Whether it was to get visitors moving through more of the festival grounds, or simply to provide a more rounded experience, schedulers for the 2012 Beale Street Music Festival appear to have put a premium on variety in compiling this year’s lineup.
At the Horseshoe Casino Stage on the north end of Tom Lee Park on Day 2 of the Memphis In May event, that meant festival-goers experienced a truly eclectic lineup that covered hip-hop, rock and grown-up-and-sexy soul.
The last of those would be represented by the velvety smooth, one-two punch of Memphis soul legend Al Green and one of his heirs apparent, North Carolina R&B crooner Anthony Hamilton, whose respective sets were scheduled to close out the day’s music on the stage.
Just before them, though, was a pair of very different rock bands.
Occupying a space between The Flaming Lips and Wilco, Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog confirmed its growing reputation as one of the best live bands around with a set typified by The Beatles-tinged “I Only Wear Blue,” that featured plenty of jammy exploration while maintaining a tight focus on their catchy, harmony-rich melodies.
Their lead-in was the Atlanta quartet The Black Lips, who likewise drink from the ’60s well of inspiration, though more from the Kinks than the Fab Four. Utilizing decidedly low-tech stage effects like a small smoke machine and rolls of toilet paper thrown into the crowd, the band’s loose and loud set of originals like “O Katrina” (which bassist Jared Swilley introduced with a musical quote from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”) effectively captured the stripped-down, do-it-yourself ethos of the early garage rock bands they clearly emulate.
Before them came Mississippi-born rapper Big K.R.I.T., who — accompanied only by a co-MC and a deejay — turned the stage into an old-fashioned crunkfest with a raw, stripped-down performance heavy on some of the up-and-coming rapper/songwriter/producer’s surprisingly musical party anthems, including “Rotation” and “Moon & Stars.”
Sponge Cola, the band from this year’s Memphis In May-honored country, the Philippines, opened the stage before a smaller crowd than they had the day before with their second-act slot. But those who made the effort were treated to a band whose polished, accessible pop rock — including the original “Jeepney,” sung in their naturally percussive native language, as well as a cover of Madonna’s “Crazy For You” — made them a surprise treat of the festival.
Just north of the Horseshoe Casino Stage, even at the FedEx Blues Tent, a venue whose name would seem to preclude surprises, there was a stunning variety of sounds.
Gary Clark Jr., the magnetic 28-year-old Austin, Texas, guitarist who has really exploded in the last year with a sound that combines rock, blues, R&B and even at times hip-hop, was the sure-to-pack-them-in headliner there.
He was preceded by two of the most eagerly anticipated local acts on the weekend’s bill.
The classic soul band The Bo-Keys, performing a few days after the death of their guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts, delivered an emotional performance. With local ace sideman Joe Restivo in Pitts’ place, the band was still able to temper the sadness of the occasion with a soulful exuberance.
The other hotly anticipated act was roots songstress Valerie June, herself gaining buzz ahead of the release of her Dan Auerbach-produced EP and her participation in the new super group The Wandering. With momentum behind her, June chose this gig to debut her new 12-piece band. Despite some hiccups, she judiciously deployed the ungainly cast — including horns, violin and background singers — in creating an intriguing new amalgam that touched on Delta blues, minstrel songs, jazz, rock and much more, sometimes all within the same song.
With the other acts under the tent using the blues as a jumping off point for other things, it was up to the two opening bands, Memphis-based piano player Victor Wainwright and Arkansas-born guitarist Larry McCray, to deliver the down-home sounds aficionados are used to here. It was something they accomplished easily — Wainwright with a set of ’50s-style R&B that equally spotlight his excellent band The WildRoots and McCray with a performance that delivered on long, dynamic guitar solos.