How was RiverBeat Music Festival in Memphis? Here’s what we liked

Ahead of the new RiverBeat Music Festival, organizers stressed they weren’t replacing Beale Street Music Festival.

“We are doing something at the same time and same location, but we feel it’s going to be a different and elevated experience from what’s happened at the site previously,” Forward Momentum festival producer Jeff Bransford said.

So how did the new music fest turn out? Now that the first RiverBeat has come and gone, there’s much to parse about the event itself, beyond the musical acts. Here are some thoughts from The Commercial Appeal critics who were at Tom Lee Park each day of the festival.

Attendance figures weren’t available this weekend, but the inaugural RiverBeat festival apparently attracted fewer people to Tom Lee Park than the typical Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.

Crowds — the word doesn’t even really apply, in some cases — were very sparse for some early acts, with at times only a couple of dozen people in front of even the big stages. Headliners such as the Fugees and Odesza were big draws, but even their audiences did not entirely fill the large space, covered in turf-protecting plastic flooring, around the stages. Elbow room always was available, for those who wanted it.

Was the turnout due to the festival’s apparently more intentionally curated lineup, which eschewed the something-for-everyone approach of Memphis in May to emphasize hip-hop, neo-soul and dance music, augmented by local acts? Did the absence of the “Beale Street” brand name and the publicity about the cancellation of that longtime event hamper the promotion of RiverBeat? Was the fewer people-makes-for-a-less-stressful-event vibe anticipated and planned, as suggested by the non-ubiquitousness of the portable toilets and concessions vendors?

Likely the event’s organizers, Mempho Presents, did not expect to turn a profit with its first RiverBeat, which seems to have been organized as a sort of foundational festival; even so, nobody wanted to see Mississippi hill country blues veteran Kenny Brown play to a crowd in the single digits.

Whatever: As a festival experience, from the standpoint of a festivalgoer, the turnout was ideal. The absence of the nightmarish bottlenecks of revelers that made the old Tom Lee Park almost unnavigable during some of the insanely crowded music festivals of the past felt like a blessing.

One of the benefits in continuing to have music at Tom Lee Park is that offers Memphians, and others, a chance to experience and enjoy the $61 million renovation of the park — which, of course, turned out to be one of the contributing factors in RiverBeat ultimately displacing the Beale Street Music Festival.

This year, with the renovation at Tom Lee fully completed, RiverBeat attendees were able to enjoy the full breadth of that work for the first time. Whatever your feelings about the music or lineup, there are few venues as pleasant as the new Tom Lee.

What was once a dry, rundown riverfront — usually muddy and torn up each May — has been given a new life, thanks to a well-thought-out mix of design and landscaping. As far as festival sites go, it’s hard to think of anywhere better.

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The emphasis on local food and snacks at RiverBeat was in many ways welcome. There’s nothing better or more Memphis than the smell of some piping hot Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken amid the heavy air of the Mississippi River.

But in terms of sheer volume, this year’s RiverBeat culinary options were somewhat lacking. While vendors like Gus’s and MemPops were all fine, it would be nice for next year’s fest to expand, not just the choice of local favorites but other regional foods, and even more exotic or international options.

The exceedingly pleasant environment at RiverBeat this year proved it has a different vibe and ease than the old Beale Street Music Festival, one that’s actually much more conducive to a leisurely meal in the park while you watch the performances. For that reason, the fest will hopefully put an even greater emphasis on what it offers and the vendors it attracts next year.

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The festival opened Friday afternoon on a rousing high note (not to mention plenty of lowdown bass notes) when the Lucky 7 Brass Band — a Memphis ensemble that mixes Big Easy swing and Bluff City soul — paraded, New Orleans-style, up Riverside Drive and into Tom Lee Park, bouncing with the beat as the musicians performed “I’ll Fly Away” on tuba, sax, trumpet, washboard and other instruments.

The band held court on the Beale Street Landing Stage on the north end of the park, near the main entrance, with the sloping, terraced lawn of the Beale Street Landing complex providing cozy seating for onlookers. Small enough to suggest a Cooper-Young Fest performance space, the stage was devoted throughout the weekend to Memphis music that spanned genres (blues, rock, gospel, folk) and generations (from “School of Rock” teenagers to old-school studio legends).

In other words, the stage provided, in miniature, a representation of the diversity of Mid-South music that would be showcased on RiverBeat’s three other stages: the larger but still modest Zev Pavilion Stage (which hosted Al Kapone and Carla Thomas, among others) and the festival-scaled Bud Light and Stringbend stages (which made room for rockers The Band Camino and roots-soul combo Southern Avenue, to name a few).

As such, the Lucky 7 Brass Band, with its eclectic repertoire and virtuoso instrumentalists, was an apt opener, even offering up the first of the weekend’s many classic Stax/Hi/Memphis covers/shout-outs: a version of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” with Hope Clayborn’s saxophone taking the place of Mavis Staple’s vocals.

The trend made its way even to the biggest acts, with Wyclef Jean of the Fugees deploying some guitar licks he said he learned from B.B. King, Yung Gravy donning a Memphis Chicks jersey, and Killer Mike taking every opportunity to praise his Memphis peers, including the late Gangsta Boo. Meanwhile, local deejays mixed and spun records from a perch at the south end of the park, an area dubbed “Whateverland,” complete with carousel and psychedelic tenting.

The Memphis emphasis — “Memphasis,” if you will — suggested that the beautifully redesigned Tom Lee Park would be an ideal location for a regionally focused music/arts/culture/cuisine festival in the tradition of the old Center for Southern Folklore “Memphis Music & Heritage” fest that for years was held in September on and around Main Street. The park has room for multiple smallish music stages that could be devoted to local blues, soul, rockabilly, hip-hop, punk, country, Latin, folk and so on, and it contains avenues that could house the work of local artists and cooks. End the attractions by nightfall, and bring families to the river who maybe haven’t made it west of FedExForum in years.