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The Best Fest?

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If you ask one of the official judges at this weekend's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, they'll say they award barbecue teams points based on presentation, appearance of the entry, appearance of the team, flavor, tenderness, and overall impression. Judges even go to barbecue school, learning how to tell what is quality 'cue and what is crap, and have to judge a number of events before

they make it to "The Super Bowl of Swine."

But how should we judge the festivals themselves? Do we base it on hard numbers: Attendance? Revenue? The economic impact on the city? Or should we use more subjective criteria: Overall enjoyment? Media coverage? Or, ahem, attendee feedback?

Now entering its 30s, Memphis In May is preparing for middle age with a plan to keep a $1 million reserve fund, buy permanent office space, create an event based around the river, and develop curriculum based on the featured countries.

And it's not a moment too soon.

The success of MIM waxes and wanes from year to year. Like many outdoor concerts, the Beale Street Music Festival depends on good weather and a strong line-up, and in the current climate, neither of those things is certain.

This year, Music Fest reportedly drew a crowd of 118,000 to watch veteran Memphis In May acts -- and local legends -- Three 6 Mafia, Jerry Lee Lewis, and B.B. King and to see some old "names" -- James Brown, Billy Lee Riley, and Little Richard -- shake their hip replacements.

It seems like Bonnaroo has become the region's dominant summer festival. Die-hard music fans -- and, for that matter, hippies -- travel to Manchester, Tennessee, from all over the country to spend four days camping and listening to acts such as Radiohead, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Beck, Bright Eyes, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Luckily, Music Fest is as much about spending a few days down by the river as it is about the music. Unfortunately, that makes the weather a huge factor. When it's sunny, with a nice breeze coming in off the river, everyone in town shows up. When it's not ... well, people wish they had stayed home.

In the past few years, I've been wet; I've been cold. Forget street magician David Blaine and his weeklong stay in an aquarium at Lincoln Center. Any one of last year's attendees had hands just as pruny. At one point, I smelled something and realized that I was beginning to mildew.

And that's not to mention the shoe-stealing mud that may or may not be hydrated with water, beer, urine, or, more likely, a delightful combination of all three.

This year, MIM apparently had to hire a company to suck standing water out of the park before Music Fest even started.

None of this means Memphis In May should start thinking about retirement. Even though MIM helps spring tourism, maybe we need to realize that not every one of its events has to be the be-all, end-all for the city,

I was in Chicago a few weeks ago and the city was teeming with various conventions, some relocated from New Orleans. It wasn't especially warm, but the city seemed to be in full bloom, in every sense of the word.

The Tulip Days on the Magnificent Mile festival brought hundreds of red, white, yellow, and pink flowers to grace the sidewalks of downtown's Michigan Avenue. Sponsored by area businesses, the sea of color added energy and sparkle to an already energetic streetscape.

Now, did I go to Chicago specifically to see the tulips? No, I went for the shopping. Were a few flowers going to make or break the city? No. But to me, it was all the things that a good festival should be: public, free, and extremely appealing.

The tulips made me happy to walk down the street, and, judging by all the tourists using the flowers for a quick photo op, I wasn't alone. In fact, the festival's sponsors anticipated that reaction and included a photo contest. The winner will grace the 2007 Tulip Days poster.

I'd love to see Memphis In May do a photo contest. Of course, that would mean cameras allowed into Tom Lee Park, but maybe that's a change worth making. Sometimes the smallest things can make a difference, especially in terms of public opinion. Remember a few years ago when MIM said that people who weren't on teams could actually eat barbecue during Barbecue Fest? I've never seen tourists so happy. I mean, luring them here with the idea of the best barbecue in the world and then not letting them have any? Harsh.

As MIM moves forward, it should continue to think big, but it also shouldn't be afraid to think small. Either that, or pray for lots of sun.

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