press and media >> blueswax >> issue 183 >> beale street music festival
date >> may 13, 2004
author >> t-bone
photo >> don erickson
Beale Street Music Festival
April 30 - May 2
The stages (which weren't actually on Beale Street) were spread out over the long, narrow piece of terrain called Tom Lee Park alongside the mighty and muddy Mississippi River. The media check-in was at the south gate (a long ways away from everything) and I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on a golf cart manned by a generous staff member, along with the mascot for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. It was a fun and goofy way to make an entrance. Without their assistance, I would have surely missed Slick Ballinger & the Soul Blues Boyz, the first act in the Blues tent at 6:30 p.m. Friday night, but I made a beeline to my destination and was not disappointed. Slick and his three-piece backing band careened their way through a joyful set of stompin' Mississippi Hill Country Blues.
I caught a couple tunes of Hip-Hop/Blues from G. Love & Special Sauce at the Budweiser Stage, before getting my dose of Soul/Blues back at the tent with the spectacular Bettye Lavette. Bettye knocks it out with finesse and fire, putting on a show that is hard to follow. Of course, when you're Michael Burks, you grab your axe, grit your teeth and dig in. And even though Michael is one of my favorite performers, having seen him tear it up on several occasions, I had to check out an act that I had not seen before. (I kept saying that there needed to be two or three of me during the weekend.) The buzz is out and I wasn't going to miss the performance this time by Joss Stone. (I regretted missing her set in Austin during South By Southwest this last March.) This young lady from England possesses a great, soulful voice, a dynamic stage presence, and a killer band that blazed through a seamless set without a hitch. The whole show was very impressive, indeed.
George Clinton and his motley cast of characters was up next after Joss on the AutoZone Stage and I stayed long enough to get a seriously hefty dose of Funk, before heading back to the Blues tent for the soothing sound of Charlie Musselwhite. With Kirk "Eli" Fletcher on guitar and June Core on drums, Charlie kept it loose, flowing and generally upbeat, compared to the dark feel of his latest album, Sanctuary (an excellent album, by the way, check out the review in BluesWax HERE). They mixed things up nicely and it was a fine way to end the first night of music during the fest.
Saturday's music began early at 2 p.m. with Zac Harmon & the Mid-South Blues Revue getting things started in the Blues tent. They won the 2004 International Blues Challenge (IBC) and showed why they deserved the honor. Keep your eyes and ears out for Zac and crew. Speaking of IBC winners, Delta Moon, the top band from 2003, were up next and their unique blend of southern-fried Blues is always a treat. Lead vocalist Gina Leigh is a delight to watch and the twin slide guitarists intertwine their way through a series of original and fresh sounding tunes.
The one true Blues act that was not at the Blues tent was Buddy Guy & Double Trouble at the Budweiser Stage. It was raining throughout most of Saturday, and the grass was being turned to mud by the masses in front of the stage by then. As I walked up, it was no surprise then that Buddy was doing the title track from his Feels Like Rain album. I stayed for "Hoochie Coochie Man" before stepping my way back to the relative comfort of the covered tent. I guess I missed Kim Wilson joining Buddy for a while. Oh well, I was thoroughly enjoying the down-home guitar and vocals of Robert "Wolfman" Belfour. Dressed in his snappy-looking purple suit, Belfour sounds like a Mississippi/Memphis version of Lightnin' Hopkins. After finishing his set with his own personalized versions of tunes by Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, it was heartwarming to see this solo act get a standing ovation from the appreciative die-hard Blues lovers gathered there.
I only left the tent long enough to forage for food and drink so I could get back to the tent for one of my favorites, Reneé Austin. I was digging Reneé even before my buddy from Iowa, "Baby Jake" Torkelson came on board as her guitarist a little less than a year ago. It was great to see my "homeboy" have a three-day stretch of gigs that began with the Handy Award show on Thursday, the Blues Divas series at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale on Friday night, topped by the Beale Street Music Fest on Saturday. Their bass player, Charles Hayes, had only been with them for a week and he did a fine job considering the importance of the shows. Jon "J.C." Coleman on keyboards brings a lot of fire and talent to the proceedings, providing a perfect foil to Reneé's powerful voice and songs.
Then Mother Nature really cut loose with a barrage of raindrops and wind. Ellis Hooks was the beneficiary of all the new Blues "fans" who all of a sudden decided that the covered Blues tent was the place to be. Every chair was full, with people crowded around the perimeter. Thankfully, there was a beer vendor in the rear of the tent who was kept mighty busy.
The nasty weather delayed Jerry Lee Lewis' set for an hour over at the AutoZone Stage, and by then, Eric Sardinas was scorching the tent with his pyrotechnic guitar technique and stage show. I would have liked to see "The Killer," but I wasn't going anywhere as Eric tore it up, displaying his considerable chops on his electric dobros, before actually lighting one of his axes on fire. Think Johnny Winter meets Steve Vai and you'll have a good idea what Sardinas is all about. It's really something else to hear such deep Country Blues played with so much raw power and energy, and he really doesn't even need to torch an instrument to impress anyone; it's something you're not likely going to forget, though. By now, the temperature was cool enough, that coupled with the moisture in the air, you could see Eric's breath as he steamed his way through his set, adding a surreal vibe to the sights under the stage lights.
Bernard Allison was practically shivering when he started his night-ending set, but his playing soon turned up the heat again. It isn't easy following Sardinas, but Bernard is a consummate professional and one of the shining lights in the Blues today. There were still plenty of fans there willing to brave what was now downright cold weather. His family was on hand as well, and the youngest had a chance to get a taste of what it's like, as Bernard brought his son out with a guitar strapped on his small frame. With Jake Torkelson (Bernard's former guitar tech) there to encourage and coach him, the newest would-be guitar slinger in the family showed he has the all the requisite body language down. Another passing of the same torch that Luther Allison handed to Bernard.
Sunday started out hot and sunny, giving the muck from the soggy night before a chance to dry a bit. I ventured from stage to stage catching some of Super Chikan & The Fighting Cocks; Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, featuring the incredible Victor Wooten on bass and Future Man on drumitar; the impressive Mississippi Hill Country stomp of Richard Johnston; the powerful Blues/Rock of Gov't Mule with Warren Haynes; good ol' Charlie Daniels; Tinsley Ellis with his new band; and, the old-school Soul/Funk of The Bar-Kays. The Bar-Kays kept the energy level high, but three keyboards now replace the horns of yesteryear.
Cassie and Otis Taylor
Mother Nature came calling with some more nastiness, and I decided to stay in the tent and miss Little Milton's show on the Gosset Volkswagen Stage. That's all right - Otis Taylor was there, with Alvin Yougblood Hart sitting in. Cassie Taylor, Otis' beautiful and talented daughter, played the bass and also sang some. They did a set of improvised jamming that can only be described as eerie and hypnotic. (Check out a review of Otis' great new album on the review page!)
Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets with Sam Myers finished up the night with a set that may be the best I've personally seen from them. Sam seemed to be in a particularly jovial mood and the band kept the grooves rollin' throughout.
Sunday night's music ended earlier than Saturday, and the rain was not as bad, so I headed down to Beale Street and found my way to The Rum Boogie Café, where Billy Gibson was holding court. As mentioned in last week's BluesWax, I sat in with Billy and his band for a song sung by the dynamic Michelle Lundeen from San Diego. It was great to let loose on the guitar after hearing so many others do so for the last few days and nights.
Despite the weather putting a damper on things part of the time, the attendance for the Beale Street Music Fest was reported at over 38,000 on Friday, almost that many on Saturday, and over 40,000 on Sunday for a total of well over a hundred thousand for the entire festival.
On Monday, I had a late flight out and some time to kill, so I had another tasty meal at the High Point Pinch Bar & Grill, before catching a cab to the Stax Soul Museum. I finally got my chance to see this very cool exhibit honoring some of the finest Soul music ever recorded. Then it was off to the airport, and with a heavy sigh, I said goodbye to Memphis...until the next time.
Don "T-Bone" Erickson is the founding editor of BluesWax. You can reach him at
LIVE PICTURES BY Scott Allen & Jen Taylor, VividPix.com
The festivities for Memphis In May began in large fashion with the three-day Beale Street Music Festival during the Friday, Saturday and Sunday that followed the 2004 W.C. Handy Awards ceremony that was held on the Thursday night before. There was something of high quality for every musical taste. From the Funk and Soul of George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Chaka Khan, and The Bar-Kays to the Bluegrass sounds of Yonder Mountain String Band and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. From the Country flavors of The Charlie Daniels Band and the Drive-By Truckers to the classic Rock of The Steve Miller Band and Styx. From the Rap and Hip-Hop of Doug E. Fresh, Tone-Loc, and Three 6 Mafia to the newer Rock sounds of bands such as Saliva, The Offspring, Sister Hazel, Puddle of Mudd, Live, and The Foo Fighters.
This fest, held on four different stages, offered as much varied talent as any other event you will experience this year, or most any other year.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the large Blues Tent Stage that had nothing but the Blues for three glorious days. For a Blues lover, that also happens to enjoy other styles of music, it was another huge slice of heaven, especially after enjoying all that the Handy Awards had to offer the night before.
Photo by Don Erickson