[Festival Review] McDowell Mountain Music Festival May 27th-29th, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona

Robert Delong performing at McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2015. Photo by Marla Weinstein.

McDowell Mountain Music Festival has been bringing music and supporting the downtown Phoenix community for the last 12 years. It is Arizona’s first and only festival that gives 100% of its ticket sales to local charities, and this year, McDowell Mountain Music Festival is supporting Phoenix Children’s Hospital and United Methodist Outreach Ministries. UMOM has been around since 1964 and celebrated their 50 year anniversary in 2014, and specialize in reaching out to families in need. Over their many years of service, UMOM has created invaluable partnerships with local, like-minded groups including the YWCA, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and the Veterans Association Hospital.  As their successes multiplied and families became happier, healthier and self-sufficient, UMOM has come up with innovative strategies to help families create a better life and hope for the future. Their programs are mostly centered on their New Day Center which offers education for children and adults, health care screenings and referrals, and employment training programs. Thanks to its success and work in the community, UMOM is the largest homeless shelter for families in Arizona and the very best reason to boogie with all your friends!

The festival started on Friday afternoon, March 27th. The sun was shining and my friends and I were totally prepared to see old bands and new! We showed up right at the end of Slow Magic, a funky DJ who wears a rad light up tribal mask. We caught the last couple songs of his set which included the throwback mix, ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny’s Child.  While waiting for the next act we wandered around the vendors tents and noticed a not-so-common festival tent, Nordstrom’s Rack. They were also a big sponsor for the festival along with Deschutes Brewery from Oregon and Sailor Jerry’s Rum. We ventured into the Nordstrom’s Rack and took advantage of their free metallic flash tattoos!

We walked back down to the main stage to see Robert Delong. Although I had not seen him previously, I had been listening to his music online and was really excited to see him live. His set up included just about every percussion instrument imaginable, including a joystick and a Wiimote. He played one of his more popular tracks, ‘Long Way Down’ and instantly charged up the crowd. Between all the gadgets, he managed to belt out his memorable lyrics. At one point, I turned to see if my friends were enjoying this unexpected, mind-blowing set and they were missing! Given it was pretty hot, I guessed they were refilling their margaritas. I turned right back around and kept dancing. There was no way I was going to miss any of Delong’s set.  His energy was so high despite the heat while he darted back and forth between his instruments. When he started playing another popular tune, Basically I, the looping got pretty intense with bells, tamborines and voice synthesizers. I couldn’t believe such a remarkable act had such an early set time. I could have watched him for several hours and will be scanning flyers for his next appearance. To close his short but amazing set he played his most popular song, ‘Global Concepts’.

Robert Delong performing at McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2015. Photo by Marla Weinstein.

This is where I saw the Wiimote put to use. He came out from behind his set-up and started swinging it around like he was playing Wiitennis. To make it even better, he had a partner who was doing free face painting along the front gate while he was playing, and yes I did manage to wedge my way to the front to have bright orange stripes put on my cheeks!  I have never seen something so explosive, and all of the magic was happening right in front of the audience’s eyes. He was definitely a stand out artist that I am looking forward to seeing again.

STRFKR came on next. I have heard some of their music previously but had never seen them live previously.  That goes for all the acts on Friday night but I was excited to see something different. STRFKR played their famous hit, ‘Medicine’, and the crowd started getting pretty crazy. It seemed like a younger crowd than we usually see at festivals but the line up was definitely a factor with bands like Phantogram and Passion Pit on the list. It was refreshing to see all everyone of different ages with the same music-love-head-bobbing going on. STRFKR closed with their cover of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and even my friends and I couldn’t stop jumping up and down.

I’d heard really good things about Portugal. The Man’s live performances and planted myself close to the stage. The band came out hard, with the lead singer ripping his guitar strings and getting the crowd amped up – the sun had finally gone down, and people were ready to party. Their progressive rock sound caught my attention and kept my feet moving. Although the crowd seemed young, they were dedicated fans, singing along with almost every song. I love to see how much a band speaks to different people and watching the fans witness their favorite artist is a beautiful experience. The enthusiasm definitely bled over to us newbies. At one point the band played an epic rendition of the Always Sunny In Philadelphia musical number, ‘Day Man’. You could hear the stereo effect as the entire crowd sang along. Around this time we started seeing the crowd surfers. I guess it was just enough rock to start throwing people on top of the crowd! To close out the set, he played a mash-up of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and the original Portugal. The Man hit song, ‘Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue’. We rocked out hard with the crowd, soaking up every bit of the energetic set.

The festie goers at McDowell were in the spirit to say the least! Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

My friends and I decided to skip Passion Pit to make it to Robert DeLong’s late night set which started at 11. There were four late night shows going on at Cresent Ballroom, a well-known music venue and bar downtown and The Renaissance Hotel. Robert DeLong was playing in the Grand Ballroom which had a cool after-party vibe complete with trippy carpeting and light fixtures. Instead of DeLong’s usual set up, he only had his laptop and a soundboard. He played some cool dance tracks, but it was nowhere near as explosive as his live performance earlier in the day. Slow Magic played afterwards from 1230-2am. His light-up mask looked much cooler after dark, and he had the crowd bouncing with his wompy beats and glitchy sounds. After dancing for hours, we hopped a pedi-cab home and rested up for day two.

We arrived early enough Saturday afternoon to catch the east coast folksy rock band, Real Estate. I felt a special connection being from the east coast myself. They were the perfect chill set for the sun-streaked day. I noticed the difference in the crowd right away. Old school dead-heads dotted the lawn, armed with beer, water and umbrellas. Next up was the much anticipated Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. They came out with so much energy that was immediately reciprocated by the crowd. The band had two deep bass saxophones that were moving even the stiffest of hips. They played a hit called ‘Craziest Thing’ and Trombone Shorty wailed on his trombone and trumpet whipping the fans into a funk frenzy. Towards the end of his set he played a pop hit by Ariana Grande, ‘Bang Bang’, that lightened up the crowd and made everyone smile. They brought such a great vibe with their high energy funk as they closed their set with an epic five minute drum solo.

Trombone Shorty at McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

When the sun went down, Phantogram came on stage, and the crowd doubled in size. I hadn’t had a chance to see them but still considered myself a big fan. The stage was eerily lit with purples and reds as the duo came on stage looking like silhouettes. Sarah Barthel, vocals and keyboard, sang like a beautiful banshee, with her powerful vocals resonated through my spine.  Phantogram’s progressive rock and deep basslines had the whole crowd in a trance. At one point, before they played their hit song ‘Howling At The Moon’ Barthel had the audience join her in a collective howl to the glowing moon. It was liberating to say the least! With the combination of the eerie lights, explosive vocals and hard riffs, the words ‘dungeon rock’ came to mind. They played their top hit ‘Fall in Love’ and that is precisely what we all did in that moment. I would see them again in a heart beat!

To end the night, Thievery Corporation took the stage. I had seen them once before and had been anticipating hearing their new album, Saudade, come to life with its bossa-nova tones and Latin rhythms.  I was a little disappointed that the show was so reggae heavy, but by the time they played Amerimacka I was happily throwing up the Reggae knees with the rest of the crowd. Talk about a group with unfettered talent. Each song was a conglomeration of beautiful voices, sweet guitar riffs and peace-loving MCs. They really had the crowd in the palm of their hand. A Latin beauty came out and had the audience singing along with her, amping up the energy and maintaining it until the very end. Thievery Corporation is a must see with their diverse talent and unmatchable energy onstage.

Break Science performing at the late night. Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

 

By the time we moseyed to the late night shows, Break Science was tearing up the stage at The Renaissance in the Grand Ballroom. They are a Brooklyn based electronic duo with a sweet circular back drop. We boogied down for a bit but then headed over to the Crescent Ballroom to catch the end of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. The back room was packed to the brim with sweaty funky dancing fools! We joined in immediately, wiggling to the explosive horns.

After a few hours of sleep, we rallied for the third and final day of McDowell Mountain Music Festival. This was the day I was most excited for with a super line-up including Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Trampled by Turtles, Beats Antique and Widespread Panic. We got to the grounds in time to see The Revivalists close their set with a Baba O’Riley cover that made us wish we had dawdled less on the way out of the house. In between the main stage sets we caught a local band called Drum Circle. They are a percussion only ensemble and they bring with them enough instruments to include the entire crowd. It was such a beautiful experience and so on par with the feeling of the festival to witness community and cooperation in full force. Everyone around joined in and were easily directed by the leader of the group. I felt very lucky to wander into that spot at the perfect moment.

Trampled by Turtles. Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

We hurried ourselves down to the main stage to catch Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Even with the sun beaming heat from above, we got down to the explosive funk that is Karl Denson! He played hits like ‘Bag of Funk’ and ‘Bugaloo’, premiered a new song, ‘Monk Strap’ and even covered Beastie Boys hit, ‘Sure Shot’. They brought the funk and then some. Next up was Trampled by Turtles and the funk-heads turned to can-kickers. The first thought I had when they really got to plucking was bluegrass metal. The crowd was so joyous and barefooted; I almost forgot how much fun a true bluegrass crowd can be! The banjo player rocked the fans into a frenzy, kicking up dust into the sunset’s descending rays. Then out of nowhere they would slow it down and tug on our heart-strings with songs like ‘For Better, For Worse’. They brought it back up with a crowd favorite; ‘Walt Whitman’, and we were all hopping in the bluegrass mosh again. My friends and I looked at each other and agreed that we had just seen our new favorite bluegrass band live!

Beats Antique performing at McDowell Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

Beats Antique is a band I have been itching to see since I saw them in Philly last year during the Creature Carnival tour. They put on such a production with their burlesque and belly dancers. They played my favorite song, ‘Viper’s Den’ accompanied by two feather dancers. Most of their set seemed to come from their two part album, A Thousand faces. It is a whole different sound incorporating tribal beats with creepy carnival melodies. They also played ‘Beelzebub’ which features Les Claypool (although he did not make an appearance). They kept their vibe fun and funky the entire set and my gang and I did not stop dancing. They closed the epic set with a giant blow-up Cyclops and women dancing in animal masks battling to slay the beast. Definitely one of the best sets I saw all weekend!

Widespread Panic. Photo by Jordan Heerbrandt

 

Floating from one badass set to the next, Widespread Panic came on as the sun had finished setting. The crowd filled in everywhere and the community vibe of a bonafide hippy festival settled over the fans. There were smiling Widespread fans, young and old. They came out with a crowd favorite, ‘Tall Boy’ that had everyone singing along and doing the hippy sway. We were dancing next to these old school fans and they were going nuts! Between long-time fans enthusiasm and the great set list, the smile on my face never dropped. They played hits like ‘Barstools for Dreamers’ and ‘Pigeons’. They put the fat and juicy cherry on top of the festival weekend by ripping up those comforting jam breaks that we were all yearning for by day three. Dave Schools was rocking some mean bass solos that had everyone up in arms. We didn’t want it to end when they finally closed the two hour set with a combination of well-loved tunes, ‘Smile’ and ‘Still Right Here’. We hooted and hollered in appreciation. An announcer came on stage and expressed his gratitude for the sponsors, bands, and festie-goers. He reiterated the importance of community and cooperation, which was definitely apparent throughout the weekend. Phoenix is lucky to have this festival bring the city together through music, nature and charity.

To tune down the last day we headed over to The Renaissance to catch Sunsquabi. Upon arriving we quickly realized our whole tribe of friends made it to the late night show!  Although it was coming to a close, we were still bopping. Sunsquabi played the perfect set to put us lightly back down on earth. They played a cover of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and hands were in the air

Huge amounts of gratitude for John Largay, the president of Wespac Construction and creator of McDowell Mountain Music Festival, and Deschutes Brewery for providing the city with such an outstanding opportunity to connect through charity, altruism, and kickass tunes. I felt the community vibe the entire weekend and it seemed that everyone else did too. Be sure to make this festival a MUST next year if you missed out this year. When 100% of your ticket money going to upstanding charities like UMOM and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, how can you pass it up? Thanks to every sponsor, festie-goer, vendor and charity involved.

Keep up the good work McDowell!

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