Sun-splashed Beale Music Fest rocks to finale

Crowds down despite fair weather, but no complaints

Michael Franti climbs the barricade to shoot pictures of the crowd during his performance at the Beale Street Music Festival Sunday evening.

Photo by Jim Weber // Buy this photo

Michael Franti climbs the barricade to shoot pictures of the crowd during his performance at the Beale Street Music Festival Sunday evening.

Claudio Sanchez, frontman for the rock band Coheed and Cambria, plays a few bars with his face during his performance at the Beale Street Music Festival on Sunday evening as the three-day bash on the Bluffs wound down.

Photo by Jim Weber

Claudio Sanchez, frontman for the rock band Coheed and Cambria, plays a few bars with his face during his performance at the Beale Street Music Festival on Sunday evening as the three-day bash on the Bluffs wound down.

Sunny skies and dry conditions did not translate to bigger tickets sales for the 2012 Beale Street Music Festival.

Despite rainstorms and tornado warnings, sales were actually a bit stronger in 2011: last year, tickets for Saturday sold out, while Friday was near capacity. While attendance was down slightly across the board this year, festival organizers did not seem the least bit disappointed.

"You're not going to hear me say I missed the rain," joked Memphis in May president and CEO Jim Holt.

"Why some years are bigger than others has to do with a lot of factors," said Holt. "The economy plays a part, the lineup plays a part. Some years the lineup will really resonate for one reason or another. For us, it's always about having a range of entertainment and genres represented."

While the festival has always touted the diversity of its lineups, the 2012 edition actually seemed to cover the widest range: a sampling of Sunday's roster found alt-rockers Bush, jazz-R&B icon Herbie Hancock, country-folk duo Civil Wars, and bluesman Charlie Musselwhite all playing at the same time.

"And I think the diversity of our lineup was really visible in the crowds that came out all three days," said Memphis in May executive vice president Diane Hampton.

In fact, the weekend's largest audiences were drawn by a pair of female-fronted outfits, with art-pop ensemble Florence + the Machine and pop-rock band Evanescence, led by Amy Lee, playing to expansive and enthusiastic throngs.

The Latino and African-American presence in the audience was noticeably greater than in years past as well, owning to appearances by a strong contingent of top line hip-hop acts including Sunday headliner Wiz Khalifa and Saturday's night-capping turn from Cuban dance music superstar Pitbull.

"We live in a diverse city, so we want to offer something for all segments of the population," added Holt. "That's part of our mission."

Another element that seemed noticeable to both observers and organizers was how the average age of fest patrons seemed younger this year. "I think we knew that would be the case going into the year's festival," said Holt. "We'd like to appeal to an older, upper demo, but a lot of that has to do with the availability of acts: who is on the road and who we can get."

"We had some classic stuff this year -- of course, Little Richard and Alison Krauss appeal to an upper demo, as does Herbie Hancock. But we also had a very strong (lineup) in terms of urban appeal, which tends to skew younger."

After wrapping up the remaining Memphis in May festivities, including the barbecue contest and Sunset Symphony, Holt, Hampton and their staff will recover, crunch the numbers, and begin the long process of booking and organizing next year's festival. "We'll look over our notes, look at tweaking some elements and making things better," said Holt. "That's just something we try and do every year."

As for Sunday's festival finale, the lineup seemed designed to ease attendees into the work week, with a Horseshoe Casino stage bill that subtly transitioned from the raucous barroom roots rock of openers The Old 97s to the mellow, beguiling high harmonies of folk duo the Civil Wars and bluegrass headliners Alison Krauss & Union Station.

Seattle band The Head and The Heart's melancholy folk-pop was a popular early draw, with violinist and singer Charity Rose Thielen eliciting cheers when she let wail on the chorus to set closer "Rivers and Roads."

But the biggest applause was reserved for a member of rock-and-roll royalty. Fittingly, Little Richard, filling in for fellow piano pounder and rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, performed from a gold-colored throne, having been confined to a wheelchair by a recent illness.

Though his legs may have failed him -- there would be no jumping up from the keyboard during renditions of songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" -- his voice and fat-sounding 10-piece band, led by former Memphian Travis Wammack (of "Scratchy" fame) on guitar, remained as potent as ever.

Meanwhile, the FedEx Blues Tent had perhaps its strongest day with typically strong turns from local Alvin Youngblood Hart and his band Muscle Theory and Roomful of Blues founder Duke Robillard leading up to the scheduled closer, a rapturously anticipated set by sacred steel star Robert Randolph.

A nominee for best soul-blues at this week's Blues Music Awards in Memphis, festival newcomer Alexis P. Suter and her band kicked off the day in the blues tent. The deep-voiced Brooklyn blues belter, a veteran of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble barn concerts in Woodstock, N.Y., dedicated her set to the recently departed drummer for The Band.

And in the best and biggest surprise of the weekend, Wammack joined his fellow one-time Memphian and high school friend, harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite, toward the end of the latter's blues tent slot, adding some blistering slide guitar in one of those rare, spontaneous teamings that makes the Beale Street Music Festival so special.

Freelance writer Mark Jordan contributed to this story.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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