Review: McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2017

By March 20, 2017 22 views 0 Comments Read More →

McDowell Mountain Music Festival isn’t a glamorous, celebrity-laden spectacle like other festivals. There aren’t pop-up shops or flames shooting from the stage or any gimmicks, really. It’s just a small, simple, well-run festival that aims to do good for the community, and it accomplished both of those goals very well.

I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t seem to get the hang of off-site festivals. Unless I’m camping literally right next to the festival, I will miss the first one or two performances each day. We stayed in a rental about a mile away, so it wasn’t a matter of traffic or inconvenience. Maybe it’s easier camping because you have a limited amount of stuff with you, so there’s less to account for, and less opportunities for “I have to run back for one more thing.”

Such was the case day one when I left after the rest of the house and made my way to Margaret T. Hance park with help from Siri. Except when I arrived at the westernmost edge of the park, there was no festival, no stages, and no Bob Moses show that I was late for. But funny enough, there was music. I followed the sound and as I closed in on a nearby apartment building, I heard Taiko drumming, confusing me even more. Did Bob Moses enter into a Spinal Tap-esque phase I wasn’t aware of? How small was this festival?

I’d reached a festival, but not the festival. I happened onto a “First Friday” event at the Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix. It was a surprisingly hopping scene, and I felt it would have been a fantastic venue for Bob Moses, but did not appear to have the capacity necessary. Just as I was texting my partner “from the festival,” I heard a snippet of “Never Enough” and soon discovered the other half of the park, and with it, the festival and Bob Moses well into their set.

Wee Bob Moses at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

A post shared by Ben Allen (@franklayne) on

If you get the chance to see Bob Moses live, I highly recommend you take it. If you’re at a festival in the future and you have a lineup conflict between Bob Moses and somebody else, Bob Moses will never the wrong choice. (Although if they enter into a Taiko drumming phase, who knows…) They’re a guitar/synth duo that tours with a drummer, with an easily accessible, effortlessly likable sound and lyrics that sound as though they were written by somebody with a lot more life experience than the young guy singing them.

The crowd was younger, 20’s and 30’s, some casual adults, some hippies, not too many weirdos or many freak flags. The festival’s layout featured two stages, the main stage in a shallow amphitheater and a smaller stage separated by several rows of vendors and various promotional tents. The ample food vendors lined the park’s path along the back of the grounds, offering up festival staples as well as, you know, actual food options. The variety was impressive and the prices were more than you’d pay outside a festival, but not unreasonable by any means.

The Shins

I wonder how many lives Zach Braff influenced with his (and music supervisor Buck Owens) soundtrack choices for Garden State in 2004. Surely James Mercer and the rest of The Shins, but all the people who watched the movie and absorbed the soundtrack, pulling them into music and really forging a new relationship with the medium. Of the five people in my party, three people’s love affair started with the Shins, and these women still love music as much as anybody I know, so it was a special moment to see the Shins live and sing along with James Mercer on all those gateway drug songs.

My only real complaint about the festival was the sound at The Shins. Sonically, there’s a lot that happens around the higher frequencies of James Mercer’s vocals, but there were points where it was difficult to hear Mercer pierce the droning thrum outside of his falsetto, and the guitar drops or synth lines failed to do the same. You could make parts out if you knew the music, but for other members of our party who were unfamiliar with their catalog, it came off a little dull, which is not a word that should be used to describe their music.

The next day, I was going to head in to see Turkuaz, so naturally, I arrived a half hour too late, right smack in the middle of DJ Mustard‘s set. It makes me feel a little old to say this, but I just don’t understand the appeal of somebody playing top 40 hip-hop and EDM, and constantly interrupting the music to yell at the crowd to jump or clap or whatever. I feel like if you want that, you can just save your money and stay home to listen to top 40 radio. It’s the same thing.

Chromeo brought the funk, as Chromeo always does. It may be a lot of the same songs with a lot of the same quips between songs, but they never half-ass the music. David will always be sort of sleazy-flavored charming and P-Thugg will dazzle with his taste in pants and his crazy talkbox.

In general, the Saturday lineup felt like a snippet of a day at Electric Forest. From jam bands to downtempo to hip-hop to funk, there was a lot of ground covered in terms of genres. Unlike the Forest, when there’s music on that you aren’t a big fan of, there’s nowhere else you can go for something different. Rather than seeking out something more up my alley, I stuck around the second stage for Sunsquabi. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me to really look at the daily schedules to see what was in it for me. It turned out that much of Sunday mirrored my Sunsquabi experience. The music is good, everybody in attendance seems to be enjoying themselves, but it honestly gave me nothing.

Emancipator Ensemble

I can’t say that I ever expected to hear drum and bass at an Emancipator Ensemble show, but now that I have, I think it works. This wasn’t as dramatic as typical drum n bass, but it was plenty heavy, and they managed to make it work. Color me impressed. I’ve seen a lot of Emancipator shows, but never a disappointing one, and that includes their festival set as well as their non-ensemble set later at the after party. Good for dancing, good for zoning out, making out, talking, even crying. Doug Appling has his finger on the pulse of some kind of magic.

Flume

The highlight of M3F came with Saturday’s closing set by Flume. I’ve seen a few different sets from Flume, even sets a week apart from each other, so I didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t the slow, downer set that I wanted, but it was the medium-rage dancing set that I needed. In his recent music, there are bits and pieces where he’s clearly creating “anti” music, intentionally different than his self-titled album, and frankly challenging to dance to. There were no such wonky rhythms Saturday night, save for a spot here and there. His lighting production has stepped up as well, with a bank of led cubes above and below his small elevated stage. He kept largely in newer material, but dipped into his first album for a couple favorites towards the end. By the end, he’d weaved one of my favorite Flume sets, and provided a perfect ending to day two.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if the sets or the music of Sunday were bad, and that’s why I wasn’t into it. Call it a combination of badditude and going to a festival full of jam bands and livetronica when I’m not a fan of either.

Waiting for Gov’t Mule, I chatted up a guy sitting behind my group who’d traveled from Montana for the show, and we talked about the different music at the festival, what we liked and didn’t like. It quickly became clear that he had little to no tolerance of music outside a certain format and structure. If it didn’t have guitars, drums, and some dude gruffly singing over it, he wasn’t interested. Electronic music was shit. Maybe DJ Mustard was his introduction to electronic music, who knows. He was clearly there for Gov’t Mule, though, and that’s exactly what he got, a gruff old dude grumbling over blues rock. I’ve had a lot of jobs working with guys who listen to blue collar rock radio, playing the same Boston/Zeppelin/Pink Floyd/Fleetwood Mac songs day in and day out, who at some point just stopped looking for new music and opted to listen to the same 12 albums ad nauseum.

Gov't Mule

Just when I was ready to write them off as close-minded, I heard a familiar song intro, the unmistakable opening bars of “Creep” by Radiohead. It’s a ballsy choice even if you’re in a Radiohead cover band, or if your music is in the same sonic neighborhood as Radiohead. But these guys were nowhere close and they absolutely nailed the cover. It was the only time the guy sang where I would have agreed that he should be singing at all. I always appreciate a curveball, and to be proven wrong when I start throwing around assumptions.

And just like that, the festival drew to a close. I was impressed by the festival’s logistics, the food selection and the variety of the lineup. I appreciated that it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Next year, I may not travel from Minnesota for the festival, but if I find myself anywhere near the area, I would happily come back for more.

Full Photo Album:

McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2017

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I work, live and play in Minneapolis. I help people talk to computers. I write about music. A lot.