It was a beautiful Fall weekend at the fourth Mempho fest this past weekend, September 1- October 2 at the Radians Amphitheater at the Memphis Botanic Gardens. The weekend was full of a diverse lineup of rootsy Americana, blues, funk, rock, and jam that brought a wide-ranging crowd of all ages – from young families to aging hippies and everything in between. This was the festivals’ second iteration at this location, moving here from nearby Shelby Farms Park for the 2021 event after COVID forced hiatus in 2020. Music alternated between the two main stages with no overlapping sets all weekend, allowing patrons to catch all the music without missing a beat. Despite only being the second year at this venue, the festival was laid out and organized well – bathrooms, bars, and vendors were easily accessible and lines were short. One nice touch I noticed were trees throughout the venue with numbered signs, making it easy to find a spot to meet up with friends between shows. The parking area and ticket lines were well managed and overall there were no hang-ups or delays coming or going all three days.
The music kicked off Friday afternoon with Adia Victoria, an artist from down the highway in Nashville and her blues infused folk music on the St. Jude Music Gives stage. The set was heavy on songs from her excellent 2021 release A Southern Gothic and included a cover of Blind Wille McTell’s You Was Born to Die. Bette Smith brought her soul to the main stage afterwards with a set full of songs that were heavy in the Memphis and delta blues influences, at times channeling what felt like her take on Tina Turner – explosive and expressive but still uniquely her own.
I spent some time wandering the vendors and grounds in the early Friday evening, checking out the charity auction for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that featured signed photos, guitars, posters, and other memorabilia from lineup artists. An onsite Vinyl Lounge also featured records from artists on the lineup as well as national artist on regional labels like Fat Possum from Oxford, MS.
I was able to catch the tail-end of Futurebirds, enjoying a local Wiseacre Tiny Bomb and their brand of psychedelic-infused country rock, the perfect appetizer for Jason Isbell. The one-time Memphian worked through an hour and a half of hits with his band the 400 Unit. His wife, Amanda Shires – a talented musician in her own right and member of country supergroup The Highwomen – joined him onstage for the whole show on fiddle and vocals. Isbell’s excellent songwriting was on display all night, weaving stories of hard partying (Super 8), southern working-class strife (Cumberland Gap), and poignant stories of longing (Alabama Pines) and love (If We Were Vampires), but the energy of the 400 Unit, and Isbell’s beautiful slide guitar tone are best appreciated in the live setting. The set included Honeysuckle Blue, a Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ cover from the band’s Georgia Blue, a charity album of Isbell’s favorite Georgia songs released in response to Biden winning Georgia in 2020. The penultimate song was one of my favorite Isbell-penned tunes, Decoration Day, written while he was part of the Drive-By Truckers. The highlight of the set though was the set closer. Chuck Leavell, former Allman Brother and current Rolling Stones keyboardist, came out and joined the band for an electrifying In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.
As the sun was setting and the temperatures were dropping, I headed over to the Incendia Dome, a geodesic art structure that served as a Silent Disco. With periodic blasts of 20-foot flames shooting into the sky and a bed of fire appearing to float across the ceiling, the dome was full of people dancing to tunes being mixed live by a DJ from local independent radio station WYXR. It was a truly incendiary experience.
The Black Keys closed out Friday night with delta-blues via Akron on the main stage. Featuring a full band to round out their guitar and drums sounds, they worked through a long set of their own tunes adding some improvised jams throughout. Compared to previous times I have seen them they felt a bit looser and raucous, with Patrick Carney pounding away on drums while Dan Auerbach let loose on some extended guitar solos. Throughout their history, the Black Keys have been open about the influence that delta and north Mississippi hill country blues have had on their sound, and recently paid homage to that history on their 2022 covers record Delta Kream, which features songs from regional artists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and John Lee Hooker. The Black Keys brought out Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, two artists who played with the bluesmen, for a block of covers featured on the album. They closed with a string of originals, including Wild Child, a song co-written with native Memphian Greg Cartwright and the first single from their Dropout Boogie release earlier this year.
Saturday was another beautiful day and I arrived at the fest in time for the Delvin Lamarr Organ Trio, an instrumental band that had everyone at the St. Jude Music Gives stage grooving. They worked through a set of originals that featured fun interplay between the guitar and organ, weaving in teases from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Outkast into their licks and generally creating a funky dance party. Portugal. The Man played right after them, and it was a good thing they were on the main stage as their band included a cello, fiddle, multiple backup singers, and saxophone in addition to the two guitars, bass, and drums for a huge wall of sound. They kicked their set off with Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and played nearly non-stop for 45 minutes, segueing seamlessly through songs before pausing long enough for lead singer John Gourley to say hi to the crowd. Eric Howk, playing on a double necked guitar, offered soaring leads and got the crowd singing and dancing with Live in the Moment, while bassist Zachary Carothers careened around onstage, a ball of explosive energy that was somehow matched by their drummer, Aaron Steele. His smile was infectious, and he propelled them through the songs with fearsome, thunderous drumming. After a string of fan favorite originals, they close their set with Nirvana’s Come as You Are and a brief jam on the Beatles’ I want You (She’s so Heavy).
Former Memphis 90’s psychedelic funk band Big Ass Truck gave the hometown crowd a treat of a set. It took a bit for the crowd to fill-in, but by the end of the show the stage area was packed with fans and Memphians who remembered their weird, rockin’ sound from the mid 90’s featuring DJ scratching, electronic loops, and the twin guitar firepower of Steve Selvidge (The Hold Steady) and Robby Grant (executive director of WYXR FM). Even Dave Schools of Widespread Panic was backstage enjoying their set in a vintage Libertyland t-shirt (a long-closed theme Memphis theme park that house Elvis’ favorite rollercoaster, the Zippin’ Pippen). Big Ass Truck closed out their set with bouncing inflatable aliens and local favorite Mempops popsicles for the crowd.
Widespread Panic was the undeniable draw for many in attendance on Saturday and Sunday. The jam veterans from Georgia have been local favorites for decades, having played annual Halloween shows in the now-defunct Mid-South Coliseum in the early 2000’s, multiple night runs on Mud Island, and even headlining the 2021 edition of Mempho. I noticed bootleg lot shirts in abundance as I walked the grounds over the weekend. Their Saturday set opened with All Time Low and they kept the heat going for one long 2 hour set. Another Junior Kimbrough tune was featured in their set, their oft-played Junior, as well as a healthy helping of old favorites from their first couple albums. They capped their set with a four-song sit-in from Chuck Leavell. As the band transitioned out of Tall Boy, the Leavell joined WSP keyboardist JoJo Hermann for Surprise Valley. Next was a bust out of the Allman Brothers Jessica, a tune featuring a prominent Leavell solo on the 1973 Allman Brothers album Brothers and Sisters. He then led the Panic boys on a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want before they transitioned into set closer and WSP staple Climb to Safety.
Unfortunately, I had some personal issues crop up on Sunday was delayed getting to the festival for reasons entirely outside my control. So, I was only able to catch the tail end of Wilco. Though very disappointed I missed most of their set, I was able to catch their cover the Grateful Dead’s U.S. Blues, a recent addition to their live repertoire that fits in nicely with the themes of the 2022 album Cruel Country. They closed out with a pair of tunes from the excellent Being There – I Got you (At the End of the Century) and Outtasite (Outta Mind). From Wilco I headed over to Tank and The Bangas, who led a funky dance party on the St. Jude stage to a full crowd. In a beautiful highlighter yellow jumpsuit, the engaging Tarriona ‘Tank’ Ball led a full on dance party full of funk, soul, and rock. The interplay between musicians on stage felt organic and real, like we were crashing a house party jam session, and the whole set felt full of joy.
Widespread Panic closed out the festival, living up to the old adage around the scene to “Never Miss a Sunday Show.” They invited blues musician Bobby Rush to the stage for a cover of his Gotta Have Money, and the 88-year old wowed not just with his harmonica chops but also his on-stage acrobatics, bouncing around the stage and leading the audience in call-and response sing along. It was the first time WSP has played that song and they absolutely did it justice. He stayed onstage to sing another of his tunes, Bowlegged Woman, a song that has been in the Panic rotation since the late 80’s. Other highlights of the set included a Ride Me High> Fishwater> Red Hot Mama run, and in a possible nod to the local BBQ scene, an early set Ribs and Whiskey. They closed the final set of the festival with the Vic Chesnutt Protein Drink > Sewing Machine pairing. This was my first Mempho fest, but overall I thought it was a great local festival that sought to capture a little bit of the spirit of Memphis through the artists booked and their ties to the musical history of the city. In addition to the music, there were great local food options, including gourmet options from local chefs and restaurateurs (and, of course, barbecue). The venue was centrally located in the city, with ample, safe parking. The event organizers seem to have planned for everything, as movement between stages and vendors was very easy. Though the crowd was large there was never a time I felt cramped or unsafe and navigating the grounds was a smooth experience. Everyone seemed to be having a good time and was very friendly, very willing to dance (or at least make some room), and the overall vibe was perfect for the start of fall. The trees surrounding the concert areas offered plenty of shade and a great place to lay out a blanket and chill in the back while watching the action onstage on giant screens (they even had a screen in the vendor area, so you didn’t miss anything!). Overall, I look forward to many more years of Mempho.
Recap & Photos by Paul VanGilder