The Memphis fairgrounds in May are moving


In a welcome confluence of proper performance and logistical practicality, the Memphis musicians were the first performers to take to the stage during this weekend’s relaunch of the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival, following two years of COVID-19 quarantine. (i.e. cancellations).

“I feel like I’m baptizing the return of Beale Street Music Fest,” said “Whoop That Trick” rapper Al Kapone, the first performer on the Bud Light stage early Friday night. “It’s actually an honor.”

Performing on the Zyn Stage, a distance from Hail Mary Pass (the nearby Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium was the backdrop for both stages), Amy LaVere, the fiddle-slamming bass singer, also chose a religious metaphor in acknowledging the appetizer status that accompanies any act that occurs during the opening moments of a festival.

“Thank you for coming to the sacrificial lamb set,” LaVere told the small, grateful crowd.

Minutes into his set, LaVere sang, “If you don’t hear a train, you’re not in Memphis…” As if on cue, the lyrics were completed with the whistle of High-pitched, lonely warning of a freight train, crawling past the stadium, beyond the sight but not the hearing of the festival crowd.

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The train was a reminder that while the Beale Street Music Festival is back in business, business is not business as usual. The revived 2022 festival was not held as usual at the foot of its namesake avenue in Tom Lee Park but in the Fairgrounds area of ​​Liberty Park, more or less in the center of the city. Tom Lee and its scenic location on the Mississippi River were unavailable as the park is undergoing a major overhaul. (This year, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, scheduled for May 11-14, will also take place at Liberty Park.)

Aside from the site, the mission of the music festival was more or less unchanged. The event hosted nearly 60 artists representing rock, blues, folk, hip-hop and world music, as well as a wide range of souvenir and food vendors (this year fans could buy arepas in addition to corn dogs).

However, the venue change caused major annoyance and lengthened the admissions process on opening night, as fans mostly avoided the Southern Avenue south entrance and thronged Central’s north entrance.

“The crowd was disproportionate at the north gate,” said Jim Holt, president and CEO of Memphis in May. According to Holt, 82% of festival-goers came to the north entrance, while at the south gate, “there was no waiting time.” Changes to festival shuttle drop points and some other tweaks have alleviated some of the bottlenecks.

Arguably more important, the loss of the river backdrop and the sunset over the Arkansas shoreline was daunting; it’s unlikely Neil Young would have been moved to perform an epic 35-minute rendition of “Down by the River” if he had been watching from the stage across acres of parking lot. (Would he have chosen the title track from that same album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” instead?)

On the other hand, some festival-goers said they preferred the more convenient location and more easily accessible layout. The narrow north-south stretch that is Tom Lee Park creates a one-mile hike between the festival’s two largest stages, while at Liberty Park the three stages and Coca-Cola Blues Tent were points plotted on an oblong, traveling from one stage to another. relatively easy.

Also, “It’s concrete, so no mud,” enthused festival-goer Christina Westbrook, 40, who arrived early with a portable plastic folding chair, which she set down in front of the Bud Light stage in early Friday afternoon in anticipation of the closing party set by Three 6 Mafia.

The scarcity of soft ground and grass meant, however, that areas of greenery were valuable outside the expanse of grass that faced the Terminix stage at the foot of Tiger Lane. Elsewhere, a few islands of trees surrounded by sidewalks that dotted the large parking lots in front of the Zyn and Bud Light stages; these spaces were quickly colonized by festival-goers with blankets.

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The ‘no mud’ pledge was cashed in around 10 p.m. Saturday night when the threat of lightning and what Memphis officials in May described as a ‘severe weather alert’ caused the festival to be temporarily evacuated, before headliners such as Smashing Pumpkins and Megan Thee Stallion could take the stage. Although the rains were brief, customers were evacuated through the north gate and told they would be allowed to return “when it is determined that all is safe and clear”, according to the scene announcement. which interrupted a performance by the alternative rock band. Death Cub for Cutie. Because festival tickets aren’t refunded in the event of bad weather, many festival-goers returned, even though Megan Thee Stallion didn’t start her show until around 1 a.m.

Other than late Saturday night, the weather for most of the weekend was glorious.

Holt said music fans in all 50 states and four foreign countries purchased tickets in advance for the Beale Street Music Festival, but officials in Memphis in May expect the music festival this year and other events show “a significant drop in attendance”.

He said Tom Lee Park could hold up to 35,000 music festival fans before the doors closed and the day’s event was considered sold out, and Liberty Park was set up to be just as spacious. Nevertheless, no day of this weekend was should be a sale.

In fact, Holt said Memphis officials in May anticipated the riverside move would mean “a drop in our overall revenue” for the festival as a whole. “We anticipate a significant loss.” Other explanations for the drop in attendance include “inflationary pressure” impacting Americans’ spending priorities, Holt said, as well as lingering worries about the COVID-19 virus.

Additionally, one of the band’s signature acts, the Foo Fighters, withdrew from the festival following the death of the rock band’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins. That change happened early enough for Memphis in May to add Sammy Hagar to the lineup, but COVID-related cancellations by Lindsey Buckingham and Chevelle kept the festival moving even after it launched.

Despite these concerns, the mood this weekend was celebratory – in the crowd, on stage and backstage.

“We wanted to do some special things to make up for not being downtown and to celebrate the return of the music festival,” said Randy Blevins, vice president of marketing and programming for Memphis in May.

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To that end, in what Blevins called “a nod” to the area’s Libertyland amusement park past, a free Ferris wheel was set up in the middle of the music festival, to give riders a view of entire layout. In addition, each evening of the festival was to end with a fireworks display.

All the while, the four musical stages offered plenty of fireworks, sound and otherwise, most of which attested to what Bob Mehr of The Commercial Appeal in his Three 6 Mafia review called the “returning spirit” of the festival.

Even so, the contrasts were sometimes extreme.

Friday night, as “classic rock” artist Van Morrison and his band performed orchestrated blues-band arrangements of decades-old songs on the Zyn Stage, the North Carolina hip-hop superstar known as DaBaby’s name was successfully urging women in the audience to come on stage and perform on a prop stripper pole.

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In the crowd watching guitar prodigy Kurt Vile and the Violators was a woman with a David Bowie “Labyrinth” Goblin King tattoo on her shoulder and a man with the “Never Mind the Bollock’s Here the Sex Pistols” logo. on his socks. In front of Al Kapone were the jerseys of Zach Randolph and Ja Morant.

“It feels good to be back after being shut down for the past two years,” Kapone said, in an interview ahead of his show.

Philadelphia native Vile echoed and expanded on this notion during his performance. “It’s good to be back,” he said — and just when you’d expect him to add “in Memphis,” he concluded with the words “in the world.”

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