Belated thoughts on the Beale Street Music Fest: Outside of some personal musical high points, the most memorable moments of the fest were the exciting performances given by locals-gone-national The North Mississippi Allstars, Saliva, and Three 6 Mafia -- and the huge audiences who came to see them. The massive crowds who showed up at the Budweiser Stage on Friday and Saturday for Saliva and Three 6 Mafia, respectively, were the largest Memphis crowds to ever see those groups. And the possibly larger audience who took in the Allstars performance Friday at the AutoZone Stage may well have been bigger than the crowd they played to at the Coliseum last year.
All three bands were in fine form. Saliva put on a show -- the kind of performance that might have occasionally elicited Spinal Tap giggles from a more jaded crowd, but the band's fans ate it up. Lead singer Josey Scott stalked the stage in a flashy white suit while the band delivered energetic renditions of their hit "Your Disease" and hit-to-be "Click, Click, Boom." Some of Scott's stage patter ("Memphis, I want to thank you for making me a superstar!" introducing the song "Superstar") was identical to what he said at the band's New Daisy showcase earlier this year. The band may actually be a little too professional. But seeing the lackluster performances given at the festival by other lab-tested local hard-rock climbers -- Dust For Life and Breaking Point (formerly Broken) -- confirms just how good Saliva is at what they do. I only wish the atmosphere in the crowd had been more inviting. But if your idea of good company is frat boys attempting to slam-dance and encouraging women to show their tits, then it was utopia.
Three 6's show was really great and pretty lame at the same time. The crowd was huge and hyped and the group (along with an entourage pushing triple digits) was a blur of energy. It was an exciting homecoming for Memphis' most successful musical act, and most of the group's hits sounded great on the big sound system. But as a live musical performance it was still mostly an amped-up listening party. The group seemed pretty clearly to be rapping over the actual records -- vocals and all. This is not unusual in live hip hop and I should say that I don't think the practice in any way takes away from the medium's artistic vitality. But as live performance, it's still pretty chintzy. The point was driven home rather hilariously when the group did several Project Pat songs despite the fact that Pat wasn't even on stage.
Personal weekend highlights included: hearing the North Mississippi Allstars' version of "Casey Jones" fade away and Keith Sykes' version of "Broke Down Engine" come in while walking between the two performances; seeing Ike Turner do "Rocket 88"; hearing how good bar-bands Lucero and The Pawtuckets sounded on the big stage; Ben Harper's ferocious set-opening cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression"; Alvin Youngblood Hart bringing Jackie Johnson and Susan Marshall on stage for a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sway"; Bob Dylan playing two of the greatest songs ever written -- "Desolation Row" and "Tangled Up In Blue"; closing out the festival with the inspirational second half of Sonic Youth's set, including a blistering version of "Kool Thing" that was the single most exciting moment all weekend.
A couple of final notes: As everyone knows at this point, the festival sold out all three days. A record 165,000 attendees. People who really like outdoor festivals (and I'm not sure I fall into that category) probably had a blast, but I talked to a lot of serious music-lovers who thought it was too crowded this year to enjoy the music. I know that the crowding at the Cingular Stage for the Ben Harper and Willie Nelson sets was particularly unbearable. Perhaps Memphis In May should reconsider what constitutes a sellout.
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.