This year's McDowell Mountain Festival went off like a weekend in the park, and we mean that both figuratively and literally. Perched upon the green grass of Margaret T. Hance Park, the three-day concert fest seemingly took place without a hitch and happened to feature gorgeous weather and a lot of memorable gigs on both of its stages.
Although MMMF has gotten some competition from other local festivals in recent years, like from True Music and Apache Lake music festivals, it manages to carve out its own identity and stand on its own.
Well, TMF can go ahead and attempt to be the Valley's Coachella, because MMMF has always been Metro Phoenix's homegrown Bonnaroo. As with the 10 previous years of MMMF, the offerings at its 11th edition were diverse.
While some scoffed at this year's lineup for lacking acts with the mainstream appeal, McDowell stuck to their groovy roots and jam band leanings by bringing in headliners who are commercially successful (Grammy winners Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper), uniquely iconic (Dwight Yoakam), or just bound for stardom (West Water Outlaws, Allen Stone), as well as those who stalwart jam bands like The Disco Biscuits and STS9.
It was an eclectic weekend full of quality music that left a more than 4,000 in attendance heading home satisfied and smiling. The weekend provided many, including ourselves with a musical education, so here is what we learned at McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014.
10. The Music Never Stops for The Disco Biscuits
The Philadelphia-based EDM jam band have the stamina of a Kenyan marathon runner during their set, especially drummer Allen Aucoin, and keyboard player Aron Magner. The super-trippy quintet played the Saturday headliner slot and had everyone from the EDM candy kids to the original Deadheads dancing and shimmying to the groove. Add the light show and the event became like an acid trip on its own.
Having the Disco Biscuits rock the headliner set where The Roots were last year is a clear statement that MMMF is and always will be a jam-band-centric festival. Good on them for it to because not everything needs to be the hip new thing. The Disco Biscuits have been providing fans of jam bands with interstellar traveler quality music for nearly 20 years, and it's great that McDowell can attract top tier jam bands like them.
9. Jam Band Fans Really Like EDM
Obviously, The Disco Biscuits set was well-liked and well-attended, but one that caught us by surprise was Gramatik. Not only did he draw a ton of obvious raver-type EDM kids, but he had the grandparent aged tie dye clad, straw hat wearing crowd dancing along as well.
If you were not aware EDM has become a legitimate music genre,one that even encompases a bunch of sub genres. WIth it becoming a legitimate genre, it is also starting to entice fans who are not part of the EDM bubble. With the repetition and grooves of most electronic-infused acts it seems like a no-brainer that deadhead types would be attracted to that brand of music.
I always considered Pretty Lights an electronic jam band anyway.
8. Jam Bands Are an Acquired Taste, That, Once Acquired, Become Truly Beautiful
Of course, it's great to listen to punchy bands with an aggressive style and well-structured songs, but with brevity it's easy to miss things. With jam bands, the sets and songs are usually really long, which allowing for a better relaxation-to-participation ratio. The two-hour sets make it so patrons can get up close and dance when the feeling calls them or hang back with friends on a blanket without ever missing anything important.
The overwhelmingly social festival also made it easy for festivalgoers to leave their stuff for hours at a time without it being bothered. At a festival where everyone has the time to share a greeting and enjoy the music, who wants to steal from someone they may be sharing a drink (or something stronger) later in the evening. Speaking of which . . .
7. The Beer REALLY Matters
There is just such a difference in paying $6 to refill a sturdy souvenir cup with quality craft beer instead of paying $10.50 for PBR. Being able to sip on something during the show that tastes good rather than cheap swill was really a delight. Add the friendly bartenders at the three Deschutes booths and the beer was almost a headliner.
If you think a good beer can't accentuate a great show, then you've never sat back with a River Ale on a spring afternoon and listened to G. Love and Special Sauce lay down funky blues hip-hop jams. Deschutes brewery is definitely another act I hope comes back for MMMF 2015.
6. The festival campgrounds were not that bad.
Looking at it from the outside in, as a resident of downtown Phoenix, hearing that MMMF was charging people to camp in vacant lots around the festival sounded egregious. But through conversations with several of the festivals campers the camp grounds really sounded okay.
There were communal vibes, and they kept the party going as late as they could stay awake. The campgrounds even attracted patrons from as far away as Wisconsin and Michigan. As someone who lives with walking distance of the festival, I probably won't be camping at MMMF next year. But it's nice to know that those who come in from far away are being taken care of and get a spot to lay their weary heads for a C-note.
I had never seen Spafford before their Friday night headlining set on the local stage, and man do they have a great sound. The four-piece Tempe jam band puts on a killer show that is heavy enough to be rock but is still very jammy. It's not surprising that a band that plays regularly at the Sail Inn killed with the MMMF crowd, but it is still always pleasant to encounter a new local band.
If I were picking next year's locals for the Main Stage, I think Spafford would be number three, right behind Black Bottom Lighters and The Hourglass Cats. If there's one local band that definitely gets what MMMF is all about, it definitely is Spafford.
4. Desert Reggae Rules the Local Scene
Most of the local performers tapped for MMMF 2014 brought their "A" game to the festival, but local reggae veterans The Hourglass Cats and Black Bottom Lighters shined the brightest. BBL brings a more smooth style of irie jams to the stage, and THC has a more rock 'n' roll sound with a hint of a Latin vibe, but both styles of reggae were a hit with the MMMF crowd.
During The Hourglass Cats' set on Saturday, I overheard more than half a dozen fans inquire as to why they were not rocking out on the main stage and express hopes that next year the reggae rockers with the aggressive garage rock sound would be gracing the larger field. They sounded as tight as ever, even though they were breaking in a new drummer, Johnny Groove (formerly of the VeraGroove), and the large sound system really accentuated Cori Rios' blazing guitar solos.
Black Bottom Lighters played the same day but four hours later and made the most of a great situation headlining the local stage on the fest's biggest day. Their always exuberant frontman Ryan Stilwell was in noticeably high spirits, spending almost the entire set with a huge smile on his face. The band did not miss a beat the whole set, which is really saying something because drummer Ryan McPhadder was playing with one arm because the other one was injured in a recent car accident. The drummer braced his arm and persevered and played one of the boomiest sets of his career.
Supposedly, the three best local stage performers are given a spot on the main stage. If that's so, check off two spots for desert reggae.
3. Dwight Yoakam Is a True Rhinestone Cowboy
I'm not what one would call a country buff. I like some Johnny Cash, love some Stewart Stephens, and can appreciate a few other acts. Which is why I was plum surprised to see Dwight Yoakam, a man Cash once called his favorite country singer, up on stage with two band members in rhinestone jackets. I thought Yoakam would be the more gritty side of country.
But the legend pulled a huge country-loving crowd, and it was fun to see the over-40 section getting really into the show. He was a great fit in bewteen G.Love and Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite.
2. STS9 Can Literally Make a Chilly Night Warmer
I don't know if they had super-hot stage lights, warmers in the crowd, or maybe they are just pure magic. But Sound Tribe's set seemed to literally make the venue feel warmer. Their tunes are like taking a futuristic journey into the sun that had the whole crowd rolling whether they were on drugs or not.
Their set encompassed huge waves of sound that at points were overwhelming, at points was soft and soothing. But was dancy and jammy all throughout. The Tribe is another clear example of the festival making a statement that they are and will always be the Valley's premier jam band event.
1. What STS9 Did for Making the Festival Warmer, Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper Did for Making It Cooler.
The silky-smooth duo and their backing band brought the most pure blues to the festival on either stage. You've got to be a cool cat to play the blues and Harper and Musselwhite are two of the coolest. Their set, which had a very solid turn out, was mostly comprised of tracks off their recent grammy award winning album. Although the two legendary musicians did play their own solo stuff a well.
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Their set was a lot like the other side of the pillow, which might be a good way to sum up the entire festival. Lat year MMMF heated things up with some mainstream headliners. THen this year they chilled things back down with traditional jam band favorites.