Looking back, the clouds — metaphorical, at least — had been gathering around the 2010 Beale Street Music Festival well before the music ever started.
What turned out to be one of the more difficult years in the event’s three decade-plus history began with the scratching, in late April, of Bret Michaels from the bill, after the Poison singer suffered a brain aneurysm. Then, two days before the fest opened, headlining act The Flaming Lips was forced to scrap its concert, due to the hospitalization of multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd.
By the time Friday’s opening night had finished at Tom Lee Park, the sound of music had given way to the persistent wail of tornado sirens and the clatter of raging thunderstorms.
As it would turn out, this year’s weather problems were far more serious than the usual inconvenient showers and muddy fields associated with the festival, as evidenced by the flooding, damage and deaths that devastated Tennessee over the weekend.
Still, the show must go on — though for two of the festival’s highly anticipated acts, it did not continue on Sunday. Early in the day, word came that both Nashville-based singer-songwriter John Hiatt and country star Alison Krauss would be forced to cancel their festival appearances, unable to make the trek down Interstate 40 due to road closures.
With Hiatt and Krauss out, the Budweiser stage schedule had to be totally reworked. One positive byproduct was that it allowed North African hip-hopper Balti — who had traveled some 8,000 miles from Memphis In May’s honored country of Tunisia — an opportunity to perform. Balti’s originally planned appearance on Saturday had been canceled due to the weather situation.
Fronting a three-man MC and DJ crew, the bearded Balti gamely worked through a selection of songs, delivering intricate rhymes in his native Arabic. Unfortunately, his efforts were spent on just a few folks gathered at the foot of the stage and a trickle of passer-bys making their way into the park.
While Balti was doing his best with just a handful of patrons unfamiliar with his music, Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil, filling in for the ailing Michaels, took the Sam’s Town Stage to a larger and far more receptive audience.
Neil certainly earned points for his enthusiasm, running wildly across the stage, pumping up the crowd, and playing a succession of Crüe hits (“Girls Girls Girls”; “Same Old Situation") and even a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
Over in the FedEx Blues Tent, in the far north end of the park, guitar legend and former Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters sideman Hubert Sumlin was busy summoning old ghosts. With the help of local harp man and vocalist Blind Mississippi Morris, Sumlin whipped out some signature leads on the Wolf classic “Spoonful,” much to the delight of a packed and boisterous house of blues enthusiasts.
Weather conditions were perhaps at their most perfect as Booker T. & the MGs stepped up on the Sam’s Town Stage in the afternoon. The famed Stax Records house band — featuring organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn — generated plenty of hometown love, playing just a few miles from its historical homebase.
With an animated Cropper playing particularly cutting leads, the band worked its way through set that included Caribbean-flavored fare like “Soul Limbo” and the go-go groover “Boogaloo.” Despite slowing things down with a batch of bluesier numbers mid-set, the band ended energetically with the inimitable “Green Onions.”
As the sun slowly began to set, Earth Wind & Fire followed with its own flashy, high-energy, high-stepping brand of rhythm and blues. The group — rooted in the same South Memphis neighborhood that spawned Stax — added an undeniable flair to its horn-and-percussion-propelled sound with singer Philip Bailey and bassist Verdine White driving crowd-pleasers like “Boogie Wonderland” and “Let Your Feelings Show." In all, it proved a joyous finale to a long and trying weekend.