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The Best and Worst Things We Saw at McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2016

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McDowell Mountain Music Festival returned to Margaret T. Hance Park for the third straight year, attracting tens of thousands of people downtown for a weekend of dual-stage musical madness. There were changes galore at this year's incarnation, including the elimination of camping and waste (there were three-bin recycling stations throughout the festival), and a softened emphasis on jambands, which had previously been the festival's bread and butter (including last year's headliner, Widespread Panic). Deschutes Brewery was jettisoned in favor of Oskar Blues as the beer sponsor (an upgrade), and the festival included a partially free stage that hosted a few bands for the general public outside the venue (which was good in theory, but not so much in practice).

Here's the best and worst of what we saw at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival this year.

I've seen Beck more times than I can count on one hand, and I never saw him deliver such an electric set as what he did on Saturday night. There was no doubt that the set was designed for a festival crowd, with a high-energy delivery throughout. He came to entertain. Oddly enough, he didn't even play a song from his most recent album, Morning Phase, but he played every other song you could have wanted him to play and then some. He wasn't going too deep into his catalog; this was a greatest-hits set in no uncertain terms. He also played around with his songs a lot. His version of "Gamma Ray" was a far different beast the sparing surf treatment found on Modern Guilt, and he took liberties with many arrangements throughout. The highlight of this was probably the medley of "Think I'm In Love" with Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." It was a set beyond all realistic expectations. MITCHELL HILLMAN

The Avett Brothers 
The Avett Brothers laid down a performance to close out the McDowell Mountain Music Festival that won’t soon be forgotten. It’s been almost a couple of decades now since they brought in bassist Bob Crawford and started driving this train. The time together has given them the seasoning and spice to present an effortlessly exciting live show. From tearjerkers like “Shame” and “I And Love And You” to stomp-y rockers like “Talk on Indolence,” it was a really exhilarating emotional roller coaster ride of a show. It was equal parts country jamboree and dive-bar heartbreak.

Scott and Seth Avett worked the crowd with ease, tossing in a mixture of funny and friendly banter between the songs that exuded the sweetness and sincerity that makes their whole package a desirable one. The whole band is composed of ridiculously talented folks that go the extra mile live. Cellist Joe Kwon ran around with that bulky instrument like it was a feather. The drummer was monstrous, treating everyone to a lengthy and tasty solo before the night was over. They showcased their honed overall mix of orchestration, motion, and energy that kept the audience dancing until they wrapped it up with their three-song encore. For those who missed it, the set included “Ain’t No Man,” “Vanity,” and “Murder in the City.” AMY YOUNG

Freezone Stage
This was possibly the only bad idea at MMMF this year. Granted they only used the Freezone Stage a few times, but the stage is outside of the grounds, meaning you can't take your drinks out there and you have to go through security again to re-enter. Also, it was nearly the only instance where other acts overlapped into the sets of the "Freezoned" bands. I hope it at least got some folks into the festival based on the talent outside of the gate. I am all in favor of a third stage, but maybe somewhere on the grounds so you don't need to abandon or rush your concessions. On the upswing, a lot of folks hung out by the fencerow and watched from a distance. MITCHELL HILLMAN
Brothers Gow
This year's MMMF saw the lineup veer as far away from its jamband roots as ever, but that's not to say the noodling hippie music was absent from the festival. San Diego band Brothers Gow played the second stage on Friday. As I arrived, the band was in the middle of an errant cover of KC & The Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight," which went over flat on the suddenly discerning McDowell crowd. But this was a set that started slow and won the crowd over with willpower and talent. The band soon delivered what all jambands should: a tight, electrifying performance punctuated by synchronized, free-flowing but disciplined solos. Guitarist Ethan Bow, who looks a bit like Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, showed the instrumentalists in the crowd how to use a talk box. Sure, there were some "EPIC, BRO" solos over basic chord progressions that prompted a bevy of guitar faces from the players on stage. But still, improvisational music requires high levels of technical skill, and Brothers Gow showed they have what it takes to become regular staples on the jamband circuit. Hell, they definitely had what it takes to be on the main stage at McDowell. There's always next year, I suppose. DAVID ACCOMAZZO
Animal Collective
This band is tough. Listening to Animal Collective live is a bit like tripping DMT and having a cackling leprechaun jump on your back and smash your head in with a rubber mallet. The band performed its manic, high-energy tunes while in front of what looked to be cubist interpretation of Easter Island statues, and the bizarre backgrounds were a good match for the band's off-kilter yet in-your-face sideways take on pop music. It sounds like a bunch of philosophy majors discovered speed and formed a rock band. The band effortlessly switches time signatures mid-song and frankly makes performing very complicated songs look easy, so that's no knock on the band's talent. It's just that sometimes their unrelenting live show had the tendency to sound like music people would get brainwashed to in 1984, and that can be tough on the ears for 45 minutes. The relentless bass drum made me think that Animal Collective was the genteel Brooklyn manifestation of K-pop, however you want to take that. I will give the band credit for doing a simulated surround sound type of thing, where two of the members sang the verse of one song on alternating eighth notes — it was a very cool effect that was the audio equivalent of staring at a strobe light. DAVID ACCOMAZZO

Gary Clark, Jr.
If money was no object, I wouldn’t have had a problem paying the festival’s $82 daily price just to watch Gary Clark, Jr. work the guitar. He’s undeniably exceptional and had the MMMF crowd engaged from beginning to end with his songs that blend blues, soul, and hard rock in an elevated fusion of the styles that honors roots and traditions while flowing in its own direction. Refreshingly, he’s not afraid to bring the noise and lay some fuzz on top of his riffs and screaming solos. Oh yeah his voice isn’t too shabby, either. Thick, sticky, and dripping with range and soulfulness, it is the kind of sound that adheres to your skin and seeps into your pores before you can wash it off. He and his band worked through a powerful set that perhaps could have been just a bit longer, playing songs like “Bright Lights” and “Numb” to have the crowd in a serious state of awe. AMY YOUNG

The Oh Hellos
The Oh Hellos started as a folk rock duo of brother and sister Tyler and Maggie Heath, but live on stage, they are a much bigger production with two drummers and side musicians in tow. The actual music was Appalachia folk music meets indie pop, folk revivalists of a sort, and yet you may never see a banjo rock so hard. Add to this beautiful harmonies and the way their songs would lull you into submission with soft intros before exploding into wild crescendos. Every song was a journey and a perfect way to spend the afternoon laying on a lawn in Phoenix. There set was pretty magical and I would go out of my way to catch that same show again at an indoor location, as soon as possible. MITCHELL HILLMAN
Ruca/Huckleberry/The Haymarket Squares
I'm rounding up all the local second stage acts as one giant kudos to three sets that were some of the most refreshing all day. Ruca is a band that should play at some point during every festival, their music just lends themselves to that vibe. Their positivity is overwhelming and perfect for a warm, sunshiney day for it. Huckleberry just dropped a new EP and their set covered that well, as well as some of their best tracks from last year's Problems, and a hint of their debut. They fit right in with the American music vibe of the whole day and the crowd just loved them. Finally, The Haymarket Squares just dropped their best album to date and their set was full of fantastic new tracks from that as well as long time crowd favorites. They are another band that should be at every festival forever. MITCHELL HILLMAN

I have to give a shout out to an Icelandic rock band that is clearly obsessed with American music. If it wasn't for the fact that they paused their stunning rock set with an Icelandic folk song for some audience members that were visiting from Iceland, I wouldn't have guessed they were international. Their music is rooted in American blues rock in no arguable way and they've clearly studied the history of American rock ’n’ roll up until at least the '90s. Meanwhile, the lead singers vocal dynamics were otherworldly and could range from a Jeff Buckley falsetto to an Eddie Vedder growl. It was one of the most impressive performances of Sunday at McDowell and certainly one of the most energetic. MITCHELL HILLMAN

As with most large multi-band music events, a lot of fashion styles were represented at last night’s outdoor musical extravaganza. It’s safe to add that there were many things that could end up on a ‘worst of’ list if I was in charge of penning one; mid-calf length overalls, crocheted shorts, and tie-dye’s, to name a few. One accessory, however, stood out this year: Capes. From little kids to adults, and from plain to colorful, the cape had presence at the festival. A friend hipped me to one of the vendors who had capes for sale. Cape vendors? This is a thing? She was really enamored with a silky cape sporting a unicorn across its back. Why wouldn’t she be? Cape + unicorn = magic. There is just something about a cape that signifies personal power; a freak who isn’t afraid to fly their flag. Rock on, you cloaked superheroes, I get you. AMY YOUNG

Fuck deep-fried fair food. It’s so over. Not saying that overly fried foods aren’t good. We all know that battering up most things and dropping them in a vat of hot oil is going to be tasty, it’s just tired. So while that gimmick-y shit was still represented – things like alligator on a stick – it was awesome that there were a lot of good food choices like mammoth pizza slices, and Thai noodle dishes. But when you bring together the masses, you need the barbecue and the McDowell Mountain Music Festival did not disappoint. From BBQ food trucks to outdoor grills, hunks of food slathered in sauce abounded. It wasn’t all for carnivores either – the vegan barbecue stand had some faux beef and chicken entrees that delivered the zest. AMY YOUNG
Hacky Sack
For some people, being outdoors at a fun event means you have to bring along your crocheted rainbow colored ball to kick around. Can you just stop, though? There was so much hacky sack going on at the MMMF that I thought I was back on the Kent State campus where I went to college, where hacky sack might have actually been a major. Less than the benevolent sport it appears to be, it actually gets intrusive when that ball gets away from someone. Fear of injury sets in when you’re dodging a player who stops at nothing to use their footwork to bring the ball back into their circle. The MMMF had plenty to do – bands, vendors, food, booze – it really could have been a hacky-free experience, just saying. AMY YOUNG

The Beer
Part of what makes McDowell Mountain Music Festival the best outdoor music festival in Phoenix is that the festival is nonprofit. Everything goes to charity and as a result you don't get the feeling that you're being nickel-and-dimed at every turn or that organizers cut corners in pursuit of better margins. Beers at this festival were just $6 — $7 if you didn't already have a reusable souvenir cup — the price of a bottle of water at the Super Bowl. And this wasn't $6 for a piss-yellow domestic, this was quality microbrew from Oskar Blues, the Lyons, Colorado microbrewery known for kicking off the trend of putting quality beer into cans. Part of the low price comes from the fact that the brewery donated all the festival's beer, a tremendously generous gesture that benefit both charity and festival patrons. I've been telling everyone within earshot that McDowell Mountain Music Festival is a Colorado festival transplanted into the desert, and having Oskar Blues beers in every cup just drives my point home. DAVID ACCOMAZZO

Correction, 3-14-2016, 5 p.m.: This article did not originally credit Amy Young for the blurb on Avett Brothers.

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