Following six years at the WestWorld complex in North Scottsdale, Arizona, it appeared the McDowell Mountain Music Festival
had a new permanent home with the opening of the Compound Grill in late 2009. The venue was owned by the festival's founder John Largay of Wespac Construction, so it was only fitting that MMMF would would settle within the Compound's confines. However, with the April, 2012 closing of the venue, it was thought we might have heard the last of the successful Arizona Festival.
But a surprising and bold announcement was made last October, stating the McDowell Mountain Music Festival would continue, but this time in the urban locale of downtown Phoenix. So it's with high anticipation we welcome the three-day musical festival at Margaret Hance Park (March 22-24) along wit a stellar lineup that includes: The Shins, The Roots, Deer Tick, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Yonder Mountain String Band and Umphey’s McGee.
So aside from arguably boasting the festival’s strongest lineup ever, (past year's lineups have included The Flaming Lips, Ratdog, The Black Crowes and The John Butler Trio), the relocation of the festival to downtown Phoenix should be a win-win for everybody. The festival will finally be able to offer both camping and after party optoins, courtesy of the city of Phoenix providing camping lots and The Crescent Ballroom for stepping up and hosting the late night festivities.
With a light rail stop practically onsite and the bars, coffee shops and restaurants of the Roosevelt Row district just a block away, and high rise hotels looming a few more blocks further down, this year’s McDowell Mountain Music Festival will prove you don’t have to be on a farm in Manchester, TN or on a polo ground in Indio, CA to have a memorable three day weekend of music, food and anything else you dare to conjure.
All fun and games aside, The McDowell Mountain Music Festival continues to provide music for a purpose and was founded on a mission statement of existing to integrate and support the community, the arts and the underprivileged. With over $700,000 raised since its inaugural event in 2004, 100% of the proceeds raised from the festival are donated to three, local, youth-based charities – Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Ear Candy Charity, and UMOM. We recently had the chance to talk with festival founder John Largay about taking things downtown....With The Compound closing last year, many probably thought this would be the end of the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. What made you want to keep it alive?
Yeah it was tough to close, but strictly economics. I enjoyed the experience but it wasn’t economically feasible. The festival always has been mainly due to public support as well as our sponsors support and we’ve been fortunate enough to donate $700,000 the last nine years and we think that potential works.Right, its fantastic how you’ve been able to contribute so much to some really great local charities. For the location itself, how did you got about deciding on a more urban location like downtown Phoenix verse say going back to WestWorld in Scottsdale or another more suburban location?
WestWorld didn’t give us a liquor license, so they pretty much told us they didn’t want us, although we were planning on going back to WestWorld until they gave us that news. And then we looked at alternative locations and we felt the geographical location of Hance Park really serves metropolitan Phoenix well from a community and a cultural standpoint. Really our mission statement and the central proximity works really well. We love the light rail convenience of it and that keeps people from drinking and driving and allows more people to participate. I think it’s going to be a great experience. People follow good music, we weren’t that concerned with the location. If we can make ourselves more convenient to people, there’s already a good culture and community in the downtown area, so it’s a win-win.If all goes well this year and you want to keep it going in downtown for future years, how do you work around the lack of camp grounds that typical coincide with the whole festival experience? I know there’s a makeshift lot or two set up, but that can’t be a long-term answer?
You know what, we can camp thousands. We wanted to bring our fan base. We can grow as many lots as our fan base wants. There is plenty of land down there and the urban camping is going to be interesting and I think our fan base makes it a lot of fun. We can grow that as big as people want it to be. We’ve got showers and toilets and security all set up to accommodate them and we have another four lots on standby to grow this into the thousands. The city is behind the thought. We’ve always had a fan base that cooperates pretty well and never had any problems of disruption or any situation that requires enforcement, so I think they’ll (the fans) will be respectful of that.I think the most would agree that the lineup this year falls into more diverse categories than in past festivals’ that had more jam oriented acts. How did you decide to kind of go away from that some and pull in some new sounds like The Shins and Roots?
I don’t think we got away from anything. I never booked a hip hop band before so that’s kind of new but we’ve always been diversified in our genres and never been genre specific to say we wouldn’t play The Roots or The Shins, which many people call indie. We try to stay relevant to whose playing, but there’s no secret we do like our New Orleans porch music and we like our Grateful Dead friends. JGB is playing on Sunday and the Noodles are going to do an after party at Crescent on Sunday night for free. Looking at the schedule, you kind of segmented it thoughtfully in terms of breaking it down thematically in the three days that each day might draw a certain type of music fan.
We tried to theme the days, but we sold a lot of three day passes as I think people appreciate the variety. I think bands like Balkan Beat Box… some fans will appreciate the unknown. I know that some fans trend towards the known and some fans trend towards the unknown and we try to please both. But when you go out on something like this with 40 bands and just with schedule and costs, nothing is 100% of who you are going to get. You don’t just pick 13 bands, so we’re very pleased with our lineup. From a festival standpoint we don’t see it as a big diversion from what we’ve always done. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros played just a couple years ago at the festival. Was there any particular reason to bring them back so soon?
You know it’s a talented group, you’ve got a group of eight all individually talented. I think they’re fun to watch and they are going to have an interesting direction on stage. They are coming up with some new material and people will want to see two years later where they are at. They come after Balkan Beat Box which is another group of eight from Israel – a lot of fun. I think Ed Sharpe brings a lot of fun to it, so it’s a great start and a great lead into The Shins. The Shins have sold incredibly well. So our timing relative in bringing The Roots and The Shins to Phoenix , I think it helps both us a festival and Phoenix as fan base. We kind of sit in the middle between the bands and the fans and I think the fans will think what we are doing is pretty cool. I think we have a great set up at the park and I think that word gets back to the music industry and agents and Phoenix should hope to see more good acts come to the festival.
The festival hooked up with The Crescent Ballroom for the after hours shows, following in foot-steps of when the music would continue indoors at The Compound after 11 pm or so. How did you decide to coordinate with The Crescent for the late night happenings?
See this is where we try and bring it back, so we had the camping at WestWorld but we didn’t have it at the Compound, but now all of a sudden we have both camping and after parties. The fan base just loved the after party. To think we were done at 11:00 and have Scottsdale tell us hey we have to shut it down. Really what we needed to do was bring it inside. There were opportunities in some empty buildings in close proximity and then it came to Charlie (Levy, Crescent Ballroom owner) raising his hand saying we’d love to have you. Charlie has done a great job for the promotion of music for Phoenix and we were happy to have him set up and be part of it. We’re really pleased and we don’t see ourselves changing that much in the mix.
The site works well for the long term and the city of Phoenix has done a great job of stepping up as a partner. They know the benefits of a private/public partnership and that has gone very well and I think we can have some fun for the future.
So who else is involved in the whole infrastructure of this festival – everything from bringing in vendors, working with security, providing food and everything else that goes into a music festival but doesn’t necessarily think about?
This has always been Wespac Construction’s
effort. We are 72 people strong and I couldn’t do anything without the Wespac people.You don’t put your company’s name out there enough considering your doing all this good stuff to solely give back to the community?
No, you know what- people can figure that out. It’s not the driver. We look at the three C’s – community, culture and charity. The three legged stool should be the driver and the reality is if you do a good job operating your festival, you get to make a donation. We’ve never taken a dime from it. Ourselves, our sub contractors, our sponsors, our people are the ones that run it. We break it down and everyone has a piece of it; that might mean stage set-up or logistics or serving beer. There are so many that step up in donating time or monetarily to make it happen. It’s not isolated as a Wespac thing and we needed a charity effort and we zeroed in on this the last nine years and it’s worked well.
For us, the logistics are no different than a job site – the circus goes in and the circus goes out. That’s what we do for a living, so it’s kind of easy for us to run it because this is what we do whether we are building buildings or building a festival – the mentality is the same. Some festivals grow too big too fast and lose their identity often, how have you always managed to keep it small and manageable, rather than grow it into a bigger event.
We think the model caps out at 10,000 maybe. We’ve been to enough festivals to know it gets comfortable logistically for the fan base when it goes over that. This year we expect three to five thousand people a day for the bands that are playing. I think this will be a great experience for the fans.On a final note, looking back at the prior nine years, did you ever get to spend any quality time behind the scenes with any of the artists?
Well I actually got to spend the day with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips because he’s so hands on and shows up at 7:00 am and he’s with his fans at 11:00 pm, I thought that was pretty cool. It’s not drug induced, they create the element. I did get to interview Bob Weir and I thought that was pretty cool. I like the whole process and the whole thing is a study of people coming and going. Same as the Compound, our giggles were if you can dream it, we can build it. So we like building stuff and it’s really fun to see the people use it. The 2013 McDowell Mountain Music Festival takes place March 22-24 at Margaret T, Hance Park, 1202 North 3rd Street, Phoenix, AZ. Tickets are still available at http://mmmf.ticketfly.com/
Along with the main stage, there will be a second stage hosted by new Phoenix music venue 910 live that will feature the very best local bands, The full listing of bands both local and national are: The Shins, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Roots, Dr. Dog, Deer Tick, Umphrey's McGee, Heartless Bastards, Iration, Yonder Mountain String Band, Balkan Beat Box, Les Claypool, Orgone, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, KONGOS, Mergence, Fayuca, Dry River Yacht Club, The Veragroove, Ladylike, Future Loves Past, JGB Band,The Wiley One, Yellow Minute, Banana Gun, Decke,r Macrodot, Les Claypool's Duo De Twang, Jared & The Mill, Sara Robinson & Midnight Special, COUSINS OF THE WIZE and Future Love Past. For more information visit the festival's website.