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.

* * *

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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Ten Questions with The New Pornographers; Stephen Sheehan tonight; Maha Festival, Digital Leather, Lupines Saturday; Blind Pilot Sunday…

The Maha Music Festival is tomorrow at Aksarben Village.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Before we get to the full weekend preview…

This is the eighth and final installment in a series of Ten Questions interviews with bands performing at the Maha Music Festival tomorrow at Aksarben Village. For the printed version of all interviews, pick up the August issue of The Reader.

New Pornographers are among the artist playing at this year’s Maha Music Festival.

The New Pornographers

They’ve been called an indie rock supergroup thanks to the richness of talent. The band’s 7-member roster includes three lead vocalists: Dan Bejar of Destroyer, Neko Case, whose solo career stands on its own, and the band’s founder, Carl (A.C.) Newman.

Since their debut in 1997 in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, the band has released seven studio albums starting with 2000’s Mass Romantic (Mint Records) before moving to indie powerhouse Matador Records for some of the most iconic releases of the 2000s, including 2003’s Electric Version and ’05’s Twin Cinema.

Their latest, Whiteout Conditions, released this past April by Concord Music Group, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Album charts.

1. What is your favorite album?

Carl Newman: Love, Forever Changes

2. What is your least favorite song?

I think it is still out there. I haven’t heard it yet. If I have to answer, probably something that is #1 at country radio right now.

3. What do you enjoy most about being in a band?

I like all the people I have met. It is a good foot in the door for meeting people you admire. A great community.

4. What do you hate about being in a band?

Being away from my family. Feeling like you need to please people, like your best isn’t good enough. That sort of thing.

5. What is your favorite substance (legal or illegal)?

I like red wine. I often champion it.

6. In what city or town do you love to perform?

D.C. has always been an amazing place for us. A lot of love for all of our projects.

7. What city or town did you have your worst gig (and why)?

I remember playing in a cafe in Chapel Hill in the ’90s. No one there, they were stacking the chairs on the tables as we played. I recall thinking, “Am I paying my dues right now?”

8. Are you able to support yourself through your music? If so, how long did it take to get there; if not, how do you pay your bills?

Yes, so far so good. I played in bands for about 10 years before that happened. Not a tough, hard-working 10 years but still… 10 years. In this era when no one buys music, that might change soon.

9. What one profession other than music would you like to attempt; what one profession would you absolutely hate to do?

I would love to be a writer of some kind. Comedy, TV, film, novelist. Always had a lot of respect for the profession. I know, I am sort of a writer, in my way. So many things I would hate to be, it’s hard to choose.

10. What are the stories you’ve heard about Omaha, Nebraska?

Best place on earth. It rules, other places drool. Things like that.

The Maha Music Festival is Aug. 19 at Aksarben Village. The day-long concert runs from noon to midnight. Tickets are $55. For set times and more information, go to mahamusicfestival.com.

* * *

Here’s the weekend we’ve all been waiting for. Lots o’ shows, and it looks like the weather is going to cooperate.

It starts tonight at Reverb Lounge with Stephen Sheehan and his band performing songs from Sheehan’s past projects, notably Digital Sex, The World and his solo outings. Here’s the background on this special event. I have a feeling I’m going to see a lot of old, familiar faces tonight. Opening is Sun-Less Trio, who is celebrating an EP release of their own. $10, 9 p.m.

And then along comes the 2017 Maha Music Festival at Aksarben Village. The set times:

12:10: The Hottman Sisters
12:50: Downtown Boys
1:45: High Up and Omaha Girls Rock
2:55: Torres
3:50: Priests
4:45: The New Pornographers
5:55: Built to Spill
7:05: Belle & Sebastian
8:15: Sleight Bells
9:30: The Faint
11:00: Run the Jewels

Tickets today are $55. I’m not sure what the walk-up price will be (or if it’s different).

Downtown Boys is currently trending on the hipster meter, thanks to their hot new Cost of Living LP (Sub Pop) produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, which is enjoying a massive 79 rating on Album of the Year composite reviews. Torres also is getting a lot of attention thanks to an upcoming release. Add Priests and, of course, Run the Jewels, and this one of the more progressive Maha line-ups in the festival’s history. They’ve made it hard for me to sneak out and grab a nap tomorrow.

So where’s the after party?

In year’s past, one or two of the Maha acts played a second show somewhere after the festival. I don’t see it happening this year. So for me, the after party is at fabulous O’Leaver’s, where Digital Leather will be burning up the stage along with Sucettes. $5, 9 p.m.

If that doesn’t float your boat, you can’t miss with Lupines, Sun-Less Trio and Bled Notes at Brothers Lounge Saturday night. $5, 9 p.m.

And here’s a sneaky one: Dwight Twilley is playing at Growler USA in West O Saturday night. $15 Adv/$19 DOS, 9 p.m. How is that one not sold out yet?

And yeah, I’m aware there are a couple other big concerts going on Saturday night. But neither Lady Gaga nor the guy from Hootie in the Blowfish are exactly in my wheelhouse, though I’d be interested to see how Jocelyn does opening for Hootie at Stir Cove.

Finally, Sunday night Portland’s Blind Pilot (ATO Records) plays a sold-out show at The Slowdown. They’ve been touring through Omaha for years, growing every step of the way. Gregory Alan Isakov opens. 8 p.m.

And that’s all I got. If I missed your show, put it in the comments section. If you see me at Sheehan, Maha or Digital Leather, say hi with a Rolling Rock. Have a great weekend.

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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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The return of Stephen Sheehan (ex-Digital Sex); Big Thief, Thick Paint tonight…

Category: Blog,Interviews — Tags: , , — @ 12:42 pm July 13, 2017

Stephen Sheehan (ex-Digital Sex) returns to the stage Aug. 18 at Reverb.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

One band that is part of Omaha’s music folklore is Digital Sex. The band, who at its core was Stephen Sheehan, Dereck Higgins and John Tingle, released material in the late ’80s and last reunited in ’94. You can read about their history and that ’94 reunion right here.

Digital Sex split up shortly after that reunion and hasn’t played since, despite almost constant calls for another reunion. Well now, fans of Digital Sex will finally get to hear some of those songs again when when Stephen Sheehan performs at Reverb Lounge Aug. 18, the night before the Maha Music Festival.

Called “Stephen Sheehan: A Reunion of Songs 1982-2017,” the show will feature Sheehan performing songs from his bands Digital Sex, The World and Between the Leaves backed by a band that includes Donovan Johnson on keyboards, Randy Cotton on bass, Ben Sieff on guitar (all from Bennie and the Gents) and Dan Crowell on drums, who played in the final version of Digital Sex in 1994.

Sheehan says it was his work with Bennie and the Gents as part of a David Bowie tribute concert in January 2016 that sparked the idea of returning to the stage to perform his own material.

“This has been a thought of mine for several years, to do a retrospective show with musicians who could test the elasticity in the songs,” Sheehan said. “I’ve always been interested in hearing artists revisit their songs and ‘develop’ them years after they were written, even if it means only a slight flourish. I’ve never really done that with my material. It’s always been about performing them as close to the recording as possible.”

Sheehan said he approached the guys in Bennie and the Gents specifically for this project as they are “master interpreters.”

“With many of the songs, we are straddling the line between note-for-note reproduction and 2017 interpretation,” he said. “I don’t want to be bored doing these songs as I always have and I don’t want the band to feel they are a human jukebox.”

In addition to the greatest hits selection, Sheehan and company also will perform a new song. That said, he says the Aug. 18 performance is a one-and-done sort of thing… as of now.

* * *

As of this writing, that Big Thief show tonight at O’Leaver’s is still not sold out. Surprised? I know I am. I still anticipate a crushed room tonight at the club. Thick Paint opens. $10, 9 p.m.

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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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Congrats to OEAA winners; Sheehan returns to the stage; Maha announcement; Free Throw tonight…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , — @ 1:44 pm January 18, 2016

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

I did not venture out into the blackness of the cold, cold night this weekend. Maybe all the touring indie bands are avoiding Omaha because they know how friggin’ cold it is here, and that lazy sots such as myself would never brave the wind chills for their performances. Maybe.

* * *

Last night was the 10th Annual Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards (OEAA) held somewhere downtown. Notable winners include See Through Dresses, John Klemmensen, Dan Brennan, Twinsmith, Dereck Higgins and BJ Huchtemann, who was honored for her years of carrying the torch for local blues in The Reader. You can See the full list of winners here. Congratulations to all!

* * *

Though I wasn’t there, I saw via Facebook the return of former Digital Sex frontman Stephen Sheehan to the stage Friday night as part of a tribute to David Bowie at The Waiting Room. Digital Sex was a remarkable Nebraska band from the ’80s that also included OEAA winner Dereck Higgins whose sound epitomized the post-punk era. What will Sheehan do next?

* * *

Last night a blizzard of social media posts announced the 2016 Maha Music Festival date — August 20, again at Stinson Park Aksarben Village. There had been some rumblings after last year’s sell-out success that Maha would expand to two days or at least do something the night before the day show, but that appears to not be the case. So how will they top last year? As one guy recently pointed out: Why do they need to top last year? Wouldn’t they be considered just as much of a success if they were to match last year’s attendance? Maybe, maybe…

* * *

It’s a night of emo at Milk Run this evening when Nashville band Free Throw takes the stage. Joining them are Young & Heartless, Sinai Vessel and Bed Rest. $10, 8 p.m.

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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 © 2016 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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