And just like that, we're in the thick of festival season in the Valley of the Sun.
McDowell Mountain Music Festival kicked off the festivities this year, and three days of indie rock, electronica, and jam bands wrapped up with Gov't Mule's set Sunday night.
We were there all three nights of the festival. Here are the best and worst things we saw at McDowell Mountain Music Festival this year.
Best Way To Make An Entrance
When electronic music impresario Flume took the stage at 9:45 to close out the night, he did it with a sense of drama and showmanship that was sorely missing during the rest of the fest. Before he played a single note, a huge black curtain was dropped in front of the stage. The press got ushered in to the front, where we waited for the dark sheet to drop. Adding to the tension of the wait was the unusually large detachment of security guards and cops lining the front of the stage (neither of whom were out in such large numbers earlier in the fest). As he started playing, the curtain stayed up for the first few minutes, rippling and twisting in the night air. A few stray blue beams of light shot through the curtain, silhouetting Flume at work behind the black wall. And then, as soon as the first big drop hit, the curtain was pulled down, revealing Flume standing behind a set of glowing light-up cubes.
One other thing that stood out from Flume's entrance was the sheer, bone-rattling loudness of his music. The first few notes he hit detonated nearby car alarms, their obnoxious shrieks adding another layer of sound to his set like he was sampling a vintage Bomb Squad production. Flume's music was the perfect way to end the night. He conjured rich, sensual sounds onstage that you could sink into and roll around in, like silk sheets on a waterbed.
Best Way to be Different
There isn't really much of a jam band scene in Phoenix, which is one of the ways McDowell Mountain Music Festival stands out in a crowded festival scene. By bringing names like Widespread Panic, Railroad Earth, Galactic, STS9, Yonder Mountain String Band, and others year after year, the festival has really solidified its reputation as the only place displaced Phoenix jam-band fans can congregate. The festival attracts a hippie crowd like no other music event in Phoenix, with all the hula-hoop dancing and tie-dye that entails.
Best Reason To Go VIP
If you've ever wondered if it's worth it to spend extra dinero to get VIP tickets, keep this in mind. The average wait time for using one of the port-a-potties in the general admission section was about a half-hour. Seeing lines that stretched 40 people deep was a regular sight throughout the day and night. On the VIP side, the average wait to use the bathroom was about 30 seconds.
There were also chairs strewn all over the place in the VIP section. I'm normally not a fan of sitting down while listening to live music, but I became a true believer after I had a few overpriced, sickly-sweet mixed drinks and my legs turned into rubber. The VIP section also had a tall wooden deck that loomed above the stage and festival grounds. It was called the poser deck, which is hilarious on so many levels, especially considering the clusters of dopey college students and Scottsdale MILFs and spray-tanned doctors taking Snaps and IG pics up there.
Best Karaoke Band
Seeing Chromeo live is an interesting experience. Their music is hard-wired for these kind of settings: booming, dance-y, fun, and a little goofy. They've got the interesting stage setup thing down pat, with a smoke machine, tall mirrored columns standing behind them, and their iconic lady legs holding their synths up. And yet their actual performance feels weird. It's like watching Chromeo do Chromeo karaoke. Guitars hang around their shoulders, more ornamental than instrumental. It was hard to tell what was being played live and what was prerecorded. They sounded note-for-note like their records. It was a kind of chilly perfection that sounded out of place in a live setting. That didn't stop me from dancing to it, though.
Worst Part Of Wandering Around The Festival
I lost count of the number of times I almost got smacked in the dome by flying cornhole bean bags, whirling hula hoops, and Frisbees. To be fair: I was tipsy for a good portion of the day, so my ability to sense aerial threats to my dome-piece was greatly reduced. I was also distracted by gawking: MMMF is great for people-watching. It's an almost bewildering mix of demographics: pink-fur-vest-wearing club kids, hooting college bros, Scottsdale dentists, hippies, Juggalos, rap fans, yoga moms in leopard-print leggings, even a few punks. When it comes to being exposed to a dizzying array of bare midriffs, cleavage, and blue and red mohawk wigs, MMMF was the place to be.
Worst Dad Joke
I lost count of the number of times I heard somebody crack a "I can't wait for DJ Tanner's set" joke during DJ Mustard's radio rap booming set. It was amazing, hearing more than 20 different self-satisfied schmucks all making the same joke and guffawing to themselves like Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor. Piece of advice, all you aspiring comics out there – if you've got a DJ Tanner joke in your set, drop it ASAP before the rest of your routine becomes infected by the dreaded Dad Joke Syndrome.
Worst Human Being
The award for worst human being goes to the backward-hat wearing bro in the VIP section who started off a conversation in the drink line with, "Knowing myself as an alpha male..." Few people in life are more lamentable and loathsome than dudes who unironically bloviate about being an alpha male. Every time I hear them start going on about their alpha-ness, I pray to God that a silverback gorilla will burst into the room and challenge them for dominance. "Damn, homey! Gronk is calling you out, son. You going to take that shit?"
Best Rock 'N' Roll
There's not a ton of traditional, blues-based rock on the MMMF lineup this year, but the sole exception was the Record Company, and boy, did that group pull its weight. The group is a bare-bones rock trio — featuring guitarist/vocalist Chris Vos, bassist Alex Stiff, and drummer Marc Cazorla — but each member works their instruments to their fullest potential, making for a full sound that retains its bluesy soulfulness. Vos played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, lap steel, and harmonica throughout the band's set, and Stiff laid down some incredibly dexterous bass lines that showed off a rhythmic mastery without sacrificing groove. The group also covered the Beastie Boys' track "So What Cha Want," turning the iconic guitar solo into a bluesy wail.
Grouplove's Hannah Hooper rocked a leopard-print unitard and a black leather belt. 'Nuff said.
Worst Concert Ettiquete
Hey guys, repeated, prolonged exposure to loud noises can lead to tinnitus, an incurable buzzing in the eardrums that can literally drive people crazy. Just ask William Shatner — the actor has said that his tinnitus drove him to the point of suicide and was a contributing factor in his divorce from his second wife. So when someone is standing close enough to the stage that the bass rattles your rib cage, don't make fun of the goofy earplugs they're wearing. They're just trying to prevent any further bludgeoning to their poor rock 'n' roll-exposed ears. Better yet, don't demand they do so, because that's a. super fucking rude and b. the ethical equivalent of peer-pressuring someone into trying meth for the first time, or letting your friend drive drunk because you don't want to pay for a cab.
Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes lent some of his virtuoso ability to Railroad Earth during the jam band's set on Sunday. He crushed it, in typical Haynes fashion, and he seemed as at ease on stage with Railroad Earth as he does with Gov't Mule. I was a little disappointed that Haynes didn't hop on stage with Lettuce, as I saw the Lettuce guitarist step in at a Gov't Mule show at Red Rocks in Colorado, and the guitarists' onstage chemistry was spectacular.
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Best Local Guitar Hero
At the risk of repeating ourselves, Wyves guitarist Nick Sterling can really shred. He's a pleasure to watch live, as he makes pyrotechnic soloing look completely effortless. The whole band probably gained some new fans after their tight, energetic performance Sunday night. Way to make the most of an opportunity.
Best Drum Solo
Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch has chops galore. He's limited only by his imagination. When he gave a drum solo during Lettuce's McDowell Mountain Music Festival performance, the crowd ate it up. All the members of Lettuce are highly skilled musicians, but Deitch made the most of his brief time in the spotlight.