MMMF Shined Brightly Under Arizona Sun
By Josh Krol
During three sun-glazed days in late March, Margaret T. Hance Park in downtown Phoenix was transformed from a little grassy knoll in the middle of a big city to a massive live production for an intentionally small festival.
McDowell Mountain Music Festival was held in Arizona’s capital city on March 28-30th and featured a stacked lineup that included STS9, The Disco Biscuits, and many other musical acts who entertained thousands to raise money for local non-profits: Phoenix Children’s Hospital and UMOM New Day Center.
Ever since its conception eleven years ago, a main priority for the organizers was to deliver an eclectic mix of music with everything from folk, blues, to electronic that aimed to keep attendees of all ages satisfied, and this year was no different. A wide array of musical genres with no overlapping sets was played between its two stages.
These stages consisted of a large main stage and a smaller local stage that was only about a stone’s throw away from each other. They were separated by varying vendors that sold items like hula hoops, rocks and minerals, hand-made clothing, organic medicines and other festy gear.
The festival kicked off late Friday afternoon with local folk act Decker followed by the blues-rock outfit Sara Robinson and the Midnight Special. As the sun started to set, new-age funk favorites, Lettuce, started to raise the mellow crowd to their feet from their lawn chairs. The funk took a more electronic approach as Gramatik took the main stage next.
Gramatik is the first electronic producer featured on an MMMF lineup and certainly did not disappoint. He started out with his brand of old-school soul mixed with deep bass grooves and gradually moved toward his newer, dub-heavy arrangements. As an added bonus, Russ Liquid, who was scheduled to open for the Exmag after party later that night, joined Gramatik on stage for the whole set adding his own brand of trumpet infused wobble.
While some trotted over to the local stage to catch a quick set by the local band, Spafford, many stayed and inched closer to the main stage for what might have been the most talked about act leading up to this weekend for many in the festival scene.
Underneath a starlit sky, STS9 was due to take the stage for the first time since New Year’s Eve. Founding member and bass player, David Murphy, exited the band earlier this year leaving many fans wondering how the band would rebound. Suddenly, at about 9:30 the crowd started to cheer as the quintet walked on stage led by their new bass player Alana Rocklin.
The stage lights started to dim and their patented pyramid visualizer began to glow as the band wasted no time introducing their reformation. The first track was a brand new song appropriately named “New Dawn, New Day.” The grooves were tight, the sound was familiar and funky, and with that, Tribe 2.0 was off and running.
After whizzing through the DnB inspired new song, the opening chords of “Rent” were played which got the crowd to really move. Shifting from something familiar to something original is nothing new for STS9 and that held true as they broke into another new tune. “World Go Round” was an opportunity for Rocklin to showcase her skills as the lights illuminated green behind her for the low-end jam. Throbbing bass lines accompanied by a smacking snare, soaring synths sounds and an upstroke guitar line sounded like a brand of their old-school space-funk.
After STS9 got the new songs out of the way, they pushed on through a twelve song set with career spanning songs such as “Wiki Chikana” and “Circus” before closing the night off with the electronica filled favorite, “When the Dust Settles,” leaving those who stayed for the entire set in a sweat and with a smile.
Saturday saw more families come out for the community driven affair. Walking in just before noon, people lined up in front of the small collection of food trucks. MMMF added more food vendors this year where you could find everything from turkey legs to gourmet grilled cheese. Sponsor Deschutes Brewery had craft beer stations scattered throughout the festival, providing a nice break from the overpriced domestic beer that you will find at most music festivals.
Between sets festival organizers would man the microphone to remind attendees that that all beer sales are for charity and to “drink for a good cause.” The festival also tried to take a more eco-friendly approach as they announced it would be aiming for a “Zero Trash Event” and pointed out numerous compost and recycle bins.
Most of the day was filled with folk sets from bands such as Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Jared and the Mill, and Carol Pacey and the Honey Shakers. There was even time slotted for a drum circle where the younger kids in attendance smiled as they banged on whatever object they could find as they kept rhythm with their parents and peers.
Fresh-faced R&B singer, Allen Stone brought a high energy and soulful set that brought a level of hotness of its own to the steamy Saturday afternoon. However, during the day, the festival took a chiller vibe where you would see most on-lookers relaxing in lounge chairs and beach balls flying frequently.
Dispatch took the stage at about 5 o clock to play their first Arizona show in over 15 years. Their assorted harmonies rang out over the park. They played popular tracks such as “Open Up,” “Passerby,” “The General” and “Flying Horses.” Near the end of the their set they got the crowd excited when they played covers of “Friend of the Devil” and “Mrs. Robinson” which had the whole festival singing along.
As the sun began to set, the packed crowd waited patiently for reggae/rock outfit Slightly Stoopid. Due to some sound check issues, the band was delayed for over a half hour. When they finally were able to play they made the most of their time ripping through as many songs as they could in the shortened set. The smooth reggae sound fit the hot southwestern atmosphere as more people began to fill in for the headlining act of the night.
Marc Brownstein led The Disco Biscuits on stage to close out the evening with a long set full of instrumental jams starting with the upbeat track “Strobelights.” The band continued that tempo throughout the set blasting through six additional songs including “Story,” “Shimmy” and a playful rendition of “Safety Dance” before closing out with fan favorite “Save the Robots.”
Yes, all of the songs The Disco Biscuits played that night started with the letter “S.” The band claims it happened on accident. While the Biscuits did not bring their patented army of lasers to the festival, their light production was the most impressive live aspect of the weekend.
By Sunday the crowd had thinned a bit but the music was still in full force. After a solid folk set by seasoned festival vets, “Donna the Buffalo,” the blues inspired hip-hop stylings of G. Love and Special Sauce came on next under the mild weathered late afternoon.
Coming out with a bright electric blue guitar hanging at his fingertips, G. Love and his band greeted the crowd. After plugging in, G. Love played his entire first album from start to finish. Much of the crowd sang along during the set as kids played ball through the dancing crowd. Near the end of his time, G. Love played his new single “Nothing Quite Like Home” before closeing with a stripped down cover of Cream’s “Strange Brew.”
While he initially seemed out of place on the festival lineup, country legend Dwight Yoakam proved to be a crowd favorite. Yoakam was dressed in all blue denim while his band was decked out in sequined cowboy suits. Yoakam offered up his outlaw country style into the Sunday sunset in what many locals considered the highlight of day.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite came out to close out the event. This supergroup duo won a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album for their release “Get Up” which was released in 2013. With Harper’s powerful vocal range and Musslewhite’s legendary harmonica skills, this group really brought some raw blues power to the MMMF stage.
“Got the blues out tonight and I ain’t lying!” Harper yelled out mid-set to a roaring crowd. The duo played the award winning album in full before a solid version of “When the Levee Breaks.” A few bright white lights shined on stage after the band exited, setting the prelude for what would be an epic and intimate encore that ended the festival in style.
McDowell Mountain Music Festival was an all around wonderful experience. The size of the festival made the experience more comfortable and familiar. The fact that all proceeds went to charity was a nice touch. This year’s lineup was stellar and diverse. Whatever the reason for its success, one would have to agree with one ReyJing ticket holder who described his weekend as an “adventure of awesomeness.”