For my money, McDowell Mountain Music Festival — taking place Friday, March 11, through Sunday, March 13 — is the best festival in the Valley by far. The first festival I ever went to was Bonnaroo 2011, and those four days changed my entire life, and while 3MF is a far cry from the farm, there really is a fun communal festival vibe to the whole show. Plus, most of McDowell's biggest acts are usually Bonnaroo veterans.
I began going only after the fest moved to Margaret T. Hance Park in 2013. It's been amazing to watch the festival come out with a different flavor every year and really grow its reach into the community and into the pool of bonafide festival headliners. This year, it seems organizers put a lot of effort into cultivating their biggest and, hands down, most eclectic local stage to date.
Naturally, having acts like Beck, Kid Cudi, Animal Collective, and The Avett Brothers on the top of a lineup isn't exactly a step back. The inclusion of 16 local bands, all of whom are either playing on the main stage or the newly minted second stage (replacing the local stage), is a big step for MMMF.
The Haymarket Squares, The Senators, Luna Aura, Fairy Bones, Harper and the Moths, Carlos Arzate and the Kind Souls, CooBee Coo, Captain Squeegee, Gus Campbell, Mr. Mudd and Mr, Gold, Sister Lip, Wyves, Endoplasmic, Taylor Upsahl, Ruca, and Huckleberry will represent Phoenix on both of the festival's stages, and while they are all amazing in their own right, here are the eight can't-miss sets of the MMMF local section.
The Haymarket Squares
The Haymarket Squares' debut album was called Punkgrass for the People, and one of McDowell Mountain Music Festival's old mottos was "Party for the People." If this was not a match made in jamband festival heaven I don't know what is. I've been chirping for three years about MMMF inviting The Squares to be on the main stage, and finally I feel vindicated in my fervor as this year the Festival has finally decided to see
Basically the only thing that makes The Haymarket Squares a better fit for McDowell Mountain Music Festival than Captain Squeegee is the proximity in which the band members live to Margaret T. Hance Park. Though the bands make totally different sounds they are possibly the cream of the crop for Valley-based bands at MMMF 2016. Captain Squeegee is more than just a jam band; they are an instrumental cosmic journey. With a stage and sound system the size of MMMF's, they are going to be positively interstellar. Even with a slot at 4:30 p.m. on Friday there is no doubt that frontman Danny Torgersen and his cohorts will find a way to stand out from the pack of other performers on the festival's opening day.
Gus Campbell also is returning to Hance Park in 2016 for his second date at McDowell Mountain Music Festival, and with another of year of seasoning, there is no doubt that the 18-year-old wunderkind is going to be noticeably better. He captured a coveted MMMF local spot in 2015 at the tender age of 17. Now he's old enough to vote but still not more than a pup in the eyes of the Phoenix music scene. Festival Sundays are meant for relaxing music and blankets laid out on the grass, and Gus Campbell makes the right kind of sound to open that kind of day at noon on the main stage.
Fairy Bones is Phoenix's reigning Best Local Band so it only makes sense that the synth-punk four-piece would be making its way onto Phoenix's best local festival. The band's style of music may not jibe with the other acts playing the fest, but powerful, danceable tunes usually go a long way, no matter where they are being played. This is Fairy Bones' first go-round with MMMF, and they are definitely going to want to show out to net themselves a spot on the big stage in 2017. Fairy Bones will hit the second stage at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold
Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold are Americana gold. The twangy two-piece brings as much energy and passion to their performances as any full band in Phoenix. Lead singer and guitarist Tyler Mattock is one of the most singularly electric performers in the Valley right now, and banjo player Jesse Grey may just be the absolute best at his instrument in the entire Phoenix scene. They bring a similar sound to The Haymarket Squares only with a far less modern edge and none of the vocal harmonies. It's just gritty-sounding folk music made by two guys who really make it feel authentic. This will be Mr, Mudd and Mr. Gold's first official go-round with MMMF. Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold will be hitting the second stage at 4 p.m. on Friday.
Harper and the Moths
Harper and the Moths is one of those bands that just seemed to burst onto the Phoenix scene with no warning. One day they didn't exist, and the next they were already becoming a perennial local headliner. They produce a style of rock 'n' roll not too dissimilar from fellow local MMMF act Wyves but with a much heartier pop infusion. Harper and the Moths have so much zing to their rock/pop mix that on their first go-round with McDowell they are going to be opening the mainstage festivities on Saturday at 12:45 p.m.
Sister Lip recently had to replace a member many would have thought irreplaceable: drummer Ariel Monet. But while their former colleague is gallivanting across the country in Snailmate, the other three Lips have been training new drummer Tameira Shepherd. Their debut show was at Apache Lake Music Festival, and they also made room for a date with Wyves and their early February album release show. With a couple big shows under their belt and tons of time to practice, there is no doubt the four gorgeous ladies of the Lip will be ready to hit their stride and get back on track playing all the Valley's biggest shows once again. They were a promotional dynamo for MMMF last year, and with a bigger stage to play with this time, they will definitely be looking to do better than ever. Sister Lip will rock the acoustic stage at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
MMMF may be best known for being a jam-band festival, but that doesn't mean there isn't a hefty dose of rock. This year, Wyves is one of the bands serving up the doses. It's no mystery as to how Wyves was able to put such a huge footprint on the local scene so quickly. Not only has each individual member already built himself a solid following, but they are also four talented music makers who like each other and go well together. It is not even a question whether or not Corey Gloden is going to want to impress with his first frontman gig at MMMF. Wyves will be playing the acoustic stage at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
The Senators will be on the main stage at 12:45 p.m. on Sunday. Luna Aura is playing at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday. CooBee Coo is playing the main stage at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Huckleberry is on the second stage at 4 p.m. on Sunday. Ruca is playing on the second stage at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. Taylor Upsahl takes the second stage at 5 p.m. on Friday. Carlos Arzate & the Kind Souls are on the acoustic stage 5 p.m. Saturday, and Endoplasmic goes on the acoustic stage at 2 p.m. on Sunday.