A String of Pearls

Ten of the most memorable moments in Beale Street Music Fest history.

MGMT performs at BSMF in 2011.

photograph by Justin Fox Burks

For many, the Beale Street Music Festival is synonymous with Memphis in May. Since 1977, the festival (BSMF) has rocked downtown Memphis, first in the clubs along the famous American byway, and then, beginning in 1990, in Tom Lee Park adjacent to the Mississippi River.

The performers who have played BSMF over the decades are a Who’s Who of popular and traditional music, including B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Iggy Pop, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Big Star, the Black Crowes, Foo Fighters, James Taylor, Little Milton, Fleetwood Mac, Three 6 Mafia, ZZ Top, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Wilco, Little Richard, Ike Turner, Steely Dan, Katy Perry, Mumford & Sons, Booker T. and the MGs, R.L. Burnside, Koko Taylor, Bobby Blue Bland, and Rufus Thomas.

To single out 10 performances as the most memorable is well nigh impossible. Each attendee over the years would have a different list. But, for old time’s sake, here are some acts that we’ll certainly never forget. (And we reserve the right to revise the list following this year’s festival.)



BSMF settles into its new home at Tom Lee Park with the double-trouble headliners Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ray Charles and the slogan “Catch some Rays on the River.” It was Vaughan’s last show in Memphis, as he died tragically just a few months later.


James Brown makes his first headline appearance at BSMF, proving why he was known as the Godfather of Soul. Brown returned to the festival and brought the funk in 2006 in what proved to be his farewell show in Memphis. He died Christmas Day later that year.


Alt-rock star Beck plays to a huge crowd and a thrashing mosh pit. Security asks that he play something calm; he pours his drink on a guard’s head and plays the decidedly non-chill “Mutherf***r.”


All-time great Irish musician Van Morrison makes Memphis one of only five U.S. cities he plays that year, with a show that opens with “Moondance” and closes with a taste of “Tupelo Honey.”


Bob Dylan plays BSMF for the first time, with a classic, Friday-night set that includes “All Along the Watchtower,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” Bob’s son, Jakob, closes the festival with his band, the Wallflowers, on Sunday.


The Dave Matthews Band sets attendance records with their second appearance at the festival (first appearing in 1996). It isn’t “Too Much” for the more than 55,000 people — the largest ever crowd in Tom Lee Park — who witness the show.


Willie Nelson agrees to play the festival once he hears Sheryl Crow will be there too — he’d long wanted to play with her. They take the stage back-to-back and participate in each other’s sets.


Here’s just one aspect of what makes the BSMF just so magnificent: In one night on one stage, music legends Santana, Lou Reed, and Buddy Guy play back-to-back-to-back, thrilling festival-goers and marking yet another high point in the festival’s storied history.


English rocker Elvis Costello, who is playing his own set that day, makes a surprise cameo, joining blues guitar great Hubert Sumlin for a couple of blistering songs in the Blues Tent — arguably the best venue each year at BSMF. The music is played close-quarters, with nowhere to go but into your soul.


MGMT-frontman Andrew VanWyngarden plays to his largest crowd in his hometown. The band kicks off its set with “Pieces of What,” dedicated to the victims of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, tornado of just two days before. Indie rockers the Flaming Lips follow MGMT with an impressive stage show, including sweet background projections and lead singer Wayne Coyne rolling over the crowd in a giant bubble. Both bands join forces to play MGMT’s “Kids.”


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