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MAKING A 'NIGHT' OF IT Say, what abridgement have you for this evening? What masque? What music? How shall we beguile The lazy time, if not with some delight? --A Midsummer Night’s Dream In case you didn’t know, this past Friday was the Summer Solstice. Which means that the longest day of the year has come and gone--a night that various cultures past have referred to as Midsummer’s eve. A pagan holiday by definition, (wait, isn’t that every day in Memphis) the summer solstice is historically a celebration of the fruits of one’s labors, a rejoicing in the bounties wrought in the work of the days before and after. A celebration, then, of the cultivation and reward of nature itself. How fitting, then, for this day to be chosen as the kick-off for the Live at the Garden summer concert series at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Admittedly, I am shamefully untrained in the particularities of the flora and fauna of the world. What you call an orchid, I call that pretty flower over there. When you see clover, I see those neat little things that close up at night. You get the picture. The beauty of the grounds, however, is in no way lost for want of the name of a genus or species. At night, under a string of lights hung from the boughs of, um, the pretty trees by the stone-lined walkway, even the stretch of porta-potties brought in for the show looked somehow majestic. The locale serves as an entirely enchanted backdrop for an evening of music, headlined in Friday’s sophomore season opener by the great Ray Charles. Charles, hands down, was a wonderful performer. I strain to imagine myself at the age of 71, clad in an adorable little blazer and hitting the piano keys as if I was 16, and I cannot. I can barely imagine it now. Blessed with the peaks and valleys due a voice through the passing of years, Charles played to a crowd of several thousand for well over an hour. Those peaks and valleys were especially apparent during the slow and quieting Georgia on My Mind. Though the performance is surely somewhat changed from what it might have been in years past, there was something about it that gave me chills. Maybe it was just the evening itself, or the way the warm air swirled amidst the bodies in the crowd. But watching Charles make his way through the song, you could really hear the physical man singing that was singing the notes. It somehow reached beyond the glow cast by his status as a living legend, and it was sublime. The arrangement of the seating area offers pluses and minuses to compliment tickets at all price points. Direct views of the stage, of course, are most choice in the encore section, a group of numbered tables right in front of the backlit dome where the performance takes place. Catered meals are offered there, as well as complimentary drinks (with a limit of 5) for the very best tables, which run at $60 per ticket. Initially I sat in the second tier of the tabled seating, which afforded me a chance to catch the band from a close-up perspective. Or so I thought. A bit claustrophobic when it comes to crowds, I decided to wander for a bit and check out what the lawn seats had to offer. These seats, or patches of grass rather, are hands down the best bet for the series, which has five more shows on deck before the season draws to an end. With speakers set up all over the venue, the sound was just as good whether you were 5 or 500 feet from the stage. In addition, large screens were placed around the perimeter of the lawn, in effect creating a really neat outdoor pay-per-view with live audio kind of vibe. It sort of made me think about how strange modern life is, where we can shake and groove to a live performance, while sitting cross-legged on a lawn in front of a television screen beneath the stars. It’s like a childhood backyard sleepover fantasy. Regardless of where you choose to sit, the venue allows you to bring coolers filled with the nectars of your choice. Ignorant of this fact, I neglected to tote along my own bucket of fun, but there are vendors on hand for the ill prepared. Seasoned attendees brought along everything from blankets and 12-packs, to bottled liquors with full-on candelabras and place settings. It was a study in human recreational habits, wandering around and looking at the myriad set-ups ranging from cans and paper towels, to expensive wines and chilled glasses. Unfortunately, the locale forbids circus animals, bad attitudes, and dirty laundry (as stated on their Web site) so you’ll have to part with these for one lonely evening should you decide to go. One concern for the event is the traffic flow before and after the show, which can get a bit on the congested side. I suggest getting up and dancing near the back of the lawn when it feels like things are winding down and then sprinting to your car with all of the speed that you can muster. This is what I did, and although I probably only made it to the car about 5 minutes before the majority, I could see that the cars were mighty jammed up as I drove my merry self down Park, wait free. My advice to you would be to check out at least one of the remaining shows, which include performances by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra with the Stax Academy of Music, Dr. John with Mavis Staples and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Kathy Mattea, Al Jarreau with the Gamble Brothers, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s guaranteed to be a great evening amidst the, well, truly lovely plant-life that Memphis is graced to have housed at this garden refuge. Though the summer heat might induce laziness indeed, you’ll be glad you went out for this evening delight.

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