Beale Street Music Festival 2018: Friday


  • Courtesy Beale St. Music Festival
Beale Street Music Fest 2018 (BSMF) kicked off Friday, May 4th, which might explain why I saw 23 Star Wars shirts before I gave up and quit counting. Tie-dyed shirts had a respectable showing, with 14 appearances before I tired of taking my phone out and marking down a tally. Everyone has their own strategy for wringing maximum enjoyment out of Music Fest. I’ve attended with friends who like to meticulously plan their experience. They schedule pit stops for drinks and food and know, to the second, how long to stay at any stage before booking it to catch the end of another performance. I prefer the chaos method. Music Fest is mysterious, sometimes stealing your shoes with a puddle of oh-lord-I-hope-that-was-mud, sometimes offering up treasures unimaginable (like Cake covering Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”). I find it’s more fun to surrender to the mystery, and let Music Fest take the reins.

  • Courtesy Beale St. Music Festival
  • North Mississippi All Stars
I had a basic plan to make my way to the FedEx Stage for North Mississippi Allstars and then let fate (or whimsy) take over from there. Who can say whether its nature or nurture, but the Dickinson brothers, sons of the late songsmith and producer Jim Dickinson, have the musical Midas touch. I particularly enjoyed the Allstars’ 2017 album, Prayer for Peace, and was looking forward to seeing the blues-savvy brothers and their band on the banks of the Mississippi, but as tends to happen at Music Fest, I got distracted.

While shuffling past the River Stage, I caught a snatch of a Star and Micey tune and decided to stay for a song or two. It was their third time performing at BSMF, and the Memphis-based quartet looked at home on the River Stage, standing close together in matching white shirts and handing out the harmonies. Star and Micey never fail to evoke a very Southern style of community for me. I can’t help but think of vacation Bible school, campfire sing-a-longs, and neighborhood cookouts. The band’s live performance cranked up the grit and dirt in their guitar tone, but their vocals rang out with the pristine perfection I’ve come to expect from Memphis’ princes of pop. They have all the alt-country twang and earworm catchiness of Golden Smog without the Big Star’s Third-style warbling digressions. The band thanked the crowd before launching into their final song, fan favorite “I Can’t Wait.”
  • Courtesy Beale St. Music Festival
  • Margo Price
Next up was Margo Price. Her sophomore LP, All American Made, is a showstopper of an album, and I was eager to see how her live performance held up. I was not disappointed. Price cued the crowd to her performance by testing the speakers with a snippet of Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.” It was a dirty trick, tipping the crowd off to her knowledge of the local music history, and it worked completely on me. Price strummed an acoustic guitar and sang the wry and candid lyrics that made her the darling of music critics almost overnight. She and her band ripped through a cover of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde-era “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” and they did the brass-heavy original justice. The prominence of the bass and organ in the mix lent some credence to the rumor that Price is a devotee of Memphis soul. She laughed and dropped some not-so-family-friendly language, which endeared her to me all the more. Either she has this showmanship thing down to an exact science, or Price is exactly what she appears to be: an artist enjoying herself as she works, and totally comfortable on stage and in front of a festival crowd. Though Price has surely been in front of bigger crowds, I was nonetheless impressed with how naturally performing seemed to come to her.

  • Courtesy Beale St. Music Festival
  • Clutch
Rushing from the FedEx Stage to a beer tent and then on to the Bud Light Stage, I had just enough hustle to make sure I caught the end of Clutch’s performance. I admit I was less familiar with the Maryland-based rockers, but I’m a sucker for semi-hollowbody guitars and crunchy riffs. So, it turns out, I was in the right place. The sun sank, red lights glowed onstage, rain was still on the menu but not yet served up, and Clutch delivered one riff-based rock anthem after another. One of the best things about BSMF is surely the ease with which a festival-goer can bounce between shows, taking in up-and-comers, hometown heroes, and legends making the circuit again. Neil Fallon, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, looked like her was having a blast as he stalked the stage, waving his hand and coaxing cheers from the crowd. I had no expectations for Clutch, but I enjoyed their performance all the more for it.

Speaking of expectations, it’s time, I think, to set the record straight on Cake. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Voodoo Fest, New Orleans’ Halloween-themed October music festival, was split between New Orleans and Memphis. Some of the acts took place in Crescent City, and the Bluff City handled the rest. The logistics of throwing a festival with next to no notice are enough to send the creeping-crawling cold chills down my spine. Still, with an admirable effort, the second night of the two-day festival moved to Memphis and went off with only some hitches. Cake performed that year, and their set was cut short by technical difficulties. I was there that night 13 years ago, and I’ve held on to an unsatisfied craving for Cake ever since. So when I rushed back to the River Stage last night, I must admit I had some butterflies in my stomach.

The butterflies were for nothing; Cake was incredible. John McCrea talk-sang the lyrics as only he can, and he wasn’t stingy with the vibraslap. McCrea’s distorted acoustic guitar, scratched sans guitar pick, struck just the right sonic nerve and assuaged any fears of technical difficulties I still harbored. Vince DiFiore’s trumpet melodies and Xan McCurdy’s guitar lines remain as hummable as they’ve always been. I didn’t imagine the band would reach all the way back to Fashion Nugget for “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” or that we would be treated to a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It was a great show, and judging by the chorus of audience members who sang along to “Sheep Go to Heaven,” I am far from alone in that belief.

Cake closed out with “Going the Distance,” giving me six minutes to hightail it through the light rain to the FedEx Stage for Alanis Morissette. The Canadian-American goddess of alt-rock released one of the best albums of the ’90s with Jagged Little Pill, played God in Dogma, and has worked to raise awareness for health and spirituality. She is a podcast host, a columnist, an activist, and I am entirely convinced that she could rule the world if she so desired. Morissette gender-swapped a lyric in “All I Really Want,” singing: “I’m fascinated by the spiritual woman. I’m humbled by her humble nature.” The singer and multi-instrumentalist bounced across the stage, belting out her distinctive vocals without missing a note. She never stood still, playing harmonica and guitar, and taking deep bows when she introduced her band. I was humbled by the energy and talent on display, and I left the FedEx Stage blissfully satisfied. Let there be no doubt: Alanis still has it.

As I shuffled toward the main gates to leave Friday night, my ears rang and my head buzzed. One could hardly have asked for better weather or a better lineup for the first night of Memphis’ three-day festival. I would be tempted to say it will be a hard day to top, but with David Byrne, Calexico, Valerie June, the Flaming Lips, and more still to come, I expect that BSMF still has some surprises ready. The only way to know for sure is to head downtown and see.

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