What once was a small festival set up on a corner of Beale Street, today the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival has grown into a three-day celebration of music that draws more than 150,000 attendees each year. Beale Street Music Festival is the kickoff to Memphis in May International Festival, a month-long party that is possibly the best time to be in the city. But before you head to Downtown Memphis and Tom Lee Park, check out this guide to Beale Street Music Festival.
Beale Street Music Festival began in 1977 at the corner of Third and Beale streets. I’ve been to numerous festivals through the years, and can’t imagine this massive festival being held on that tiny street corner.
The festival moved to the riverfront and Tom Lee Park in 1990, and has seen massive growth in the years since.
My first Beale Street Music Festival experience came in 1995, and I’d say it’s fitting that I was immediately indoctrinated in what has become known as Mud Fest. But more on that in a moment. That first year, I just attended on Saturday. But I saw 311 open for Live, two bands at the top of their game at the time. I was a high school senior then, and it would be the first of 10 straight years of attending the festival.
Beale Street Music Festival has had up and down years as far as bands, but I’d say in recent years they’ve settled into having great diversity in the lineups. Last year I watched Jerry Lee Lewis, Dwight Yoakum, The Black Keys and The Roots, with some visits to the Blues Tent mixed in for good measure.
This year possibly is the most eclectic I can recall. Snoop Dogg, 311, Foster The People, Fitz & The Tantrums, MS MR, Pretty Lights, Juicy J, Grouplove and Dropkick Murphys … and that’s just the Friday night highlights.
Saturday artists include Kid Rock, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Patti Labelle, Jerry Lee Lewis, Blues Traveler, Buddy Guy, Blind Mississippi Morris and Tommy Castro. And Sunday highlights are Avenged Sevenfold, Seether, Anthrax, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, The String Cheese Incident, Bootsy Collins, Leftover Salmon, Black Joe Lewis and The Dandy Warhols.
I’ve visited Beale Street Music Festival over the whole weekend and I’ve visited for just one day. I’ve experienced it in rain, sun and even a tornado warning. I have a few ideas of how best to enjoy Beale Street Music Festival. Here are some keys for getting the most out of a visit to Beale Street Music Festival.
Be Prepared for the Weather
I’ve been to Beale Street Music Festival at least 12 or 13 times, and I’m confident that it has rained on at least one day of the three-day weekend every one of those years. I can recall hovering under a small tent that featured local rock bands back in 1996. I was supposed to be seeing Blues Traveler on a big stage, but a thunderstorm delayed the show by 30 minutes and I was in the back of this tent frantically holding the flap down to keep the rain from rushing in.
I remember several years later walking out of the grounds as ZZ Top finished their headlining set as the tornado sirens began sounding. No tornado touched down in the city that night, but that wouldn’t be my only run-in with a tornado warning during Beale Street Music Festival. In 2011, we sat in a Downtown restaurant watching the Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs as the tornado siren wailed outside. Again, no tornado, but the downpour and terrible winds wrecked several hospitality tents on the grounds, cancelled some shows and delayed others.
Dress Appropriately for the Weather
Again, it’s rained every year that I can recall. The easiest way to handle that problem is wear a rain jacket. If it’s not raining, wrap it around your waist. But also keep your feet in mind. I have a pair of shoes coated in dried mud still sitting in my garage from the 2013 festival. Seriously. Either wear rain boots or old shoes, but make sure the shoes aren’t the type that will just slip off in the deep mud.
But it’s not just rainy conditions. In 2013, I only attended on one day but it was the day that saw the temperatures barely top 50 degrees with rain. By the time The Roots went on at nearly midnight that night, it was cold and raining. Thankfully a sweatshirt, rain jacket and hat did the trick.
But Be Prepared for the Sun
Pretty crazy, right? But while it might pour rain on Friday night, Saturday afternoon could be 80 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. And if you come out for the early bands, that means a day of being in the sun. The simple solution is wear a hat and have sunscreen..
But also hydrate yourself. There is plenty of beer, wine and mixed drinks flowing at Beale Street Music Festival, but do take it slow and consume plenty of water, too.
And one of the best rewards, if the weather treats you right, you might get a nice sunset out of it all.