McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Recap: 2009 McDowell Mountain Music Festival

(or why I came home with a gnome)

Early Friday afternoon, a rented CruiseAmerica 25′ recreational vehicle rolled into the WestWorld complex in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the back, my two little girls, ages 3 and 5. In the passenger seat, my wife. And rollin’ gangsta-style in the driver’s seat? Suge Knight!! WTF?! Heh, kidding of course. ‘Twas me. The RV:  that’s how we rolled this weekend for the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. We cruised into the RV area, hooked up our casa on wheels to power and water, and it was time for my favorite local festival….

Day 1: We entered the festival at about 3pm, so we missed the first two local acts on the main stage – Delcoa ( and Haven James ( We arrived to see Assembly of Dust‘s ( 3:30 set. AOD (or Ass of Dust as I spontaneously named them) played a solid set of laid back jam-bandy rock. Nothing that really knocked my socks off, but a pleasant backdrop to get the day started. Blue Moon was on tap, and the local tequila company (Cruz Tequila) had set up a complimentary tasting tent, so the gleeful sensation that comes with not working on a Friday afternoon was heightened a few notches.

Now let’s get this straight. The festival, in its essence, features some jam heavy music and is heavy on the hippies, young and old. Some of the old timers are a little worse for wear. Now I’m definitely non anti-hippie. I’ve seen my share of Dead and Phish shows and share many common ideals with my hippie brethren. I would, however, make a couple of recommendations: To the older woman in front of me: a longer dress next year. I really didn’t need to see to what extent you were in need of a bikini wax when you bent over to grab something out of your bag. And to the mama jama with watermelon-size breasts – your nips greeting your fellow festival goers right through your white tank top: one pointing to the left, and one to the right – like they couldn’t decide which way to lead you… Maybe a different shirt?  One that conceals your mighty nips? Sorry if I’m a little off tangent. No offense to the ladies.

So, the usual Twittering, set list scribbling music geek in me took a back set this weekend, as I focused on having a good time with the family, and enjoying the whole atmosphere, without having to worry about pulling out my iPhone during every song and tapping in song titles or lyrics. So if the band recaps seem a little vague, well, you know why.

Next up was New Riders of the Purple Sage (, featuring long time members David Nelson and Buddy Cage. Here’s where I had my first “Ah this feels good” moment. The song was “Peggy-O”, an old traditional tune that I came to know through the Grateful Dead. I’ve loved hearing the Dead play it, and NRPS didn’t stray far from the Dead’s version – in fact it was pretty spot on. With the sun shining, and shades of Jerry Garcia’s guitar emanating from Nelson’s, it felt familiar and fulfilling – a really nice moment. Later in the set came a NRPS classic: the Peter Rowan-penned “Panama Red”.

Continuing down that road of seasoned veterans, Hot Tuna ( took the stage next. Formed as sort of a spin-off project of Jefferson Airplane in the late 60’s, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen have stayed together as Hot Tuna ever since. Highlights for me were “I Know You Rider” (right, a tune I also was introduced to by the Dead) and Merle Haggard’s “More Than My Old Guitar” – “I love my old guitar like God loves the poor / but I love you even more.” A sweet, happy number that put a smile on my face. And the kicker was “Operator”, from the Dead’s American Beauty album. Thanks to, you can check out the full set list here.

Headlining the evening was festival mainstay Michael Franti & Spearhead ( The last time I saw Spearhead I think was in the mid 90’s at Laguna Seca Daze in Monterey (or was it H.O.R.D.E.?). And I was immediately reminded why they shine in the festival setting. Franti is a magnetic personality who keeps the crowd involved with call & response and sing-alongs – and a lot of their tunes are just really good. I watched the show from the side of the stage on this cool VIP  platform. It was here that I came across…

The Gnome: I did tweet a few times from the festival with the hash/search tag of #mmmf. There were a few others doing the same. Up on the platform watching Franti & Spearhead was a man with a gnome. Harry the Beer Gnome, we quickly learned. Harry danced a little, took in the show, met a few people… and mid set, Harry was handed down to some people standing on the side of the stage. The idea was to get Harry to the front of the stage (he’s shared the stage with some acts over the years). So the people on stage took some pictures with Harry, danced around, and before you know it, they vanished – with gnome in tow!

Checking Twitter for the latest #mmmf tweets, I noticed this one: “My gnome has left the building.” I walked over to the gnome owner, showed him my iPhone, and said: “Is this you??” “Yes!” he laughed…. small world, huh? Just a few people Twittering at the festival, and we were standing right by each other. I offered my condolences for his lost gnome, and wished him luck in recovering it.

After Michael & Spearhead wrapped up, I walked back to the RV to join my sleeping wife and kiddos, and lay awake for a couple hours while the Red Bull component of the “few” Red Bull & Vodkas I had consumed worked its evil charm.

Saturday morning, the four of us were walking to the festival grounds on the path past the campground. Looking to my left, through a fence, and down a paved road that intersected the campground, I noticed a short figure with a pointy hat… the gnome!!

Excited, I called out to some nearby campers on the other side of the fence. “Hey man! Would you mind handing me that gnome? I know the guy who lost it last night!” The guy grabbed the gnome, walked over, and said, “Are you sure? Some guy in the tent next to us said it was his…” “Oh I’m sure,” I said “I was standing right next to the guy, he handed it down to a person on stage during Spearhead last night, and they took off.” So he handed the gnome over.

And into day 2 we went. I sent a message to Harry’s owner and assure him that Harry was in my possession and safe. A little later, I spotted him walking by. I flagged him down and proudly walked him over to our chairs, where Harry stood as stoic as ever. “There he is!”, I proclaimed.

“That’s not Harry.”

Yep, it turned out that more than one gnome had made the trip to McDowell Mountain. I mean, what are the odds? The reality hit me quick: I was now a gnome thief. Talking it over with Harry’s owner (Robert), he convinced me that it was pretty much fate that had brought me and my new (stolen) gnome together, and to start a story with the gnome. So, my gnome now stands guard out on my front patio. I may start a Facebook page for him. Harry has one, you know. And he has 212 friends, most of whom are gnomes scattered around the globe. Robert has updated his blog, reporting that he is currently in ransom negotiations with Harry’s captors. Good luck Robert! Godspeed in your journey, Harry.

Day 2: Back to Day 2 and the tunes.

Two local bands led off the day on the main stage. First up was Ten Dollar Outfit ( 11am. I’m sure some people really enjoyed it. For me, it married together two entities that I am not a fan of: James Taylor and light jazz. There were some okay moments – pleasant enough – but I always prefer a little bite in my tunes.

Random Karma ( was next (another local band). These guys played a pretty strong set of straight ahead rock. The highlight for me came with a cover though: the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. Their last tune was a CCR song, and naturally, I can’t recall which one.

1:15pm brought out the Young Dubliners ( Yes, a national act like the Young Dubs slotted in an early afternoon set. But that didn’t deter them. They came on about 15 minutes late, but launched right into things with their brand of L.A./Irish rock. Founder Keith Roberts and the boys drew from their original material, old and new (“Rosie”, from their new album Saints & Sinners, was a highlight); some old Irish standards; and even a Pogues cover: “If I Should Fall From Grace WIth God”.

It was their first gig of this year’s festival season, so Keith warned there may be a little rust. But no major flubs as far as I noticed. The festival Young Dubs were a fun band, and their 85 minute set was a great way to shift the afternoon to a higher gear. But I look forward to seeing them someday in a Guinness infused small club atmosphere – at night.

Indigenous ( up next. The focal point of the band is Mato Nanji, a Native American of South Dakota’s Nakota Nation, who loves him some Texas blues. In fact, closing your eyes at times, you’d swear that some of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s departed soul found its way into him. Some really impressive playing on the Fender Strat, and a husky, bluesy voice to match. Adding his own flair to the lineup – and always a favorite live instrument for me – was Hammond B3 player Jeremiah Weir. He laid down some tasty blasts of B3, bringing to mind at times a younger Gregg Allman.

New Jersey bluegrass jam band Railroad Earth [] (introduced by the straight-laced mayor of Scottsdale) then took the stage. There were a couple of highlights for me during their set: “Dandelion Wine”, and their beautiful finale of “My Sisters and Brothers”, one of my favorite Jerry Garcia Band tunes (written by a Charles Johnson in the year ??). All in all, a good live band. Other than “My Sisters and Brothers”, they did for me what Assembly of Dust did the day before – a pleasant band to take in, but nothing that really rocked my socks. Railroad Earth’s followers are called Hobos, and I’m sure they strongly disagree with me. But I guess no Hobo am I at this point.

Right when the band wrapped up, I grabbed the gang and zipped off to the Creamy Radio acoustic stage, where one of my favorite local bands was kicking off a 30 minute mini-set. The boys from Tempe’s What Laura Says ( were present, and they kicked off their set with one of my faves: “Get Better Soon” – a song that my 3 year old sings along to. The dreamy ballad “Waves” was also played among a few other tunes. We didn’t stick around for long, but it was nice to see these guys again. I really think they have something special, and you can count on me keeping you updated on their second album, which should be out this year.

So back we went to the main stage for some Hasidic Jewish hip-hop laden reggae! That’s right, Matisyahu (, his long black coat, his long beard, and two long tassels of hair were in the house. The set was only an hour long (less than any of the other afternoon acts, which I found curious), but you know he rocked it. He’s definitely a character, and has a lot to say. And he’s got some some fancy footwork too – jumping around in circles, hopping up on the PAs. I recognized a couple of his tunes – “King Without a Crown” and “Fire of Heaven/Altar of Earth”. He’s come a long way since his early years ‘shrooming at Phish shows.

The Flaming Lips ( And it all came to this. Since the announcement of Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips a few months ago, I and a lot of other folks had this pegged as the highlight of the weekend. I’d heard the stories about how thoroughly entertaining to the senses a Lips show was, and I was very much looking forward to experiencing it, finally. The band was about 30 minutes late to kick off their set, originally scheduled to start at 9. But with Matisyahu wrapping up at 8:45, there was no way a Flaming Lips show could come together in that amount of time.

But even watching the stage set up was amazing. A stage crew in orange uniforms and hard hats, and front man Wayne Coyne, ever a man of the people, there in his white suit, out on stage helping set up. By 9:30, the lights dimmed, and a large plastic bubble emerged on stage. Inside, Wayne Coyne. And the bubble began to roll across the stage out on to the waiting arms of the crowd. As colorful lights swirled, and the bubble made its way back to the stage, the real spectacle – the majesty – of the Flaming Lips stage show began as the band launched into “Race for the Prize”. Colorful streamers and confetti shot from the stage, balloons bounced, the circular background screen pulsed with strange visions, shapes, and images. And on each side of the stage appeared a large contingent of Teletubbies. Now, none of this is new to anyone who’s seen the Lips before. But for me, my wife, and my two girls, consider us entertained! Indeed, the real fun during “Race for the Prize” was watching the looks on my daughters’ faces. Eyes wide open, mouths agape… looks of genuine wonder. No fear or trepidation – just joy. It was so fun to watch…

The show was great. I mean, they even busted out “Purple Rain” – after Wayne intro’d the song by mentioning how Prince wouldn’t let them cover it for a Warner Brothers anniversary album. They stopped after the first verse/chorus and launched into their delightfully unique take on Madonna’s “Borderline”. For “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”, the Lips drummer donned a pink robot costume supplied by someone in the crowd. We heard “She Don’t Use Jelly”, “Lightning Strikes the Postman”, and the crowd pleasing “Do You Realize?” (soon to be the official state rock song of Oklahoma!) for the encore finale.

In thinking about the live Flaming Lips experience, I kept wondering if the music would hold its own, if it would still be a good live experience without the spectacle. Without the bullhorn that shoots out smoke; without the handheld gizmo that Wayne used to blow up a balloon the size of a small car; without the camera mounted on the microphone, pointing up for a mega-closeup of Wayne’s face on the giant screen behind him; without the Teletubbies and the smoke and the confetti and the streamers and the background screen…. Well, of course not. Because all of those things define the Flaming Lips. The weirdness and the quirkiness – and at the underbelly of it all, a tremendous sense of joy and positive feelings.

Life is short. Let’s celebrate it. That’s really the essence I took away from seeing the Flaming Lips, and a life motto that I like to think I live by.

Sitting outside the RV the next morning, having a cup of coffee with my wife, watching my two girls playing around, and Wayne the Gnome perched under the RV… well, I was reluctant to head back home. These are the moments – the events – that define my life. Spending time with those I love, with Music as the backdrop. I’ll cherish the vision of my two daughters watching “Race for the Prize” as long as I live. And I’ll make sure they don’t forget as well… memories are made of this.

Thanks McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Another great year…

One Comment

  • Greg White - Random Karma

    Thanks for the great MMMF review, and thanks for giving us a shout out! I posted your review on our website as well. If you are interested in tickets to our May 31st show with Robin Trower (Martini Ranch), let me know and I’ll send a couple your way. Thanks again! Cheers!

    Random Karma

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