Memphis in May has found the middle ground, where music lovers can meet and indulge guilty pleasures—or venture into tunes unknown.
The Beale Street Music Festival organizers seemingly made a conscious effort this year to better mirror the major festivals, and come off less like the radio festival it had been in the past. Gone were the Five Finger Death Punch and Breaking Benjamins of the music world, and introduced were festival regulars Beck, Zedd, and Modest Mouse. Also reintroduced was the mud. After a respite last year, a week of rain leading up to Memphis in May left the grounds a mess on Friday, and impossible to tell sidewalk from grass by Saturday. If you’d attended the festival previously, you were probably prepared for it; if not, welcome to spring in Memphis.
Weezer released its excellent, new self-titled album only a month before the festival, but the band seemed more than happy to revel in the past. Erupting with “My Name Is Jonas,” “Hash Pipe,” and “El Scorcho” was enough to make anyone yearn for the ’90s. The new album wasn’t forgotten, though. “California Kids” and “Do You Wanna Get High” fit in perfectly, and showed that singer/lyricist Rivers Cuomo is far from finished making an impact.
On the other side of the festival, Neil Young spent the first 35 minutes of his set on “Down by the River” from his 1969 album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Rumor has it that, on the way to the grounds, Young’s management informed the festival he would be going well past his intended set time, and that they shouldn’t cut the power to the stage. They were not wrong, extending to almost 1 a.m. Young also dedicated “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” to Willie Nelson, who was celebrating his 83rd birthday.
Many bands throughout the weekend brought up their objections to a state law passed the previous week, allowing therapists or counselors to deny employing or serving those with whom their religion disagrees. Young the Giant spoke perhaps the most eloquently on the matter, pointing out that everyone in attendance comes from a different background with different beliefs and colors, and that they all somehow ended up together for the festival.
The Struts opened the day with a set that would have made their rocking British ancestors proud. Lead singer Luke Spiller owned the crowd from the get-go, while guitarist Adam Slack rocked a shirt proclaiming, “Who the fuck is Luke Spiller?” They worked through way through most of their excellent debut album, Everybody Wants, including an accurate version of the David Bowie classic “Rebel Rebel.”
After a two-hour delay due to some small structure damage caused by high winds, pop music mostly ruled the night. LunchMoney Lewis started things out. Lewis is an oddity in the pop music world. His songs and music videos don’t feature extravagant topics or things. “Mama” features simple, but relatable lyrics, like “This song is dedicated to my mama/ who taught me how to put on my pajamas.”
Moon Taxi is a mash of about a half dozen different genres. They’re pop-flavored, indie/reggae rock with a dash of grandiose stadium rock. The hardworking Nashvillians have been at it for a decade, and have finally begun to reap the fruit of their efforts. Their latest release, Daybreaker, has, in fact, been that for the band. Lead singer Trevor Terndrup may look like he belongs on the cover of a “Hottest of Nashville” magazine cover, but he and the rest of the band bring the serious chops and catalog you might expect from a band with five major album releases.
The Violent Femmes have returned to the spotlight once again, and after a memorable appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the band drew an impressive amount of passion and exuberance from a crowd ranging in age from the teens through the late 40s. Lead singer Gordan Gano and bass player Brian Ritchie remain at the heart of the band, and seem as passionate as ever. The Femmes never really left the spotlight, though, with bands like The Hold Steady abd Gnarls Barkley keeping their music in the forefront of our conscious. With new album We Can Do Anything, as well as an extensive tour, the band looks to be as relevant as ever.
With Modest Mouse, Meghan Trainor, and Jason Derulo serving as headliners, the choice was fairly easy to make for most in attendance, whatever their musical leanings may be. The Isaac Brock–led Modest Mouse played in Memphis just last spring, but with that show quickly selling out, there was still an obvious hunger in the Mid-South. In the age of Setlist.fm and other sites, it’s easy to know what to anticipate when seeing a band, so major props for tonight’s set list spontaneity.
You never quite know what to expect from the band live, and this set proved no different. All the songs you’d expect to be there were; “Grey Ice Water” has recently appeared—and serves as a quiet moment—before the intense “Fly Trapped in a Jar.” After a brief break, Brock returned for the fitting “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” which at one point could have been the title of Brock’s posthumous biography. Fortunately, the singer seems to be doing well, and is in as good of shape and humor as ever.
Beck David Campbell, aka Beck Hansen, aka Beck, headlined the evening with arguably the finest set of the weekend. There is no box you can place around him musically, which made the set appealing to everyone, while simultaneously avant garde. It was bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson’s last show after touring with Beck since 1996. Meldal-Johnson said he is booked the rest of the year doing production work, which most recently included M83’s new album, Junk. The band played the rarity “Soldier Jane” at his request.
As they came back out for their encore, Beck explained that due to this being the first show since Prince’s passing, and the reverence he held for the great artist, they would honor him with a cover of “Raspberry Beret.” Their version was tilted to Americana, but still had a swagger underneath it. As Beck introduce his band, they went through their own favorite Prince jams, including “Erotic City” and “1999,” with “Where It’s At” sandwiched at both ends.
Earlier in the day, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats took the stage to make sure someone was sweltering. Their album was released by Stax Records, whose hallowed halls were just a short hop away from the Mississippi Riverfront. The entire band is a pleasure to watch, performing like they appreciate every moment of stage time they are given. Their brand of blues rock isn’t new, but Rateliff has the soul to sell it.
Courtney Barnett was a long way from home, and was the Best New Artist nominee not named Meghan Trainor in attendance. Barnett is a brilliant storyteller lyrically, but has the rock chops such that even if you don’t know the words she says, you can still enjoy a few good headbangs. “Underworked and over-sexed, I must express my disinterest/ The rats are back inside my head/ what would Freud have said?” she ponders on “Pedestrian at Best,” which might be the best grunge track in two decades. As indie-pop band Bastille would follow her onstage, a large number of the audience members in attendance were of the screamy, female variety. Here’s hoping Barnett made some new fans.
The Arcs were solid musically, as is lead man Dan Auerbach’s other group, The Black Keys. Unfortunately, neither is much for showmanship, though Auerbach seems a bit keener to explore and rock harder with the Keys. On the festival circuit, where you have very little time to impress a crowd with options, the first few songs are vital. The Motown-infused “Chains of Love” was elegantly followed with a cover of The Temptations’ “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” They seemed all warmed up for the heavier “Out of My Mind” and “I Wanna Holler,” a cover of the Gary U.S. Bonds track recorded in the 1960s.
The festival season is, if nothing else, unpredictable in terms of value and consistency from year to year. Beale Street Music Festival has reliably proven itself to be a value for the price. Other festivals in the same ($100 to $150) price range would do well to pay attention to their model. When so much around the scene seems to be either popular or niche, Memphis in May has found the middle ground, where music lovers can meet and indulge guilty pleasures—or the musically lazy can easily venture into tunes unknown. | Bruce Matlock & Julia Bragg
Photos by Bruce Matlock