As Covid-19 ravaged the globe, the concert industry was hit harder than most. Touring musicians, their crews, music venues…few were spared the hardship of a world that just shut down. As vaccines became readily available, though, there was a glimmer of hope; the industry adapted, and music fans once again were able to watch the bands they love. 2021 Mempho Music Fest, headlined by Widespread Panic and the Avett Brothers, returned the first weekend of October and provided a cathartic release for bands and fans alike.
Outside of the rain that fell parts of Friday and Saturday and the sometimes unrelenting beer lines, Mempho was close to pure perfection. The new venue, moved from Shelby Farms to Radians Amphitheater at Memphis Botanic Gardens, was easier to get into and out of. With two stages, a DJ tent and no overlapping sets, music fans didn’t have to miss any of the acts. The only issue was lines – the beer, food, and bathroom lines were absurdly long the first two days of the festival, but after Panic’s sets were done, the issue seemed to abate.
Friday, October 1
Mempho’s opening day line-up was a fairly diverse bill of both local and national acts, and the festivities kicked off outside of the grounds with the Lucky 7 Brass Band, who led a drumline through the gates, where the first band on an actual stage, local trio The City Champs, awaited.
The City Champs, made up of Memphis guitar stalwart Joe Restivo, drummer George Sluppick, and organ player Al Gamble, kicked things off with a bang. The Champs aren’t a touring act anymore as each member has gone on to other projects, but the reunion sounded like the guys hadn’t missed a beat. With classics like “The Set-Up” and a few newer songs, they got things going for a sparse crowd…the 3:30 set time was a tad early for the working folk, even on a Friday.
Southern Avenue, another Memphis act, opened the second stage and set the bar high early for set of the weekend. Lead singer Tierinii Jackson’s energy – even while extremely pregnant – was off the charts, and she commanded the stage like few do these days. Her connection to her bandmates, which include sister Tikyra on drums and husband Ori Naftaly on guitar, was obvious from the get-go.
Few musical acts have had as meteoric a rise over the last few…well…decades as Billy Strings. He has crossed genres with ease, from his bluegrass roots to playing with Billy Kruetzmann in Hawaii. While there was plenty of buzz about him playing with Panic later in the evening, his evening set did not disappoint. With a set predominantly made up of tracks from his latest release, “Renewal,” Strings tore through an opening “Hide and Seek,” setting the tone immediately. He treated the adoring crowed to favorites like ”Dust in a Baggie,” and his blistering take on the instrumental “Pyramid Country” saw the guitarist make use of his effects pedals like no other bluegrass picker out there. It’s hard to say Billy Strings is one to watch, because that train’s already left the station.
Closing out night one on the second stage was the legendary Lucinda Williams. Pushing 70 years old, Williams is a national treasure, but unfortunately she suffered a stroke last November, and spent a good portion of her set chair-bound. Still, she had a large crowd and her set featured familiars like ”Drunken Angel” and ”Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” and she nodded to Memphis with a set-closing take on the Al Green/Teenie Hodges classic ”Take Me to the River.”
When Widespread Panic took the stage to close out night one, no one could have foreseen what would take place over the next two and a half hours. It was one straight set with no breaks and no encore, and it was all classic Panic. The setlist leaned heavily on late 90s material, and the band pulled no punches. The opening ”Tall Boy” gave way to a blistering ”Disco,” and clearly the band was primed and ready from the start.
Things got interesting, though, when Billy Strings took the stage, strapped with one of Jimmy Herring’s Paul Reed Smith guitars. He proceeded to stay for what amounted to 40 minutes worth of guitar perfection. While it may be the thinnest of limbs to go out on, after watching the Herring and Billy Strings push each other on nuggets like ”All Time Low” and ”Red Hot Mama,” it’s clear Strings is every bit the player that Herring is. The crowd lapped up every note (and lord knows plenty were played,) and after the band wrapped up a ”Driving Song > Surprise Valley > Drums > Bowlegged Woman > Surprise Valley > Driving Song” towards the end of the set, it was hard to imagine how the band could top their Friday night performance when they took the stage the following night.
Saturday, October 2
Fans were greeted with a diverse list of musical styles to choose from on day two of Mempho. Whether it was Julien Baker’s vocals, the jazz/rock sound of Dirty Streets or the unstoppable dance party of Andy Frasco and the U.N., the afternoon crowd had plenty to get them warmed up for the night time session.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were a great choice to play before Widespread Panic on the main stage. The crowd piling in to get a good spot for WSP were treated to Rateliff’s unique blend of folk, R&B, and Americana music, all genres well covered over the years by the band fans were waiting to see close out the night.
As the sun set, Nashville’s Moon Taxi put the finishing touches on the second stage. Their pace was non-stop from the get-go as the band and fans created some of the best energy of the second day. The setlist delivered everything from originals like “All Day All Night” and ”Morocco” to covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and 4 Non-Blondes’ “What’s Up.” The enthusiasm from the crowd kept the band at a frenzied pace that offered few opportunities to stop and catch their breath.
Widespread Panic closed out night two with another jam-fueled performance that had the eager crowd grooving along. Like the night before, the band seamlessly weaved in and out of song and jam for the entire two-plus hour performance.
Long time jammers ”Chilly Water” and ”Fishwater” created plenty of opportunity for the band to take off, and a rare cover of “Bastards In Bubbles” as part of the encore sent the crowd happily home, just as Panic has done over the last several decades.
Sunday, October 3
There’s a bittersweet feeling on the last day of any music festival – you’re sad to see it end, but there’s so much music to look forward to, and Sunday boasted a solid lineup of bands. The day’s music started with the gospel sounds of the Wilkins Sisters and a raucous set from Liz Brasher, who alternated musical styles that ranged from rock to more subdued bluesy songs.
Brasher was followed by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who delivered an electric blues set fit for Memphis. Ingram’s soul belies his age, and he’s going to be a staple on the blues scene for decades to come. His set was followed by Will Hoge, whose roots/American provided a nice juxtaposition to Kingfish.
Perhaps the buzziest band on the Mempho bill was the Black Pumas, who have been darlings of satellite radio for a year and are on festival bills across the country. Their set was nothing short of phenomenal – it was as energetic as any other band over the weekend, and frontman/lead singer Eric Burton promptly had the crowd eating from the palm of his hand. The band’s set was fairly short, and as they only have one studio album, most of it was record tracks. But, those familiar with the band were treated to great versions of “Oct. 33,“ “Black Moon Rising,” and a great set-closing “Colors.“ They’re definitely a band to watch, and assuredly made more than a few new fans.
Following a beautiful set from Waxahatchee, The Avett Brothers took the stage to close out Mempho 2021. While there was palpable excitement from the crowd, the attendance wasn’t anywhere near where it had been the previous two nights; the pro-Panic crowd had clearly departed. But – from an enthusiasm standpoint, there was no fall-off.
Avett festival sets tend to follow a fairly precise template, and this was no different…the show ended with “No Hard Feelings,” and over the course of their stage time all the familiars made an appearance, from “Head Full of Doubt” to “Murder in the City“ to the always-energetic “Laundry Room.”
But, it’s the gems in between that make Avett fans keep coming back for more, and the band didn’t disappoint. Relative rarities like “Geraldine“ and “Backwards with Time” showing up in the setlist were pure treats. Above all, it’s the Avett Brothers’ positive energy that’s infectious, and that’s never lacking. It was the perfect ending to a stellar weekend of music.