Live Review: 2017 Maha Music Festival, Stephen Sheehan, Sun-Less Trio…

The crowd during Built to Spill’s set at the 2017 Maha Music Festival.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

It was a crazy, busy week for music in Omaha, maybe the busiest week of the year (though there’s still a lot of stuff planned this summer, from Lincoln Calling to Future Islands outdoors).

Let’s start at the beginning…

Stephen Sheehan and his band at Reverb Lounge, Aug. 18, 2017.

If you’re acquainted with Stephen Sheehan than Friday night’s concert at Reverb Lounge was no surprise. Sheehan is a critical bastard and a stickler for detail and would never present his music on stage without it being meticulously honed to needle-sharp perfection.

Sheehan was the frontman to ’80s-’90s post-punk bands Digital Sex and The World, bands that made their mark on the Omaha landscape in a time before Caulfield and Saddle Creek and decades before the rise of Benson (a neighborhood Sheehan, ironically, refers to derogatively as “Beno”). Digital Sex hasn’t played together since the first half of the ’90s, and because of internal band frictions and the unavailability of other members (i.e., guitarist John Tingle) likely never will, despite constant needling from the band’s fans for a reunion. Friday night’s show was the closest they’ll get to hearing DS material, possibly ever again.

With this lone opportunity, Sheehan surrounded himself with an amazing group of musicians to bring his musical past to life. On top of the list was former Digital Sex drummer Dan Crowell, who white-knuckled the performance with panache — just tremendous stickwork from a guy who rarely takes the stage anymore. It was Crowell and bassist Randy Cotton (who had the difficult task of filling Dereck Higgins’ shoes on DS songs) that held it all together, and in Cotton’s case, even led the direction in some cases.

If Crowell and Cotton brought the deep blues, it was keyboard player Donovan Johnson and guitarist Ben Sieff who added the rest of the spectrum. Johnson, a fluent professional, steadfast and stoic throughout, was a contrast to Sieff’s orgiastic performance that was like a reincarnation of Mick Ronson. Sieff often was at the center of the arrangements, especially in the latter portion of the set.

But at the actual center was Sheehan, dressed a peacock in rose-print vest and blue eye shadow,  once again a frontman, where he belongs. He looked comfortable and at home, not a bit nervous.

The million dollar answer: Yes, Sheehan still has the pipes, though no doubt his range has changed and dropped somewhat since these songs were recorded 30-some years ago. Fans heard some of the  best of Digital Sex, including “In Her Smile,” “Roses on Wednesday,” “The Days Go” and “Red Girl.” These are the songs I remember.

I’ve never heard The World’s recordings or seen them perform, so I assume most of the unfamiliar songs were from that era as well as Sheehan solo materials. For me, (maybe because it was new to me) this was the most daring and provocative part of the set, and showcased Sieff at his revved-up best. Where does one find these World recordings?

One new song, “Less and Less,” pulled from the past and pointed to a possible future, though Sheehan has been adamant that he has no set plans to perform again. Time will tell. The full house at Reverb Friday certainly is ready for more.

The Sun-Less Trio at Reverb Aug. 18, 2017.

Opening was Sun-Less Trio, celebrating the release of their new album, though frontman Mike Saklar used the occasion to unveil even newer material. A solid core trio (with the addition of Saklar’s daughter on keys during one song) the centerpoint was Saklar and his guitar-work. Saklar’s vocals are serviceable for this material (and continue to improve), but it’s that glowing guitar that pulls it all together on psych-rock songs that recall early bluesy Zeppelin.

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So… Maha.

At Maha in year’s past I could always find a window of time where I could skip out, ride my bike back home and take break from the heat (and take a nap). It was tough to do this year. My window came at the end of a rather flaccid Torres set, skipping Priests altogether and returning during New Pornographer’s set. Even then, a tough decision.

Downtown Boys at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

One of my favorite performances came early — Downtown Boys. I knew a little about the band and have heard their new album, but didn’t expect the dynamo in the shape of frontwoman Victoria Ruiz. A mesmerizing figure, Ruiz introduced every songs with a brief, thoughtful political statement that was forceful without being preachy — an incredibly difficult thing to do. And, remarkably, each comment seamlessly led into a rousing punk anthem.

I was amazed at how many songs incorporated the F-word, spit out in rage by Ruiz and her band. These are the folks who should man the ramparts at every anti-Trump-ian rally. You got a sense Ruiz meant every word she said, you could see it her eyes, in her facial expressions as she worked the crowd with her message.

High Up had the tough job of following Ruiz and Company from the smaller stage. Like every year, Maha sets up a small stage (on Stinson Park’s permanent Bradford stage) and a large stage just to the right. This year, the large stage was pulled closer to the small stage, giving more room for the VIP area, which for the first time, actually abutted the front of the big stage, making those VIP tickets even more valuable.

In fact, the entire Maha footprint felt bigger, roomier this year than year’s past. More comfortable. Maha has been doing this now for nine years, so they know how to put on a comfortable festival. Everywhere you looked you found smiling, T-shirted Maha volunteers eager to help out. Festival services were again, first-rate, though Maha needs to bring in better food vendors. There wasn’t much to choose from beyond county fair fried fare — they’d be better off making it a food truck rodeo. And though I understand Boulevard probably purchased booze rights, I’d love to see Maha incorporate more local craft beers into their beverage selection.

High Up at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

Back to the music… High Up did their usual fine performance. While I like their bluesy numbers, nothing touches the power and energy of “Two Weeks,” which simply stands on a different level than the rest of their material.  I know you need contrast, but I could use a full album of Two Weeks’ fire and fury.

High Up shared their set with two Omaha Girls Rock bands that represented the organization proudly and in rocking fashion.

Torres at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

Torres took the big stage next and played an OK set that included a number of new songs from her upcoming album. As I told a fellow music critic: I liked it better when St. Vincent did it.

New Pornographers at 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

As I said, I skipped Priests and came back for New Pornographers. By 5 p.m. Stinson Park  had filled in nicely. New Pornos sounded fine, though I missed seeing Dan Bejar and Neko Case, both absent. It didn’t stop them from playing some of their best material, however, like “Bleeding Heart Show,” “Whiteout Conditions” and “Champions of Red Wine.”

Built to Spill at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

Built to Spill was next from the small stage. Doug Martsch and gave us a greatest hits set that included “Time Trap,” “Carry the Zero” and “Broken Chairs” among their 10-or-so song set. I’ve seen B2S sets that were nothing but jam sessions — this wasn’t one of them. I guess they knew they’re playing a festival crowd…

Belle & Sebastian at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

Then came the second highlight of the festival (for me, anyway). Belle & Sebastian was one of my bucket-list bands, and delivered with a greatest-hits set list that included “Boy with Arab Strap” and “She’s Losing It,” as well as a special song about Nebraska that they’ve never played before and likely never will again. The song was written as part of a prize for a contest B&S held a few years ago.

Stuart Murdock is about as charming a frontman as you’ll ever find, and this band was on target, inviting members of the crowd to come on stage and dance along to Arab Strap. It was the first time I’ve seen a set at Maha that I wished would have gone on for another hour, and stands out as probably my favorite from the festival’s past nine years.

By contrast, I could have used about half of what Sleigh Bells was putting out, but then again, I’ve never been a fan of their monotonous, stuttering, electro cheerleader rock that sacrifices melody for sledgehammer rhythms. Ah, but the crowd loved it.

The Faint at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

And it certainly got them revved up for The Faint’s set on the big stage. By 9 the sun had gone down and crowd was at full force. As always, The Faint put on a good show, though for whatever reason it felt more low-key than when I’ve seen them before. The set featured a lot of their “newer” material including the extras from the CAPSULE compilation and “Evil Voices” from their last studio outing. Of course it was the hits that got the crowd moving, like “Paranoiattack,” “Desperate Guys” and set closer fave “Glass Danse” that finally got the crowd jumping.

Run the Jewels at the 2017 Maha Music Festival, Aug. 19, 2017.

If there’s one tradition at Maha that seems to be perennial it’s that I leave during the headliner’s set. The headliners are the dullest part of Maha, and this year was no exception. I know, I know, Run the Jewels is one of the biggest arena/stadium hip-hop acts on tour these days and Maha landing them was a huge coup. That doesn’t mean I like their music. In fact, I like the guys in RTJ more than I like their performance or their albums. It’s a matter of preference. I’d rather see Kendrick or Tribe Called Quest or something old school, but I’m ridiculously picky when it comes to hip-hop. I made it through two or three songs and headed toward the gates.

I’m lucky I did, because after I got home (this year, via scooter) the rain it did come, and I’m told RTJ had to cut their set short because of lightning.

So where does this year’s Maha rate in the history of Maha Festivals? For my money, it was best all-around line-up and a return to stride after last year’s ho-hum festival. Still, Saturday’s attendance of just over 8,500 didn’t exceed the crowd from two years ago, which was officially a sell out. That tells me Maha still has room to grow at Stinson Park.

And while 8,500 is a great draw, especially for a local festival that targets indie music, let’s not forget twice as many people were across town at the Lady Gaga show. What would it take for Maha to draw Gaga numbers? Probably a financial risk that they’re not willing to take, and I can’t blame them (though the speed at which Beck sold out Stir Cove tells me there’s a hunger for big-name college rock bands in this town)…

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2017 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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