There are certain variables that dictate how “good” a music festival is or will be, other than just the acts performing.
By no means is it a hard and fast truth, but it seems the older one gets (I clump myself in here), the more they want a more chill, easy-going atmosphere, in the sense that it’s simple to navigate, there’s room to breathe, and most importantly, it’s not overrun with college-aged kids in body paint and garnished in glowsticks, tweaking on uppers and/or hallucinogens. Not really an endearing quality of music festivals. (yes, I am apparently now that old curmudgeon)
This past weekend, Mempho Music Festival celebrated its sixth iteration in the beautiful Memphis Botanic Garden from Friday to Sunday, and possessed said chill easy-going atmosphere, all the while maintaining that electric energy festival-goers desire.
Getting into the festival grounds was a breeze, albeit we got in on a Saturday afternoon and didn’t have to fight the masses. Our Uber driver dropped us off at the end of a long dirt path, and if it weren’t easy enough to follow the trail, we could just follow the sound of a distant Dinosaur Jr.
Upon our entry, we were greeted with towering trees, and pretty much straight ahead was the ever-intriguing Incendia Dome, which the site describes as, “a mobile, modular artistic installation and interactive event space… the geodesic structure features a spellbinding propane flame effect across it’s lofty ceilings, which provide light, heat, and wonderment to all those who dwell within.”
Pretty damn cool.
Inside the Incendia Dome were various DJs offering Silent Disco soirees, both throughout the day and at night.
A primary aspect that made this fest standout was the fact it was in an ecologically immersive zone within the city, the Memphis Botanic Garden. Trees scattered throughout, making for great shaded areas, fresh air, and a feeling like it’s in a big backyard and not a cityscape. Behind the Vinyl Experience and White Claw tents was a picturesque pond (especially at dusk), and the vibes as a whole were naturally inviting.
The food vendor situation seemed to be fairly minimal and the lines were pretty long, but ultimately a pretty solid Pork Mac N’ Cheese burrito was secured at Cosmic Charlies. Another must-have festival component they had was a few easily accessible water-filling stations that weren’t sloppy and mud-inducing at the feet, just simple troughs and spigots. Easy fill-up stations are always crucial, especially on a day when it was seven hours from October but sweltered like a July 4th picnic.
After a quick glance around, we B-lined it for the remainder of Dinosaur Jr. on the main stage, or the Adams Keegan stage, who seemingly broke the wall of sound with their rig. The modest trio shook the distant trees with their blistering post-punk rock n’ roll songs, delighting all in a 20 mile radius.
The beauty of Dinosaur Jr. is their aggressive in-your-face sound with the juxtaposition of J. Mascis’s uber chill vocals and demeanor. He’s not matching the aggression vocally or prancing around stage expunging the same wild instrumental energy. They have their signature sound no doubt.
Paul Cauthen took to the Zyn Stage around dinner time, delivering his bold funky twang-rock to the masses. “He sounds like Waylon Jennings doing an impression of Waylon Jennings,” our photographer Emmett Rozelle said. Cauthen most certainly sung with a similar grit and smokiness no doubt, as highlights included a teaser of Gary Glitter’s anthemic “Rock and Roll” before diving into his 2022 track “Cut a Rug.” He would also play his newest single, “25 Tequilas,” which sounds like it was tailor made for Broadway culture in Nashville.
Band of Horses then brought in the night on the main stage, delivering their signature post-emo indie rock sound to many an adoring fan, playing their delightfully melancholy hits like “Is There A Ghost,” “No One’s Gonna Love You,” and of course “The Funeral.”
While they wrapped up, the Zyn Stage prepped for New Hope, PA’s finest, Ween. The variety of fans spanned the spectrum just like their music: from a man in a banana suit to the average Josephine and everything in between, the crowd had an array of characters. Pink paper airplanes with the Boognish logo were in the hands of many, and everyone braced for the 5-piece band to take the stage.
“Sup fuckers,” Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman) said with a smile to mass applause as he and the band geared up for their opener, “Exactly Where I’m At,” from their 2000 album White Pepper.
The beauty of Ween shows is that you never know what gems from their eclectically extensive catalog they’re going to pull out. However, for the top tier fans, you can get a good idea based on if it’s a festival show versus strictly a Ween show. Things get a little more brown when it’s just Ween in town.
Their Mempho set was filled with the usual suspects, from “Buckingham Green,” to “Transdermal Celebration,” to “Voodoo Lady,” as they laid out many a wide net favorite, wrapping things up with an interactive “The Mollusk,” which had fans administering loud applause when the band harmonized their “yes, yes” bridge and rained boos during the “no, no” part. It was both hilarious and awesome.
To wrap up Saturday night, My Morning Jacket delivered an earth-shaking performance, starting with “Wordless Chorus” into “Gideon.” Jim James and the rest of the long haired bearded songsmiths pulled no punches, and slayed extended jams that would see special guests join him like Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel,” along with J. Mascis on “One Big Holiday” in the middle of the set. Mascis would come back out to join them on “Dancefloors” and into the surprising encore of “Happy,” a classic Exile on Main Street Rolling Stones cover.
These days there are a buffet of music festivals everywhere, and again there will always be certain criteria fans will look for when making their decisions aside from just performers. Mempho Music Festival proved a solid balance between mellow, environmentally appealing atmosphere and palpable energy, reeling in sizable acts you’d also see at something like Bonnaroo or another bigger festival.
It was nothing but smooth sailing, epic live music, sensory satisfaction, and no pandemonium (i.e. Burning Man, etc.).
Featured photo: Ween // Photo by Emmett Rozelle