The second day of the 2019 Beale Street Music Festival began on a soggy Saturday afternoon with a big surprise. Less than 24 hours earlier, one of America’s biggest pop stars, Miley Cyrus had tweeted that she was coming to Memphis to sing at the festival. There were no details on what time or which stage she might perform on, but the Facebook sponsored surprise appearance was big news for media outlets in the music world.
The gates opened just after 1 PM with several dozen early bird fans shuffling in, mostly wearing raincoats and goulashes. For those making their way to the main Terminix stage, they were astonished to see Cyrus and her band doing a sound check which included most of the songs in their surprise set scheduled for later in the day. The pop icon who lives less than an hour from Memphis looked happy, healthy and in good spirits despite the rain. “Wow I hope there are more people here when we play later,” she joked to the small audience of mesmerized fans. She was also joined for the rehearsal by Matt Cohn to sing a duet of Cohn’s American classic “Walking In Memphis.” It was a magical moment for festival workers and the few fans that had stumbled to the stage early.
The rain would continue for most of the daylight hours of Saturday's festivities, tapering off just before sunset, but it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the nearly sold-out audience many of whom are used to the Memphis weather. The festival began in earnest shortly after 2 PM, and many festival-goers headed to the Blues Tent. With ample seating, water sealed walls, a full bar, nearby bathrooms and food, it was a perfect place to dry out from the early rain.
An authentic local Blues legend from nearby Mississippi. Terry “Harmonica” Bean and his band of veteran Blues musicians, opened the day with a brilliant Blues set. The singer and harmonica player led his group through older blues stylings, such as Delta blues and Hill country blues. The rain didn’t stop concert-goers from flocking to the festival early. Eager young fans cheered local Memphis musician Muck Sticky during his opening set. The quirky rapper is a bit of a one-person band although he had backing musicians for his colorful performance. The singer plays guitar, bass, percussion, harmonica, banjo, and sitar on the no less than 18 albums he has self-produced. The show featured plenty of colorful props and crazy stage antics that delighted the crowd. Meanwhile veteran Blues rap singer Everlast played an opening set on the Terminix stage after Miley Cyrus finished her sound check. The New York singer performed an acoustic set including his hit songs exhibiting an infectious mix of rap, rock and Blues music.
The Beale Street Festival is well known as a showcase for Canadian bands and this year was no exception with the appearance of the Montreal alt-rockers Simple Plan. Although there had been no official notice of when Miley Cyrus would play, tens of thousands of music fans had already flocked to the main Terminix stage during the Montreal bands set, in anticipation of Cyrus set. The vast crowd responded well to the punkish pop offerings of the Canadian rockers. The group was a veteran fixture for many years on the Vans Warped Tour and brought a bit of that simplistic high energy to a soggy crowd eagerly awaiting the surprise guest.
In a testament to her superstar status, some 30,000 music fans made their way in the rain to the main stage in time for the unannounced set by Cyrus. As Miley emerged, a huge cheer erupted from the crowd. The young singer wore the same casual jeans that she was wearing in her soundcheck but replaced her wide-rimmed red hat with an even bigger silver one and fittingly exchanged her shirt with an Elvis t-shirt. A giant LED screen flashed the hashtag MoreTogether, the Facebook platform’s newly announced initiative. The Tennessee native and daughter of Country music star Billy Ray Cyrus opened appropriately with a country-tinged tune “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart.” With chants of Miley roaring from the massive crowd, the charismatic singer bantered with the audience. She shared her early memories of Memphis visiting with her father. “The only way he could make me happy was to take me to go see the gates of Graceland,” she said. She mentioned that her long drives often were accompanied by the song “Walking in Memphis” on the radio. Following that revelation, Cyrus then introduced her surprise guest Marc Cohn.
An emotional Cohn sat down at the piano and shared with the crowd the inspiration for the iconic song about Memphis. “Back in the '80s, I came to Memphis looking for inspiration. And I found it on Beale Street, found it in Al Green’s Church, and the Hollywood Café,” Cohn exclaimed. “This song is really about the transformative power of music. That’s why you’re here, and why we’re here.” With that, he launched into “Walking In Memphis,” eventually standing up and walking over to Miley to sing a duet with her. As the pair sang the lyrics “in the land of the Delta blues, in the middle of the pouring rain,” the steady drizzle turned into a pouring rain producing a truly iconic moment. After an emotional hug, Cohn left the stage, and Cyrus ended the set with her pop anthem “Party In The USA.” The audience burst into a massive sing along to the famous chorus line. At one point when the song references a Britney Spears tune on the radio, Cyrus blurted out “Free Britney.” The quip was apparently in reference to a story that Spears was being held against her will in a medical facility. The short but sweet set highlighted Cyrus talented vocal skills and her uncanny ability to move about different musical genres with ease. In the era of young pop stars over using autotune or lip syncing it is encouraging to see a young performer exhibit such immense vocal talent.
By the time Big Boi took over the main stage, the rain had begun to subside, and the rain-drenched audience began to dry out. The Georgia rapper, one half of the hip hop supergroup Outkast kept the considerable crowd motivated with solo hit songs as well as some of Outkast's biggest hits. That set the theme on the main stage for the rest of the night featuring three sets of popular rap music that delighted a young crowd. The next rapper to hit the stage Trippie Redd also made his mark in Georgia before collaborating with some of the biggest names in Hip Hop. The young rapper whipped the crowd into an early evening frenzy and taunted authorities but lighting what appeared to be a giant spliff and smoking it gleefully during his set. California pop-rap star G Eazy closed the main stage with a triumphant set that pleased thousands of hip hop fans who danced wildly in the cold night air.
Meanwhile, thousands of older music fans oblivious to the Hip Hop mega show on the main stage flocked to the other three stages seeking different genres of musical entertainment. Nashville's Moon Taxi laid down some great jam material and played some interesting classic rock covers. The Indie rock band from North Carolina, Rainbow Kitten Surprise played a flamboyant set full of exciting antics and progressive electro-rock sounds. At just about the same time Denver R&B singer India Arie brought a sophisticated set of Grammy-winning material to a happy audience.
The Blues tent pumped out a steady stream of blazing blues and soul music. Another local Blues legend, Blind Mississippi Morris tore through a fantastic set with his band the Pocket Rockets. Blues fans could easily hear why Morris was named as one of the ten best harmonica players in the world by Bluzharp magazine. The next musician to play the Blues tent hails from the same hometown as Morris, the birthplace of the Blues, nearby Clarksdale Mississippi. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram began his career early as a Blues guitar playing child prodigy. Now at the ripe old age of 20, he has become a veteran guitarist with an ear-piercing Blues rock style that pleased guitar fans in an early evening show. The music took a turn towards soul when the next band to play the Blues tent took the stage, Memphis own Southern Avenue. The five-piece band played dance-inducing soul music while Israeli born lead singer Ori Naftaly led the group with steamy dance moves as well as crisp vocals. Another truly legendary singer closed the Blues tent with a set featuring five decades of soul music.
Memphis own William Bell brought a historical set to the festival giving R&B fans a musical education. His performance included music going back to his first hit song in 1961, “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The 79-year-old singer wowed the crowd with remarkable vocal skills and fronted a band of veteran musicians. Unfortunately, Bells great set was played to a half-full house. Just across the way on the Bud Light stage a delayed set by yet another R&B icon Charlie Wilson created a conundrum for fans of the genre. The 66-year-old singer known as “Uncle Charlie” played a spectacular show complete with funky dance tunes prompting the large band and troupe of dancers to groove in unison in masterfully choreographed moves. Wilson led the dancing extravaganza occasionally breaking ranks to move out and sing lead vocals. The former member of The Gap Band played some of his most popular disco hits from that hit making band including, “Outstanding”, "Party Train", "Yearning for Your Love", "Burn Rubber on Me", “You Dropped a Bomb on Me”, and “Oops Upside Your Head.” Wilson also drew songs from his solo career including some of the thirteen Grammy-nominated tunes he has produced. Performance wise the set was the most musical and compelling set of Saturdays line up.