A few final thoughts on MAMF:
Column 189: What’s the Point?
And in MAMF’s case, does it matter?
The day after a night spent at the Mid-American Music Festival — or MAMF as it’s become known — singer-songwriter David Hurwitz and I pondered the purpose of the festival over drinks at La Buvette.
Hurwitz, who fronts a band called The Boy Bathing (named after one of Aesop’s Fables) flew to Omaha from his home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to take part in MAMF after I tried to convince him not to.
Our correspondence took place a month prior to the festival. Hurwitz, whose band I’d mentioned in a column months earlier, asked if he thought MAMF was worth paying $400 for a plane ticket. I asked what he hoped to get out of the trip. “The same thing I hope to gain by every other gig I play,” he responded. “I’ve never been to Nebraska. They wanted us to do it. I guess I’m hoping to gain exposure. New fans. Maybe meet some industry people who could help us.”
I noted that he was booked to play PS Collective at 7 p.m. on a Friday night. He’d be lucky if 15 people were in the audience. I also pointed out that MAMF wouldn’t be showcasing his style of indie music. None of the bands from the plethora of Omaha indie labels — Saddle Creek, Team Love, Speed! Nebraska, Boom Chick, Slumber Party, It Are Good, Ant, or Coco Art — were taking part. Perhaps if he booked another show while in town — one that actually paid him — it might be worth his time. But Hurwitz, god bless him, came out anyway.
My prediction ended up being strangely accurate. Hurwitz played a quiet, soulful solo rendition of his band’s music to a dozen pizza-eating patrons, I among them.
Afterward, we spent the evening bouncing from venue to venue catching as much music as we could, including sets by Scott Severin and the Milton Burlesque at PS, Monica Eby at Mick’s, Blastronauts at The Musette, Shiver Shiver at The Foundry and Naked Plywood at The Barley Street before hitting what ended up being the evening’s highlights — Kyle Harvey at a packed Burke’s Pub and Little Brazil at The Waiting Room. Hurwitz was blown away by both. We had a great time Friday night, but afterward neither of us could figure out what exactly MAMF was trying to accomplish.
We ticked off the festival’s possible motives. To gain more exposure for bands? Well, other than the handful of out-of-town acts that no one saw because they were given poor time slots, every band at MAMF plays in and around Benson on a weekly or monthly basis. Did you miss Sarah Benck and the Robbers? Brad Hoshaw? Matt Whipkey? Oxygen? Don’t worry. They all will be playing in Benson sometime in the coming days.
What about industry hype? Hurwitz and his band played at South by Southwest this year. That festival originally was designed to help labels discover unsigned bands. These days, SXSW is mostly label showcases — almost every band performing is already signed. The goal now is to “create buzz” among members of the national music media and other labels. Hurwitz said he hadn’t met any members of the national press at MAMF or any label reps.
Maybe the festival was designed to showcase the Benson music district? No, Hurwitz said, not when you consider that Burke’s, The Musette, Mia’s Bongo Room and The Foundry don’t normally host shows. But in the end, it was the venues who gained the most from MAMF financially — they got four nights of free talent on their stages.
“I don’t know what the purpose was to this festival,” Hurwitz concluded. “My only expectation was to have an experience. I wasn’t expecting to come out here and have a big show.”
He said he was pleased with his performance and PS Collective, though “it was early for me to be playing.”
“It is what it is,” he said of MAMF. “I’ve met some cool people and had a good time. Maybe if there were other bands here who were on my wavelength, it may have been better. But I would have been let down if I came out here expecting the festival to make me have a good time. I intended to have a good time in Omaha with or without the festival.”
He said the trip ended up costing him $300. MAMF paid for $200 of his $400 air fare and paid for part of his lodging. A vegetarian, Hurwitz didn’t take advantage of the food vouchers offered. He also skipped most of the seminars.
So would he play MAMF again? “I would want the money up front and not have to do it myself, but sure, if I was available,” he said. “I would definitely come here on tour. There’s no denying there’s a music scene and a subculture that appreciates alternative music.”
That subculture, he said, generally wasn’t represented at MAMF. “I liked Kyle’s set and Little Brazil, but I have a certain taste,” he said. “I wasn’t into the other bands we saw. There are things I know I like, but that’s not necessarily what other people like.”
Hurwitz suggested that next year MAMF book four “semi-known bands” along the lines of Jay Reatard or Neva Dinova, something he said that MAMF organizers told him that they’d consider.
Maybe MAMF’s purpose was merely to schedule four days for Benson to celebrate itself with its music, or as one performer explained it to me: “Just to put on a kick-ass festival.” If that was the goal, then MAMF was a rousing success.
The seminar Hurwitz attended was specifically focused on music licensing — i.e., selling your music for use in television, films and commercials, etc. He said the presenter’s core message was to “make your music sound as generic as possible if you want to attract the widest range of potential clients.” While he couldn’t argue with the perceived logic, Hurwitz said creating music to appeal to the greatest common denominator wasn’t the reason he became a songwriter and performer. I highly doubt that the idea of genericizing music ever crossed the minds of Saddle Creek bands that have had plenty of success getting their music played on television or films.
Bottom line: Hurwitz had a great time in Omaha, and we both enjoyed our evening-long MAMF bar crawl. We agreed that the idea of Benson hosting a music festival is a good one, but that the organizers have to seriously look beyond the city’s confines (and their personal tastes) if they want to see it grow to something that could gain national attention. Then again, maybe they don’t, in which case, they should stay on their present course.
* * *
The rest of the week sort of has a festival vibe, too — The Night Marchers tomorrow, Vampire Hands Friday, Okkervil River Saturday, then Neko Case on Monday! And it all starts tonight at Slowdown Jr.,where one of my all-time favorite bands takes the small stage — Centro-matic. How to describe Centro-matic’s music: Imagine Robert Pollard backed by Crazy Horse, or Son Volt sharing recording sessions with Archers of Loaf, or The Grifters bio-merged with The Silos and you begin to get where Centro-matic is coming from. Their gritty, southern fuzz-guitar rock drips with lo-fi Rust Never Sleeps feedback layered like molasses over vista-wide stretches of open dirt road. Frontman Will Johnson’s gravel-pit mewing could have made him the Eddie Vedder of our generation if someone outside of the indie music world have ever discovered him or his band. Johnson has come through Omaha a number of times as a solo performer, always threatening to bring the rest of the band along some day. Looks like that day’s finally come. Opening is Merge band Broken West whose new album, Now or Heaven, is currently seated on my ’08 top-10 list. Add to that local all-stars Mal Madrigal and this show very likely will wind up on a lot of year-end top-10 lists. And it’s only $8. Starts at 9.
It’s not the only awesome show going on tonight. Over at The Waiting Room, Portland rock monsters System and Station play with Race for Titles and Fromanhole. This will be one loud, rowdy show. Bring your earplugs. $7, 9 p.m
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