Live Review: Maha Music Festival Day One: Courtney Barnett, Jenny Lewis, Snail Mail; late night with BareBear; Damien Jurado tonight…

Category: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — @ 12:46 pm August 19, 2019

Courtney Barnett at the Maha Music Festival, Aug. 16, 2019.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

This is part one of a recap/review of the performances at this year’s Maha Music Festival, held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, Omaha, Nebraska, Aug. 16 and 17, 2019. In addition, a second “review” will be published in the September issue of The Reader that talks more about the experience and other issues surrounding the festival, as well as some (I hope) amusing speculation about the 2020 MMF.

This is far from comprehensive. I watched less than half the bands this year. I paid for my VIP ticket to Friday night’s show and had a media pass for Saturday. While this was, in my opinion, the best collection of acts for a Maha Festival, it also had a lot of bands and performers who simply didn’t interest me, or who I never heard of. But isn’t that the way of all music festivals? There was a time when I would have felt obligated to watch everything placed on stage. Those days are long gone.

Snail Mail at the Maha Music Festival, Aug. 16, 2019.

Anyway, we didn’t arrive Friday night until after Snail Mail began their set on the “little stage” — the stage has a name, but let’s face it, there’s a big stage and a little stage at Maha, and if you’re relegated to the little stage, it means something. Someone made the decision to place you there rather than the big stage.

And while the little stage is by all means functional, it isn’t nearly as nice as the big stage. The lighting is poor, the sound is… different, the viewing experience is awkward, especially for fans of the band who want to get up close and personal. In that way, it’s actually better than the large stage because you can (almost) walk right up to the edge, though you better have a good center of gravity because you’ll be standing on the up-rise of a rather steep hill.

Snail Mail’s fans were balanced on that hill, up close as the band played through songs from their latest album. I like Snail Mail and think think Lush, their 2018 Matador release, is right up there with the best of the bedroom indie rock genre that’s crowded with similar singer/songwriters, mostly women.

Frontwoman Lindsey Jordan can hang with the best of them, especially when backed by her band. That said, she spent the last 15 minutes of her set doing solo electric renditions of new material that didn’t do it any favors, especially when experienced from across the field. No doubt it felt more intimate if you were standing along the edge of the little stage, but by then I’d already scooted back to the VIP confines and wondered why she had dispatched her band, not hearing that she was filling time with the new material — a festival probably isn’t the best place for that sort of thing.

That was it for the little stage Friday night. The next two bands were big stage events. Courtney Barnett should have been the top headliner Friday night. Who knows how those decisions are made. I guess she was billed as a co-headliner. The last time I saw her live was at an industry-type gig at South By Southwest, playing again as a trio but with a much more subdued (i.e., boring) approach. She was on fire Friday night.

I hardly recognized her — she looked about 20 pounds lighter, with a new hair cut, but the same amazing voice and guitar prowess. She tore through a true festival set, performing all my favorites (“Avant Gardener,” “Depreston,” “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” “History Eraser”) as well as a ton of more recent songs.

Barnett’s strengths are: 1) her songwriting, 2) her guitar playing, 3) her voice, and finally 4) her live performance, but she upped the performance aspect a couple slots Friday night. There was nothing fancy staging-wise, no interesting lighting gimmicks, just her and the band crushing her songs.

Jenny Lewis at the Maha Music Festival, Aug. 16, 2019.

It was quite a contrast to Jenny Lewis’ set. Lewis entered in a spectacular gold lamé dress, sat down behind a hand-painted piano surrounded by her band, and launched into songs off her latest, rather droll new album, On the Line (2019, Warner Bros). For that first song, “Heads Gonna Roll,” there was nothing on her vocals coming off the soundboard, just her out there alone, sounding thin as if not having warmed up, especially on the creaky high notes.

Her voice got into a groove and the sound crew adjusted as the night wore on. I kept waiting for the hits, but never got them, instead we got more songs off the new album. This was a festival, so you’d expect to hear the beloved numbers, like “Rise Up with Fists” or maybe take advantage of the fact that you’re in Omaha and sing “Execution of All Things” with its classic Omaha reference. Instead, we got her typical touring set, and a flat one at that.

It felt old compared to Barnett and Snail Mail. I feel lucky having seen Lewis when she played at the downtown Scottish Rite Lodge with the Watson Twins touring Rabbit Fur Coat back in 2006. At her peak. Where Barnett is today and where Snail Mail may be in a few years. Lewis’ new music is about looking back with regret, while Barnett’s music is about living in the moment and everything that goes with it.

Jenny did throw us a bone at the end with an impromptu version of “With Arms Outstretched” accompanied by the Omaha Girls Rock crew, standing in the dark lit by the audience’s outstretched smartphones. It was a highlight that ended awkwardly when the audience realized it was actually the end of the set. Is she done? Yeah, she’s done.

Tomorrow: Oh Sees, Matt & Kim and Lizzo…

My Friday night did not end at Maha. I made what would become a tactical error as far as the weekend was concerned. I drove to O’Leaver’s to catch a set by BareBear. These days I never stay out past midnight. I would regret it the next morning.

BareBear at O’Leaver’s, Aug. 16, 2019.

BareBear came on at around 12:30 and played their entire new album front to back. The band hadn’t played live in about two years, and the only place it showed was in frontman Rob Walters’ vocals. Let’s be honest, they were… rough. But what Walters lacked in tonal control he made up for in chutzpah and some mighty fine bass playing.

And the rest of the band was absolutely on point. This was one of my favorite guitar performances by Nik Fackler, who just slayed on his rhythms and leads. Drummer Matt Focht proved again why he’s among the best stickmen to get behind a drum set in Nebraska. And then there was Jacob “Cubby” Phillips, a guy who looks young enough to be Walters’ son. The term “virtuoso” comes to mind as does “wunderkind.” Phillips, whose background I’m told is in the jazz world, made playing in Barebear look like child’s play — just amazing guitar tone with a seemingly effortless style.

So what if Walters’ vocals barely resembled what’s heard on their new album? The set was fun. And for fans of Paul Stanley-flavored glam rock, you need to check out this surprisingly good album – The Party’s Over.

I ended up getting to bed at around 2:30 — a mistake that I would pay for most of the following day.

* * *

Tonight at Slowdown Jr…. Damien Jurado’s Rehearsals for Departure (1999, Sub Pop) is one of my all-time favorite albums from the ’90s. He’s released around 16 albums since then, including his latest, In the Shape of a Storm (2019, Mama Bird Recording Co.). Corrina Repp, who played on another favorite of mine, Viva Voce’s 2009 album Rose City (Barsuk), opens at 8 p.m. $18.

* * *

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 © 2019 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i

Maha 2019 undercard includes Snail Mail, Beach Bunny, Matt & Kim, and who plays which night; David Dondero tonight…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 12:41 pm April 25, 2019
Dave Dondero at The Concert for Equality, 7/31/10.

David Dondero at The Concert for Equality, 7/31/10. He plays tonight at Reformed, Studio and Assembly Space.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

This line from a Jan. 3 Chicago Tribune article about 2019 Maha Festival artist Beach Bunny caught my eye: “Beach Bunny’s songs are intimate and practical in a way that recalls Liz Phair — with whom Trifilio is unfamiliar.” First thought: How is that possible, especially for a female indie artist? But then I quickly realized that Exile in Guyville came out 26 years ago, about four years before Beach Bunny frontwoman Lili Trifilio was born.

The story’s next sentence was more curious than anything: “But like Phair, her audience is heavily comprised of young women.” Was Phair’s audience ever heavily comprised of young women? Anyway, Beach Bunny’s music in no way resembles Phair’s. It sounds more like Alvvays or Middle Kids or even fellow 2019 Maha Festival artist Snail Mail, a somewhat hot indie act whose 2018 debut, Lush, was released on Matador. Snail Mail’s played Omaha before.

These two artist seem like natural complements for a festival that includes other powerhouse women-led indie acts like Jenny Lewis and Courtney Barnett.

Duckwrth, an artist I’ve never heard of, appears to be playing the role of the representative male hip-hop artist. There’s not much about him online. He released his debut solo album I’m Uugly in 2016.

Matt Maeson is another mystery to me. He’s released three albums on Atlantic starting in 2017 and has some connection to Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett. His first solo tour was presented by Communion, Lovett’s organization. I’m not sure how you’d describe the music, though I’d agree with All Music who compares him to Mt. Joy.

Who am I missing from this year’s line-up? Oh yeah, Matt and Kim. They played Maha back in 2013, and if I remember correctly, the crowd loved them, which I assume is why they were asked back.

One other act of note that’s sort of playing the festival is Touch & Go artist Pinback. The San Diego band, who released the bulk of their albums in the ’00 era, is a favorite among indie rock enthusiasts, including myself. They’re playing at The Waiting Room the Thursday night before the music portion of the festival kicks off, for a flat $15 ticket price, which makes me wonder if they weren’t already booked at TWR before Maha started planning 2019’s lineup.

Maha continues to support local artists, though this year’s selections is a collection of bar bands who play the local scene and haven’t done extensive touring: Muscle Cousins, Bach Mai and Domestic Blend. I’d be curious how these acts were chosen. Also on the bill is DJ Shark Week and Esencia Latina Band. Quite a contrast to last year’s highlight local act, David Nance, who has recorded a couple nationally lauded albums and toured the U.S. and overseas.

And now, the Friday/Saturday breakdown (I’m surprised they already announced this! They made us wait last year):

Friday night, Aug. 17

Jenny Lewis
Courtney Barnett
Snail Mail
Esencia Latina Band
Sharkweek

Saturday, Aug. 17

Lizzo
Matt and Kim
Oh Sees
Duckwrth
Matt Maeson
Beach Bunny
Muscle Cousins
Domestic Blend
Sharkweek

I’m surprised Barnett is playing Friday night instead of Saturday, but I assume it’s more about her schedule than theirs. There’s only two acts on Saturday that are pulling me in: Thee Oh Sees and Lizzo. Friday night is rocket fuel.

I’m running long, so we’ll talk about ticket prices next week.

* * *

Singer/songwriter David Dondero is playing tonight at Reformed, Studio and Assembly Space, 3101 So. 20th St., just south of 20th and Vinton. I’m not familiar with this venue, but I think it’s a church. Dondero has played through Omaha for years and is a pal of Conor Oberst, who has cited him as an influence. Joining him is Tom Bartolomei and Mark Johnson. $10. 8 p.m.

* * *

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 © 2019 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

Lazy-i