Beale Street Music Festival 2010 | Memphis in Mud

All in all we managed to have a good time despite the worst storms and highest rainfall levels the area has seen in decades.

Having attended the Beale Street Music Festival – part of the annual Memphis in May festivities – twice before (in ’07 and way back in ’96), I was tremendously excited to return to Blues City this year for a festival lineup which included Widespread Panic, Alice in Chains, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Gov’t Mule, 30 Seconds to Mars, Hall and Oates and many more top-name acts. However, my excitement waned as I packed for the trip, nervously checking and rechecking the forecast, which called for nearly apocalyptic storms and flooding across Tennessee.

Really, I had no idea what we were in for. As we know now, the weekend of April 30 through May 2 brought a wrath upon the state like had never been seen before, with up to 10 inches of rain in some counties and countless tornadoes. A T-shirt I saw on Sunday summed it all up: “Memphis in Mud.” To be honest, I am amazed we saw any bands at all.

Arriving in Memphis on Friday evening, we were hopeful. The rain seemed to be holding off, at least on the riverfront in Tom Lee Park, where the fest is based. As if a true miracle of God, the storms seemed to be moving all around us. This allowed us to experience the best of the festival uninterrupted at least for the moment.

As we hit the grounds, we made our way to the Southern Comfort Blues Shack (which was indeed a small trailer with a stage setup inside) to hear some down and dirty blues artists including Kenny Brown and Richard Johnston. This really set the mood and the crowds seemed to be in good spirits. One of my favorite moments of the weekend was watching a boy of around 12 or 13 wearing a Blues Brothers-inspired fedora and sunglasses dancing his butt off to Kenny Brown, truly letting the music take him to another place. It was nice to see a young kid enjoying “real” American roots music, as opposed to the bubblegum Disney pop most kids today listen to.

We moved over the Budweiser Stage, one of three large headliner stages on the grounds to catch the last few songs of Blues Traveler, a band that is a veteran of the festival scene and one of its pioneers (Blues Traveler created the H.O.R.D.E. festivals of the early 90s, the first big jam-band festivals, spurned by the success of Lollapalooza). The band, fronted by John Popper, undoubtedly one of the best if not the best harmonica players around, tore through some of its best-known hits including “Runaround,” “Hook,” and “But Anyway,” as well as a cover of Sublime classic “What I Got.”

After a short break, we were treated to Jeff Beck, a living guitar legend, shredding the guitar and tearing through a fully-instrumental set that included classics like The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher.” The thin and aging Beck has not lost his touch at all, and fans were enthralled – glued to his fingers, hinging on every note.

photo by Joanna Kleine

For me, the highlight of the weekend (and my main reason for going) was a nearly two-hour set by jam band kings Widespread Panic. Panic fans were grinning ear to ear and dancing like maniacs as front man John Bell sang in his distinctively gruff voice fan favorites like “Radio Child,” “Pilgrims,” “Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)” and “Blackout Blues.” Guitarist Jimmy Herring (formerly of Col. Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit) was so on fire he practically made Jeff Beck look like an amateur. Panic concluded their high-energy set with a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”

photos by Joanna Kleine

The weather Gods were smiling all the way up until Panic’s very last note – and then all hell broke loose. As if on cue, the winds kicked up, thunder roared and the rain began to fall. It didn’t stop falling the entire night. Like most of the festivalgoers, we headed for someplace dry, in our case – B.B. King’s blues bar, at the entrance to famed Beale Street. In an amazing stroke of luck, our desire for immediate shelter led us to what may have been the best show we saw all weekend.

As we stumbled in from the rain, we caught the sound of a band jamming like mad on stage. Who were these gangly white guys playing B.B. King’s Blues Club, not playing the blues, but tearing apart the stage with heavy jams and Southern roots music? We discovered that the band providing such magnificent sounds was George McConnell, former interim guitarist for Widespread Panic, who tore up the venue until nearly 3 a.m. Coupled with cold beer and good food, it was just the oasis we needed.

As Saturday dawned, we were restless for lack of sleep as tornado sirens and high winds beating against our 17th story hotel room windows kept us up for the few hours we might have gotten. The forecast looked entirely bleak, with non-stop weather coverage on the local news including numerous and consistent tornado and flood warnings. Our chances of seeing headliner Alice in Chains, it seemed, were dwindling by the minute.

Then yet again, as if on cue, the clouds parted in the early afternoon and gave way to sunny skies. However, during the wee hours inches of rain had fallen, leaving the festival grounds at Tom Lee park a slushy, muddy mess and causing organizers to eliminate the first bands slated to play on each stage and pushing back the gate opening an hour.

As we trudged through the inches deep mud in our rain boots (the best $25 I have ever spent), we tried to keep in good spirits and managed to get there as Gov’t Mule took to the stage. I’ve seen Mule, fronted by Allman Brothers Band guitarist extraordinaire Warren Haynes (who also did stints with Phil Lesh and Friends and The Dead), five or six times and they never disappoint. A true rock and roll band, driven by blues, Mule tore through a killer set that included some of their best anthems such as “Beautifully Broken” (bookended with a teaser of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”), “Mule” and “Soulshine,” an inspirational crowd-favorite Haynes penned with the Allman Brothers, as well as a cover of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Following Mule’s raucous set, the crowd was pumped to Haynes’ fellow Allman Brothers Band alumn Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi, quite possibly music’s greatest power-couple since Johnny and June Carter Cash. Trucks, named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone is the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, and began touring with the band in his early teens, wowing audiences across the globe with his prodigy skills. Tedeschi is the first lady of blues rock – an incredible singer/guitarist who sounds like a magical combination of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt.

photo by Joanna Kleine

Sadly, our night of musical bliss was about to end abruptly. Only three songs into Trucks and Tedeschi’s set (and just as Alice in Chains were plugging in their amps on another stage), tornado sirens began to blare, winds kicked up, rain began to fall, lighting and thunder raged and police canceled the remainder of the shows, evacuating the grounds. We stood looking at each other in disbelief for a moment before slowly filing out in silence with hundreds of thousands of other concertgoers, spilling with confusion and seeking cover in the streets of downtown Memphis.

Coming within five minutes of seeing Alice in Chains perform and having the plug pulled was nearly devastating. At this point, more than half the bands slated to perform on Saturday’s bill had been canceled. The festival, it seemed, was literally a wash. Fortunately we didn’t perish in a tornado (rather we sought shelter with BBQ and beer at Rendevouz, Memphis’ most renowned BBQ spot, conveniently located in a basement – not a bad way to wait out severe weather).

With no plans to stay for Sunday’s lineup after all we’d been through, we took one last stroll down Beale and hit the highway, which apparently was the right decision. None of Sunday’s headliners appeared either with acts like Alison Krause & Union Station, John Hiatt and Three Doors Down stranded in flooded Nashville – all roads out closed.

All in all we managed to have a good time despite the worst storms and highest rainfall levels the area has seen in decades; but it seems the Memphis in May organization has some real considerations to make with regards to future festivals. A visit to the group’s Facebook page on Sunday showed post after post from irate festival patrons demanding money back for nearly all the weekend’s headlining acts being canceled (unlikely to happen).

Comments from many locals declared that the first weekend in May, when the fest has traditionally been held, is always the wettest weekend of the year in Memphis, with rain being the rule rather than the exception. Many are suggesting (if not demanding) the fest being moved to later in the month, when weather issues might be fewer. With the Beale Street Music Festival being just one part of the month-long Memphis in May festivities, it could be difficult to rearrange, but after this year’s debacle, it just might be worth it. | Amy Burger

All photography thanks to Joanna Kleine

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