The weather was ideal, there was a beer truck tapped with New Belgium Brewery’s Beers (among others), and the artists delivered. Yes, ’twas such a good time at the 2011 McDowell Mountain Music Festival, that I think that, over a week later, I’ve finally fully recovered. Of the three days of music on the main stage, I missed only one band – Friday’s opener Paper Snowmen. Sorry Paper Snowmen, I’ll make it up to you somehow.
After settling in at the hotel late Friday afternoon, meeting up with my buddy Trevor, and cracking a couple beers in the room, we caught the free 24×7 shuttle to the parking lot of the Compound Grill – transformed for the weekend into a grassy, musical nirvana. The vibe – as expected – was low key, laid back, and live and let live. Just the way I like it.
I rolled in just in time to hear Martin Sexton‘s opening guitar plucks. Now, last year, I saw him backed by a full band at a regular gig inside the Compound, and Nils friggin’ Lofgren (E Streeter and Crazy Horser) popped on stage for the last hour. So, there was a mighty lofty precedent set. It was a cool set though. Was I blown away? No. But Martin was playing the 6:30 to 8:30 slot on opening night, so there were conflicts. Meeting up with friends, grabbing some food (tacos were $1 a piece opening night, compared to $3 a piece the rest of the weekend), and making my maiden voyages to the aforementioned Beer Trailer of Goodness. Now beer lovers, take note – tapped on the truck and available all weekend long were: Fat Tire, Ranger IPA, Mothership Wit, and Blue Moon! Heaven, I tell you! Yet there were still people ordering Coors Light – Golden Colorado’s natural pee water. I’ll never understand that.
JJ Grey and Mofro were up next to close out Friday evening on the main stage. Good, down home southern fried blues rock. The highlight for me was when JJ channeled his inner Otis Redding, and belted out a song called “That’s How a Woman Wants To Be Loved By a Man”. The Stax sound filled the venue, and the people were happy. This was, for me, the highlight of Friday. Admittedly, I found parts of the set a little generic at times. Mofro are veterans of the festival scene, and know how to lay down a set, but some of the lyrics and hooks occasionally leveled out a little too much for my taste. I wasn’t as wowed as when I saw them last year at the ACL Music Festival. Still, though, overall satisfaction damn high in the setting of the MMMF. JJ is a great frontman and a beast on the harmonica.
JJ and the band wrapped up the set, and it was time to head inside the Compound for the late show with jam/electronic wizards Particle. The keyboards on stage right captured my attention from the start (much like they do on the albums I’ve heard). Cool, electro/techno-inspired sounds and fills while the rest of the band drove into jamband happyland. It was all instrumental (at the least the first set was) and included, one must not forget, a cover of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F”, aka the theme from Beverly Hills Cop.
At set break, I succumbed to Friday-night-after-a-long-work-week exhaustion, and it was back to the hotel.
After a decent slumber at the Sleep Inn ($52 per night!), it was time to drive back to the southeast valley and gather my wife and my two music loving girls (they have no choice, poor things) for Saturday and Sunday’s festivities.
We made it back to the venue about halfway through Saturday’s opener, Phoenix’s own Kinch. I’d heard great things about these guys, and the handful of songs I saw did not disappoint. Balls out guitar-driven indie rock. Really creative, good hooks, and an energetic bunch of guys. They’re playing a handful of dates as Jimmy Eat World’s opener, and some others on their own. I recommend ’em if they stop through your town (http://www.kinchband.com/shows/).
Next up was my favorite local band, What Laura Says. Psychedelic, retro, imaginative… I’ve used all these adjectives before, but they stick. I truly dig these guys. They played a smattering of tunes from both of their studio albums, Bloom Cheek and What Laura Says Thinks and Feels (their debut): “Training”, “Keep Running Shoes Special”, “Couldn’t Lose Myself If I Tried”, among others. Their third record, Talk, comes out May 24th. If you’re in Phoenix, you can hit the album release bash on May 20th at the Icehouse in downtown Phoenix.
Former Meters bass-man George Porter was up next on the main stage with his band Runnin’ Pardners. It was time for tha funk – New Orleans style. We got the Allen Toussaint-written “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” and Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes”… of interest here is that both of these tunes showed up on Robert Palmer’s 1974 debut album, and who backed him up on the record? The Meters. Interesting… speaking of the Meters, the show was not without its Meters tunes – most notable was “Liver Splash”.
George Porter took a small break, then pulled double duty as the bass player for 7 Walkers (http://www.7walkers.com), also featuring Louisiana’s Papa Mali, multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard and former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. They have a swampy, loose feel, which showed itself in “New Orleans Crawl” and their theme song “7 Walkers”. But for me, they hit their stride with a collective assault of tunes by the good ol’ Grateful Dead: a slow burning “He’s Gone” inevitably conjured up images of the late great Jerry Garcia. Papa Mali looks sort of like a backwoods bayou cousin of Jerry, doesn’t he? George Porter took lead vocals on “Sugaree”; then Papa brought us home with “New Speedway Boogie” and the always welcome “Turn On Your Lovelight”. I will always have a soft spot for those Dead tunes. I was lucky enough to catch ’em 10 times toward the end (in ’94 and ’95), and hearing the songs in a nice setting like MMMF just put me in a great place.
Then it was SOJA (Soldier’s Of Jah Army), a reggae group from Washington, D.C. SOJA was one of the bands I was completely unfamiliar with coming into the festival. After watching these white rastas rock the festival crowd, I was converted. Singer/guitarist Jacob Hemphill and bassist Bobby Lee (the birthday boy) were energetic and inspired, leading the band through their catalog of good time and socially conscious tunes. A small horn section (sax and trumpet) and drums and percussion added just the right flavor.
Headlining the main stage Saturday night was Australian one-man wonder Xavier Rudd. Like Martin Sexton the night before, I had seen Xavier once before backed by a band (at the Marquee Theater in Tempe), but at MMMF, he came solo – if you can really call it solo, the way he worked his rig of percussion, stompers, didgeridoos, guitars, and bits & pieces. It was unreal at points. The coolest for me was when he’d launch into these trance-like club beat chants, using his mouth on the didge and pounding out these sick rhythms on the assortment of drums. Xavier transformed that place. The sounds he unleashed coupled with the trippy lighting had me questioning where I was exactly in the time/space continuum. If you see a Xavier Rudd show announced in your town, GO.
It was time to head into the Compound once again for the late show – the Otis Taylor Band taking the stage this time. Otis has a cool thing going – part blues, part folk… Down and dirty, raw.. notable in the band was female fiddle player Anne Harris and a straight ahead rock guitarist Jon Paul Johnson. Both of them infused some unique elements into Otis’ raw sound and lead banjo playing. Fun show during that first set. Yeah yeah, once again, the day caught up and I headed to bed.
On Sunday, after a nice breakfast at First Watch, a breakfast joint recommended by my photog-man Owen Brown, we set up shop at the festival before the first band hit the stage – that first band being Orgone.
Hadn’t heard of Orgone before the lineup announcement, but, like SOJA, they impressed the hell out of me with their funky rhythm guitar & horn driven L.A. sound. It was instrumental soul & funk, straight out of the 70’s (I found similarities with Brooklyn’s Budos Band). But they also brought out an L.A. soul singer, introduced as Aphrodite, though Google won’t help me find any info on her (checked “Afrodite” too). She sang a few tunes, including a cool version of “Funky Nassau”. These guys set the tone for the day for me. It’s a shame some folks missed them, their funky 70’s vibe was a great backdrop to a sunny early afternoon – and they finished with Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop”, for cryin’ out loud.
Next up was Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket, a hard to categorize band. Singer Kalmia Traver sounded at times like Bjork, other times like the singer from Swing Out Sister (during a song called or including the words”I Don’t Cry”). Oh come on, you remember Swing Out Sister. “Break Out”, anyone? Okay, I’m a little older. But there was definitely an 80’s vibe to their sound. There was also an afrobeat element, with trumpet, trombone, Traver on the baritone sax, and even a traditional African guitar.
Anyone who saw Rubblebucket undoubtedly was entertained also by the Sedona Hippie. Now, there must be a story behind this gent, and I’m sure he’s well known up in Red Rock Country – but this was THE happiest hippie you have ever laid eyes on. Clad only in tie-dyed long underwear, homeboy skipped around the venue for all of Rubblebucket’s set. He hugged people, he lifted people and spun them around, he had a few serious sessions of ring around the rosie… I mean, the dude was HAPPY, and was not messing around. No shame in his game – bulge be damned… Props to the Happy Hippie.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears! I’ve been enjoying this Austin retro power-soul band for a couple of years, and was looking forward to my first live show. Joe Lewis sounds like a seasoned pro – I was surprised to see he was just a kid in his 20’s. It was great to experience Lewis’ loud soulful pipes, the full on blast of the horn section (the Hard Proof Honeybear Horns), and the backing rhythm licks of Josh Duhamel-doppleganger Zach Ernst on guitar. They hit the crowd hard with new tunes like “Scandalous”, “Booty City”, and older ones like – you got it – “Bitch I Love You”.
So then it was time for my second Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros show in as many weekends. I caught Alex Ebert and his merry commune the week before at the Railroad Revival Tour in Tempe (along with Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons). I was especially excited about this gig because my kids were along, and like a lot of kids, they love “Home” and “Janglin” – and they adore Jade Castrinos, Alex’s co-singer in the band. I took the girls over side stage before showtime, tracked Jade down, and asked for a photo with my girls…
Cool right? They were stoked. So then we waited. And waited. Not sure if Alex was exhibiting diva-like behavior, but the set finally got rolling over an hour past its scheduled start. But all was forgiven when they kicked off the show with “Janglin”, and, one daughter in each arm, we stood front and center and sung along, all three of us. They were thrilled, and I was thrilled seeing them thrilled.
A few tunes went by, and, for reasons those outside of the Magnetic Zeros Circle may never know, Jade left the stage and never came back. For their biggest hit, “Home”, Alex brought up a few audience members to sing Jade’s parts. It was entertaining and all, and must have been exciting for the chosen ones, but it was disappointing not to have Jade on stage trading lines with Alex. All in all though, Alex and the Zeros pulled off a great closing set. As the crowd thinned out, Alex joined the crowd in front of the stage and had everyone sit down with him as he sang the final tune. It was a pleasant, mellow ending to another great weekend at MMMF.
Highlights for Me:
- Orgone, What Laura Says, Xavier Rudd, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
- Blue Moon, Mothership Wit, Ranger IPA on tap (and not running out all weekend!)
- Air conditioned trailer rest rooms. Didn’t have to squirt in a port-o-potty all weekend!
- The swiss turkey burgers were tasty, especially with those warm plantains.
- The Happy Hippie. See above.
- This is one of the most kid-friendly events around, but the kiddos need food & beverage options. Vitamin Water, regular water, and soda got old real fast. An ice-cold lemonade stand would have made a killing. How ’bout a sno-cone stand? Popcorn and popsicles? French fries and chicken strips? (Props to that Ice Cream van though!) We have to keep those kids happy…
- Water Sprayer Guy – Year after year you deliver, spraying the hot festival goers with a cool mist. Hats off to you, water sprayer guy…
- Yes, we all still miss Westworld, and hopefully in the future, the festival will return there. But I can’t stress enough how great a job the organizers do in transforming an upscale Scottsdale strip mall parking lot into a music lover’s paradise.
- It seemed like a good sized crowd, with lots of good people supporting a great festival and two great charities. Here’s hoping MMMF keeps growing in popularity here in the Phoenix area. Those of us who attend do our best to spread the word, but let’s be real – you mention MMMF to co-workers and acquaintances, and only a few have heard of it. It’s up to all of us to keep promoting it, and hopefully the talent budget next year is even greater. Pull in a couple big names, interspersed with some of the lesser known acts, and it’s bound for bigger & better things.
Thanks again, MMMF! And everyone, mark your calendars for next year, the dates have already been announced: April 20-22, 2012.
Onward and upward!
Credits: All photos by Owen Brown Photography unless otherwise noted.