Falling For McDowell
Mountain Music Fest
Margaret T. Hance Park And Downtown Phoenix Put On A Three-Day Festival Worthy Of National Attention With Cool Vibes, Outstanding Sounds And Proceeds Going To Charity
Tristan Dede from the band Future Loves Past. All images by Jeff Moses.
By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine
March 26, 2013 — For all the talk about the ‘Coachella like’ festival that is supposed to be going on this September in Florence, it seems like all of Arizona has forgotten about The Valley’s home-grown Bonnaroo — the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.
In this, their 10th year, the festival really stepped up its street credibility, bringing Bonnaroo veterans The Roots, The Shins, Umphrey's McGee, Les Claypool, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Dr. Dog, The Heartless Bastards, Deer Tick, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Balkan Beat Box. As well as emo reggae band Iration, JGB Band, and locals Dry River Yacht Club, Banana Gun, Mergence, and Decker all on the main stage.
Perhaps even more exciting than the musical talent was the vibes the festival brought to downtown Phoenix’s Margaret T. Hance Park.
Even with the empty makeshift campgrounds on the dirt lots — that featured a sea of broken glass — MMMF brought the vibe of a legitimate music festival to downtown Phoenix where it is so common to hear, “nothing ever happens around here.”
Bad campsites aside, festival organizers seemed to go out of their way to provide the most communal feeling festival this side of Burning Man, and honestly everyone from the organizers of Coachella and Bonnaroo all the way local promoters like Tom LaPenna could learn a thing or two from the MMMF crew.
Free drinks and snacks for everybody to help combat the desert heat, free tequila samples, and possibly the best feature was the $1 souvenir cup that only cost $5 per refill of craft beer mind you, no PBRs or Bud Light at McDowell Mountain Music festival, all the beer was provided by Deschutes Brewery out of Bend, Ore.
The security guards and event staff were very laid back too. In all my years of festival going, I don’t think I ever encountered one that allowed music lovers to set their lawn chairs up outside the gates and enjoy the sounds for free — or one that was so easy to sneak in to.
The laid back vibes even rubbed off on the usually horrendously aggressive Phoenix police — you know there is something strange in the air when PPD officers see and smell people smoking weed and instead of making an arrest just move 100 feet away — or maybe they just caught a hefty whiff of whatever it was in the air.
Maybe the charitable nature of the event put put the security guards and police in such a good mood. Proceeds were split between the Ear Candy Charity, The Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and UMOM New Day Centers.
Or, maybe Phoenix realized if they allowed their officers to act as they usually do and treat people violently the festival would pack up after one year and not come back. But whatever their motivation, it was almost surreal to see police officers who almost seemed like ‘real people’ for the day.
The festival also featured a phenomenal local stage sponsored by new Phoenix venue Last Exit that had Yellow Minute, Ladylike Kongos, Sara Robinson and the Midnight Specials, Drum Circle, The Wiley One, Fayuca, Cousins of the Wize, Jared and The Mill, and Future Loves Past.
Kongos, Fayuca and Future Loves Past were the real highlights of the local stage. Kongos was fresh from a trip to the South-by-Southwest festival and played like a band ready to take the next step.
Fayuca played right before Iration, and though Iration was a real reggae snoozer, Fayuca’s video shoot on the local stage was a desert reggae treat for the 200 people who caught it.
Future Loves Past were a pop inspired fusion rock act that made the most of the last slot on the local stage, and if the ecstatic fans are an indicator Future Loves Past will be making their way to the main stage shortly.
A notable snub was the Haymarket Squares, whose twangy folk sound would have fit right in at MMMF and with the festivals move to downtown Phoenix definitely put it into the Squares’ stomping grounds.
As for the main stage acts, day one headliner The Shins was easily overshadowed by the band directly before them: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
While The Shins appeared like they weren’t all there for their headlining slot at the mid-card festival, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, or ESAMZ, gave the Phoenix crowd all they had and even stopped in the middle of the set to go down into the throngs of fans to take press pictures and say hi.
ESAMZ frontman Alex Ebert even shared the microphone with his fans and allowed a random selection of fans to address the entire crowd.
The day two headliner would not be out done, for day two on the main stage there was The Roots and then everybody else.
None of the acts were bad, itís just when a true headliner takes the stage they can transform the entire festival. McDowell Mountain Music Festival had a certain jammy arts-fest vibe, until The Roots took the stage and transformed it into a full-blown legitimate music festival.
The living legends put on a two-hour show featuring some of their biggest hits, and even a few covers.
Hip-hop’s original jam band gave Phoenix a dose of funk that won’t soon be forgotten, and ?uestlove proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he is the Jerry Garcia of hip-hop.
Day three’s main stage experience was as diverse as the almost the whole rest of the festival put together.
Sedona-based songwriter Decker opened the day, followed by The JGB Band, who brought festival right back to its jam band roots in true deadhead fashion.
Next up was Pennsylvania indie rockers Dr. Dog, who played an inspired set, but still seemed like little more than Les Claypool’s opening act.
It’s no offense to Dr. Dog, they truly are an excellent band but no matter how good the band, opening for a legend is a tough thing to do.
Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang — one of Claypool’s side projects with Bryan Kehoe — took the stage after Dr. Dog, and though more folk than Primus, Claypool fans still got the weird show they’ve come to expect from Les.
The bass god played his hour and fifteen minute set, and then hung out backstage, took pictures and signed autographs for his fans, which became a fairly regular occurrence for all the bands at the show.
The festival’s closer was progressive jam band Umphrey’s McGee who can play jammy sounds reminiscent of The Grateful Dead and Phish, get as progressive as Pink Floyd, and rock just hard as Led Zep.
Though the festival is no longer near McDowell Mountain, its new venue at Margaret T. Hance Park is more than suitable and it seemed as if everyone who had seen the old venue agreed that ‘T Hance’ was meant to be the home of MMMF.
Jeff Moses is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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