Memphians reacted with understandable sadness to the news last year that Memphis in May was eliminating the Sunset Symphony, which had been one of the highlights of the annual monthlong festival. For many of us, nothing short of a reversal of the decision would do, but eventually, Memphis in May softened the blow by replacing it with something called 901 Fest, an inaugural day-long event of local Memphis musicians in Tom Lee Park. One of the annoyances of the Beale Street Music Festival, at least to me, is the lack of local artists scheduled, when compared to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for example, so the 901 Fest concept was decidedly exciting.
Across three stages, a number of Memphis artists from all genres performed on a bright blue Saturday afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend, with perhaps the biggest headliners being veteran Memphis rappers Al Kapone and Frayser Boy, and Cody and Luther Dickinson’s North Mississippi Allstars. Boats were out on the river, people sitting on blankets enjoying music, plenty of local food trucks, and to cap off the evening, fireworks over the river. All in all it was a satisfying day.
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:
By an odd coincidence of tradition, the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival always coincides with another Memphis tradition, radio station WLOK’s Stone Soul Picnic, which is annually held on the Saturday before Labor Day in Tom Lee Park. WLOK used to be one of two Memphis soul stations, with the other being WDIA, which was the first Black radio station in the United States. WDIA sponsored something called the Goodwill Revue, and it is likely that WLOK came up with the Stone Soul Picnic as their station’s equivalent, and since the name is taken from Laura Nyro’s song of the same name which was a hit for the Fifth Dimension in 1968, I expect the event goes back at least that far. Unfortunately, nothing stays the same, and both WLOK and its event are now restricted to gospel music, which to me is kind of sad. Not that I don’t love gospel music, because I do, but one would expect a “Stone Soul Picnic” to incorporate gospel, blues, soul, R & B, and maybe even family-friendly rap. But still, despite the extreme heat, a good crowd was gathered in the park, listening to the Brown Singers on stage when I arrived. Their band musicians were really good, especially the drummer, and I recalled that my homeboy Danny Peterson played drums for the Brown Singers at one time.
The Memphis In May World Championship BBQ Festival has always been a big deal in Memphis, It’s about four days of food and fun in Memphis’ Tom Lee Park, and fortunately, this year the sun was out, and much of the muddiness from the Beale Street Music Festival had dried out. Teams come from all over the country to compete in what is probably the largest barbecue festival in the world, and although you cannot sample the contestants barbecue or enter their areas without permission, half of the fun is seeing their decorated shelters and seeing the hilarious names that teams come up with. Of course some teams represents businesses like The Shed in Ocean Springs, Willingham’s and Double J Smokehouse in Memphis, or Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama, and these typically are simply named for the business, which is also generally true for teams representing the Army Corps of Engineers or other governmental entities. Of the other teams, an amazing array of creativity goes into the names. References to films are popular, including “Natural Born Grillers”, “Aporkalypse Now” or “Reservoir Hogz”. Even more common are puns off music groups, such as the “Moody Ques”, “Notorious P.I.G.”, “The Count Bastie Porkestra” or “The Bastey Boyz.” At least one team referenced Elvis with “Love Meat Tender”! Unfortunately, health department regulations prohibit guests from sampling the competition entry barbecue, although one team, that of the late John Willingham was offering their competition barbecue for sale from a food truck. I tried it, and it was quite good. I later heard that The Shed from Ocean Springs, Mississippi was the big winner at this year’s competition.
World Championship Bar-B-Que Cooking Contest, Tom Lee Park, Memphis TN, 5/19/12