Concert Guide: The 2017 Maha Music Festival

Perhaps the most important aspect of a festival vital to its success is its identity. It’s key to reaching an audience and thus key to growth and evolution, even as such things aren’t inherently linear. It doesn’t matter that Maha Music Festival, now the ninth-annual, sold out in 2015 and did not the following year. It has spent the bulk of those years building something both sustainable and widely-appealing.

The 2017 edition (this Saturday, Aug. 19) is finally upon us and, fortunately, it seems to have found its formula. Run The Jewels is a home run, a mainstay filling the both festival’s lone hip-hop role and a headlining spot more recently reserved for what some might consider more palatable acts like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. And in fact, there is a trio of indie acts that anchor that position; Built To Spill, Belle & Sebastian and The New Pornographers are all wisely scheduled in an afternoon row before the thing gets rowdy.

Even so, Maha’s headliner is indicative of the edge the festival brings to the table. Punk acts Downtown Boys and Priests both tote fresh 2017 albums that, in different ways from different angles, challenge the established socio political landscape. Sleigh Bells fits here, albeit sonically, its sound jammed with jagged and searing tones and dance bangers.

Then the festival’s the local cohort, composed of High Up, The Hottman Sisters and The Faint. If you had asked for our predictions pre-lineup announcement, the first two would have been among them, and for good reason; both turned in quality debut EPs last year and have grown into local favorites. And while The Faint is a festival repeat (its second, after Icky Blossoms played in 2012 and 2014), they rarely fail to bring the best out of a hometown crowd.

Even with a stacked lineup, Maha’s identity extends far beyond the stage. Local and regional comedy have become staples, as have the Louder Than A Bomb poetry crew and Omaha Girls Rock. The latter consistently gives the festival its most touching moments, signaling an effort to brighten the future of local music. On the outskirts, Maha’s Community Village highlights local nonprofits while challenging them to engage festivalgoers in their respective missions. Like last year, all organizations have united behind Maha’s efforts to educate regarding mental health. It all adds up to a festival that continues to feel distinctly local.

As your gearing up to spend the day with Maha, prepare with our musical guide below.

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The Hottman Sisters — Omne Stage, 12:10 p.m.

photo by Lauren Farris

Omaha’s largest music festival begins with one of the area’s brightest up-and-coming acts in The Hottman Sisters. After cutting their songwriting teeth in the commercial realm, Jessica and Heather made the decision in 2015 to dive back into their music careers in a way they never had before. Jessica picked up a bold-toned Fender Strat/Vox combo, cranking out full-throttle hooks and driving their ‘90s sound into PJ Harvey territory. To match, Heather’s keys have become searing and wavy, the landscape over which the duo’s powerful harmonies can soar. Their debut EP This Two, out last summer, is guided by a devotion to classic pop while mixing in contemporary flair — a sound that has won them audience at home and on a handful of recent regional tours.

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Downtown Boys — Weitz Stage, 12:50 p.m.

Downtown Boys signed to Sub Pop for their third album Cost of Living, but the move from independent debut to Don Giovanni to here hasn’t dulled its fiery, revolutionary edge. Rather, the move has given the Providence, Rhode Island punk band a wider platform from which to shout back at the oppressive power structure. The band formed shortly after vocalist Victoria Ruiz and tuba player Joey DeFrancesco quit their hourly hotel jobs (the latter, virally so). In the time since, they’ve smashed through DIY venues and basements across the country, unafraid of confrontation or inciting its audiences-in-solidarity. Cost of Living builds on those tenants with the help of noted indie rock producer and ex-Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto (Blonde Redhead, The Gossip). Come ready to stomp.

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High Up & Omaha Girls Rock — Omne Stage, 1:45 p.m.

photo by Lindsey Yoneda

Pre-lineup announcement, High Up was on my short list for Maha’s local selections. The Omaha soul band’s inclusion is no surprise, given its local live-stage notoriety, musical pedigree and the festival’s taste for funk and soul (All Young Girls Are Machine Guns in 2015, Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal in 2016) in the past few years. Vocalist Christine Fink is an absolute firecracker performer with a powerful voice to fit the part, and the band behind her includes scene veterans in Todd & Orenda Fink (The Faint, Closeness), Josh Soto (The Seen) and Matt Focht (Head of Femur). Their self-titled debut captures just a taste of that live presence, its instrumental ensembles lush with full-throated horns, colorful keys, trebly guitars and Christine shouting her lungs out.

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Torres — Weitz Stage, 2:55 p.m.

photo by Chris Dinan

Torres, the pseudonym of Georgia-born songwriter Mackenzie Scott, seems poised to break out — or, break just under the surface. Scott’s early work on her self-titled debut LP was critically heralded for its intensity and intimate energy, her voice rightfully demanding attention for the airs she has to clear. In a throng of what many will call “unflinchingly honest” acts at Maha, Torres is one whose directness lays bare herself and her heart, both untangling and embracing the dark. On new single “Skim,” Scott turns that honesty on herself as well as her betraying lover: “No pride or projection swells like insecurity/If only I could use that to hold you.” The song appears on Three Futures, Torres’ third full-length and second made with producer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Robyn Hitchcock). If the new sounds are any suggestion, Three Futures looks to be just as mysteriously beautiful, captivating and heartbreaking as anything in Scott’s catalogue.

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Priests — Omne Stage, 3:50 p.m.

Washington D.C. rock quartet Priests pack the punch of the Capitol’s deep punk history while its new album Nothing Feels Natural takes things on a surfy bent. Their politics are out and on their sleeves, much like fellow festival act Downtown Boys, but without the chaos of the latter’s loosely-boundaried ensemble arrangements. Vocalist Katie Alice Greer shouts just as loud and eccentrically over rhythms bouncy and propulsive, but there’s more space here for her scathing, witty proclamations to set in. Priests closes out Maha’s middle run of national up-and-comers — and big personalities — in the mid-afternoon slot.

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The New Pornographers — Weitz Stage, 4:45 p.m.

photo by Will Stott

The New Pornographers have perhaps been one of the most reliable acts in indie rock over the past two decades  which is saying a lot for a group of musicians with their own successful careers. The Vancouver all-star team — featuring the likes of Neko Case, Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder and led by songwriter A.C. Newman — assembled for a seventh record Whiteout Conditions this year and it’s as delightfully catchy and clever as anything in the band has recorded. With the bat signal up again, fans can expect to hear hits from throughout TNP’s long run, from the muscular, rhythm-fueled Twin Cinema to the celebratory Brill Bruisers. And with so many smart songwriters on the stage, expect banter.

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Built To Spill — Omne Stage, 5:55 p.m.

photo by Nickolai Hammar

Another of the festival’s highly dependable acts, Built To Spill has owned a 25-year career on the backs of heavy, guitar driven hooks a la J Mascis and an overall strong catalogue filled with semi-thematic releases. The band’s latest effort, Untethered Moon, brought frontman Doug Martsch back from the brink of quitting, after admitting to feeling “directionless” in a 2013 interview. Much of that album displays Martsch’s gratefulness for shedding that notion as it continues his long history of creativity within the rock trio format. Bred through the mid-90’s with an intentionally-rotating roster and solidified in the band’s arguable 1999 breakout Keep It Like A Secret, Built To Spill’s distinct sound persists, and Untethered Moon is another quality entry into that anthology.

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Belle and Sebastian — Weitz Stage, 7:05 p.m.

Glasgow-formed Belle & Sebastian, who have long held down the charming, bookish corner of the indie rock world, introduced a new wrinkle to its floral fabric with its 2015 LP Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. The band’s first release in five years, it sought to catch more of a groove via synthesizers and forays into funk and polka. It even hired producer Ben H Allen (Animal Collective, Washed Out) to help drive that home. Belle & Sebastian’s familiar daydream whimsy lives on and songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s taste for “sophisticated, nuanced, melodious pop” doesn’t hold him back from some of his most personal, autobiographical work. The third of three consecutive “legacy” indie acts, Belle & Sebastian will provide the festival calm before the dance-party storm.

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Sleigh Bells — Omne Stage, 8:15 p.m.

photo by Molly Misek

The Maha schedule starts to heat up at sunset when New York noise pop duo Sleigh Bells takes the stage. Alexis Krauss and Derek Edward Miller broke out in 2009 with their self-titled debut EP, much of which was repurposed and reworked for its first full-length, Treats, in 2010. Those tracks are ear-splitting, head-banging party anthems that played well at the band’s huge festival run that same year. Three albums later, Sleigh Bells continues smashing together huge pop hooks and jarring instrumentation. Their set looks to set off one of the most intense run of acts to close the festival since its founding.

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The Faint — Weitz Stage, 9:30 p.m.

photo by Lauren Farris

Seven years after holding down the penultimate slot at Maha’s second-ever festival (and last at Lewis & Clark Landing), The Faint return to that same position for this year’s edition at Stinson Park. The Omaha synth-punk band is fresh from a year of reconstitution, releasing career retrospective CAPSULE:1999-2016 which charts its best from that same time period while introducing a few new tracks into the mix. The likes of “Young & Realistic” and “ESP” aren’t revolutionary as much as they are a contemporary update of The Faint’s darkly industrial, club-packing repertoire, and still feature the band’s … ahem … realistic sense of humor. And with a recently re-tooled set of visuals, it looks to be a party.

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Run The Jewels — Weitz Stage, 11:00 p.m.

photo by Chris Dinan

What is left to say about Run The Jewels? While a quiet release year for Killer Mike and El-P — having dropped new music three of the four years since its skull-crushing 2013 debut  — the duo has kept plenty busy, appearing on a handful of late-night spots and as a no-brainer mainstay on the festival circuit. RTJ was practically built for such crowd-fueled settings, evidenced in the stripped-down power of its relentlessly brutal catalogue. All that rage and venom is aimed directly at the ruling political and social class; Run The Jewels 3 felt poignant at the moment of its 2016 release and continues to in the current climate. All the while, the pair continue to evolve closer and closer to each other while finding new ways, production-wise, to bash the point across.

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.