As the 2022 Memphis Music Festival kicks off on the grounds of the Memphis Botanical Gardens, the Radians Amphitheater thrives with a familiar name and sound.
The small but enthusiastic early crowd was greeted by performances from rising stars Bette Smith and Aditya Victoria, who helped usher in the early hours of Friday’s three-day festival. The crowd swells at sunset and is based in Nashville, with deep ties to Memphis and the South Central.
Grammy Award-winning American singer-songwriter Jason Isbell has become a Bluff City favorite, going through all stages of his rise – from Minglewood Hall to Orpheum to Beale Street Music Festival, with multiple appearances at Mempho.
The former University of Memphis student — who gave up just a few credits while earning a degree in creative writing and started playing at local café The Map Room in the 90s — has grown up with the support of his band The 400 Unit. Part of the time was back in Memphis (which included drummer and ex-Memphian Chad Gamble, along with Isbell’s wife, fiddler/singer Amanda Shires, that night).
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In an opening salvo highlighted by moody works like “24 Frames” and “Easier,” Easier joked about his time in town. “I used to live in Memphis. I went to Memphis State University…” he said. “I have a lot of fun. Some days I have a lot of fun. But I always have a lot of fun.”
Isbell’s set comes with sharp renditions of “Alabama Pines,” “Cover Me Up,” and “Super 8,” as well as his old Drive-By Truckers number “Decoration Day,” which he dedicated to the recently departed The Trucker cover artist Wes Freed .Isbell then brought in Mempho Festival standout Chuck Leavell, a keyboard veteran of the Allman Brothers, to bring an exciting version of Allman’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” to draw for the show A perfect ending.
The headliner Black Keys injected extra Delta into their performance. The blues-rock duo, led by guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, also had regional ties, and they established themselves on the North Mississippi label Fat Possum.
The band particularly emphasized this connection, playing a batch of material from their 2021 Hill Country blues tribute album “Delta Kream,” featuring songs by Mississippi legends RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough (along with a cover image of fellow Mississippi) Man/Memphis native William Eggleston). The band brought on the album’s featured collaborators, including bluesmen Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton, to help transform the Radians Amphitheatre into a massive jukebox syndicate.
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Before the show, Auerbach toured the Memphis record store with another collaborator, local rocker Greg Cartwright, who helped co-create The Black Keys’ latest album, “Dropout Boogie.” Several tracks from the album, including the album’s lead single, “Wild Children” (the group performed while shouting out Cartwright).
The song is one of several standout moments from the Keys’ 90-minute episode, which traverses their 20-plus-year, 11-album catalog, and sets the stage for what promises to be a fun weekend of performances at Mempho.
Saturday’s headliners included reunited Memphis band Big Ass Truck and Southern Jam giant Widespread Panic (who also wrap up the festival on Sunday). Performers on the final day included Chicago rock band Wilco, Mississippi blues legend Bobby Rush, American Queen Allison Russel and New Orleans soul band Tank and the Bangas.