Review + Photos by L Paul Mann
May 4, 2018 | Memphis, TN – The 42nd Beale Street music festival kicked off quietly on May 4, under overcast skies with a threat of rain. One of Americas oldest music festivals in the country it has consistently ranked in the top 10 of the most prominent music magazines listings. The three-day event unfolds each year on the first week of May, in Downtown Memphis at the end of world-famous Beale Street in the tree-lined Tom Lee Park. The river bluff park affords a spectacular view of the impressive Mississippi River. The event also has to be one of the most affordable and eclectic music festivals in the country. With single day tickets going for $65.00 and three day passes offering a more significant daily discount, the five-stage festival offers up music from nearly every pop music genre. Perhaps the most genuine and historic sounds come from legendary Blues icons, many of whom call Memphis home. The historic city is the birthplace of Blues music in America, with its infectious roots music sounds spreading up and down one of the countries first “highways,” the Mississippi River. But the amazingly diverse festival crowd, in all demographic categories, was also treated to big-name entertainment from genres like classic rock, hip-hop, EDM, Indie Jam bands, country, bluegrass and more.
Just like two years ago, the first day of the festival looked like it might be in jeopardy, with fierce thunderstorms predicted the night before. But luckily the front fizzled before morning, and by the time the gates opened at 5 pm, there were only cloudy skies to deal with. The predicted rain turned out to just be a light drizzle which fell mostly on the last sets of the long night of music.
Anxious music fans lined up early and dashed into the festival as the gates opened just before 5 PM, to get the best front of the stage views. The festival boasts three massive main stages, spread across nearly a mile of riverfront. There is also a Blues tent, featuring regional, national, and international musicians prominent in the genre. The tent features general admission seating, and has its own affordable bar, the Blues tent is worth the price of admission itself, and indeed many Blues fans never leave the tent. Speaking of affordable, the copious amounts of food and beverages available all seemed to have bargain prices compared to most any other festival. Local microbrew beers could be had for $7 while a big plate of a Crawfish boil, featuring sumptuous crawfish, corn not the cob, cajun sausage and vegetables was a bargain at $10. There were lots of freebies throughout the festival as well, including a free haircut.
There was one more hidden gem of a stage just off to the side of the largest of the three main stages. A tiny stage made into a Blues shack offered up historical icons of Blues music from across the region. With never more than a few dozen fans watching, these musical marvels offered up some of the most authentic Blues music in existence.
The threat of rain may have scared off the early birds Friday as the festival began quietly, with the bulk of the crowd not arriving until after dark. That allowed those who did come early to get up close to the stages for a good view of the first bands to play. Another great feature which set the Beale street festival apart from other festivals is that almost everyone gets at least an hour to perform. In the ADD world of multiple stage festivals these days, many bands are regulated to sets of 30 minutes or less, hardly enough time to connect with their fans.
Local Memphis band Star and Micey got things going early on the River stage, playing the festival for the third time. The Bluesy Americana rock band has many fans in the music world which became apparent when the released their first album. Star & Micey’s self-titled debut album features a who’s who of famous musicians including Luther Dickinson (The Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars), Jody Stephens (Big Star) and Rick Steff (Cat Power, Lucero). The album was produced at Stephens Memphis studio. They had a small crowd dancing early on Friday.
Speaking of Luther Dickinson, The North Mississippi Allstars themselves, opened the FedEx stage. The band looked right at home standing on the edge of the Mississippi River. Many of the day’s bands seemed to take a little time to live in the moment and absorb the magical location on the banks of the mighty river.
Margo Price from nearby Nashville brought a country-rock groove to the stage next. Price and her band of veteran musicians tore through a crowd-pleasing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).”
But it was the Blues tent where the musical energy most exuded, beginning with an opening set by a young local performer, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Opening the set with a Hendrix style national anthem before launching into a blues-drenched searing guitar solo, the youngster wowed the crowd immediately. Kingfish, who is barely out of high school may be the reincarnation of BB King. At the age of 6, Kingfish began playing the drums. Three years later, he took up the bass guitar. By the age of 13, he started playing lead guitar. Soon he was fluent in all three instruments and developed a distinctive vocal style. The Blues tent featured a robust sound system that exploded to life beginning with the young guitar wizard. The venue was the only destination for many Blues fans Friday and featured four extraordinary acts including, Kingfish, the Zac Harmon band, local blues rockers the Ghost Town Blues band and a sensational closing set by pedal steel guitar master Robert Randolph and The Family Band.
By the time the sun began to set Maryland rockers Clutch were making crowd-pleasing music for hard rock fans. Lead vocalist Neil Fallon pranced about the stage making eye contact with as many fans in the crowd as possible. The group which was formed in 1991 had been flying under the radar until late when they have become recent fixtures on the festival circuit; The band had just finished a set at the Rockville mega rock concert in Jacksonville, the weekend before.
Speaking of Florida, another veteran rock band represented that state at Beale street Friday. Dashboard Confessional is an American rock band from Boca Raton, fronted by singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba. The group has been rocking crowds since 1999.
By the time evening fell, a large crowd had gathered at all the outdoor stages including the main Fedex stage, where veteran post-grunge rockers, Third Eye Blind had the crowd surging towards the stage. The California band played their well-known hits to an appreciative young crowd. At the same on the Bud Light stage there was a different genre of music being played by Kaleo, an Icelandic blues/rock band that formed in 2012. The group consists of charismatic lead vocalist and guitarist JJ Julius Son, drummer David Antonsson, bassist Daniel Kristjansson, and lead guitarist Rubin Pollock. Their distinctively moody music reflects their influences from their remote homeland. Also at the same time, a completely different musical vibe was being offered up by California alt-rockers, Cake on the River stage. The band may be one of the most peculiar and interesting Indy rock bands around, and the young Memphis crowd responded well to their mix of sounds including rock, rap, Mariachi, country, jazz and even Iranian folk music.
Just before Robert Randolph began his late night set in the Blues Tent, the three headline acts to hit the main stages for their closing sets. The queen of alt-rock angst (according to Rolling Stone), Canadian rocker Alanis Morissette played a much anticipated set on the Fedex stage. The singer-guitarist led a band of veteran rock musicians through a set highlighted by songs on her hit album “Jagged Little Pill.” The set got off to a rocky start with Morissette running from side to side on the large stage, inexplicably singing to the backdrops without a single glance at the audience. Apparently, the singer couldn’t hear her monitors and was frantically searching for one that worked so that she could find the right pitch to sing in. Unfortunately, the audience at the front of the stage couldn’t hear the vocals either and by the third song began a loud chant of “Turn up the vocals.” The large crowd further back behind the sound board had better luck with a more balanced sound.
A short while later, California rapper Tyler The Creator turned in the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with a massive young audience packed tightly against the stage. The energetic performer always delivers a spectacular live show with oversized props, sensational lighting, and endless dance moves. Tyler may be one of the most creative performers in hip-hop today, creating his own world onstage. The millennial Memphis crowd loved every second of his show.
Emphasizing the multi-genre nature of the festival, an entirely different type of band was performing at the same time. Hard rock fans were treated by a closing set by desert jam rockers Queens of The Stone Age. While Morissette played Canadian alt-rock, Tyler wowed the Hip-hop crowd, and Robert Randolph was getting ready to bring soulful sounds to the blues tent, QOTSA played their loud, intense guitar driven rock to a large audience of hard rock fans. Like Clutch, the band had appeared the week before at the Rockville music festival. Singer and guitarist Josh Homme lead the band featuring a trio of guitarists through an intense set of tunes reflecting their library of Desert tunes horned in Palm Desert, California. It seemed almost every music fan found something to like during the opening day of the 2018 Beale Street music festival.
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