Mempho Music Fest 2023 Recap

The 2023 edition of Mempho Music Fest is in the books, and what a wonderful weekend it was! Nestled among the trees in the Memphis Botanic Garden, the festival grounds were an idyllic place for over 20,000 fans to enjoy live music, local culinary favorites, and craft beer while supporting their official charitable partner, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Friday kicked off with female duo Lucius and their electro pop sounds. Sporting matching neon pink pantsuits, they treated the crowd to some dancey tunes before venturing into the audience to serenade the crowd near the end of their set. Sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell led their band Larkin Poe through a set of southern rock and blues tunes that were the highlight of the early afternoon. 

Lucius photographed by Tony Vasquez

The deadheads of Memphis were out in force as the sun started to set on Friday night when Joe Russo’s Almost Dead took the stage for a set of classic songs from the Grateful Dead catalog. However, they really got the crowd revved up when they opened their frame with a nod to the hometown with the Bob Dylan tune Stuck inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again).  From there they jammed their way through a festival set that kept the multigenerational crowd, clad in tie dye and jam band lot shirts collected through years, dancing. It was there debut show in Memphis, and based on the vibes in the crowd, they’d be welcomed back anytime. 

The Black Crowes closed Friday evening with their brand of southern rock ‘n roll. Frontman Chris Robinson took the stage in a sequined jacket and immediately energized the crowd, dancing across the stage and beckoning them to sing along. Fittingly, the set was heavy on the hits from the early record Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, such as Remedy, Sting Me, and Thorn in my Pride. The Memphis crowd needed to introduction to their biggest hit, a cover of local hero Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle. The band, complete with brother Rich Robinson on lead guitar and a pair of lovely background singers, brought the heat and the crowd happily sang and danced along. 

The Black Crowes photographed by Tony Vasquez

Saturday the weather was very warm, but that didn’t stop the crowd from showing up early for Courtney Marie Andrews and her plaintive but ethereal folk rock. She worked her way through her back catalog, but mainly featured material from her 2022 album Loose Future. It was quite a change of pace when J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. took the stage for their loud alternative rock, delivering a set heavy on their seminal album You’re Living All Over Me. They also included their cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven and the crowd was loving it. 

Band of Horses took the main stage as the sun was setting and delivered a heartfelt sing alongs to to indie rockers in the crowd. Ben Bridwell’s wide ranging voice rang out on classics like Is There a Ghost and The Great Salt Lake. J. Mascis joined them onstage to help sing In a Drawer, a song they collaborated on for Band of Horses’ 2016 album Why Are You Ok?. They ended their set strong, with a surprise cover of INXS’ Love Will Tear Us Apart, their emotional The Funeral, and ending with the upbeat The General Specific.

Ween, the weirdest great (or greatest weird?) band then laid down their blend of genre spanning psychedelic alternative rock. The Memphis crowd was very hyped for this set, with fans lining up along the rail for hours before they started, including a man in a banana costume ready and waiting for the classic Bananas and Blow.  Over the course of 90-minute set, the band hardly relented, matching the relentless energy of the crowd. Dean Ween showed off his guitar theatrics on rockers like Transdermal Celebration and an extended jam on Voodoo Lady. Bassist Dave Dreiwitz, who also played the night before with JRAD, and drummer Claude Coleman Jr. held down the rhythm section. Gene Ween’s unique delivery (and facial expressions) were on full display, as he went from emotional (Baby Bitch, Gabrielle) to demonic (Buckingham Green) to metal (Stroker Ace) to psychedelic beauty (The Mollusk). It was 90 minutes of pure Brown, and no one left disappointed, from hardcore fans to new converts to the absurdist but authentic Ween sound.

Photograph by Tony Vasquez

My Morning Jacket closed out Saturday with a two-hour headliner set that showcased the band at the peak of their powers. After a summer tour that served as a renaissance for the band’s live chemistry, including a marathon set at Bonnaroo, the band came out firing on all cylinders. Opening with Wordless Chorus, Jim James prowled the stage, beckoning the crowd to join him on this musical journey. They played non-stop for their whole set time, not even leaving the stage for the customary encore, and they absolutely killed it. The whole set felt really loose, with the band weaving in and out of improvised jam sections and taking the songs in longer, new directions than on the record or previous tours. Early in the set, Ben Bridwell joined them onstage for the acoustic Wonderful (the Way I Feel), dueting with friend Jim James on the quiet ballad. Later J. Mascis came to the stage for arguably MMJ’s biggest “hit” One Big Holiday, a jubilant cacophony of riffs and cathartic sign along. Another highlight was Steam Engine, which morphed into an abstract jam with guitarist Carl Broemel taking up his sax for an extended improvisational middle section than ended with the thunderous drumming of Patrick Hallahan. Touch Me I’m Going to Scream pt. 2 was a funk infused dance party that had the whole crowd moving, before the brand brought out J. Mascis again for Dancefloors, which morphed into a cover the Rolling Stones Happy before transitioning back to Dancefloors to close the night. Then band looked like they were having a ball. Tom Blankenship repeatedly stepping up on his monitor as he laid down thick bass lines and Bo Koster adding the atmospherics and melodies on the piano. The show was the highlight of saturday, and felt like a band leaving it all on the stage at the end of a tour rather than one preparing to embark on a fall run. 

The third and final day of the fest was dedicated to the soul, gospel, and blues greats that epitomize Memphis, Tennessee. These included the Dedicated Men of Zion and Faith & Harmony, who played Shell on Wheels stage all afternoon. The Shell on Wheels, a replica of the famed Memphis venue where Elvis Presley played his first show. Others on Sunday included Billy Allen & The Pollies, critically acclaimed duo The War and Treaty, the always-endearing Devon Gilfillian, and soul-pop maestros Lake Street Dive, who included a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ “Automatic.” Tash Sultana built her eclectic mix of rock and jazz using her looper pedal to create layers of sound. The night ended with Turnpike Troubadours, the red dirt country superstars who recently came off hiatus. They featured new tunes from their upcoming release, A Cat in the Rain, plus a number of crowd-pleasing singalongs like “Long Hot Summer Day” and “Pay No Rent.”

Written by Paul VanGilder

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