I felt like I was living the lyrics of Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" when my plane "touched down in the land of delta blues in the middle of the pouring rain." A horrible cab driver left my friend Carrie and I stranded in the downpour at a dead end near the park. Thankfully, we were able to take refuge in the lobby of a church. We put plastic bags on our feet, slipped our shoes back on, and headed to the notorious Beale St. There was no one outside drinking "fat ass beers," but it was amazing to see entire blocks of live music venues, piping hot blues out into the chilly air. We drank some beers, ate some gumbo and fried veggies, and set out for Walgreen's to stock up on socks, ponchos, and Memphis Tigers sweatshirts. We stopped by the Peabody Hotel to watch the famous Peabody ducks march out of the fountain and into the elevator, but the crowd was so thick that we didn't see much.
By 5:30, the rain had stopped, so we walked to the swollen river and joined the massive line of festivalgoers. The ground was saturated with two days of rain, but fortunately the organizers had the forethought to put out a large, interlocking mat in front of each stage, creating a plastic island in what would become a sea of mud. We got a spot near the front for Welsh power trio, the Joy Formidable. "If we all huddle together, sort of like a penguin effect, we'll keep each other warm and have a great afternoon," Ritzy Bryan offered optimistically, wisps of breath billowing from her mouth. The plucky frontwoman was a delight to watch, grinning as she rocked out on her guitar, occasionally making her way over to Matthew James Thomas' kit to punch one of his cymbals. With her wide eyes, bleach-blonde bob with bangs, and black dress, she gave off the appearance of a doll that had come to life, possessed to entertain. Childhood friends with bassist Rhydian Dafydd, the two shared a playful dynamic, touching noses, flipping each other's hair, and Ritzy plopping herself on Rhydian's back while he was bent over by his amp. Their enthusiasm was contagious, winning over the unlikeliest of fans, including a bearded man sporting a camouflage jacket and Confederate flag hat. "I wanna know your name, and I wanna know your name! What are your names?!" he yelled as he smiled widely, revealing teeth stained brown from tobacco. Closing their set with an exuberant "Whirring," the festival was off to a promising start.
Next stop was the Southern Comfort Blues Shack, a small stage that hosted regional blues musicians, just beyond some signs that boasted the achievements of legendary festival regulars (B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and... Saliva?!?). We happened upon Brad Webb, a local guitarist who has been playing gigs in Memphis since 1966. Webb was accompanied by a drummer, a bassist, and his frequent collaborator, vocalist/harmonica player David Hudson. The tiny stage, housed beneath a rusty metal roof, was decorated to look like a front porch, complete with a door swaying gently on its hinges. It was a picturesque view, trains chugging across the railroad bridges spanning the Mississippi River, the sun shedding light somewhere in Arkansas. Sadly, much of the music was muffled by Southern rapper Don Trip, shouting expletives from the overly loud Fed Ex Stage. In the brief respite between sets, we could finally hear Webb and his cohorts clearly. They covered "I Got a Feeling" by Fred Sanders, a late Memphis guitarist who has a coveted brass note on Beale St. (the blues equivalent of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). "Biscuit Blues" was my favorite tune, the dirty bass grumbling out of the speakers forcing me to dance. "It's in the low 40s out here, so if you hear any squeaks and pops, it's the instruments. We're sorry," apologized Hudson. Any squeaks and pops were forgiven, especially when the shit-metal finger-tapping of Yngwie Malmsteen blasted across the park, drowning out Webb almost completely. The band thanked us for watching, and I bought a very homemade-looking CD. As I learned at last year's Catalpa Festival's High Times Stage, don't underestimate the local talent on the smaller stages.
We were just barely able to snag a spot at the back of the mat for Sheryl Crow, who seemed to draw the largest crowd of the day. Crow started her set with the obvious choice, "Steve McQueen," riling up fans with its opening line: "Well, I went to bed in Memphis." She kept the momentum going with a countrified take on "All I Wanna Do," modifying her intro to "This ain't no disco; this is Memphis." She followed it with her most recent single, an ode to staycations called "Easy." After "My Favorite Mistake," Crow squealed, "It's freezing!" Her legs shook in her skin-tight leather pants as she belted out "Can't Cry Anymore." Introducing "Real Gone," Sheryl admitted that her two children were asleep on the tour bus, and that she liked having a post-bedtime gig. "Mom does her work after they go to bed," she said, chuckling at the innuendo. "But when the boys watch the movie Cars, they're reminded that Mommy has a job that pays for all the Legos."
We made our way to the FedEx Stage to see a sizable crowd fist-pumping to Deftones. "This song is for Chi," said Chino Moreno, dedicating "Change (in the House of Flies)" to their recently departed bassist, Chi Cheng. Moreno donned a fan's cowboy hat for "Bloody Cape." I had one Deftones song on a mixtape when I was younger, but now they're not really my cup of tea. "I feel like we should come to Memphis more. Look at this," he said, taking stock of the roaring crowd, definitely Deftones tea drinkers. They finished with two numbers from Adrenaline, "Engine No. 9" and "7 Words."
The temperature dropped even further for Daryl Hall and John Oates, who didn't start until 11:15, forty-five minutes late. They warmed up the crowd with "Out of Touch" and "Family Man," and followed with a remarkable "Say It Isn't So," which saw excellent solos from Paul Pesco on guitar and Charlie DeChant on saxophone. Daryl Hall absolutely killed it vocally, as if the 30 years since the song's release had never passed. "Last time we were here, we only got two songs in. We're doing a hell of a lot better now," he said, introducing "How Does It Feel to Be Back." Next up were two Abandoned Luncheonette tracks, "Las Vegas Turnaround (The Stewardess Song)" and "She's Gone," the latter with a little assistance from Sheryl Crow. I hated leaving Hall & Oates behind, but they should've started on time.
I heard strains of "Rooster" coming from across the park as we made our way over to Alice in Chains. I would've run to catch it, but by this point, the ground was a Mississippi mud pie, made with authentic Mississippi River mud. We made it in time for "Angry Chair," the letters "LSMS" glowing red on the bass drum in tribute to deceased band members Layne Staley and Mike Starr. While Staley's voice was definitely missed (It's what I think of when I think of Alice in Chains.), "Man in the Box" rocked so hard that I forgot the muck I was standing in, sloshing through it to get closer. "Let's all sing together again. One more time, for the road," said Jerry Cantrell before closing out day one with "Would?" At the song's end, he offered a suggestion: "Here's an idea. How about next time we have this festival, we have it indoors?" As it turns out, it rains for this festival almost every year. The organizers shouldn't have to move it inside, but it wouldn't hurt to switch it to a later weekend.
THE JOY FORMIDABLE - 05.03.13 - BEALE ST. MUSIC FESTIVAL (50 minutes, 15 seconds)
Cholla > Austere / This Ladder is Ours / The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade / Little Blimp / Cradle / Maw Maw Song / I Don't Want to See You Like This / Whirring