Musical Messengers of Love Make Memphis Marvelous

May 11, 2012 · Print This Article

Photos © by Bob Bayne/Memphis in May, taken from

Beale Street Music Festival’s reputation preceded itself with the nickname “Memphis in Mud.” Given the rainy tradition, most fans embraced the sunny and unseasonably steamy weather of the 2012 installment. Given the utter marvelous ubiquity of music festivals these days, what makes Memphis special? The lovely lineup is what brought this Bonnaroo regular across the state for the weekend; and how this festival fulfills the Memphis musical legacy already inhabiting the banks of the Mississippi River kept us enchanted for three delightful days.

Needtobreathe followed by Florence and the Machine opened the weekend. The angelic soaring sonic blessing brought by Florence Welch took me towards that festival in the mind and heart. Full moon rising, mild Mississippi breezes caressing the dancers on the lawn—this is a perfect night, recovering from an unseemly hot day.

My Morning Jacket, though, are the band that motivate me more than most to take long rock n roll road trips. After opening with “Circuital,” the setlist dipped into B-sides and back catalog. Whatever the song choices, Yim Yames could sing to me on any Friday night. The soaring greatness of Carl’s guitar part and the sheer emotions of Yim’s vocals on “Gideon” never fail to destroy me.

The outta this world “Outta My System” is one of my clean & sober theme songs (just celebrated three years!), so it’s always great to hear that in a set. On “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me,” Yim’s freaky falsetto yummy yelps give me chills no matter how warm it is. An always brain-and-body-bending “Off the Record” riffs into our reggae-soaked “Phone Went West,” soulfully slinked to perfection. Quite simply, My Morning Jacket have become (or perhaps they always were) a quintessential classic rock band in the deeper sense that teenage boys dream about. Yim Yames is a warm-hearted light-worker, sending furry beams of fuzzy love across galaxies of realities in need of repair and revival. I am honored to have traveled to the sonic sanctuary that he and his mates have created on so many occasions.

As much as Friday fulfilled, Saturday sanctified, first with the rusty interstate rambles of Son Volt, with Jay Farrar fierce as poet-troubadour roots-rock frontman, a John Fogerty-meets-Jack Kerouac lyrics-and-guitar prophet. But it was later Saturday when we left the rock themes for a one-of-a-kind soul revival. The Reverend Green brought a band, his daughters as backup singers, dozens of roses to decorate the crowd with love. Green graced us with a medley of “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God” that slipped so perfectly into “Let’s Stay Together.” Late in the show, he became a human jukebox, power-packing snippets of several super-hits into just a few minutes. Broadcasting brightly on the frequency of love, Green’s soul sensuality and sanctified reality combine seamlessly and sacredly – as it should be. More than any festival I’ve been to since leaving downtown Detroit, the racial diversity in the crowd celebrated a sticker I saw on Beale Street: “Not Black, Not White, Just Blues.” The amazing Anthony Hamilton held the soul vibe high into the wee hours.

Sunday’s sets sealed the weekend in more sweat and sweetness. Under the blazing heat, Chris Robinson (of Black Crowes fame) kicked back for a hot and heavy hour of the hippie blues. Then there’s something that makes a festival a festival. Michael Franti and Spearhead wrapped all of Memphis in a mighty group hug of good vibes. Sticking more to recent tracks mostly from The Sound of Sunshine, Franti feels mellower with his message tilted from justice-movement politics towards straight shots of hope-and-unity. When you’re dancing at a festival, such genuine human warmth serves the politics of the good regardless. Some fans have bemoaned the softening of Franti’s sharper edges, but I welcome this latest evolution and look forward towards his next incarnation as well.

We wrapped up the musical quilt of our weekend with quieter duets of The Civil Wars. What Joy Williams and John Paul White have created evokes emotional reckonings and rustic moods, adding yet more to the alt-folk-roots revival that just keeps blossoming with new beauty. They serenaded our after dinner iced-tea hour and sent us walking towards the car with appropriate contentment to carry back to the middle of our fine musical state of Tennessee. —Andrew William Smith, Editor



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