Memphis is a city that just oozes soul. It drips from the pores of its residents and seeps out of the cracks in the sidewalks. There are few cities across the country with as rich a musical history as Memphis and the surrounding Mid-South area. From Elvis to BB King, the Bluff City’s global influence on musicians everywhere is undeniable.
When Mempho Music Festival debuted in 2017, it was a welcome addition to the city, with a lineup crossing genres and spanning decades. The 2022 installment was no different; again, it featured artists that directly and indirectly paid homage to Memphis’s musical impact.
Friday, September 30
When the Radians Amphitheater gates opened early Friday afternoon on September 30, early birds were treated to a brief set by Adia Victoria, followed by Bette Smith. Smith has a big voice and saw the first subtle nod to Memphis musical history – one of her earlier records was produced by Jimbo Mathus, and her latest release featured contributions by Luther Dickinson.
Smith’s set was an early tour-de-force and featured both originals and covers that nodded to Memphis, like “The Thrill is Gone” and “Nutbush City Limits.” She was joined mid-set by Chuck Leavell, Mempho’s 2022 artist-in-residence. The Rolling Stone/former Allman Brother would pop up throughout the weekend to provide his piano work in choice spots.
Following a blistering indie/country set by The Futurebirds (tangentially related to the Mid-South via a 2013 record released on Oxford, MS’s Fat Possum Records), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage.
Isbell attended Memphis State University (now University of Memphis), and was “a few credits” shy of graduation before deciding he was done with his formal education. He cut his teeth as a singer/songwriter in Memphis, playing solo gigs at the now-defunct Map Room on Main Street.
Isbell’s come a long way from his Memphis days, and there are few musicians better at turning a phrase; his set was peppered by stellar tales. From the rehab story on “It Gets Easier,” to the beautiful “Alabama Pines,” to his opus from his days in the Drive-By Truckers “Decoration Day,” he put on a veritable clinic.
But, things cranked up a notch when Leavell joined the 400 Unit to close their set with the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The band’s two-pronged guitar attack of Isbell and Sadler Vaden did “Liz Reed” as much justice as anyone has ever done. As good as the band’s songwriting is, their musicianship matches the output, and with Leavell in town on keys alongside Derry Deborja, it set a high bar for Mempho early in the weekend.
The Black Keys may not be from the Memphis area, but may as well be. Despite their Ohio origins, they are students of the North Mississippi hill country blues. While their albums and live sets have evolved over time, they have never forgotten their “roots,” and delivered a stellar set to close out night one. Their set spanned their catalogue, starting with ferocious takes on “I Got Mine” and “Howlin’ for You.”
Early in the Keys set, R.L. Burnside’s guitarist Kenny Brown and Junior Kimbrough’s bassist Eric Deaton emerged to dive into ”Delta Kream,” the Burnside/Kimbrough tribute album. The augmented band proceeded to bring the house down with North Mississippi hill country staples like “Stay All Night,” “Po’ Black Maddie,” and “Goin’ Down South.” They could have stopped there and the audience would have been happy, but the energy on stage never waned, and the band closed out their set with raucous takes on Keys originals like “Ten Cent Pistol” and “She’s Long Gone.” It was a hell of a way to kick off the weekend.
Saturday, October 1
Memphis music staple Amy Lavere kicked Saturday’s lineup off, followed by a strong set by up-and-coming singer/guitarist Celisse. A powerful voice and a stellar guitar player (with customized pink amps), she’s certainly one to watch. With a set full of strong originals and choice covers, what was a small-ish crowd to start the set had swelled by the last note.
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio was up next, and provided another random connection to Memphis – the band’s namesake organ player’s mom was born in Memphis. Their set was spot-on for the lovely afternoon. The band played some great originals like “Hole in One” and “Buttered Popcorn,” but sprinkled in a beautiful cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.”
The award for most people on stage at once went to Portugal. The Man, who absolutely tore the house down, delivering a perfect festival set in terms of setlist construction. Coming out to two of the most random covers of the weekend, Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” followed by “The Dayman” from the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” PTM had the crowd in the palm of their hands early.
The band was remarkably tight considering they had a horn section, string section, and multiple guitarists on stage. By the time the band got to their hit, “Feel It Still,” they were in the pocket and locked in, and the audience ate it all up. “Live in the Moment” had the audience singing along, and set-closing covers of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and the Beatles’s “I Want You” found any remaining doubters converted.
Few bands coming out of Memphis have blended the sounds of the Bluff City better than Big Ass Truck. An iconic local band in the 90s, they deftly meshed blues, rock, and hip hop to create something truly original. The band split up in 2001, and as a testament to their talent, the members went on to high-profile projects – from guitarist Steve Selvidge joining indie darlings the Hold Steady to singer/guitarist Robby Grant’s mellotron project with John Medeski and Wilco’s Pat Sansone.
The crowd was primed and ready for BAT. As all homecoming shows tend to get rowdy during the course of the set, there was a circus on stage by the time the band got to “Sharing the Sherbert.” With an alien dressed in an Elvis suit tossing popsicles into the crowd, the band was as locked in as their stage show, and it was the perfect appetizer for the Widespread Panic main course.
There is not a lot left to say about Widespread Panic – they have been on the road for decades, and rarely disappoint. Their Saturday night set, the first of two they would play throughout the weekend, was no different. They took the stage to a scorching “All Time Low,” and followed it up with John Bell’s gravely vocals on “Rock.” The band really hit their stride when guitarist Jimmy Herring absolutely took over on “You Should Be Glad” and followed it up with a tune they have played since the early days – and a nod to the area – Junior Kimbrough’s “Junior.”
Panic’s Memphis connection is strong. It has long been part of their tour itinerary, and they scooped up keyboard player JoJo Herman (and years later his bandmate George McConnell) from Oxford band Beanland. Later in the set, JoJo would not be the only one on keys. In the most obvious cover choice of the weekend, Leavell joined the band on “Jessica,” the most famous Allman Brothers track from his tenure with the band. He stayed on stage to take a stab at a tune from his current band, The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Panic closed out the second day of Mempho with “Climb to Safety,” and a tired audience headed for the gates.
Sunday, October 2
Day three of the Mempho fest started with plenty of outstanding music to be heard. Continuing the nod to local music, Memphis gospel singer Elizabeth King kicked off the final day festivities, followed by Canadian singer Allison Russell, who opened the action on the main stage.
Blues legend Bobby Rush, who turns 89 in November, permanently kicked up the pace on the Music Gives stage. The two-time Grammy winner and Mississippi Hall of Fame musician delivered an energy-filled set, leaving many in the crowd amazed.
Frequent Memphis visitors Wilco had the crowd singing and dancing their entire performance. Touring behind their country-tinged record “Cruel Country,” the band was as in synch as ever. While they offered a set that covered some of the biggest hits from their long career, it was heavy on tracks from the new album. They kicked off their set with “Handshake Drugs,” with guitarist Nels Kline putting his imprint on the music almost immediately.
Wilco dove into the new record soon after with “I Am My Mother” and the album’s title track. While the record is billed as a country album, it’s not a far departure from their early days with “A.M.” The back half of the set was filled with their more popular songs, from a gorgeous rendition of “Hummingbird to another Kline-owned track, “Impossible Germany.” Jeff Tweedy’s voice was in fine form per usual, and by the time they got to a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “U.S. Blues,” it was hard to imagine how their set would be topped.
Getting sandwiched between Wilco and Widespread Panic is an unenviable place to be, but things didn’t not slow a bit for Tank and the Bangas. They delivered an incredibly energetic performance, going from soul-influenced tunes like “No I.D.” to the gospel-infused “Black Folk” to straight hip hop on “Big.” This band defies characterization – they are as eclectic an act as there is touring today, a chameleon that crosses styles with ease and, they definitely closed the Music Gives stage in style.
After almost three full days of music, a huge crowd remained to greet Widespread Panic and close out the 2022 Mempho festival. While a sense of palpable exhaustion was in the air, nobody left disappointed, as Panic delivered another legendary Memphis show. When the band took the stage, Bell thanked Wilco for “taking care” of Panic for years, and they immediately dove into “Makes Sense to Me.”
Bobby Rush joined the fun, sitting in on “Gotta Have Money” and his own “Bowlegged Woman.” The energy never died, as Panic powered through fan favorites “Thought Sausage” and “Tie Your Shoes.” Bassist Dave Schools took a moment to give his appreciation to the impact Memphis had on the band’s career. The set was a perfect give and take between the band and fans, who have continually welcomed Panic to town since the 1980s.
Mempho finds a way to top itself each year. After digesting every edition of the festival, it is hard to figure out how the organizers can improve it. They continue to outdo themselves, whether it is improving the fan experience or the product they deliver to the stage. After a stellar weekend of music – from blues to rock to Americana – it is difficult to see how 2023 will be better…but if patterns hold, buckle up because it is sure to be fantastic.