So who came up with the name? “We wanted it to be kind of self-deprecating,” said MAHA Festival organizer Tyler Owen said, “but we wanted it to describe the area, too. Bemis Press (a local design firm) came up with the name. There was some resistance, but it was better than some of the others we were considering. (The name) was a very contentious issue for the board for two months. It wasn’t the name I wanted, but I like it. It’s kind of a silly word that doesn’t mean anything, like Bonnaroo and Coachella.”
Column 234: MAHA Explained
The festival’s organizer talks about compromise.
Tyler Owen, one of the key people behind next weekend’s MAHA Festival at Lewis and Clark Landing, wasn’t too happy with last week’s column, where I suggested that the terribly named event was nothing more than a repackaging of the usual casino acts, along with a sprinkling of local bands that had to win talent contests to get on the Kermit Brashear (I-Love-Sarpy-County) Local Stage.
It wasn’t the first criticism that Owen and the rest of the “YFC” committee have heard about MAHA. And word on the street (confirmed by Owen) is that ticket sales have been lagging in the wake of The River Riot and Green Day, which have siphoned off all of the extra lawn-mowing money from their target audience.
Owen called Sunday while driving back from a South Dakota vacation. His key message: The festival being held next weekend is not the festival that he wanted. The real goal is to make MAHA into a Midwestern version of the Bonnaroo or Coachella festivals.
Sound ambitious? He went on to say organizers envision MAHA as a three-day event held at a dam site that would be preceded by a week-long South by Southwest-style invitational hosted in Benson or the Old Market.
“The intent is to get this thing big and powerful enough to get Radiohead here,” he said. But instead, they got G. Love and Special Sauce and Dashboard Confessional. What happened?
“We asked over 200 bands and ended up with the lineup we have, for better or worse,” he said.
They thought they had The Flaming Lips, but that fell through. The list of targeted bands also included Fran Ferdinand, The Killers, Phoenix and Bob Mould, but because of their touring schedules — and the fact that MAHA is an unproven quantity — none would commit.
Add to that the fact that they got started three months too late, in February. One of their first decisions, Owen said, was hiring One Percent Productions’ Marc Leibowitz — easily the best promoter of local indie rock shows, who books The Waiting Room, Slowdown and larger venues such as The Holland and Anchor Inn. Owen said off the bat they had The Decemberists locked in, “but we became concerned about selling 3,000 tickets for them,” he said. “So we went a little bit more commercial.”
With that in mind, Owen said they dropped One Percent. “Marc is 100 percent indie, so we decided to wait and collaborate with him next year,” he said. Instead, the YFC turned to Events Resources Presents, Inc., a company out of Green Bay, Wisconsin, whose festivals include Sioux City’s Saturday in the Park Festival. Their headliner this year was Counting Crows. You can figure out the rest yourself.
So who is the YFC? Owen said the acronym doesn’t stand for Your Festival Committee, as had been reported. “I can’t reveal its true definition,” he said without explaining why. The five-member committee includes Mike App, Trey Brashear (yes, he’s related to Kermit), Mike Toohey and Traci Hancock. And Owen, who said he’s worked in the music business in Los Angeles and has played in bands for 25 years. His current band, The Eye, has a new album coming out in December. These days Owen makes a living working in his family’s steel business.
The MAHA Festival is a non-profit endeavor — designated 501c3 — and depends not only on ticket sales but donations and sponsors to make it work. Owen said a festival mission is to keep prices down “so it’s not going to cost $150 for tickets” — an admirable goal.
From a local standpoint, Owen said the YFC tried to get Cursive, Bright Eyes and The Faint on the bill, but had no luck. “We wanted Saddle Creek and the Slumber Party Records guys involved in the say in the local lineup,” Owen said. But instead, they decided to go with a “battle of the bands” approach because “we thought it would be a good opportunity for people to get excited” about MAHA. The final local band line-up is Jes Winter Band, Little Brazil and Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship. It’s True, which is also playing, got invited without winning a contest because they are “kind of a favorite” of the YFC.
Owen said that indie bands Appleseed Cast and Army Navy are his “favorite bands on the bill.” So why relegate them to early afternoon time slots when no one will be there? “That’s where we felt they fit in the overall lineup,” he said, adding that G. Love and Dashboard got the plum 7 and 9 p.m. slots because “We kind of went by who we thought would pull the largest number of people.”
“It was a hard decision to make,” he added. “Were we going to hire a band for twice as much to play a festival environment that would be lucky to fill Slowdown on a Saturday night? Maybe we did this bigger than we should have. This whole thing is a learning experience.”
In the end, this year’s MAHA Festival has been an endless series of compromises, right down to the location. “Our first choice was Anchor Inn,” Owen said. Lewis and Clark Landing was chosen because “it’s plug and play, and we just wanted to get this first one under our belts.”
Things will be different next year, Owen said. They’re considering Levi Carter Park or Standing Bear Lake as possible locations, and plans call for forming a panel of local music experts to make recommendations for bands.
“The thing I keep coming back to with people not into the lineup is to go down and be a part of it anyway,” Owen said. “Be a part of an all-day festival and help us become viable for the future.”
* * *
Tonight at Slowdown Jr, it’s Oakland, California low-fi garage punk-rock freak Nobunny. Check out his rabbit-masked hi-jinx on YouTube. Opening is Flamboyant Gods and Mr. Wizard. $7, 9 p.m.
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