Big names, standout performances delight Beale Street Music Festival crowd

Big K.R.I.T fan Josh Dixon (middle) jams along to the music at the Horseshoe Casino Stage during the second day Memphis in May's Beale Street Music Festival at Tom Lee Park.

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Big K.R.I.T fan Josh Dixon (middle) jams along to the music at the Horseshoe Casino Stage during the second day Memphis in May's Beale Street Music Festival at Tom Lee Park.

As the second day of the Beale Street Music Festival unfolded at Tom Lee Park, it was hard to tell who was happier: the nearly 40,000 patrons who came to see acts like Pitbull and Jane’s Addiction, or Memphis in May organizers, who were beaming over the unusually dry conditions.

Memphis in May executive vice president Diane Hampton, generally the most put upon figure whenever the festival falls into climate chaos, was upbeat after two days of ideal weather. “This is a festival the way you actually plan it,” said Hampton. “When you can execute it just the way you plan, it’s actually easy, it’s very smooth.”

Hampton noted the favorable conditions, which are forecast for today as well, boosted already brisk ticket sales. “Saturday was a great day, very steady. We had strong sales going into it, and the end of the day just got bigger with (appearances by R&B stars) Anthony Hamilton and Al Green.”

While the day’s big names like Hamilton and Green performed in front of massive crowds, each year one act, generally during the lesser-attended daytime slots, seems to offer an unexpected surprise. Saturday’s standout turn came from St. Louis alt-country veterans Son Volt.

The group, led by Uncle Tupelo founder Jay Farrar, formed in 1994, and has been an on-again, off-again proposition since the early 2000s. Farrar’s current backing lineup, which includes longtime drummer Dave Bryson and bassist Andrew Duplantis, might be his best, as the group proved during a mesmerizing Bud Light stage performance.

Turning out a succession of early Son Volt classics (“Windfall,” “Drown” and “Tear Stained Eye”), the generally low-key Farrar was on fire vocally and on guitar, even pulling out the Uncle Tupelo chestnut “Chickamauga” for the finale.

Down the park, Chicago blues great Buddy Guy was happily going through his back pages on the Orion stage during a late-afternoon appearance. The 75-year-old bluesman, looking spry for his years, seemed content to put on a show: engaging the audience in singalongs, mugging for the patrons in the pit, and occasionally playing some cutting guitar during a set that ran the gamut from his 1968 gem “The Things I Used to Do” (a cover of his great early influence, Guitar Slim) down to the autobiographical reminiscence “74 Years Young” from his most recent LP, 2010’s Grammy-winning Living Proof.

At one point Guy noted, not entirely happily, that his sound was being forced to compete with the booming bass of Childish Gambino playing a few hundred yards away.

The rap alter-ego of comic actor and “Community” sitcom star Donald Glover, Gambino’s Bud Light stage turn began promisingly, as he chattered speedily through a series of humor-laced hip-hop numbers and the odd foray into ’80s electro-R&B territory. But his momentum — and the crowd’s interest — seemed to wane midway through, never quite recovering.

English goth-rockers The Cult had no such problems, as the group followed Gambino by pounding through an unrelenting, if typically ham-fisted, set of material, including their big ’80s hits and few numbers off their new LP, Choice of Weapon.

Local rap hero Yo Gotti might’ve offered the nighttime lineup’s most exuberant performance. Fronting a live band/DJ setup, Gotti — clad in a festive stars and stripes T-shirt — beamed as he basked in the appreciative glow of his hometown fans. Serving up strong versions of street anthems like “Flexin” and “Killa,” the set represented an important affirmation for Gotti, whose much delayed major label debut Live from the Kitchen was finally released by RCA earlier this year to brisk sales.

— Bob Mehr: 529-2517

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