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.
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). But 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…