Memphis is music
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For the past thirty-nine years, Memphis in May’s Beale Street Music Festival has been an event every Memphian looks forward to each spring. Over the years the festival has hosted bands and performers as well known as the Allman Brothers Band, MGMT and B.B. King alongside local artists and lesser-known groups from all over the country and the world to add to the atmosphere of culture and community.
This year, for the first time in at least three years, the weather at BSMF could not have been more perfect for the occasion. Festivalgoers could leave their rain-boots, flannel layers and umbrellas in the back of the closet bringing with them instead some sunscreen and sunglasses.
On the first day of the festival, my group arrived around 6:30 (anticipating the crowd getting more difficult at about 7:15 just before AWOLNATION was scheduled to play) and found ourselves a spot just a couple feet from the fence at the FedEx Stage.
The first band of the night was a Polish band, Myslovitz, who was playing when we arrived. Myslovitz had been invited to the festival due to the fact that Poland is Memphis in May International Festival’s honored country this year and most of their songs were in Polish.
However, their music was certainly not traditional Polish music and although the crowd couldn’t sing along and didn’t know any of the songs, Myslovitz drew loud cheers after every song.
The highlight of the first day of the festival was undoubtedly the Flaming Lips. By this time the crowd surrounding the FedEx Stage had gotten massive as spectators anticipated the Flaming Lips’ 11:05 show.
Explosions of confetti, massive balloons and front-man Wayne Coyne crowd surfing in a giant inflatable ball are just a few highlights of the show that left every member of the audience without a voice and in pure ecstasy.
When the band left the stage after their encore (“Do You Realize”), multiple people remained behind literally crying from happiness after witnessing the Flaming Lips’ remarkable performance.
On Saturday, the second day of the festival, I pushed my way into the Bud Light Stage’s crowd. This year the stage was decked out with two “jumbotron” screens from which audience members could watch the artists perform as well.
The first group, on at 7:05, was the Irish punk band Flogging Molly. Although definitely not my music of choice, the show was full of energy and lead Dave King connected with the crowd throughout the performance by commenting on people he saw in the audience and even talking to some of them.
Even though I lost my sunglasses when a rowdy mosh pit formed and repeatedly knocked my friends and I around, Flogging Molly was definitely one of the best shows of the festival.
Following Flogging Molly at 8:45 came the indie rock group Band of Horses. Thankfully, the crowd settled down considerably from the scene during the Flogging Molly show, allowing my friends and I to push up to the fence for our second night in a row.
Band of Horses performed many of their most beloved songs including “No One’s Gonna Love You,” “Annabelle” and “The Funeral” all to the extreme delight of everybody in the crowd.
The finale of the night was the folk rock band the Avett Brothers performing an extensive set list of over twenty songs to which the crowd seemed to know every word.
Opening with their hit “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” and finishing their encore with the beloved “I and Love and You,” the brothers kept the crowd singing long after every voice was parched and cracked from screaming.
Scott and Seth Avett (the brothers for whom the band is named) talked with the crowd throughout the show and came off of the stage and into the sea of people, all to the delight of everyone there.
The third and final day of the festival began for me at 5:00 back at the FedEx Stage with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. The Americana group consists of a husband and wife along with their assortment of banjos.
Fleck’s banjo skills rivaled those of any musician I have ever witnessed and Washburn’s voice could be soothing, haunting or enchanting depending on the song.
Perhaps my favorite act of the entire festival (despite how fun and thrilling the Flaming Lips were on Friday night) came on after Fleck and Washburn: St. Vincent. Although I knew nothing about her before her show, she completely captivated me and left me stunned by her music and unbelievable talent.
Although she is labeled as art rock, baroque pop or indie pop, she truly cannot be given a label. Her talents exceeded vocals and guitar, extending to the bass, piano, synthesizer and keyboards, all which she performed at her exhilarating show at Beale Street Music Festival.
Her David Bowie-esque style was mesmerizing as she incorporated artistic movements and gestures throughout her performance. The technicality and musical genius that came from her guitar solos left me wide-eyed, gaping and cheering louder than any other band I’d seen. (I very well may have fallen in love with her.)
When St. Vincent and her band retired the stage, Wilco followed close behind. With a nearly two hour set list of over twenty songs, the American alternative rock band was greeted by an adoring crowd of people dying to hear them play.
Opening with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and playing cherished songs such as “Jesus, Etc” and “Via Chicago,” Wilco’s crowd consisted almost entirely of music lovers who knew every song.
At the end of their show, Wilco surprised the audience by bringing out Jody Stevens of Memphis’s own band Big Star to play the drums with them on their last song “Box Full of Letters” and a cover of Big Star’s “In the Street” making the audience go wild.
Overall, this has been my favorite Beale Street Music Festival experience of the past three years. Although I didn’t see most of the popular artists featured at the festival (Ed Sheeran, Cage the Elephant and Paramore being some of those big names), every artist that I saw either surprised me with art I had been unaware of before, or exceeded my expectations entirely.
As many of you probably know, you truly can’t go wrong with any of the groups that perform at Beale Street Music Festival every year. The experience truly encompasses Memphis’s soul and embodies the city’s influential hand in the history of music around the world.