Mempho Music Festival
Steve Cropper and Jason Isbell, photo by Keith Griner
The Mempho Music Festival’s debut at the spacious Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tenn proved to be a old-meets-new lineup was an intergenerational jamboree, as red-hot festival acts like Cage the Elephant and Anderson Paak shared the stage with Soulsville legends like Steve Cropper and Booker T.
“This is what your grandmamas and grandfathers used to dance to, and now you can dance to it too,” Stax Records veteran Eddie Floyd declared Saturday afternoon, before launching into his ‘60s hit “Knock On Wood.” Floyd was one of many famous faces that appeared during the Steve Cropper & Friends set, including Jason Isbell, who sang a rendition of Otis Redding’s “(Sitting On The) Dock Of The Bay,” and John Popper who performed a one-off version of “Soul Man.” “I’m so glad to be here. So proud to be here,” the Blues Traveller vocalist declared afterwards.
As Steve Cropper welcomed guest after guest, some fans may have missed Oteil Burbridge positioned at stage left, holding down the rhythm section with his usual expertise. Burbridge joined a number of acts over the weekend, but a personal highlight for the Dead & Co. bassist came on Saturday when he played with Cropper and Booker T during his Stax Revue. “I did ‘Green Onions’ with the originals,” Burbridge later gushed on his Instagram. “I was almost an MG! #pinchme.” As day turned into night, Anderson Paak and The Free Nationals were ready to party, laying down a high-energy headlining set that featured material from Paak’s newest output Malibu, his debut LP Venice, as well as a version of his Kaytranada collaboration “Glowed Up.”
After Jojo’s Slim Wednesday provided a quick cool-down on the B stage, the main stage was primed for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. “This is the only festival we’re playing this year. It’s the only festival we wanted to play,” Isbell said in the middle of his set, before covering Drive-By Truckers’ “Never Gonna Change.” Isbell also recalled his time as an undergrad at the nearby University of Memphis, where he saw Todd Snider open for Willie Nelson. (Snider had performed earlier in the day with his Hardworking Americans supergroup alongside Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools and Duane Trucks.) The singer-songwriter wrapped up his homecoming performance with a cover of the late Tom Petty’s “Even The Losers” and his own “Anxiety” before ending with Petty’s classic “American Girl.”
The Mempho All-Star then took the stage for their late-night set, as jam-scene stalwarts like Burbridge, Popper, Eric Kranso, Steve Kimock, Jeff Sipe and more kept the music going until the early morning hours, paying tribute to fallen southern rock heroes Col. Bruce Hampton, Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks. Throughout the steamy Tennessee weekend, Mempho’s youthful crowd danced endlessly, but also acknowledged the city’s long musical history. During an emotional moment Saturday afternoon, Booker T and the MGs were awarded their own Brass Note plaque on the city’s historic Beale Street. As Cropper and Booker T joined together in song, Mempho exemplified the city’s enduring love for music of all eras.