorraine Motel (the sight of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April, 4, 1968) added some levity and put things into perspective after a weekend of live music, overeating and general carousing.

I can’t get over how friendly people were almost as a rule.  There’s something to be said for southern hospitality and my friends and I have already been talking about a return trip to the festival in 2014 (weather be damned).  With the Stax Records Museum and Gibson Guitars factory also located in Memphis, we’ve still got plenty more to check out after our four day maiden voyage in 2013.

Onto the music…

Beale Street 2013 - Memphis (Photo by Jim Ryan)

Photo by Jim Ryan

Public Enemy – Once again, I got a later start at the festival than I wanted to (Beale Street can have that effect) so I started my final day at the fest with Public Enemy.  With only about an hour to perform, Chuck D called the shots, keeping Flavor Flav mostly on track and making sure the band covered as much ground as possible during an extremely energetic set.  I caught them in December at House of Blues so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was in store… but this was actually better.

Sunday marked the group’s first performance since being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Flavor Flav, wearing a noticeably smaller version of his trademark clock around his neck, explained to the crowd that he had given one of the bigger clocks to the Rock Hall following Public Enemy’s induction only weeks ago.

“Memphis, the home of all music in the United States” said the always aware Chuck D referencing the home of Sun Studios and Stax Records.  “That sh-t is movin’!” he added gazing from the stage at the flooded Mississippi River making note of it’s southern flow to New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

Starting their set with “Can’t Truss It,” Chuck, who hasn’t lost a step and remains one of rap’s most intelligent and insightful MC’s, continued to up the driving pace of the set with classics like “Don’t Believe the Hype” before closing with “Fight the Power,” a song whose painting of Elvis Presley in a less than flattering light was especially interesting to ponder in Memphis, Tennessee of all places.

Everyone got their turn going solo… Touring with a full backing band, Flavor Flav jumped in, as he did at House of Blues, on both drums and bass guitar.  But it was DJ Lord’s solo that was most intriguing.  Weaving together snippets of artists like Nirvana and The White Stripes, DJ Lord impressed more with his turntables than anything I saw Porter Robinson do with his hands in the air (nowhere near his laptop) the night before and the crowd responded to it.

Guitar player (and Memphis native) Khari Whynn also stood out.  Performing in front of the hometown crowd, Whynn took centerstage on “Black is Back,” which samples the riff from AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

When all was said and done, Public Enemy had delivered by far the most energetic set that I saw Sunday, if not the entire festival.

Phoenix – Sunday’s was the most impressive array of artists of any of Beale Street Music Festival’s three days… which, while great, posed for me the biggest number of “who should I see?” questions.  Performing opposite Phoenix on Sunday was Memphis’s own Lucero.  I started with Phoenix opting to work my way back to Lucero midway through.

Opening and closing with “Entertainment” (the first single from their April release Bankrupt!), the band was powered live on Sunday by powerhouse drummer Thomas Hedlund.  Hedlund doesn’t play difficult fills or things of that nature but instead plays extremely hard in a propulsive manner that really sets Phoenix’s live sets apart from it’s recorded material.

Early on, the band moved from “Lasso” to “Lisztomania” continuing later with “1901” as I made my way back from Lucero.  “1901” remains every bit the live anthem that it did upon it’s 2009 release while “Rome” from the same album served as the perfect balance between electronic music and alternative rock to get a massive crowd moving in the festival setting.

Lucero – Celebrating their fifteenth anniversary, the Memphis natives got nostalgic reminiscing about their first gig once upon a time around the corner on Beale Street.

Drinking often makes for popular lyrical fare and “Downtown” talked all about it early in Sunday’s set.  A band that, since their humble beginnings, has really gone onto challenge exactly what it is that defines the genre of alt-country, Lucero continued Sunday with a cover of Jawbreaker’s “I Kissed a Bottle” and put a horn section and keyboards up front on the title track from their stellar 2012 effort Women & Work, creating on the latter a honky tonk, boogie woogie sound that would’ve made fellow Beale Street Music Festival performer Jerry Lee Lewis proud.

The Black Crowes – Having seen The Black Crowes several times, its been my experience that the band can vacillate between wildly incredible and fairly mediocre on any given day (especially during the 2001 Lions and “Brotherly Love” tours).  But from everything I had heard, this particular tour has been nothing short of spectacular night in and night out.

So my biggest conundrum of the entire Beale Street Music Festival was this:  whether to catch The Black Crowes, The Flaming Lips or The Smashing Pumpkins (all of whom were scheduled to perform at the same time).

Ultimately, I chose to catch the entirety of the Pumpkins set as their appearance last October at Allstate Arena in support of last June’s Oceania was one of my favorite concerts of 2012.

But as I approached The Black Crowes, they were just launching into “Jealous Again” to open their set, a song built equally live on the plaintiff wails of Chris Robinson and the blues-infused riffwork of one of rock’s more underrated guitarists, Rich Robinson.  From there it was on to “Thick N’ Thin” but I was off to check out The Flaming Lips…

The Flaming Lips – Hailed recently as one of the best live shows in rock, Wayne Coyne and company have actually revamped their stage show.  Gone now are the Dorothys, the animal costumes and, most notably, Wayne’s space bubble.  And while a focus on the music was never exactly in doubt, now it’s front and center with songs from last month’s The Terror holding a place of prominence.

As I made my way toward the south end of the festival, “The W.A.N.D.” rang out across the festival grounds.

Smashing Pumpkins Live at Beale Street Music Festival - May 5, 2013

Photo by Jim Ryan

The Smashing Pumpkins – Over the course of the past three years, this current Smashing Pumpkins lineup (Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Mike Byrne on drums and Nicole Fiorentino on bass and backing vocals) has really gelled.  Sunday marked the eighth time that I’ve seen the Smashing Pumpkins and while it was only my third time seeing this particular incarnation, it was actually my favorite Pumpkins show since Lollapalooza ’94 in Tinley Park, IL.

The material from last June’s Oceania fits nicely in a set that was otherwise populated largely by cuts from Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.  Like last October’s show at Allstate Arena, Sunday’s show also featured a rollicking take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as well as Mellon Collie deep cut “X.Y.U.”  New to the set was the sprawling prog rock of “United States” to close the main set.

“Memphis, the home of Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler” bemused Corgan midway through the set shortly before pointing out that the band is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary.

In 1998, upon the release of the Adore album, the Smashing Pumpkins were way ahead of popular music when it came to incorporating electronic elements into their rock music.  Corgan was frequently lambasted for it at the time but on Sunday night, “Ava Adore” once again served as a great reminder of just how well he incorporates those sounds.  Highlights of the set for me, though, included “Tonight, Tonight” (with a slight reworking of the lyrics) as well as the addition of “Stand Inside Your Love” from the vastly underrated 2000 release Machina/The Machines of God.

As has been the case during recent concerts in Chicago, Sunday’s Memphis affair put the focus not just on Billy Corgan but on the stellar band dynamic that the four members have developed together.  Gone is the seeming control freak of old and in his place Sunday night was an affable Billy Corgan whom actually laughed as the band misfired during the intro to “Today” to open the encore.  Hearing Corgan laugh as they restarted the song, I couldn’t help but ponder just how unthinkable that would’ve been during the Pumpkins’ original mid-nineties hey day.

Touring a very cool new stage show once again designed in part by Sean Evans (the balloon that came to symbolize Oceania during a 2012 arena tour is gone, replaced instead by an even cooler series of video screens and lights that come together to make up a pyramid) in support of a fine new album, this band is firing on ally cylinders in 2013 and I remain intrigued to see just where they’ll take things next.

– Jim Ryan

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