Beale Street Music Fest

What, you ask, is the Beale Street Music Festival?

Well. Every year, the city puts together the Memphis in May International Festival in which we salute a country (this year it was O Canada!). And… there’s a really huge outdoor event where simultaneous concerts are performed at various sponsored stages with massive attendance that tramples and destroys a public park which we then spend all year restoring to its former glory only to do it all over again.

It’s that simple!

Memphis in May is, I suppose, a way to develop something of an international spirit in non-civic-minded school children. As an eight year old, I dutifully learned cultural mores and capital cities with no regard for context, a kind of willy-nilly approach to studying the one country the city had picked to highlight in the month of May, but it seemed to work.

(For example, in eighth grade I remember learning that Côte d’Ivoire was the real name for Ivory Coast. What a disturbing revelation it was to find out that Americans were simply too lazy to call a thing what it was and instead had named something whatever seemed easiest to pronounce. Add to that Ellis Island, and it was apparent that no one in America ever asked, What would you prefer?)

Other than some short sparks of enlightenment regarding ethnocentricity, Memphis in May – to a child’s eyes – seemed to have nothing to do with ‘insert country here.’ But what I did know about, and what being raised in this city somehow naturally imbibes all of us with, is music.

The strange mixture of events that Memphis hosts during the month of May might not have much to do with international cooperative spirit (the BBQ Cooking Contest is, however, referred to as the ‘World Championship’, and it is yummy, so I’ll give it that). And doing some research, it looks like it was a good way to get tourists into the city. I have nothing against that; in fact, I’m very much for it.

Because it has led us here.

The thing we all long for when May approaches, the event we conspired to sneak out of the house to attend – the Beale Street Music Festival, live at Tom Lee Park on the Mississippi River for three days only.

In high school, Music Fest was taboo. Alcoholic beverages were consumed in such quantities that physical and moral safety were at risk. (Oh, we still found ways to go–or we bragged to our friends that we did, while most often, we hung along the fringes and watched the teeming masses from a distance too great to really hear the music.) In college, it was cool to be from Memphis and host friends in your parents’ home so you could all go to Music Fest and watch Dave Matthews perform and come home with a contact high. Or it was Foo Fighters with Jerry Lee Lewis. Or Yo Gotti and Colbie Caillat shredding it.

No, seriously. It was cool. Sort of. It was strange really, but very cool in all that strangeness. Surreal.

Also, it began to grow a reputation for hellacious weather, and we were all perversely proud of it. It was nicknamed, affectionately, Mud Fest (no relation to the thing in Louisiana) for the unlucky confluence of severe thunderstorms on those particular dates. And going to Mud Fest became a badge of honor, a rite of initiation into adulthood. I’ll be honest; it has rained every time I’ve attended. I’ve lost shoes to the quicksand of mud. I’ve stood in gale force winds and watched a tornado cross the river into Memphis waiting for the roadies to unpack Ben Folds’s piano (didn’t happen; he never even showed on stage). I’ve also cheered with the crowd as Dave Grohl announced that we’d have to perform CPR on him if he was struck by lightning, and I’ve rocked out to Al Green as the sky turned an ominous shade of–you guessed it–green. 

But even with that, we long for it anyway, for the experience if nothing else. For the big-name acts as well as the obscure bands who recorded their only albums in someone’s basement or garage or bathroom. April gives way to more blue in the sky and green pushing up through the dead brown lawns, and suddenly all we can think about is the line-up, the music.

Well, maybe not the whole city. Maybe that’s just me and my corner of it. But we’ve cultivated a wide variety of knowledge and a range of tastes among us, and Beale Street Music Fest seems to hit on all of it, at once, without fail. Three-day passes are expensive, but think of what we’re getting: six or so concerts we definitely want to see, plus a handful of others that wind up blowing our minds, and drop-ins on two or three others that sound cool, hey, isn’t that Paul Simon?

As I’ve gotten older, it’s hard to get down there. I’ll admit to that. Facing the miserable weather and the constant mud and the drunken idiots for that much money just isn’t as appealing. We bought one day passes, and we were rained out of the one or two we wanted to see, making it that much harder to bite the bullet the next year. It’s not a crap shoot, but sometimes it feels like it might be, and I kept saying, okay next time. 

But this year, the 2016 line-up was announced and it was magical.

The perfect storm, we’ll call it. We downloaded the app and marked our favorites with a little heart and planned our strategy, and we bought the three-day passes. We just did it. BeckPaul Simon, and Weezer. Young the Giant, Grace Potter, Violent Femmes. Julien Baker, Courtney Barnett, The Joy Formidable. There were more; there were actually bands I wanted to see and just couldn’t because there were so many I wanted to see.  

Beginning Friday, April 29th, and running through Sunday, May 1st, Music Fest was awesome.

It rained. It was muddy. There were drunks. Yes. But it was awesome. I saw Beck live for the second time in about 18 months, but I also was introduced to musicians whose raw talent or showmanship carried me away. Women playing guitars (CB playing left-handed), a guy in a sparkly jacket that caught the stage lights as the sun went down, epic dueling solos, crowd favorites, a couple of Prince covers, and that ubiquitous sense that we are all people on this earth just trying to make it.

Maybe I give music too much credit. I do the same for writing, but literature always seems to be at once more universal and more personal to me, or perhaps more easily and readily defended. But music does something to us, makes us want to all be packed closely together for that transformative experience, and somehow that keeps surprising me no matter how much I love it. An older woman trucking through the mud in her wheelchair and a couple of frat guys stopping to help her navigate. Two guys with beers uplifted, nodding their heads to the music, gesturing for a couple of strangers to go on ahead of them into the crowd because they were just too stoked by the sound to care how close they were to the stage. An older couple in groupie t-shirts showing up at all the same concerts we were and striking up conversation. A group of women dancing, at that hard age of no longer young, not even caring, hiking up their tube tops at every other head bang. A knot of intense young men studying the guitar solo in minute detail and then rocking back on their heels in flushed triumph as it was performed exactly as amazingly as they’d hoped. 

It rained, but it didn’t swamp us. The mud was everywhere, but it wasn’t a hindrance. We walked miles and stood for hours, but three days of music by some of the best out there – to anyone’s reckoning, by anybody’s taste so wide-ranging as it was – was entirely worth it.

And I learned that no matter how much adulting I do, I’m not too old for music.

Rain boots on and ready for the mud.
Rain boots on and ready for the mud.

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