I’ll admit, my first feeling was of disappointment when I found out a few months back that the 7th McDowell Mountain Music Festival was scaling down – from the spacious polo field of Scottsdale’s Westworld to the parking lot adjacent to the Compound Grill. But my feelings quickly changed to ones of thankfulness and support toward a genuinely good group of people who were determined not to fold it up and call it quits in these tough economic times.
After spending most of Saturday and all of Sunday at the festival, it was clear to me that not only had the festival organizers pulled it off, but they had created a very special and intimate experience for everyone involved. By scaling down the event and bringing everyone and everything closer together, it actually helped enhance the experience. I couldn’t help but feel a stronger sense of community than years past. By the end of the weekend, there were familiar and friendly faces everywhere I looked. And of course, the cozy atmosphere also brought us all closer to the great music.
There was no hot black asphalt to be found within the festival. Fresh green sod had been laid end to end, side to side. The food tent featured a delicious and unique menu provided by the adjoining Compound Grill – delicious turkey burgers, Korean BBQ tacos (teeny-tiny, but delicious), chicken & rice bowls, burritos, and churros with Prickly Pear Jam (a favorite of both my daughters). The beer tent featured about a dozen microbrews – New Belgium brews, Abita, Flying Dog, and others. There were vendors and crafts for the kids…
And the Compound Grill itself was certainly part of the festival. During the day, it offered cool and relaxing respite from the heat, with local bands taking the stage, and drum circles rocking out (I rocked the tambourine for a spell). At night, it offered bonus late shows by Assembly of Dust (Friday) and Steve Kimock & Crazy Engine (Saturday) – both which started at 11 and played till around 2am. The Compound is brand new (less than 6 months old), has killer food, and a focus on being a quality live music venue. I love the joint, and just wish it was closer to my house so I could drop in more often (it’s about 40 minutes up the road).
So let’s get to the music. Like I mentioned, I missed Friday’s lineup featuring John Brown’s Body, Toubab Krewe, Ruthie Foster, and Assembly of Dust. I didn’t arrive until Saturday during Ryan Shaw’s set (5-6pm). New to me this time was having the luxury of a photographer in tow – Owen W. Brown. It was nice to not have to rely on my subpar point and click skills, and let a pro do the work. All of these photos were taken by Owen, and I recommend checking out his Flickr set of the festival for some great shots.
We strolled into the cool environs of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival at about 5:45pm, catching the tail end of R&B/soul man Ryan Shaw‘s set. Still only 29 years old, he’s got a long road ahead of him with a voice like that. His spotless falsetto shone on an extended take of MJ’s ‘Man in the Mirror”. Interesting factoid: he opened a bunch of dates for Van Halen on their 2007-2008 tour. I don’t get the connection there, but I like it!
“Somebody shoot that thang!” If you’ve ever seen Clarksdale, Mississippi’s James “Super Chikan” Johnson do his thing, you’re very familiar with this phrase – he yells it after every song he plays. I hadn’t heard of Super Chikan before he was announced at this festival, but believe me, Super Chikan hath made a mighty impression on this music lover.
Super Chikan is a bluesman from the the crossroads, and he brought along a smoking band – the Fighting Cocks – made up entirely of women, ironically: bass, drums (his daughter), and “Lala” on keys (check that super intense moment below). Uptempo blues ruled the set, from “Hookin’ Up” to “Shoot that Thang” to countless others that I can’t recall because I was too busy shakin’ my chikan feathers. It was intense, good-humored blues.
Super Chikan custom crafts his own guitars too. Featured prominently were his axe-shaped “diddley bow” – made up of only a few strings raised more than an inch from the board, and played with a slide; and his pimped out banjo-looking Guijo Silver Dollar.
Pedal steel whiz Robert Randolph & his Family Band made its return to the MMMF after a year away. Here’s a band that – while I’m not blown away by their live show – is always consistent and enjoyable. You’ll get their set list staples like “Summertime”, “I Need More Love” (with a cool MJ “Don’t Stop Till Ya Get Enough” interlude), and some Hendrix pedal steel action. It’s funk, it’s jam, it’s rock n’ roll… RR doesn’t disappoint. And as you see below, some of the ladies in the crowd got into the action too.
After Randolph’s set, it was time to head into the Compound Grill for the late show with Steve Kimock and Crazy Engine. This show (and Assembly of Dust the night before) wasn’t part of the paid admission to the festival, so there were lots of people scrambling around for tickets prior to the show.
I’m not familiar at all with Kimock’s work (won’t pretend to be), but I was able to appreciate some mega talented musicianship. Holy wow. Led by Kimock on guitar (electric and steel), the band tore into the time/space continuum with some long, intense improvisation. Melvin Seals, formerly of the Jerry Garcia Band, was there to lay down some tasty keys. And then there was Steve’s son, John Morgan Kimock – at a very young looking 20 years old – absolutely tearing up the drum kit. I mean, he was an absolute monster – perfectly zoned into his dad, providing the crash boom bangs and the timely fills. Yeah, music runs in the family.
That did it for Saturday – I actually didn’t make it through the full Kimock show. I was wiped, and there was another day coming – this time with the family.
We made it up to catch the opening act for Sunday – local blues powerhouse the Sugar Thieves. This was their third time playing the festival – each as a day opener. Okay, they’ve paid their dues – time to bump ’em up a notch. The two lead players in the band – Mikel Lander and Meridith Moore – have two of the best voices in town. Mikel’s old timey growl brings to mind Tom Waits; and Meridith’s voice is teeming with pure soul power. You can catch the Thieves every Wednesday at Tempe’s Sail Inn. Oh, and shout out to sax player Shea Marshall – homeboy is his own horn section, playing two saxes at the same time.
Next up was Black Carl – another Tempe band that dips into funk, soul and blues. Singer Emma Pew joins Meridith as another of the best voices I’ve heard in town. Cool originals, as well as a solid cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”, and a nice tribute to Odetta.
This was my first time seeing New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and his tight band Orleans Avenue. His latest record, Backatown, just came out on April 20th, so we got a healthy dose of songs from it: “Hurricane Avenue”, “On Your Way Down”, and “Something Beautiful” (featuring Lenny Kravitz on the album). But as the first weekend of Jazz Fest got underway in New Orleans this same weekend, it sure was nice to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In” – a song that my two daughters also love. A song of joy, faith, and celebration. It really made the afternoon for me.
Then it was time for the “daughter of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival,” Grace Potter, with her band the Nocturnals. Grace is riding high since her first appearances at the festival – with a new album due in July and a nice little feature recently in Rolling Stone magazine. And have you seen some of the artwork for her new album? Oh my…
If you’ve never seen Grace perform, you’re missing out. A golden voice, moving between her Hammond B3 and her flying-V guitar – all with that sex kitten swagger. Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? Show me a sexier performer in the jam scene. Ya can’t.
Some old favorites were played: “Nothing But The Water”, Sweet Hands”, “Ah Mary”. As well as some newer ones: “Goodbye Kiss”, “Tiny Light” and their cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. If anyone can track down a set list, or tell me what song followed “Goodbye Kiss”, I’d be grateful. It was a keeper, and I can’t find it anywhere (or remember the lyrics). I’ll know it when I hear it again.
It was a nice, fitting ending to a great weekend. As scaled down as it was, it sure didn’t detract from the vibe. And I’m sure the artists felt the same way. I like the way one of the members of Grace Potter’s forum put it, in the spirit of Joni Mitchell: “They sodded a PARKING LOT and put up PARADISE!”
It truly was a special weekend. You know you’ve had a good time when you get those bittersweet pangs as you leave something good behind – and that happened on my drive home. I already can’t wait till next year – and though I would love to see MMMF return triumphantly to Westworld – I’ll be just as excited about another weekend in a sodded parking lot next to the Compound Grill.
PHOTOS: See all of Owen Brown’s photos from the Festival.