Concert Review

The Mesa Music Festival Was a Promising Mess

The first-ever Mesa Music Festival could be called an interesting mess, at best. I must admit, I didn't have high hopes for the festival. Early on, many folks in the music community were upset because it seemed to be a pay-to-play event, given that bands were required to pay a $30 application fee and the festival was free for attendees. Just under 200 bands were scheduled to play across two days, which meant that either they scheduled everyone that paid the application fee and made the organizers somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 or they got more applications than that and more money. The pay-to-play aspect rubbed people I talked to the wrong way before, during, and after the event. Nevertheless, I was interested to see how it played out.

That in mind, I headed to downtown Mesa on Saturday afternoon and was surprised to find that, other than the closure of MacDonald Road, it was nearly impossible to tell a music festival was going on. Parking was easy. I wandered around looking for a centralized kiosk or something similar and never found one. I had hoped there would be a flyer or event program but couldn't locate one at some of the venues I stopped in. The crowd was sparse, at best, but it was early, and I figured things would pick up. To be fair, a lot was happening Saturday. Local venues were hosting major shows, and there were the Grand Avenue Festival, Yardstock (announcing the McDowell Mountain Music Festival lineup for next year), the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival, and Sidepony Music Festival in Bisbee. That's super-stiff competition for everyone concerned. 

I wanted to check out New Chums, and after figuring out where they were playing, I found a trailer in the parking lot of Il Vinaio, where they were setting up. Their set was solid, but it was only me and maybe 20 friends and family of the band in attendance. I look forward to seeing them in a real venue. It wasn't until I headed to Salt Mine Studios Oasis (where I went to check out Murrieta) that I found an event program. It was actually thanks to Murrieta's friendly merch guy who happened to have one and gave it to me. Murrieta, incidentally, put on a great show, and it's my understanding they are working on a new record after taking a brief hiatus. 

Between sets, it was at least interesting to walk around downtown Mesa and see the shops and the people attending — older folks and families with many, many children. Now, armed with a program, I was able to get to Backstage Attire to catch a group of kids from Gilbert called Vintage Wednesday. They played a host of covers that were impressive, but even more impressive were their originals. At one point, I thought lead singer Taylor Sackson was channeling her inner Stevie Nicks on an original song, at which point they launched into a Fleetwood Mac cover and nailed it. They already have an album released (this year's Simple Things) and have begun work on their next. They are definitely a group to watch out for in the years to come. 
After that set, it was time for the headliners, Authority Zero. It was 8 on a Saturday night. Headliners at 8 p.m. Oddly, by that point, several street vendors already had packed up and gone home. The crowd contained maybe 300 or 400 people. I had expected the block to be filled from the depths of MacDonald Street to Main, but the crowd maybe took up a third of that space. Still, beyond the main stage, a few people hung out. Honestly, I've seen more people and excitement — not to mention better execution — during a midsummer Mesa "2nd Friday Night Out."  

All in all, the day's best shows were at Salt Mine Studios Oasis (Murrieta, LightSpeedGo, Merit), with its awesome courtyard stage, Desert Eagle Brewing Company, with its outside patio stage (Strange Lot, Ten Cent Dinosaur, and a cool band from L.A. called The Dramedy), and Backstage Attire (Vintage Wednesday and Emby Alexander). I looked forward to more sets at those venues on Sunday. Strangely, in addition to the lack of central kiosk, the venues themselves didn't have any lineups listed. I expected placards or chalkboards listing the shows they hosted, but I couldn't find a one. It was a pretty cool setup all in all, and it has a lot of potential, but execution was very sloppy.
Sunday, I awoke to rain. Lots of it. I checked the Facebook event, and apparently the festival would still go on, though there still was very little detail — only a post asking if it was rain and shine and a response saying that there were plenty of bands playing, so come on down. I figured it was my responsibility to at least check it out, simply interested to see how it played out. The truth was, it didn't play out. Nothing was happening on the barren Main Stage, Salt Mine Studios had taken down all its gear. A cover band played Toadies and Bachman-Turner Overdrive at Queen's Pizza, but still, very little was going on. I asked local photographer Katherine Vega (Kataklizmic Design) if it had been officially declared a disaster, and she responded "There isn't any wind yet."

Figuring that maybe the inside sets were still going on, I went to Backstage Attire to check out The Oxford Coma. It's a peculiar business that I find a bit worrisome, since they have a large poster of The Clash's Cut The Crap album in their storefront, and though it was 3 o'clock, The Oxford Coma was not there. I texted a friend of the band, and it sounds like the band may not have intended to ever play the festival. I wandered about town for a while and nothing seemed to be following schedule. The vendors were packing up their wares as the rain began to abate. The only highlight of the day was walking into Salt Mine Studios and being given a tour by Don Salter himself. He has a great courtyard and stage in front of the studio, and I hope to hear about some shows going on there because it would be a great opportunity. I walked around for a while longer before finally deciding to abandon ship. I'm sure there would be some acts playing once the rain cleared, but I was calling it dead.
I do hope they plan to do this again next year, but I hope it's handled differently. The "application fee" still sticks in everyone's craw as well — the bands had to pay for the right to work at the festival, and I'm not sure what they really got out of it other than having their friends, family, and fans see them in Mesa. Then again, $30 isn't that much. Still, I would encourage the organizers to maybe get their funding elsewhere. Lineups of the artists posted outside each location should be mandatory and you shouldn't have to hunt for a program guide or map for the event. I would also recommend condensing this a bit. The parking lot for Il Vinaio was two blocks from the rest of the fest, maybe they should have set up a real stage in the giant parking lot behind Milano Music instead. They also could have staggered the shows a bit. Most of the sets on Saturday began and ended at the same time. You could watch the entire set of a band, then wander for 20 minutes. If they had been staggered, you could watch a band, then see another band immediately after. The idea has potential, but I'm not sure how much weight this first attempt at a music festival in Mesa will carry toward repeating it next year. Once more, I'm just interested in how this plays out.
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Mitchell Hillman