McDowell Mountain Music Festival – Phoenix, AZ- March 28-30, 2014

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You got to be kidding yourself if you even think for a minute the McDowell Mountain Music Festival carries the prestige of a Coachella, Bonnaroo or even a Northwest String Summit.  But those titles matter to nobody, since that’s obviously not the goal with this annual Phoenix area music festival put together by the good folks at Wespac Construction.

Now in its 11th year since its inception in 2004, the McDowell Mountain Music Festival exists to support, entertain and educate the community, the arts and families throughout the state. All of the proceeds from the festival benefited two local, family-based, non-profits: Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation and UMOM New Day Center.  Headline performers in prior years have included The Flaming Lips, The Roots, The Shins, John Butler Trio, Gov’t Mule, The Black Crowes, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and this year added a few more polished names to its resume.

Where the other festivals have round the clock dance tents amongst various hedonistic pleasures, McDowell starts in the early afternoon each of its three days and ends promptly at 11 pm. W;th a big stage for the national touring acts and a small stage set in the grass for chosen local bands, no map or points of landmark are needed to find friends or agendas.  Tucked into the cozy confines of Margaret Hance Park that is ironically set atop an active interstate, (which you’d never know or hear) the venue is throned handsomely as a natural ampitheater looking southward towards the towering skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix.

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In its second year located in downtown Phoenix, after its quaint but ultimately unsatisfying run at the parking lot of the former Compound venue and restaurant in North Phoenix/Scottsdale, the MMMF has earned sudden new-found respect with its new digs and stellar 2013 lineup that featured The Shins and The Roots as headliners.  The festival has now become a part of the burgeoning downtown renaissance, situated in the Roosevelt arts district downtown and within walking distance of the hip Crescent Ballroom – home of the weekend after party shows featuring Lettuce, Allen Stone and Donna the Buffalo

So as the festival last year made a big hoopla last year with the pre-mentioned Roots and Shins alongside Deer Tick and Dr. Dog; 2014 saw the festival returned to its jam/roots history with headliners STS9, Disco Biscuits and Ben Harper w/Charlie Musselwhite rounded out by other roots friend bands: Dispatch, Slightly Stoopid, Allen Stone, G Love & Special Sauce, and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers.  So this lineup,  much of the downtown hipster population’s dismay, couldn’t help but admit that these acts threw down hard and deserved to be welcomed to the festival stage as much as any more stylish London Grammer or Bastille.  And for sure, Disco Biscuits aren’t for everyone, but then again so isn’t Sleigh Bells, but it would have been nice to see a few more band like Tycho or Bassnectar that split their fan base from scene to scene. Aside from any other lineup debates, here are four bands that most stood out over the weekend and proved most enjoyable.

STS9

STS9 returned to the stage for the first time since it was announced that founding member and bassist David Murphy was leaving the band. Replacement bassist Alana Rocklin who had previously collaborated live with the band, filled in admirably for Murphy, never overstepping her boundaries but allowing the groups invigorating improvisational compositions take flight. This allowed the instrumental rock band to lay its group rhythm foundation with distinct immediacy and new creative possibilities. Although impossible to replace the sound and presence of “Murph,” the band led by Zach Velmer’s propulsive beats, carried through the poignant opener and first New Dawn, New Day,” and the group introduced another new track, “World Go Round,” a couple songs later.  As the author spied Rocklin receiving immediate hugs and exuberant smiles from Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner following the show, this may not be the last time we hear Rockin with STS9.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

Led by Nicki Bluhm and her husband Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips, this bay area rock/soul/alt-country band shows Grace Potter and the Nocturnals how to really keep it real.  No over the top diva sparks here but instead one of the top roots acts going on comprised of all musician’s musicians including Steve Adams of ALO on bass.

The pixie thin front-woman commanded the early Saturday afternoon stage with a setlist that featured some dazzling guitar leads by Deren Ney particularly on the opener “Burnt” and “Ravenous.” The spooky aura of the later tune recalled Tusk era Fleetwood Mac while the cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” brought a sense of a 60’s flashback to an otherwise more experimental Saturday lineup. While Bluhm’s pipes aren’t all that distinctive in the legions of lead voices like a Tina Turner or even a Norah Jones, she nonetheless hit every not seamlessly and allowed a tired early afternoon get people revved up for the rest of the afternoon.

Dwight Yoakam

The obvious eye brow raiser of the lineup was undoubtedly seeing Dwight Yoakam’s name on the bill. In the history of the festival, there really has been a straight country shooter invited over as that is best saved for Country Thunder a few weeks later.  So following the groovy soul of G Love, the Sturgis t shirts in the audience appeared and the whole place was suddenly an odd mix of urbanites and rural folks.  Yoakam had his greatest musical success in the early 9o’s but still can play with more value than the big so- called country boys of today: Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Eric Church. After openingwith “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” Yoakam and his band of pros exploded from there with covers of Elvis’ “Little Sister” and a grand version of “Suspicious Minds,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, as well as a stab at The Beatles’ “Act Naturally” .

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

As the saying goes, saving the best for last is purely a matter of opinion, but based upon the crowd size and call and response chants, Ben Harper and his 70 year old harmonica legend musical partner proved a brilliant choice.  Harper took control center stage with a lap steel while Musselwhite maturely belted out tasteful and seasoned blues licks and even handled lead vocals on a number of tracks from the duos Grammy award winning Get Up!

The highlight of the set was a thunderous version of “When the Levee Breaks” that roared and crashed with almost as much urgency as Led Zeppelin’s titanic effort.  Musellwhite’s harmonica tangoed with Harper’s vocals seamlessly between the juke joint stomper “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone” and the supercharged blues of “Blood Side Out.” But of course when its just Harper and his vocals, he commands an almost secular experience,  when it was just him and his microphone serenading the crowd good night with a graceful “All That Matters Now.”

 Other highlights

The West Water Outlaws drawing from inspiration from a variety of acts, including The Black Crowes, Iron Maiden and Alabama Shakes, showed that long haired jean jacket rock can fit on a festival next to the likes of more groove dance based acts.

Slightly Stoopid with Karl Denson on saxophone is showing why they are continually upping their game as the next big thing on the reggae rock dub circuit molding the youthful edge of Sublime with the feel good vibes of reggae influenced from the less obvious grooves of Buju Banton and the 420 friendly nods of Snoop Dogg

Disco Biscuits always deliver the goodsand the band plays shows few and far between these days, but octopus drummer Allen Aucoin always manages to  kills it while drumming up patterns and beats that just seem unfathomable for a guy with 2 arms and 2 legs.

When G Love and Special Sauce started out 20 + years ago, their mix of blues, soul and hip-hop was considered novel and unique. Although many have painted over this foundation over the years, the recently reunited trio prove they still have as much street cred with its rumbling grooves, while honing their classic rock nods with a courageous version of Cream’s “Strange Brew.”

Love him or hate him, you gotta admit Allen Stone is good as what he does and knows how to turn a picnic into a party.  With his charismatic stage presence and socially conscious lyrics, Stone is about an ideal daytime festival performer as there is in the neo soul movement.

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