Even as word of SXSW's cancellation reached the festivalgoers of downtown Phoenix, M3F fortunately went on from Friday, March 6, through Sunday, March 8. The eclectic lineup made for a groovy weekend, and Phoenix New Times was there to catch the headliners.
The news about SXSW seemed to be forgotten by the time Local Natives took the stage for their first local festival appearance since the Innings Festival in 2018. That's not so long ago in human years, but consider that singer Taylor Rice crowd-surfed that night. He didn't do that here. Maybe all those strange hands holding him aloft was a consideration, but more likely is that Rice recently became a dad, a first in the Local Natives camp.
He revealed this before launching into “When Am I Gonna Lose You.” Hearing this irresistible pop construction, with its solid Fleetwood Mac rhythm section, chill-down atmospherics, ethereal three-part harmonies, and Rice's yearning tenor, all you can think of is that these guys should be bigger. They are delivering the goods of what a perfect pop record should be, but its complete absence on Billboard's Hot 100 (it stands high on the U.S. rock and alternative charts) says more about the sad state of pop singles these days than it does about the band's targeting abilities. Serene Dominic
The young foursome LANY (pronounced LAY-NEE), led by singer Paul Jason Klein, deliver the kind of iHeartRadio adult alternative pop that appeal to the audiences of Ellie Goulding, John Mayer, and Halsey (all acts they have toured with). They seem to be connecting with a younger demographic, judging by the strong contingency of girls in the front rows. And when Klein pointed his mike in their direction, they dutifully inserted whatever line he wasn't singing but depending on what mic vocal effect filter was on.
After a few uptempo numbers that might have made a concerned Bruno Mars bolt up in his chair, things settled into a midtempo malaise. It felt like the band were lifting all of their beats from a Steve Winwood album. One song, "Made in Hollywood," even referenced "Michael Jackson so loud on my radio," which made you think it was a piece from a time that was less woke. Serene Dominic
LANY were the perfect primer for watching their polar opposite, Bon Iver.
Even some 15 years on, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon's back story is still a compelling one: Guy breaks up with his girlfriend and band around the same time. To deal with the ensuing loss of identity (and a hepatitis diagnosis), he holes himself up in his dad's cabin in Wisconsin to come up with For Emma, Forever Ago. The album garners him universal praise.
How do you build on that mystique? If you're an isolationist, you submerge yourself in electronics and express the inner workings of your heart through digital glitches, vocoder, and pitch controllers like Steven Hawking. Looking at Vernon on a stage full of musicians surrounded by geometrical neon triangles like something out of Tron, you can't help be pulled into Vernon's unique world of the alone.
In a festival first, the stage cameras never showed Vernon or anyone in his band up close. The video feed represented what the stage looked like from 100 feet away. Maybe that was a way of drawing the audience nearer. And it worked.
"We played a lot of new stuff tonight, sorry," Vernon said, with the set weighing heavily with songs from the last two albums. No one seemed to mind. For one cool near-perfect night, the fear of a pandemic, or even the fear you may never find someone in life who will care enough about you to drive you to the emergency room were quarantined elsewhere, didn't matter. Serene Dominic
The Saturday night undercard was strong, and with the full moon in the sky and an energetic set by Generationals, hopes seemed high for the California band The Growlers to keep the momentum going.
“Ask me how I am. I earned it,” Brooks Nielsen said to the audience a few songs into the group's set on the Kerouac stage. It was hard to determine what exactly the singer deserved from the audience, aside from a few yawns. It was the equivalent of watching The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" video in super slow motion (you know, the one where Mick Jagger struts around the studio), except there was less peacocking from the "beach-goth" band. Nielsen told a story about breaking his leg jumping off the stage, and it seemed like for a moment he considered doing it. Then he changed his mind and said he'd rather write a song about it instead. It was a missed opportunity to turn a snoozer of a set around. Jason Keil
Festivalgoers started to head over to the Kesey Stage to see Sofi Tukker before The Growlers finished their set, and with the elaborately decorated stage that resembled the lair of Batman villain Poison Ivy, they knew they were in for an experience before the duo even took the stage. The ground shook and the audience moved as soon as Sophie Hawley-Weld played the first note on her guitar.
Speaking of fractured appendages, Tucker Halpern explained that the band almost didn't take the stage that night because Hawley-Weld may have reaggravated a foot injury, which inspired the track "Emergency," that happened last year. Considering the amount of energy she brought to the show, you'd never know she was sidelined for several months, even after an impromptu game of "Simon Says" with the audience. The twosome were equal parts conversation and action, and the fast-paced theatrical jolt the festival needed. Jason Keil
RÜFÜS DU SOL
One of the best things about M3F Fest is that you can walk 50 feet and discover new music, but it still seemed odd for the nonprofit event to put RÜFÜS DU SOL on the top of the Saturday night bill. The indie dance trio came out of nowhere (actually, they came from Australia), but they proved why they were Down Under's best-kept secret for a decade.
The band laid down some fresh grooves and emotional lyrics (courtesy of singer Tyrone Lindqvist) against the backdrop of a blinding laser light show. It's not a competition, but it was surprising to see the sparse crowd during somewhat established soul singer Mayer Hawthorne's set, even as he was crooning a song about taking mushrooms at Disneyland. But you can't deny the fresh energy RÜFÜS DU SOL brought to Arizona. Jason Keil