(Shirley Manson performs with Garbage at the 2012 Maha Music Festival in Omaha.)
photos and text by Hilary Stohs-Krause
It'd been a long time since I'd been to a music festival — too long. I used to be a Pitchfork and Lollapalooza regular (I even went to Intonation back in 2005 — hipster cred like what), and while some of SXSW is outdoors, it's not the same as a good old-fashioned, sweaty, sunburned summer music festival.
I missed the previous Mahas for various reasons, so this was my first, and I'm not sure if it curbed my hunger or whet my appetite.
(You can see my photos from the day here.)
What I liked
THE WOMEN. I think everyone can agree that Maha did a much better this year at representing the women of Nebraska's music scene — last year's festival, after all, didn't include any. This year, there was a wonderful influx — Heather Berney of Lincoln group the Betties even joined Universe Contest on stage for a song. Scroll down for photos/reviews of those bands.
THE VENUE. Carrie Mardock of festival participant Eli Mardock and I were talking between acts about how easy the day had been — I think "cush" was the word Carrie used. For example, I found a free parking spot a block away, and I didn't even take advantage of the parking lot and garage Maha reserved for festivalgoers. Drinks were reasonably priced, especially for a festival. It really didn't get that hot, considering the weather we've had lately. There was free water.
Most impressive of all, the port-a-potties were clean ... and there were plenty of them.
COMMUNITY VILLAGE. What a fantastic idea. A collection of booths for local nonprofits, the village created a temporary respite from the heat and crowds — and several opportunities to create festival trinkets. At the Goodwill booth, I made a T-shirt with a hot pink robot, and at Hear Nebraska's, a red and orange tambourine that I jangle incessantly (much to my boyfriend's chagrin). Others wore them as hats.
What I wasn't so crazy about
FESTIVAL ORDER. This could have used some improvement. I commented to HN co-founder Andy Norman that I was disappointed with the crowd response, overall — he predicted it would pick up at night (he was right) — while my friend Jeremy just shrugged and said, "Welcome to Omaha." I think the order of bands was a big part of the lackluster enthusiasm during the day, however. Universe Contest's black glitter energy was infectious, but any inertia they built was killed during singer-songwriter Josh Rouse's solo set that followed. I get that there are egos to satisfy (not referring to Rouse, necessarily) and that the order of a concert or festival isn't as fluid as the order of tracks on a mixtape, but still.
THE CROWD. See above. I don't know if people weren't drinking enough, or if they were too hot, or if the music just wasn't doing it, but it wasn't until Omaha group Icky Blossoms took the stage that the crowd transformed from casually satisifed to legitimately excited. (Side story: I heard probably the weirdest pick-up line from a late-40s man who was clearly inebriated: "Hey! You're pretty. I think you dated my sister?")
THE FOOD. More vegetarian next time, please? By the time I rolled around to the food vendors, they were sold out of cheese pizza (granted, it was a little later in the day), and the only other option I saw was spanokopita. Which was OK, but not very filling.
"Are they always this cheesy?" asked a fellow Lincolnite seeing Eli Mardock play for the first time.
I don't think "cheesy" is the word I would use, but as with Eagle*Seagull, the band Eli and his wife Carrie used to play in, the lyrics run a bit toward the sentimental. The two Mardocks and their musical cohorts create operatic, at-times angsty, at-times vibrant indie-synth-pop. Carrie and Eli's vocal harmonies carry the music and the two have a strong chemistry on-stage. And Carrie's dress — wow. Same thing with Laura Burhenn's outfit (of The Mynabirds). A friend and I were saying those two should start a clothing design company together.
I think costumes, outfits, whatever you want to call them, have their own role to play in the live music setting. San Francisco musician Eliza Rickman put it this way: I'm asking you to pay money to watch me play music. I might as well give you something interesting to look at.
And it really was a killer dress.
(Conduits played earlier, but I arrived at the end of their set, unfortunately.)
UUVVWWZ got a new drummer in Dave Ozinga more than a year ago — and a new sound to match.
I hadn't actually seen them play their new material yet. I mean, they usually play last on a bill, and by then I'm pretty tired (full-time job — gets you every time). And I always thought, well, they're a Lincoln band, I can see them whenever I want ... except it never really works that way.
So here I was in Omaha, seeing the new UUVVWWZ for the first time.
I'm not sure what I thought.
That is, I think I liked their older style better — it's poppier, a little less ... well ... weird, really. Some of the tracks they performed were taut and incendiary, and I found myself thinking, "I'm definitely playing that on X-Rated when the album is released," but during others, my mind wandered and I only half-listened. Lead singer Teal Gardner's voice is incredible, but sometimes her vocal gymnastics seem arbitrary instead of purposeful. That's actually a great word for the songs that didn't hold my attention — everything seemed sort of arbitrary. On the other hand, the songs that worked, really worked, and I didn't feel like I needed musical signposts to navigate them.
I guess I'll have to woman up and stay awake late enough to catch them again a few times before I'll really know what I think.
Performance-wise, Teal commands the stage, and her playful approach was infectious. She said later it was a really fun performance for her, and her pleasure was obvious to those watching.
Dum Dum Girls
Dum Dum Girls didn't really impress me. Musically, they were spot-on, playing a lot of new material from their forthcoming album. They dressed for the part, but they just didn't really bond with the crowd. Very little talk between songs, not a ton of stage movement — it seemed like just another show to them. But their whirlwind set of fuzzy surfer rock delivered a needed jolt to the festival.
I've seen Laura Burhenn and her Mynabirds play several times, and their passion on stage is earnest and sincere. There was a definite migration over to the side stage for their show, and they didn't disappoint. People were still mostly standing around, but a few delighted fans danced in the front row.
They gave a solid set, featuring mostly material from their spring release, Generals. The group's feminist indie-pop was perfect for the outdoor setting — the overall mood of festivalgoers visibly lifted, even as the clouds gathered and intermittent raindrops sprinkled on the crowd.
Omaha group Icky Blossoms was the darling of Maha — it was like someone flipped a switch and the crowd surged into party mode.
The fans' bouyancy (in some cases literal) was matched only by the band, who stomped, screamed, twirled, danced and lunged all over the stage. Pre-Garbage, the main stage had a pretty boring set-up — the lighting was fairly static, and for most bands, the background was gray skies behind beat-up black mesh. The side stage were the locals bands played wasn't any better. I don't know if Icky brought their own lights, but especially for a electro-dance band, it made a world of difference. By the time they got to their last song, the hazy, pulsating "Perfect Vision," the crowd was hot and sweaty again, despite the rain. It was the best performance of the festival, hands-down.
We were treated at the end to a serenade from perhaps one of Nebraska's future rock stars — singer/guitarist Derek Pressnall's young daughter, who sang the ABCs to the crowd in what was an extremely precious moment . (The tyke inherited musical genes from both sides — mother, Jamie, is the tap percussionist with Derek in Tilly and the Wall.)
I was excited for alternative rock band Garbage for the usual nostalgic reasons, and they're also from Madison, Wis. (I grew up an hour away in Milwaukee). But WOW. They were incredible.
Seriously, guys. I don't know if you've heard anything from their new album, Not Your Kind of People, but I was captivated. It was also pretty sweet to hear songs like "Stupid Girl" and "Cherry Lips" live ... and in what the band claimed was a first, they played "Only Happy When It Rains" in the rain.
And in a beatiful, powerful moment, lead singer Shirley Manson paused the performance to call out someone for being inappropriate, asking a woman in the crowd, "Are you safe?" Sexual violence at concerts is no joke (I've been groped at several concerts, and a friend who likes metal music has some horror stories). My respect for Manson increased exponentially. I couldn't actually see what was happening, but given the context, I think it's safe to assume it was related to some kind of harassment. It's infuriating that this is something we have to worry about, but practically speaking, we do — so it was empowering to see a performer acknowledge this and step in to make sure the woman was OK.
I didn't hang around for Desaparecidos — no real interest — but Garbage's performance was superb, and for me, the festival ended on a great note.
Hilary Stohs-Krause is busy working on various X-Rated projects for fall — including another panel/performance set for Sept. 6 at House of Loom. She gets her local music fix through HN and as a cocktail waitress at Duffy's. For more on Nebraska ladies making music, tune into the "X-Rated: Women in Music" radio show every Thursday from 1:05-3 p.m. CST at 89.3 FM KZUM in Lincoln or streaming live at kzum.org. Find "X-Rated" on Facebook at facebook.com/xmusicnebraska.