My Recap of the 2013 McDowell Mountain Music Festival

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This past Saturday and Sunday, I made my way to the latest installment of my favorite local festival, the 10th annual McDowell Mountain Music Festival, this year taking place for the first time at Margaret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix.

To set the scene, the park sits on top of Interstate 10 just north of downtown proper (the aptly named Deck Park Tunnel runs right under it). It’s a nice expanse of green in the midst of the concrete jungle. On the outskirts of the park were a few vacant lots, a fair share of hard-on-their- luck street folks, but that’s standard for any big city in the old USA I guess. But the venue itself was great. Once again, the organizers did an amazing job of transforming a space into a three day getaway oasis – great food, plenty of facilities, vendors, the main stage, the local band stage, and a VIP section. Each year, walking into MMMF gives me that “ahhh” feeling as we gear up for another great live music experience.

Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards
Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards

I missed the opening Friday this year (sad about missing the Shins, but I’d seen Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros a few times before). Bu on Saturday, I grabbed the wife and two daughters and headed downtown mid-afternoon just in time for the Heartless Bastards. I’ve been checking them out over the past few months here and there, especially their new album, Arrow. Saturday’s 90 minute set cemented my admiration for the band, especially lead singer/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. Her strong, lower register singing voice sounded great on tunes like “Only For You”, Junior Kimbrough’s “Done Got Old”, and especially “Parted Ways”, my favorite song of the band’s (right now). It was the perfect start to the day: quality roots/Americana sounds under sunny blue skies.

The weather for the festival? As the MMMF gang mentioned in their Facebook feed, it was chamber of commerce-style weather: high 70’s and sunny both days we were there. Although my family and I will admit to freezing our asses off Friday night. Wimps, I know (I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but you wouldn’t know it after 20 years in the desert).

Deer Tick
Deer Tick

So next up at 5pm Saturday was Providence, RI’s Deer Tick. Disclaimer: I’m a HUGE fan of the band, so not only did I catch their festival set (also 90 minutes – a bonus for any festival), but I also walked over to the Crescent Ballroom for their late night gig, which kicked off around 11:30pm (I’m still a little weary, and it’s Wednesday).

Characterized by primary singer & songwriter John McCauley’s raspy, wickedly awesome voice, Deer Tick plays gritty, rootsy, countrified rock n’ roll. During Saturday’s sets, they drew heavily from all four of their studio albums and an EP, played five new songs (from a forthcoming album produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos – yes, I love it when my favorite bands come together) and sprinkled some great covers in. They played 45 songs over the two shows, with only four repeats between their afternoon and late night sets. I was definitely reminded of how great Born On Flag Day is (their second studio album) – “Easy”, “Little White Lies”, “Smith Hill”, and “Houston, TX” were all played, and had me rushing back to the album after the gigs.

Deer Tick's John McCauley and Dennis Ryan
Deer Tick’s John McCauley and Dennis Ryan

Guitarist Ian O’Neil also impresses me more and more each time I see Deer Tick play. His Divine Providence tunes – “Walkin Out The Door” and “Now It’s Your Turn” – are always great live. This time around, he sang an insane new rocker, “The Dream Is In The Ditch”, and a cover of a Michael Hurley song, “Be Kind To Me” (another new one for me). Ian gets wild, jumps around, has a killer voice for rock n’ roll, and complements McCauley perfectly up there.

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Deer Tick

Other covers of the night included “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (the Pogues), “12 Bar Blues (NRBQ), “Sleepwalk” (Santo & Johnny, which is one of my all-time favorite instrumentals), “La Bamba” (Richie Valens), “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran), and “Passing Through” (Leonard Cohen), which served as an ideal intro to Ian’s “Now It’s Your Turn.”

At the late night Crescent Ballroom gig, the band also brought up Vanessa Carlton to sing “In Our Time”, a great country-style duet between John and Vanessa.

I could go on and on about this band, so let me just wrap up this part by saying that Deer Tick really defined the weekend for me, similar to how they defined my Newport Folk Festival weekend a couple years back when I caught their late night gigs at the Newport Blues Café. I just love these guys [for the Set Lists of both shows, check out Setlist.fm for the day set and the late night set]…

Anyway, back to the festival grounds early Saturday evening. I had go check into the hotel after Deer Tick’s set, so I missed about half of SoCal reggae band Iration’s set. I caught the second half, which was pleasant enough I guess. Certainly, nothing stood out and made me want to find out what I was hearing. No knock on the band, they’ve got a cool thing going, but it just didn’t connect with me.

And then came Saturday’s headliner, The Roots. I’ll admit to not being overly familiar with their material. My most significant connection to the band is through Questlove, who shares my lifelong abnormal obsession over the music of Prince. I’m also not much of a hip-hop head post-early 90’s. But I did grow up with the old school of hip-hop, seeing Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J and others back in their early heyday. So I was stoked to hear rapper Black Thought give a shout out to the Beastie Boys’ MCA when he hit the stage, and immediately launch into a high-energy version of “Paul Revere” (my favorite Beasties tune). Questlove took the mic for MCA’s parts, and it was just magic. My 6-year-old daughter was even in the crowd gettin down with me.

I didn’t catch the full set unfortunately, so I missed some highlights like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and Led Zeppelin cover, but I did catch a good hour, and it was just cool seeing the MMMF crowd exposed to some quality musicianship by a top notch band that can do it all – from hip-hop to rock to soul…right across the musical spectrum.

Dr. Dog
Dr. Dog

On Sunday, I got there just in time for Philly band Dr. Dog’s 2:30 set – one of those bands I’ve been chompin’ at the bit to see. They delivered everything I wanted and more. There’s a whole lot going on in their music, so they’re a hard band to define. I’ll go with something like “psychedelic indie-folk.” The band’s two primary singers blew me away – Toby Leaman’s strong stage presence and Scott McMicken’s unique voice, which had me thinking of Bob Dylan and the Felice Brothers at times.

The band had their core guitars, bass, and drums, but a large part of their sound consisted of a synthesizer and what I think was a drum machine/DJ rig that added all sorts of wonderfully strange beats, bangs and sounds to tunes like “Lonesome”, How Long Must I Wait”, “Do The Trick”, “That Old Black Hole”, and “Heart It Races” (originally done by Architecture in Helsinki, an Australian band). I mean, this is what I love about music – how one band can lead you to another. Architecture in Helsinki?? Who knew? Not me. Great set (another 90 minutes!), and I can’t wait to see Dr. Dog again.

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Les Claypool & Bryan Kehoe – Duo De Twang

Next up was former Primus and Oysterhead bass-whiz and all around weirdo (and I mean that in a good way) Les Claypool and his Duo de Twang. The other member of the duo is Bryan Kehoe, a looong bearded, cowboy hat wearin’ good old boy from a Bay Area band called M.I.R.V. – and a solid picker on his dobro.

I absolutely loved this set, as Les and Bryan slapped and picked through tunes from the Primus catalog (“Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver”, “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver”), and some interesting cover choices, including “Bridge Came Tumbling Down” by the recently departed Canadian legend Stompin’ Tom Connors, and Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” – both crowd favorites, especially the latter, where Les somehow got the crowd to sing along to “We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin / There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago / We fired once more and they began to runnin’ on / Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Les and Bryan’s in between song stage banter was highly entertaining too, I could have listened to them all day. Count Duo de Twang as another act I’d see again in a heartbeat.

Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band

That brings us to my final set of the festival, Nederland, Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band. It had been some 13 years since I last saw them at the 2000 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. YMSB are a progressive bluegrass jamband, and have gathered legions of fans over their 15 year run. I’ll admit that my attention span was starting to wane into YMSB’s set, as the lack of rest and hot sun began to take its toll. I know. I can’t rally like I used to, folks. Not to mention my friends who love Sunday’s headliner, Umphrey’s McGee, are gonna slap me upside my virtual head for missing their set.

One thing is clear: the men and women behind the McDowell Mountain Music Festival should be recognized for putting on another high quality multi-day festival – no easy feat at all.

In my seven consecutive years of attending the festival, this was the third venue, and the first time in downtown Phoenix. Although we all miss the original venue, Scottsdale’s massive Westworld complex, this year felt sort of like a return to form after two scaled down years at now-defunct Compound Grill.

For one, they offered camping again (not sure how that worked out in the vacant lot adjacent to the venue – I’d be interested to know); they brought back the VIP section, with a large wooden platform looming over the side of the stage that allowed the VIP folks to watch the bands up close); there were tons of great food selections this year (we weren’t limited to the Compund Grill’s menu like the last few years). My go to spot was the Green Truck on the Go, where I opted for the Mother Trucker Vega Burger both days; and for a craft beer lover like me, I was excited to see Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery as the official beer sponsor of this year’s festival. Inversion IPA, Mirror Pond Pale Ale… I was a happy boy.

Best of all, every cent of the festival, as always, went to charity – this year, it was Ear Candy, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and UMOM New Day Centers.

It was also a good opportunity to spend some time in downtown Phoenix. For someone who lives in one of the suburbs (about 30 minutes out), my normal excursions into Phoenix consist of the occasional concert or sports event (Diamondbacks or Suns). Post show or game, the city has always seemed like a ghost town, lacking heart and soul. So, not only was it awesome of MMMF to bring their event into downtown Phoenix to infuse a little of that vitality and soul (and money) into the core of the city, but it was cool too as a local resident to grab a hotel room, jump on the light rail train, and explore a little. Other than the late night bum brawl on the train (there was blood), I saw another side of the city: people walking around at midnight, bars and restaurants jumping with business… People. Energy. Life. It was refreshing.

So hats off to another great McDowell Mountain Music Festival – my favorite festival in my home state of 20 years. Here’s to many more…

Deer Tick roll through Phoenix [May 3rd Recap]

For the second time in seven months, Rhode Island band Deer Tick stopped into the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix to rock the joint with their good time fusion of bar room rock n’ roll, folk, country and punk.

The set list was largely similar to their last stop in October, featuring a bunch of tunes from their latest album Divine Providence. Once again, front man & “drunken devil” John McCauley showed why he’s one of the most raw and charismatic live performers out there. But he also shared the spotlight with his band mates – guitarist Ian O’Neil taking lead vocals on the fiery “Walkin Out the Door” and the electric piano-powered ballad “Now It’s Your Turn” (a tune whose intro reminds me of the Stones “Melody Motel”); and drummer Dennis Ryan sang “Clownin Around”, a tune he wrote about John Wayne Gacy.

The DP songs grow stronger live as they log more days and weeks on the road. “Main Street”, “Funny Word” and “Miss K” are as strong and explosive as ever.

Non-Divine Providence highlights for me were “Ashamed” (cool arrangement & a killer sax solo from Rob Crowell); “Easy” (my favorite tune from Born On Flag Day); “Not So Dense” (watching John scream “I watch 60 minutes go by hour after hour after hour!!“- priceless); but most of all, my favorite Deer Tick tune of ’em all – “Dirty Dishes” – which I’d never seen performed live in my previous three DT shows.

Unlike the album version, they do the song a Capella in five part harmony. It started off a little shaky, with O’Neil jumping ahead of the others during the first verse. But everyone laughed it off and they were right back on track. The harmonies capture the sad beauty of the song, and it was a hell of a treat to see it live. If only we could get the crowd to shut their mouths during the quiet songs like this. Some people sure like to go to shows and spend their time talking and talking (and talking and talking). But what are you gonna do…

Deer Tick delivered again – a fun, killer live band – one I’ll be obliged to go out & see whenever they roll through town.

→ And I have to mention the opening band, Nashville’s Turbo Fruits. I’d never heard of these guys before seeing them on the bill with Deer Tick. But Wowee & Holy Sheeet – pure adrenaline, hard-driving, Les Paul-thrashing, cymbal-crashing, flying scissor-kicking ROCK AND ROLL. If you’re going out to see Deer Tick, get there in time to see Turbo Fruits.

Here’s “Dirty Dishes” from last night, starting near the beginning of the first verse…

Recap: Deer Tick at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix

The great thing about Deer Tick live is the no frills, no bullshit, “it’s only rock n’ roll” attitude. Lead singer/guitarist John McCauley is the embodiment of it all. He’s clearly in it for the music, and doesn’t much care about self-image or putting on those rock band front man airs. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have a good time and doesn’t embrace some of the – um – rock star lifestyle.

Shuffling on stage last night with three bottles of Coors and the red plastic cup that was never too far from his grasp, John and the band rocked the face off the Crescent Ballroom last night – growling, spitting, and, yes, snot-rocketing his way through a 90 minute, 19-song set full of new tunes from their brand new album Divine Providence, along with some older tunes spanning their first three albums (most from their debut, War Elephant) and a couple of well-placed covers.

They opened with the great Divine Providence album opener, “The Bump,” which serves as a great introduction to the band: “We’re full grown men! / But we act like kids! / We’ll face the music / Next time we roll in“; and the ultimate intro to John: “I got a name / They Call Me The Bump / One night with me / Is gonna mess you up … I’m a drunken devil! / I’m not the king of cool!

And off they went. The set featured 9 songs from the new album, including two sung by guitarist Ian O’Neil (the hard charging “Walking Out The Door” and the southern rock ballad-feel of “Now It’s Your Turn”) and one by drummer Dennis Ryan, “Clowning Around” (Dennis wrote the song about John Wayne Gacy). The first released single from the record, “Miss K”, is good-time rock at its finest, and really pumped the crowd.

John and the band are loose and relaxed between songs, noodling around like they’re in rehearsal. It’s fun to see. Between songs, we were treated to the theme from Law & Order, AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and my favorite, drummer Dennis Ryan singing a verse of Santana & Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” – but sung as Tom Waits. Classic.

Deer Tick played five tunes off of War Elephant, including another highlight of the night, a slowed down “Ashamed” with a killer sax solo from Rob Crowell. Just as cool was the song they chose next, a raucous cover of the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.”

Speaking of covers, the band also showed off their alter ego Deervana, with a spot on version of Nirvana’s “On a Plain.”

The night wrapped just after midnight, with the party anthem off the new album, “Let’s All Go To The Bar.” They were on for a full 90 minutes, but it still seemed short, and there wasn’t even enough time for an encore (I’m guessing the Crescent Ballroom curfew is 12 midnight). Everyone was ready for more, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, I made my way out back and chatted with the band for a few minutes (along with my smuggled can o’ Four Peaks Hop Knot IPA – shh).

me & john mccauley

To me, there’s nothing as invigorating as a solid, genuine, live rock n’ roll show. Deer Tick are as real as they come – an unaffected group of guys who clearly love playing music together and insist on having a great time doing it. It’s all for the love of the music – and luckily, those of us in the crowd get to come along for the ride.

Deer Tick Set List
October 28, 2011
Crescent Ballroom, Phoenix

The Bump
Easy
Baltimore Blues No. 1
Main Street
Chevy Express
Walkin’ out the Door
Ashamed
Bastards of Young (Replacements cover)
Clownin Around
Funny Word
Choir of Angels
These Old Shoes
Now It’s Your Turn
Miss K.
On a Plain (Nirvana cover)
Not So Dense
Mange
Let’s All Go To The Bar

Recap: Dawes and Blitzen Trapper at the Crescent Ballroom

Hallelujah, there’s a killer new live music venue in my home town!! The Crescent Ballroom, open for just a week now, is a mid-sized room (able to accommodate 400-500 people) in a cool 1917 brick building located at 2nd Ave. and Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.  Great atmosphere, friendly staff, really good food in their patio lounge/restaurant, Cocina 10 (I recommend the bean & cheese burrito paired with a Moscow Mule – tasty).

Dawes

Last night, the Blitzen Trapper / Dawes traveling roadshow hit the Ballroom for a few solid hours of rock n’ folk. The tour is just getting started, having kicked off just a few days ago in Petaluma, CA.

After a very mellow but pleasing opening set by British guitar/vocal duo Smoke Fairies (Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies), Dawes hit the stage, and, as expected, immediately won over the Phoenix crowd. Hard to tell, but it seemed like most of the crowd were new to the L.A. band, and it wasn’t long before the passion and earnestness of the four – especially frontman Taylor Goldsmith, won them over. Taylor is as genuine as they come, and a brilliant, evocative songwriter. In every song he sings, he makes sure the listener hears every word, pouring every ounce of his heart and soul into it. His brother Griffin (on drums) shares that passion and enthusiasm – his facial expressions alone are something to behold: his mouth in varied contortions of agony and ecstasy with every beat and fill. Bassist Wylie Gelber and keyboard/organ man Tay Strathairn round out the quartet, and it’s clear why they’ve been selected over the last year to back up the likes of Robbie Robertson, Jackson Browne and M. Ward. Such a cohesive, organic, and talented band.

The 10-song set drew from both of their studio albums – North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong. There were some great moments – the build up and crescendos of “Fire Away”, Taylor’s fiery guitar solo on “Peace in the Valley” – but the emotional peak came with the 1-2 punch of “A Little Bit of Everything” and “When My Time Comes.” I appreciate and enjoy “A Little Bit of Everything” more and more with each listen, and Taylor’s detailed, story-telling delivery gave me goosebumps throughout the tune. Then, of course, the anthemic “When My Time Comes” whipped the crowd up, and they were primed to belt out the chorus when Taylor turned the microphone around toward the end.

Taylor and Wylie of Dawes

Since discovering Dawes in mid 2010, I’ve had the chance to see them four times now, and they just keep getting better and better. Last night’s set was another thrill as a fan.

→ Dawes Set List

Since finding out about the co-headlining tour with Blitzen Trapper, I’ve dug into the Portland indie-folk band’s catalog, and the music has definitely been growing on me. Now, after watching them live, I can call myself a fan. I love the dynamic of these guys. It’s a hard-to-peg grab bag of influences… I hear Grateful Dead, Zeppelin, 70’s folk, 70’s rock, Dylan… but all unique and original in their own right. Lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist Eric Early has an unassuming, shy demeanor between songs, but man, can that guy sing and shred.

Eric Early of Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper

Speaking of shredding, I got off on watching lead guitarist Erik Menteer tear it up on his Les Paul. The rest of the band chipped in on some great harmonies, but Erik was off to the side just killing on guitar (and occasionally keys).

Erik Menteer of Blitzen Trapper
Blitzen Trapper

Marty Marquis, off to stage left on guitar & keys, is the laid back jokester of the band, offering up most of the between song banter (thankful for the nice weather, unlike their last visit to Phoenix, when they “melted”).

I’ve been listening a lot to their new record American Goldwing, and they drew heavily from it, with tunes like “Fletcher,” “Astronaut,” “Your Crying Eyes,” and one of my faves, “Love the Way You Walk Away.” And then there was the sheer Zeppelinesque force of “Street Fighting Sun,” also from the new album. Loud, thrashing, arena rock size rock n roll absolutely filling the small Crescent Ballroom.

The encore was a triple treat too: Eric Early solo acoustic on “The Man Who Would Speak True” followed by an unrecorded song called “Jericho” (full band), and then, to add an exclamation mark to the evening, the finale – Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.”

Blitzen Trapper. Count me in.

→ Blitzen Trapper Set List

As I mentioned, the tour is just getting started. Some of my buddies back east are checking out the show soon. Even if you’re not familiar with either band, one live experience will convert you – guaranteed.

Triple D Playlist (more Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit)

To make sure I leave no stone unturned in my music geekitude, I’m now a premium subscriber to both Spotify and Rdio. You’d think I’d have all the bases covered for any song or album I’d like to hear, and for the most part, that’s true. There are still some holes though. Spotify, surprisingly, has no Delta Spirit and none of the three Deer Tick full lenghts. So I turned to Rdio to craft a special “Triple D Attack” playlist.

This playlist features Dawes, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick, with a healthy smattering of Middle Brother songs. Let’s just say I’m knee deep in a Triple D phase.

Song numero uno on the playlist below is “Dirty Dishes”, a song that is so beautiful and tortured and perfect that I just can’t stop listening – and it’s been months.

In Dawes news, many of you have probably heard about the recently announced tour with Blitzen Trapper. If you’re here with me in Arizona, they’ll be stopping in at the newest music venue in town, the Crescent Ballroom in downtown Phoenix. It’s a much needed mid-size venue that hopefully will attract a lot of talent. Dawes & Blitzen Trapper will be there Monday, October 10th. My ticket is secured, and I can’t wait.

Delta Spirit just helped kick off the opening day of Lollapalooza on Friday. The good folks at the Audio Perv already have the webcast up (all tunes I saw live last week in Newport).

So here’s the Rdio playlist. Always worth the 7 day free trial to check it out…