Having stretched my musical muscles the night before, I was prepared for a marathon of artist talent coming up on the second day of the MEMPHO Music Festival. It only took a quick look at the lineup to see that the Saturday’s performers boasted strong ties to the Memphis and Tennessee music scene. Friday night at the MEMPHO music festival featured enough searing rock and bass-filled alternative pop that one might have thought about sleeping in for Saturday. But, with supergroup The Hard Working Americans (THWA) gracing the early afternoon lineup, any thoughts of rest were out the window and replaced by visions of driving southern rock. Known for lyrics that can make you laugh, or cry, or sometimes both at the same time, THWA’s frontman Todd Snider encouraged us to “get drunker and funner,” while the band’s wailing guitar and funky bass grooves inspired all ages to dance along.
Kicking off a block of Memphis-style blues, Robert Randolph and the Family Band set the field awash in pedal steel and organ. Adding his own flare and the Family Band’s dynamic sound to Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” Randolph had heads nodding and feet tapping. Hands were raised in the air as Randolph sent love to all of the people hurting in Las Vegas as the field was filled with a crying pedal steel version of “God Bless America.”
It’s hard to get more Memphis than the soulful organ-playing of Booker T. Jones in a Staxx Records review. Jones highlighted several of his originals including “Soul Limbo” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and with a stellar supporting cast, also hit Staxx favorites from Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, and Otis Redding.
Following Jones’s set, there was a noticeable gap in the schedule, and with original MG member Steve Cropper’s solo set slated next, anticipation was running high. Cropper indeed came onto the stage, but before the music resumed, Booker T and the MG’s were honored by receiving a Memphis Brass Note. The honor was clearly bittersweet for Cropper as he remembered the passing of fellow MG’s members Donald Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. “It’s just Booker T and the MG now,” he mused. Backed by Allman Brother’s bassist Oteil Burbridge, Jones and Cropper joined forces for the band’s most iconic song, “Green Onions.” Having the audience’s full attention, the show immediately transitioned into Steve Cropper and Friends—and we quickly learned that Steve Cropper has a powerful Rolodex of friends. Having said farewell to Booker T, Eddie Floyd was added to the vocal mix. Later Cropper invited Jason Isbell out for an up-tempo version of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” The set wasn’t over just yet, as Cropper and Isbell were joined by John Popper for a dance inducing take on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man.”
Hungry for more soul—but with a creole twist—I found myself checking out Marcella & Her Lovers. With her sultry voice matching the heat of the night, Marcella Simien drew the crowd close, leaving them hanging on every word. Keeping pace were her Lovers, who laid down a dance-worthy groove causing those close to the stage to sway along, while further back, couples held each other in a dancing embrace.
It was a night of reflection, reminiscence, and remembrance for the night’s headliner, Jason Isbell. While Isbell is the face of the Nashville Americana scene, he shared with the MEMPHO crowd that he traces his roots back to his pre-fame days working at a Chili’s restaurant in the Memphis area. The city heard his first songwriting efforts—which as he confessed were fueled by Gatorade and Everclear. While he doesn’t recommend the Everclear, Isbell still holds a fond place in his heart for where it all started. “This is the only festival that we’re playing all year,” he shared. “It’s the only one I wanted to play all year long.”
Isbell featured several songs off his new album, The Nashville Sound, including the tender fan favorite “If We Were Vampires,” and angsty guitar-centered “Anxiety.” However, he didn’t get lost in his new work, instead mixing the set up with tracks from across his musical career, including a couple Drive By Truckers classics. While Isbell provided the potent lyrics and revealing stories, his band, The 400 Unit, shook the night, shattering the divide between contemporary Americana and southern rock. Even Isbell couldn’t ignore the power of Sadler Vaden’s guitar solos, pointing them out to us on more than one occasion. For Isbell, the power of music transcended this one concert and he used his time to pay tribute. Early in the set, he told of us of the first time seeing the “hippie” Todd Snider perform while Isbell was a student at the University of Memphis. Noting that seeing Todd Snider “changed his life,” he dedicated the song “Cover Me Up” to the Hard Working Americans’ frontman. Isbell also used his time to remember Tom Petty, an artist that touched so many music lovers’ lives. With a lighthearted version of “Even the Losers,” the crowd came to its feet and stayed there until Isbell ended his set on the perfect bittersweet notes of “American Girl.” Isbell’s set was proof of his awareness of the world around him and his authentic bond with his art.
The MEMPHO Music Festival may have been in its first year, but it already checked off several of the boxes that add up to a great musical experience. A diverse lineup with local flare. Special collaborations and reunions. A picturesque park setting—with a herd of American Bison (in case you didn’t notice that in my day one recap). Plenty of food and drink options, and many of them unique to the Memphis area. MEMPHO Music Festival has already promised that it will see us next year and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.
[This amazing festival coverage was hand-crafted by Eo8’s own George Maifair.]