Hometown Heroes and Rookie Rockers at Tempe Music Festival

By: Sarah Ventre

The Tempe Music Festival is just like any other institution, building, group, or development in Phoenix: it wants to grow and expand. It wants to become bigger, better, flashier, and more exciting than anything before it…even if there was nothing before it. Every year the college town’s music-based extravaganza grows to include new audiences, and bigger markets.

Click here to see shots from the festival in a slide show we call: Hometown Heroes

This year more than ever before, the festival sought to showcase local bands making the event truly reflective of Tempe. Inviting a few legendary hometown heroes to play didn’t hurt either. The most exciting headliner was, of course, the long awaited return of the Meat Puppets. Though they haven’t played here for well over a decade the Meat Puppets did nothing less than awe the crowd. After all of the talk about bassist Cris Kirkwood’s previous heroine addiction, confrontation with a police officer which resulted in him getting shot and his subsequent arrest and prison time, Puppets’ fans are incredibly grateful that Cris is alive and well.

What’s perhaps ever more remarkable is that Cris and brother Curt (Meat Puppets’ front man) are reunited, and making exciting music once again. Just last year they released a new album called, “Rise to Your Knees.”

While the band has garnered support since the early ‘80s, there is something to be said for their current cohesion. One cannot help but feel that somehow after all these years and struggle the band has found a closeness that is reflected in their performance. The country punk gods play with a new found level of technicality. Spot on harmonies are paired with complex guitar riffs. This in combination with impeccable timing from the bass, and relentless yet not over the top drums by newest member Ted Marcus creates an intricate sound that comes from the punk tradition and also remains distinctly Arizonan.

Another homecoming at the festival was that of the Gin Blossoms. While the crowds here will follow them down as far as they can, Phoenicians only get the opportunity to experience the band in their entirety about once a year at Tempe Music Festival.

They played material off of their newest album “Major Lodge Victory,” but the crowd just couldn’t get enough of their classics. Since they came up in downtown Tempe, playing at places like Long Wong’s and Chuy’s, there’s a certain sense of hometown pride when they come back. Watching them against the backdrop of the lit up Mill Ave. bridge is a nostalgic reminder of their roots which they’ve never once denied.

Lead singer Robin Wilson made a point of mentioning that guitarist Jesse Valenzuela is from Scottsdale, bassist Bill Leen is from Apache Junction and guitarist Scotty Johnson is an SCC grad. Wilson grew up in Tempe.

At one point towards the end of the show, Wilson came out onto the catwalk, held the microphone out to the adoring fans, and said, “Do you hear this? It’s the sound of Tempe, Arizona.”

Perhaps even more touching was Wilson’s preface to the song “Hey Jealousy” nearing the close of their performance. Wilson declared that the song would be dedicated to the following people and then promptly named a two-page list of bands that helped form and shape what we recognize as Arizona music. The list spanned decades of bands, and included some of the more famous names like Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers while also mentioning some more obscure ones like Sugar High and Fish Karma.

For many people that moment was one of the highlights of the whole weekend. It was a recognition of what shaped our state and ultimately us. At the end of the list came the name of the late Doug Hopkins who founded the Gin Blossoms. Wilson let loose a resounding, “Welcome home” to recognize Hopkins.

There were many younger bands on the emerging artists stage and even a couple on the main stage that represent the next generation of Phoenix music. The festival was a homecoming for many of these smaller groups as well as many of them had just returned from SXSW. Dear and the Headlights who played Friday on the main stage are about to embark on tour with the Paramore and the valley’s own Jimmy Eat World.

Peachcake rocked the emerging artists stage with their elaborate performance and trash can full of props. While their music may not be remarkable on its own, their live show gets hipster kids dancing and jumping like no other. They not only blur, but completely destroy the line between performer and audience by making everyone a participant in the show.

Amidst the swelling pride the crowd displayed for Arizonan rock, one baffling artist stuck out like a sore them: Ms. Fergalicious.

The question of why Fergie was booked on a bill made up entirely of rock bands was on the lips of attendees far and wide. Nineties rock bands Cowboy Mouth and Eve 6, country punk icons the Meat Puppets, jangle alternative pop rock Tempeans, the Gin Blossoms and Fergie?

In typical Phoenix fashion, the festival hopes to expand to an even more massive event covering two miles of ground. While everyone is excited about the opportunity for more bands to gain exposure we hope that it can be done without any more added commercialism. The Dillard’s sponsored rock ‘n’ roll fashion show right before the Meat Puppets hit the stage was a bit more than many of us could stomach.

All in all though the event brought in big crowds and loads of local bands. The festival seems to get a little bit cooler every year earning a well-deserved spot in the spring concert lineup. Rock on.

Personal Bias: The lineup should've been a little more cohesive and less choppy. The Puppets should've gotten a better time slot and if Tempe Music Festival had to pick a huge national act to bring in the ticket sales, it should've at least been one that remotely worked with the rest of the lineup.

Crowd Detail: The crowd loved it all, but sadly was biggest for Fergie. The cool thing though were the die hards that were there to see our desert rats. They screamed and shouted and sang aloud to every song they could.

Random Detail: The Meat Puppets' afterparty continued that night at the divey but legendary Yucca Tap Room. The show featured local loud alt-indie-punk-experimental rockers The Necronauts, and of course Kirkwood-Dellinger, a band comprised of Brian Dellinger and Elmo Kirkwood son of Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets. Their psychadelic, punk, and sixties inspired tight-knit and technical performance certainly pleased the crowd, which included none other than the Meat Puppets themselves.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan McNamara