2013 Maha Music Festival | Review

photo by Bridget McQuillan

photos by Bridget McQuillan, Cara Wilwerding, Mike Machian & Nicholas O’Bradovich
interviews by Dan Scheuerman | reviews by Chance Solem-Pfeifer & Michael Todd

It took until 10 p.m. for a performer to put a finger on what made Maha Music Festival such a communal experience.

And Matt Johnson of Matt & Kim has played enough music festivals this summer to know. In the process of thanking the festival organizers, the singer demanded a specific round of applause for the full day of two stages, 13 acts and more than 5,000 fans all successfully run and coordinated by volunteers.

The fifth year of Maha flooded Omaha’s Stinson Park with the legendary stage oddity of the Flaming Lips, the irrepressible vigor of Matt & Kim, the hard-earned indie cred of Bob Mould and equal opportunity stage time for seven Nebraska bands.

From noon until midnight, the festival showcased genres from The Thermals’ straight-ahead rock to Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s avant garde folk pop and other outliers like Sons of Fathers’ roots folk.

For a full recap of Maha Music Festival, find interviews, photos and set-by-set reviews below:

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Bands:
Purveyors of the Conscious Sound
Millions of Boys
HERS with Omaha Girls Rock!
Sons of Fathers
Rock Paper Dynamite
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down
The Millions
The Thermals
Criteria
Bob Mould
Digital Leather
Matt and Kim
Flaming Lips

Poetry:
Louder Than a Bomb

Comedy:
The Globe

All else:
The crowd

#maha2013 on Instagram


Purveyors of the Conscious Sound

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

If there was a band well-suited for the difficult task of kicking off a music festival 10 hours before the headliner, it’s an act that arrived there by proving they could rally a crowd. A band that wouldn’t be afraid to joyfully cry out, “What’s up, Maha!?” close to a dozen times in 30 minutes.

Purveyors of the Conscious Sound claimed the locally-sought-after Maha slot reserved for the winner of the Omaha Arts and Entertainment Awards and was the first to take the Centris Stage on Saturday (the home for Nebraska artists all Saturday long).

Armed with noontime PBRs, rapper Jake Dawson, MC Topic and singer Liz Graham pranced in circles while beatmaker Andy Boostra spun from behind them, looking pressed against a sky that would remain clear and blue for as long as music was played under it.

With the initially sparse crowd of listeners looking apprehensive about climbing the small slope up the stage, the Omaha hip-hop crew implored noontime Maha attendees to come closer with promises of free CDs, T-shirts and hugs.

People might have inched toward the stage for the merch, but the guitar-driven hooks, Graham’s silky R&B voice, Topic’s motor-mouthing and Dawson’s throwing his voice up and down kept them there for songs that ran both serious and sexy. On Saturday, though, the set leaned pretty sexy.

It was a game of inches with the bystanders, but by the time PCS brought the funk-laced sweetness of “Sugar Funk,” which declares the rappers’ distaste for “orange” women and their deep love for “pasty motherfuckers,” the early crowd was won over. And after a guest vocal appearance from Rebecca Lowry (All Young Girls Are Machine Guns), the dancers quickly transformed into “lifers” as PCS demanded handmade Ls for its self-defining track.

For a set that’s tone was defined by attempted freestyles about strangers in the audience and gigantic grins, judging the outward success of PCS’s Maha debut was a matter of perspective. From the parking lot, you saw a band that had to work tirelessly to attract what was expectedly the day’s most modest crowd. From up close, it looked like a thrilling opportunity to attract a few new “lifers.”

^ back to top ^


Millions of Boys

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

In Sara Bertuldo’s own words, when Millions of Boys records or performs, “it’s just a buncha songs.”

As the only Nebraska band to play Maha’s Weitz Stage, they embraced the “buncha” and tapped the early day 35-minute set limit for all it was worth, squeezing in about a dozen of their poppy dashes.

Million of Boys showcased a baffling selection of either ironically morbid songs (e.g. “Dead Girls” or “Gimme Yr Blood,” which hinges on the lyric “give me your blood”) or songs dripping with teenage sentiment, something like Lover’s Lane pop punk.

The Omaha trio of multi-instrumentalists — Bertuldo (vocals/guitar/bass), Alex van Beaumont (vocals/guitar/bass) and Ryan Haas (vocals/drums) — bolstered their ranks with two more on Saturday, adding a supporting guitar and keys. Even if Omaha in-town crowds are used to something more pared-down, Millions of Boys came the main stage with a fuller platter.

Ignoring any glibness, Bertuldo’s remark on Millions of Boys’ songs could be taken as a suggestion for consuming them. About two minutes long and often in the same key, it’s better to look at their sets for the trees than a thematic forest.

The band drew mostly from their debut album Competing for Your Love (on the Kansas City label Golden Sound Records), as well as a few new tunes from a forthcoming second record.

Pre-Matt and Kim (more on that later), Millions of Boys brought Maha’s liveliest acrobatics, including an impromptu piggy back for Bertuldo — who is maybe 5 feet tall with her shadow and looked a bit like an incognito gardener in her droopy black hat— on van Beaumont’s shoulders.

^ back to top ^


HERS with Omaha Girls Rock!

review by Michael Todd

Scrawled at the bottom of my notes on HERS’ set at Maha is this: “Like a military march, only with clarinet and glockenspiel.”

In other words, this Omaha band is unassumingly powerful. Yes, a death metal band might share some of HERS’ darker chords (maybe that death metal band is named “Hearse”), but the screams are internalized and the loudness is saved for effect. Like a horror movie, the power comes not from the ear-splitting reveal but from the near-silence that preceded.

The steady footfalls of the group’s songs are amplified by Cody Peterson’s drums, but often after opening quieter sections set up the dynamic. Rachel Tomlinson Dick’s spastic guitar lines add a sort of electricity, escaping from her amp like a convict on the loose. Vocalist and lead songwriter Melissa Amstutz showcased a fervent resolve onstage, too, as her eyes focused willfully ahead.

Add in Ellen Wilde’s bass, clarinet and omnichord — and a bit of help on drums and keys from Aaron Markley — and you wouldn’t want to double-cross this band. Why would you anyway? There’s an inherent sweetness to HERS that showed itself through Amstutz’s smile at her adoring fans under the age of 5 hanging on the front of the stage.

Plus, the group’s connection to the Omaha Girls Rock camp is strong, having helped give young girls the confidence to use their voice through music just a couple weeks ago. HERS invited Urban Scrunchies to open their set with a song featuring the optimistic line of “Even when you’re sinking down, you’ll always float back up.” With impressive vocals, traded among the four at the front of the stage — backed by a solid beat-keeper on drums — and a change of time signature and mood for the choruses, Omaha would be wise to keep an ear out for this band.

For HERS’ last song, the band welcomed all campers and volunteers to the stage to sing OGR’s theme song, which proclaimed, “We’re the girls from Omaha,” and “I’m not afraid to shout it out loud.” Hell yes, I say.

^ back to top ^


Sons of Fathers

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

Paul Cauthen and David Beck have a knack for turning a harmony’s sweet spot into a concert.

The harmonies begin somewhere low and unbreakable where the ear first registers the synapse of two voices of equal body and power. Then the Austin-based duo at the front of Sons of Fathers sustains it longer than you would think two pairs of lungs could. And with a gospel enthusiasm.

Assembled from every corner of Texas, Sons of Fathers brought Saturday’s cleanest and most refined live sound.

In the broader world of neo-folk where the upright bass has become increasingly visible as a stylistic alternative to bass guitar, Sons of Fathers and Beck set themselves apart by holding the wooden behemoth at the core of the Southern rock proceedings.

Add the wild cards of trumpet, accordion and a dynamic electric guitar (from Houston’s talented Tony Browne) — not to mention some of the only guitar/trumpet harmony lines the audience had probably ever heard — and the band can proudly hang their cowboy hats on being the exclusive players of Maha roots music. And those roots appeared distinctly Texan on Saturday given the murder ballads and tumbleweeds that form the Western aesthetic of Sons for Fathers’ new record, Burning Days.

With a growing résumé (that includes a performance at Grand Ole Opry) Sons of Fathers plays both the long and short game. The single from Burning Days, “Roots & Vine,” is a folk-pop foot-stomper about how love makes for a pretty tasty metaphorical wine. The band’s namesake track was a novel of a song with an acoustic chapter, a few minutes for solos, a full band chorus about how “sons of fathers” don’t change their fate, one false ending, a trumpet climb, and another jamming outro.

Even if you could change, you Sons of Fathers, don’t.

^ back to top ^


Rock Paper Dynamite

review by Michael Todd

Play a game of rock, paper, dynamite with the band Rock Paper Dynamite, and I have a sneaking suspicion which weapon they’ll choose: dynamite.

This Omaha four-piece charged through Maha at full-bore, and blew the top off the local stage for most of their set of southern grunge songs. As they cite in their interview, that genre — southern grunge — finds its origin in the transmitted fare of classic rock and popular music radio stations, the stations that lived on their FM dials in central Nebraska where they’re from. Brothers Joseph and Andrew Janousek (on vocals and guitar respectively), drummer Scott Zrust and bassist Trey Abel grew up with artists spanning the two ends of the spectrum, from Conway Twitty to Nirvana.

Churned together like butter, the mixture makes for a band that plays like what I imagine my dad’s ‘60s Firebird would sound like (even if it sits disassembled in a garage in Alliance, Neb.). Sporting a mustache and a soul patch, big-lunged Joseph somehow struck a resemblance to Steve Prefontaine for me. His percussive, eighth-note lyrics in a couple of the tunes matched Steve’s chug-a-chug legs, too.

Joseph would bend over his mic stand, clutching his tambourine in his right hand and the mic in his left, singing on songs such as “Somebody Who Knows” and “Waiting” from their RPD EP, released in January. Others such as “Nonchalant” and the closer “Bird Dog” reached further back in their catalogue from 2011’s I’ve Seen Days.

At the end, Joseph was sweaty and tired, testament to the energy it takes to sing your internal organs through your mouth.

^ back to top ^


Thao and the Get Down Stay Down

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

After an introduction from Omaha mayor Jean Stothert, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down was the first band of the day (at 3:20 p.m.) to pull in an intentional, hug-the-rail crowd.

Their set was one of complex and unexpected relationships: riff and phrase-based music, which starts small with stand-alone lyrical puzzles — notably “I want love in the aftermath” from “Holy Roller” — pairing with chromatic mandolin and banjo lines. All the while, the frontwoman’s own voice disregards the riffs, and instead, buddies up with the funky basslines.

Thao Nguyen showed why she’s the name at the start of the band’s with remarkable versatility on the guitar, sometimes soloing with three fingers and then switching to the slide of her pinky for a more abrasive sound. “When We Swam” was its own stage for Thao’s talent for marrying noise guitar and a vocal intimacy, something like finding tender kisses in the chaos of a wrestling match.

Saturday’s pristine weather allowed Thao some space to experiment not only musically but in trying to imitate a rock music legend. Thao said she observed Paul McCartney not drink water between songs for a three-hour set for festival in the band’s homebase of San Francisco, and she decided to try and follow suit in Omaha. This lasted about 40 minutes before she surrendered and conceded that the former Beatle is legendary for a reason.

Thao was the day’s first artist on the Weitz Stage to breach the ever-present catwalk, which extended probably ten feet above the crowd.

“Is this just for the Flaming Lips?” she asked before tiptoeing out onto the platform, laying down a rapped interlude, slipping Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy” within “When We Swam.” She then confidently dropping the mic on the stage. Only her set wasn’t over.

Thao apologized for the clatter and loud feedback and sent the audience into the late afternoon with the title track from her most recent album, We the Common.

^ back to top ^


The Millions

review by Michael Todd

The contented smiles populating the area close to the local stage during The Millions’ set said it all. You didn’t even need to see vocalist Lori Allison, spunky and grinning widely, as she hopped around the stage to know it: This was a show that meant something.

That something was the last foreseeable show for the legendary Lincoln band that reformed last December. It was supposed to be just one concert at The Bourbon to release Poison Fish, a collection of songs from the early days that had never seen the light of day. But with the addition of The Millions to Maha’s lineup came two other concerts in July, one at The Waiting Room in Omaha and another at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan.

Having broken up in the ‘90s, after drawing sell-out crowds that stretched in lines around the block, and after signing with a major record label, The Millions said hello again to their lifelong fans who returned to watch the band play again. One traveler told me after the show that he had come from the far end of Iowa, and had hit the road just after working a night shift and getting barely an hour of sleep.

And while The Millions showed their joy while playing, it was when guitarist Harry Dingman thanked Randy LeMasters, the man largely responsible for bringing The Millions back together, that the weight of this show was realized. LeMasters assembled the Poison Fish and M is for Millions releases (and is preparing more) for the Randy’s Alternative Music record label, and he thanked the band in kind.

In their last song, bassist Marty Amsler sidled up to Dingman to smile together, and at least for now, those notes ring out in the memories of a much happier, but just as musically strong group.

^ back to top ^


The Thermals

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

No one really knows what Hutch Harris said when he whispered in Kathy Foster’s ear in the middle of The Thermals’ set on Saturday.

I like to think the frontman (wearing his designated Omaha shirt) realized one new meaning in his deep, six-album punk catalog that constantly questions religion and civilized society with biting sarcasm. And he just had to tell his bassist of 10 years at the same time as strumming as fast as possible.

This moment of subtlety, though, was hidden underneath a set that put the accent more on head-banging than head-scratching. Harris knee-slid out onto the catwalk. Drummer Westin Glass knocked over one of his drum microphones simply with the ferocity of his playing. Foster played the feedback of her bass amp nearly as often as she played her bass.

Just as they did at Slowdown in May, the Portland-based Thermals were quick to remind the Omaha crowd of their Saddle Creek Records bond.

“You guys know we’re on Saddle Creek now, right?” Harris screamed at the crowd of willing fist-pumpers. They certainly did.

The band, in turn, obliged by playing a large sampling of the tracks from their 2013 Saddle Creek release Desperate Ground, including crowd-pleasers “Faces Stay With Me” and “Where I Stand.”

But with an average song runtime of under three minutes, an hour with The Thermals easily turns into a excavation of their full discography and plenty of time for the perennial favorite, 2006’s “A Pillar of Salt.”

^ back to top ^


Criteria

review by Michael Todd

Criteria is the bulging veins in frontman Steve Pedersen’s neck when he sings, “You’re preventing the world from hearing my songs.”

It’s Aaron Druery’s guitar, with more angles than a geometry quiz, jutting out into a Maha crowd of mostly men close to the local stage. It’s A.J. Mogis on bass and Mike Sweeney on drums cementing a rock-hard rhythm section.

Criteria is an Omaha band that plays like a well-placed exclamation point. And considering their somewhat rare shows, those fist-in-the-air punctuation marks are often surrounded by ellipses.

Tell you what, though: It’s worth the wait. On Saturday, the four-piece played set mainstays such as “The Coincidence” from 2003 album En Garde and “Good Luck” and “Prevent the World” from 2005 release When We Break.

Sure, the crowd couldn’t follow mid-set new songs like “This Reign Is Ours” as closely as those they’d cheered on years ago. But this great Nebraska rock band with a purpose is as strong as ever. Here’s to the next show.

^ back to top ^


Bob Mould

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

You could’ve praised the Maha organizers at any point during the day for the diversity they cultivated across their two stages. But it wasn’t fully realized until Bob Mould made the whole of the festival tremble.

From a vantage point in the middle of the main stage’s standing audience, each set drew an entirely different demographic of listeners, as if each fanbase got to take turns with their favorites while the others respectfully receded to watch from further back. Though it was the folks over 35 who pushed forward for Mould, the former bandleader of Hüsker Dü made certain everyone in the Stinson Park bowl could hear him. Drum beats rumbled in the foot-mashed grass and dirt, and Mould’s lead guitar was easily the loudest single instrument on stage all day.

Billed as simply Bob Mould, he played as the power trio that toured Mould’s new record, Silver Age, last year, featuring Jason Narducy (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums). But songs from his former band Sugar — “The Act We Act,” “Hoover Dam,” and “A Good Idea” — were on hand as well, drawing not only crowd sing-alongs but a few stunned-looking faces, basking in the opportunity to hear such intensity in songs Mould wrote 20 and 30 years before.

Maybe it was Narducy and Wurster who played their part in helping to keep Mould young and mobile on stage, but during solos the rock veteran looked absolutely euphoric, shaking his head, skipping to far corners of the stage and smiling skyward.

^ back to top ^


Digital Leather

review by Michael Todd

Few things can describe Digital Leather’s set at Maha more precisely than hurtled PBRs.

The drummer of Omaha’s grimiest electronic punk band, Jeff Lambelet, slung two half-empty tall boys into the crowd. And although they weren’t the only projectiles — with the softer, promotional beach balls filling the air for the first time of the festival — they were the only airborne objects you could drink. What defines Digital Leather’s set, and maybe even partly represents their music for me, is the expression the two concertgoers gave their friends when they picked up the cans.

They’d grab the beer from the ground, look at their friends, shrug and then chug the rest.

And while the sloped area leading up to the stage prevented moshing, misplaced punches at the beach balls would spill beer and elbow passersby in the face. The stage presented close quarters, too, for frontman Shawn Foree, bassist Johnny Vrendenburg and the two newest additions on keys, Todd Fink of The Faint and Ben VanHoolandt of Pleasure Adapter and Dirt. Why was it a bit cramped? Well, because NET was filming the concert to accompany the band’s Hear Nebraska: Live at the 1200 Club performance, airing this fall. A hefty television camera and fluffy boom mic don’t exactly slip in and out unnoticed.

Songs such as opener “Mountains Are Dreaming” from Yes, Please. Thank You, closer “Styrofoam” from Sorcerer and the ones in between such as Blow Machine‘s “Studs In Love”and its craving for hairy asses filled the second-most abrasive set for new ears, second only to Flaming Lips (see below).

^ back to top ^


Matt and Kim

review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

They seemed to come out of nowhere.

When the teenage adrenaline at the foot of the Weitz Stage had reached an anticipatory fever pitch, Matt & Kim sprinted from backstage, partially jumping over the instruments and immediately started dancing on the catwalk. It would not be the last time.

The drummer wife and her singing, keyboardist husband are renowned for their zest for working the crowd. And as the penultimate Maha performers, they stayed true to form.

They’ve played well over a dozen music festivals this summer and demonstrated mastery for the formula of feeding off a crowd that’s catching its third or fourth wind from a 10-hour day. Balloons, beach balls, confetti and outrageous stage banter surrounded their pop hits both new and old, including “Daylight,” “Let’s Go” and “It’s Alright.”

Matt & Kim gave a performance that was admirably enthusiastic but ultimately imbalanced. Not to their detriment by measure of crowd response, but if you stood far enough away from the spectacle of Kim walking on the crowd’s hands or Matt using his piano stool like a pogo stick, you might question whether the Brooklyn-based duo wasn’t better at hyping Matt & Kim than playing as Matt & Kim.

Their backing track — for one — was too prominent, to the point where onstage Matt would stop singing, while recorded Matt would keep singing. And what’s the decisive moment at which amping up the audience with ‘90s hip-hop favorites becomes a distraction as opposed to a complement?

There’s nothing wrong with standing on your instruments, but when its frequency overshadows your playing of them, you could call that a priority problem.

^ back to top ^


Flaming Lips

 

review by Michael Todd

Imagine a rainbow being sucked into a black hole. Through the wormhole about halfway, where all light and matter is stretched infinitely, you might just hear the faint sound of scraping metal percussion, feedback, electronic buzzing and the high, cotton-candy singing voice of a frizzy gray-haired man.

He speaks with a slight Oklahoma twang when he asks you, Omaha, “you fuckers,” to come on. Come on and be weird. Holding and kissing a plastic baby, visible through the smoking stage, this man, Wayne Coyne, shows you how to be weird.

He stands atop a pedestal, which serves as the motherboard for a mess of rope-lights that extend upward carrying blips of energy to the blackness. And when the black confetti bursts in the sky like a swarm of locusts lit up by a surveillance UFO, you know you’re not stuck in a wormhole. You’re at Stinson Park, closing out the 2013 Maha Music Festival with Flaming Lips.

No, Coyne will not walk upon your hands in an adult-sized hamster ball. No, he will not sing“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and give you the high of eating his cotton candy. This new production is the sick, stomach-swirling, droning feeling that follows the sugary feast. Droning through a good deal of their most recent record, The Terror, Flaming Lips only party satiated a treat-hungry crowd with the sad, sad rendition of “Race For The Prize” and the show closer, “Do You Realize??” albeit slowed down a bit.

If the black hole is what you saw swallowing you at the start, this was a headliner that made do on its promise. If not, we hope you made it out on the other side in one piece.

^ back to top ^

Michael Todd (@michaelsedits) is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Reach him at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.