This review was also published in Dutch Bluesmagazine
Beale Street Music Festival 2019
It’s the first weekend in May and the Memphis in May festival kicks off it’s many activities with the Beale Street Music Fest (BSMF) opening the festivities.
I‘m here for the fifth year in a row because it’s THE week for Blues lovers from all over the world and the lineup promises three days filled with fantastic music. Three open air stages on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river will see performances from a host of stars like The Killers, Gary Clark jr., Dave Matthews Band and Cardi B. But this year the stage in the big Blues tent will belong to musicians mostly based in Memphis or the surrounding area like Clarksdale, Mississippi. The weather forecast is not what you would wish for a festival, a lot of rain is predicted and that means it will be muddy, very muddy ! I plan to be mostly in the Blues tent – so I don’t care about the mud in front of the big open-air stages!
Let’s go folks!
The night starts with Brandon Santini Band. A charismatic front man, Brandon is one of the young Blues harp players, who will leave his footprints in Blues history standing alongside names like Jason Ricci, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Dennis Gruenling and Charlie Musselwhite. Multiple nominations for the Blues Music Award (BMA) evidence his talent. As usual Brandon charms his audience with his interaction, energetic harp playing and soulful voice. Add to that a band in a good mood clearly enjoying themselves and you have a nearly full tent and hugely enthusiastic and happy crowd. Guitar player Jeff Jensen makes a surprise appearance on stage playing the song “Evil Woman” and Santini joins in with a some fierce harp playing – and everyone is on their feet! This part of Brandon’s show ends after three songs together and is a perfect kick-off for all Blues fans.
There is a short break and then Guitar Shorty takes the stage. It is almost unbelievable that this man, who starts his set of irresistible Blues, will be 80 in September and is still touring the US and Europe. A former band-member of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke’s bands, Guitar Shorty is a big name with a lot of experience and passion on stage who thrills everyone in the audience. Jimi Hendrix once said Guitar Shorty was one of his biggest idols. The tent is full and not only because of the pouring rain outside. The immortal “Thrill Is Gone” ends this set and it will not be the last time the audience hear this song this weekend.
As the stage is being set up for the next act, the tent fills up to capacity. The opening bars of the next act let you know why! From the back of the tent the Memphis based Ghost Town Blues Band marches through the enthusiastic crowd and up on to the stage with a powerful and funky version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” in New Orleans Brass Band Style. The band is led by front man and multi-instrumentalist Matt Isbell on trumpet. The band plays hard culminating in the straight-ahead Blues “One more Whiskey”. Suavo Jones on trombone leaves nothing out, delivering electrifying entertainment, that has everyone on their feet. The Ghost Town Blues Band is a heady mix of Blues, Jazz, Funk and much much more making them wonderfully unique. If you want to see them ( and believe me you do !) they will be playing at the Grolsch Blues Fest in Schöppingen, Germany from 08. – 09.06.2019
The evening ends with a fabulous performance by a real lady of the Blues – the triple Grammy-Nominee Bettye LaVette. From the beginning she enchants her audience singing songs from different stages of her career like “My man – he’s a lovin’ man” . Bettye brings her performance to close with a wonderful version of Bob Dylan’s “Things have changed”.
I have heard so much great music tonight that I don’t mind that it pours on my way back to the car. Rain? What rain?
It is still raining but, never mind! The Blues tent has some really great acts playing for us today. I had never heard of the opening act Terry „Harmonica“ Bean. My loss! Terry plays the raw blues of a savage harp player – even he plays “Thrill Is Gone”, a totally different, harp pointed version which is simply awesome. B. B. King is alive and well, living on in all musicians here… Terry is my discovery of this festival.
Gracie Curran and the High Falutin’ Band are up next and I have really been looking forward to their set. I’ve known her since I first visited the famous Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street in Memphis, where as the house band she and the guys rocked the house several times a week with her as the Fun Capt’n of her band. Since then she’s been playing the Legendary Blues Cruises, Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago and other well known clubs throughout the US and now ( thank goodness ) here at the BSMF. Her delight at being here is clear and as always the first thing she does is take off her flipflops and enter the stage barefoot. Several songs from her first album “Proof Of Love” get the audience dancing and the tent starts to fill . With her very unique charm and her one of a kind soulful voice she thrills the crowd. When she sings her ballad “A Rock And A Hard Place”, a song about a broken relationship, even the Fun Capt’n becomes emotional and the audience embraces her, applauding wildly. As an appetizer for her upcoming new album, her last number is the title song “Come Undone” – Gracie is simply fantastic!
Outside it is still raining cats and dogs. Inside the stage is getting ready for another local blues giant – Blind Mississippi Morris, the personification of a big Delta Blues man – ranked by the Bluzharp Magazine as one of the ten best Blues harp players in the world. Accompanied only by his guitar player, Frank Monteleone, Mississippi Morris sits on stage and delights the many fans with storytelling blues at its best – sometimes there is no need for a big set to thrill your audience.
Next up another highlight: the young and exceptionally talented guitarist from Clarksdale, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who thrilled everybody last year, takes to the stage. Looking much fitter and clearly in the mood to entertain he makes his guitar scream and weep playing with the emotions of his audience – so that you feel that in this young man lives an ancient soul with the Blues running through his veins. As he often does in his shows, Christone leaves the stage and meanders through the audience letting them experience his music close up. The excitement is palpable and the full to capacity tent gives several standing ovations to this unbelievably talented young man. I can’t wait to hear what he will do in the future. Someone next to me, who heard him for the first time last year in a small Juke Joint in Clarksdale said to me: “oh my, give him 20/30 years and a couple of broken hearts and he will be the greatest”. I am sure of it.
With no time to catch your breath, the show powers forward with Southern Avenue from Memphis, a band for which a very bright future is predicted. A Blues & Soul band, combined with R&B and Funk, which was founded in 2015 and went on to win International Blues Challenge in 2016. They are five excellent musicians and each of them seen individually is an experience in itself. Guitar player Ori Naftaly, who founded the Band, grew up in Israel and moved to the US after his participation as a solo musician in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis 2013. He met singer Tierinii Jackson, her sister Tikyra “TK” , an excellent drummer and the fantastic keyboard player Jeremy Powell. Naftaly and Jackson wrote almost all the songs for their first CD “Southern Avenue”, published by Stax Records. It instantly debuted on #6 of the US Billboard Blues Charts.
Tierinii is the band’s front woman and her performance is very reminiscent
of a young Tina Turner and she gives everything from the start. She sings with a powerful voice that belies her dainty frame. As she sweeps over the stage in her golden glittering minidress and bright red hair she grabs the audience’s attention, leaving them breathless – something she definitely isn’t!
Again and again she cedes power to keyboard player Jeremy Powell, who is more than equal in energy, talent, and showmanship. The band members clearly have a fantastic relationship with each other and it is evident when they perform. Everyone – no matter if its TK Jackson on drums , Ori Naftaly on guitar, or the very talented bass player Evan Sarver delivers a brilliant solo.
The set ends leaving the audience breathless and desperately looking forward to their second CD “Keep On” which is released soon these days. Southern Avenue is certainly a band you will hear more of in the future – once the small matter of Ori and Tierinii’s wedding has taken place in November of this year! All the best to them in their married life and to the band – they all have exciting times ahead. Also this band will be performing at Grosch Blues Fest in June 2019.
Somebody, who predicts that Southern Avenue a bright future is up on stage next. William Bell, an old school soul singer, who was intimately involved in building the typical Stax-R&B-Soul-Sound. A horn section of three (trumpet and two saxophones), 3 background singers, guitar player, bass player, keyboard player and drummer need the whole width of the stage and from the first note you wanna dance. Great Stax-Soul sounds through the tent, “Born Under A Bad Sign”, his biggest success, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and his tribute to Otis Redding “ A Tribute To A King” form the heart of his set.
Each of the background singers is given the chance to demonstrate their talent and shines in a solo.
Singin’ and swingin’ we dance out in the rain, this music lifting our mood to the point that we don’t care if we get wet!
Sunday starts with a much beloved and great singer from Memphis, Barbara Blue. Unbelievably she has been performing 5 nights a week as the house band of Silky o’Sullivans on Beale Street for the past 22 years. Her powerful voice fills the tent thrilling her audience. The so called “Reigning Queen of Beale Street” presents several songs from previous CDs but the swinging “Gravy Train”, “Slow Burn” and “Wild Woman” come from her newest album. “My Heart Belongs to the Blues” is also wonderful.
Barbara is accompanied by one of the best known drummers in the world, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who is an influencer of funk and famous for his “Purdie-Shuffle”.
For the song “Fish in Dirty H2O” Barbara is joined by the local hero of Memphis-Hiphop Al Kapone, who performs electrifying raps and shows that Rap and R&B/Blues sound perfect together. Great opener for this Sunday.
A bubbly show is coming up next – if you ever saw LaLa Craig on keyboards accompanying Super Chikan you know what I’m talking about.
Super Chikan represents the classic Delta Blues, influenced by Buddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and in 2010 he won the Blues Music Award for Traditional Blues Album of the Year. With his warm full voice he sings songs from earlier times but of course also from his most recent CD (2015) “Organic Chicken”.
He is accompanied by his electrifying keyboard player LaLa Craig, who is very well known for her fiery shows at Ground Zero in Clarksdale,MS. LaLa has a very unique style of playing the piano and a raw bluesy voice. She is always worth seeing, if you get a chance.
When the stomping rhythm of “Work Train” fills the tent you can literally feel and almost see the train rolling. Fascinating perfection of beats like a clockwork.
Meanwhile I didn’t want to miss one of the main acts was starting on one of the outdoor stages. It had stopped raining so I go out to see Gary Clark Jr. who is well known for his mix of blues, rock and soul music. He opens his set with the hypnotic title song of his 2010 CD “The Bright Lights” and the audience goes wild. He plays seven songs from his brand new CD “This Land” and ends his amazing set with a lively version of the Beatles’ “Come Together”
Back to the real blues we go. Joe Louis Walker, a member of the Blues Hall of Fame and winner of four Blues Music Awards (more than 50 nominations!), is the last and main act for today and is about to play. The band plays an excellent cross section of their 24 albums. Many people have left the tent and sadly it is a relatively small audience. But for those true Blues fans who stayed and watched until the very end, it was a fantastic show and Joe Louis Walker and his band got a very well deserved big hand.
And so, three days of great music comes to an end and how wonderful it was! Many of the musicians were very well known to me, and some I had never heard before and were a delightful surprise, but they all filled my heart and head with my beloved Blues music.
Unfortunately next year’s (2020) Festival won’t be taking place on the banks of the Mississippi river – as of today it‘s unknown where it will be. Hopefully it WILL be somewhere – I will certainly be there, for sure.