New Orleans’beloved Jazz Fest celebrates the wide diversity of New Orleans music, but the Memphis equivalent, the Beale Street Music Festival generally does not feature Memphis’ musical culture or history, despite the occasional appearance of a big Memphis or Mid-South act, such as Yo Gotti or the North Mississippi All-Stars. So people who want to delve deeply into the musical culture of Memphis and the surrounding area must look elsewhere, and fortunately, there is a festival geared particularly to the indigenous music cultures of the Mid-South, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. Founded in 1982 by a non-profit called the Center for Southern Folklore, the festival is a free event across two days and six downtown Memphis stages (four of them outdoors) where the best in local soul, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass, indie rock, fife-and-drum music, majorettes and drumlines are presented. The line-up is always surprising and enjoyable, but this year’s Saturday schedule involved a number of artists from the Mississippi Hill Country, including veteran Como bluesman R. L. Boyce, who recently released his third album Roll & Tumble on the Waxploitation label out of California, who was joined by guitarist Luther Dickinson at the Center for Southern Folklore stage. The highlight was a song that Boyce improvised on the spot for the victims of the flooding in Houston, entitled “We Can’t Drink This Water.” Young up-and-comer Cameron Kimbrough, a grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, performed on the same stage with drummer Timotheus Scruggs and some assistance on tambourines from his mother Joyce Jones and R. L. Boyce’s daughter Sherena. Jones, affectionately known as “She-Wolf”, was herself featured with her band on the Gayoso Stage later in the day, performing several of her original songs, including “Poor Black Man” and “Juke Joint Party”, and Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, performed with her Rising Star Fife and Drum Band on the large Peabody Place stage to a decent-sized crowd. These were just a handful of the hundred or so artists that performed each day on the various stages, and while the donation cans were passed around frequently, there were no VIP areas, no fenced-in areas, and no stages requiring tickets or wristbands. A day spent at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival will immerse you in the diverse cultures of the people of Memphis and the Mid-South.
I had not planned on going to the Beale Street Music Festival this year, since I wasn’t particularly pleased with the line-up, and also I hadn’t been able to get a press pass last year, and didn’t even try to this year. But when a friend of mine who works for Rockstar Energy Drinks posted on Facebook that he was giving away tickets, I decided to go, asked him for two of them and invited a friend from college to go with me. By the time I had picked her up (and the tickets), it was nearly 10 o’clock, so I figured we would only get to see one act. I wasn’t at all interested in the hard rock groups on the bigger stages, and nobody was on the Blues Shack stage, but when we got to the Blues Tent, a band was coming on stage called Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Although they were a Black band, they featured a young man playing the steel guitar, an instrument usually associated with country music, and so I knew that they were from Florida. The phenomenon of Black steel guitar is pretty much unique to the state of Florida, and largely in one denomination of church, the House of God. Robert Randolph in fact began his music career in the House of God, and told an interviewer that he was completely unfamiliar with secular music before he began collaborating with Mark Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars.
What Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar, Robert Randolph is to the pedal steel. His flexibility and inventiveness with the instrument is absolutely amazing, and his repertoire is extremely diverse, from gospel standards to blues and even rock. And he is a consummate showman, exhorting the crowd to get them involved. He calls his band the Family Band, and that’s not just a name, as most of the musicians are actually relatives of Robert. At the end of the set at 11 PM, the Blues Tent was still standing room only. The band performed one final encore at the crowd’s demand, and the Friday night of the Beale Street Music Festival ended with a standing ovation for about five minutes straight.
Keep up with Robert Randolph & The Family Band:
Mississippi bluesman Kenny Brown played in R. L. Burnside’s last band, and the blues legend used to tell people that he had adopted Kenny. But Brown’s interest in blues had begun long before, when he and his family lived in Nesbit near Mississippi Joe Callicott, a blues musician whose best recordings were made at the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival at the Overton Park Shell in the last year of his life. With this kind of legacy, Kenny Brown has helped to preserve the Mississippi Hill Country blues tradition, not only as a performer, but also through organizing with his wife the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnics, which are held every year in June in Marshall County, Mississippi and which feature most of the living Hill Country blues musicians, including the heirs of the Burnside and Kimbrough families. Brown’s performance at the Beale Street Music Festival was for some odd reason not included on the schedule, so I was somewhat surprised to see him, but a small crowd stood around the shack enjoying the music.
I had seen Public Enemy live in Austin last month at SXSW, but their Sunday afternoon appearance at the Beale Street Music Festival was a far more boisterous and exuberant affair than the Texas show, at which Flava Flav was absent. Public Enemy’s bass player is from Memphis, so his extended family was backstage, peeking out from time to time, and Chuck D eventually broke it all the way down to a rap accompanied only by his incredibly-funky drummer. During the course of the show, Flava Flav played both the bass and the drums, and PE managed to get in most of the hits the crowd wanted to hear.
In many ways, the emergence of Al Kapone in the early 1990’s corresponded to the rise of Memphis rap as a unique subgenre of hip-hop, and it is he that has had the most longevity of any Memphis rap artist. From his earliest solo songs, Kapone has brought an intelligence and warmth to street rap, informed by his own personal positivity and his love of Memphis’ soul and blues legacy. As time has passed, his music has changed in sound and scope, sometimes incorporating live instruments, or even a full symphony orchestra, as he did with two ground-breaking performances with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, and his fan base has changed as well, now comprising people of all ages, races and nationalities, with many of his fans overseas. But despite all the opportunities and accolades, Al Kapone has never forgotten his Memphis roots, musically or otherwise. He returns to the city as a source of inspiration in his production and writing, so it was fitting that he was chosen to represent Memphis at Beale Street Music Festival before Public Enemy’s appearance. It was also fitting that there was a break in the rain, and that a very diverse crowd of his fans were present to hear him perform a number of new songs (one featuring another Memphis artist Muck Sticky), and a few old standards, especially the rousing “Whoop That Trick” from the movie Hustle and Flow, while his son Young AJ handled the DJ duties aided and abetted by two guitarists and a bassist. It is also typical of Kapone’s spirit of selflessness that when his show at the FedEx stage was over, he was off to the Orion stage to fill in for the aptly-named band AWOLNation, who missed their flight.
Clarksdale-based James “Super Chikan” Johnson is a nephew of the late Big Jack Johnson, and one of the last of a generation of authentic Delta bluesmen. He is also a noted folk artist (check out his ornately-decorated guitar in the pictures) whose work is in demand and sells for large amounts of money (some pieces can be purchased at Roger Stolle’s Cat Head store in Clarksdale). Appropriately enough for someone named “Super Chikan”, his youthful and exuberant band is called the Fighting Cocks, and they tore up the Horseshoe Blues Stage Saturday afternoon at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, as the temperatures dropped and the rain came down in buckets outside the tent. If you didn’t get to see him in Memphis, he frequently turns up at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, as he is one of Morgan Freeman’s favorite blues artists.