In the weeks leading up to the Beale Street Music Festival, whenever Janet and I would express our excitement about attending the last day of the festival, the very mention of the event elicited harrowing cautions from nearly everyone we spoke to. Judging by their responses, we'd face a daunting struggle for survival in a rain-soaked, riotous, post-apocalyptic land, where we'd have to defend ourselves from hoards of inebriated savages and trudge through a quagmire of mud, spilled beer, and vomit. Or something to that effect. But we weren't about to be deterred by our well-meaning prophets of doom. I mean, what's a little filth, bodily harm, and destruction when Guster and Barenaked Ladies are playing back-to-back on the same stage?
As I had expected, our cautioners' horror stories were rather exaggerated. Besides getting slightly soaked in a mid-afternoon deluge and catching an occasional whiff of reefer or the trash bins when the wind picked up, we had nothing but an enjoyable experience. Now, I realize what I consider minor inconveniences would be enough to keep some people from going, but you can't expect a festival to be an ideal concert venue. And, compared to the 109 degree heat and Dust Bowl-like cloud of dirt we faced at ACL (Austin City Limits Music Festival) two years ago, Music Fest was a picnic.
We arrived shortly after the gates opened and made our way through the park to claim a spot at the front of the Cellular South Stage (there were three main stages). Guster wouldn't be playing for another three hours, but we didn't want to have to fight our way to the front later.
Local rockabilly legend, Billy Lee Riley opened Sunday's music. Riley was an artist on Sun Records during the label's heyday, but despite his talents as a singer and songwriter, he never achieved the popularity of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. Nonetheless, he remains a Memphis icon and at age 73 still performs with some of Sun Records' finest musicians. He played for about an hour, covering some classics like "That's All Right Mama" and mixing in some songs from his own material including his biggest hit, "Red Hot." It was cool to see such an energetic performance from someone his age, but after a while every song sounded a lot like the one that came before it. That's just the nature of rockabilly, I guess. It's better for dancing than concentrated listening.
The rains tried to take center stage when the jam band Umphrey's McGee took the stage after Riley. The downpour drenched the crowd and the stage, sending roadies to frantically cover the equipment with plastic. The weather didn't really faze the band, though, and their loyal contingency of fans danced and cheered in the deluge.
Like Riley, UM was new to me. I did a little research on them when I got home and found that in 2004, Rolling Stone said they were in line to be the next Phish. Their style struck me as a melange of Phish, Yes, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, with a bit of reggae and Van Halen finger-tapping thrown in for good measure. If that sounds a bit weird, it was. I appreciated their musicianship--they were gifted instrumentalists--but it didn't take long for me to tire of their extended jams. From what I could tell, they only played about five songs the entire hour.
With the rain subsided and ten-minute musical interludes behind us, Janet and I were fired up for Guster--though not as fired up as the girl to my left who was celebrating her 21st birthday and screamed things like "Will you marry me, Adam!" and "You're all I wanted for my birthday!" after every song they played. Needless to say, she had probably spent more than a little time at the Budweiser tent.
Guster kicked off their set with the galloping "The Captain" from their latest album, Ganging Up on the Sun, and then rolled right on into "Barrel of a Gun," a classic from Lost and Gone Forever. The set included three more songs from GUOTS, some favorites from older albums like "Demons" and "Happier," a cover of Geoff Muldaur's "Brazil," and a new song (actually an outtake from GUOTS) called "G Major." Their combination of catchy songs, impeccable musicianship (Brian Rosenworcel's astonishing hand percussion work is reason enough to see them live), and a little humorous interplay with the crowd made for a memorable show. So, not surprisingly, just like when I saw them in 2000 at the Erwin Center, they proved the perfect lead-in to Barenaked Ladies.
As much as I enjoy listening to BNL's albums, nothing beats seeing them in concert.*
They burst into their set with "One Week," "Old Apartment," and "Sound of Your Voice" before jumping into the first of two improvs. For an hour and fifteen minutes, with Steve breaking out his full repertoire of crazy kicks, jumps, and dances, the band stirred up the crowd with high-energy favorites like "It's All Been Done," "Alcohol," and "Brian Wilson." The highlight of the show for me was "Break Your Heart." There are power ballads in the sense of cheesy, hackneyed hair metal love songs, and then there are power ballads in the dynamic, build-to-a-musical-catharsis sense. "Break Your Heart" is the latter. That song alone makes a good case for Steven Page having the most powerful voice in rock/pop music.
And, a BNL show wouldn't be complete without some hilarity. The funniest moments were Ed's improv about his almost fruitless quest to find a BBQ joint open on a Sunday and the guy's talking to people watching the show from their patio across the street. They joked that one of the guys on the patio looked apt to moon the crowd. He did.
Although BNL were the high point of the day for me, Counting Crows were the closing act. In high school and early in college, few bands moved me the way Counting Crows did. I think melancholy songs about unrequited love provide a fitting soundtrack for that phase of life. But I wasn't drawn just to Adam Duritz's lugubrious lyrics; their music was great. With This Desert Life, though, the quality of their songs began to wane. Oh, it's not a bad album by any means and neither is Hard Candy. But if you think either of those albums comes close to August and Everything After or Recovering the Satellites, then you must be a relative of someone in the band. (And if you like their cover of "Big Yellow Taxi," there are people that can help you kick drugs.)
By the time Counting Crows started playing, we'd been standing in basically the same spot for almost seven hours. I felt like someone had beaten me in the legs and back, and Janet felt worse. We stuck around for four songs before we headed out to grab a late dinner with Chris and Andrew (I failed to mention they arrived at the tail end of Guster's set.) Counting Crows opened strong with "Recovering the Satellites," "Hard Candy," "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," and "Mr. Jones." The band was sharp, but I got annoyed by Adam Duritz's tendency to fall into "spoken word" renderings of parts of verses rather than sticking to the melody--You wrote a melody for the song. You're a singer. Sing! As we were leaving, we got to hear the band's slow version of "The Rain King." Fast or slow, that song is awesome. And he sang the whole time!
No attacks by drunken marauders. No sinking knee-deep in mud. No contact with spilled beer or vomit. Just Guster, BNL, and a little Counting Crows. That's a great day at the Beale Street Music Festival in my book.
*Even if you're convinced you don't like BNL, see them in concert. You'll like them. If not, well, then you wouldn't know a good time if it smacked you in the face.