Live Review: Maha Music Festival — Japanese Breakfast, Thundercat, Khruangbin, Edem Soul Music…

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Looking out from the stage at the 2021 Maha Music Festival.

It was almost as if the gods looked down from the sky and said, “Let’s give this little festival a break,” and then turned down the thermostat in Omaha for the day and blew away all that nasty Pacific Northwest smoke (only to be replaced with a different kind of smoke later in the evening).

#Maha13 couldn’t have been more flawless from a operations point of view. Unlike the Lizzo-year oversold debacle two years ago, this one was smooth as silk, thanks to ticket limits (due to COVID), which held the number at a manageable 8,000. So well run was it this year, in fact, that I beseech the Maha organizers to continue to limit ticket sales in the future, augmenting their income with more sponsorships and a slightly higher ticket price.

In other words, don’t be greedy.

Who knows, maybe that is the plan? Maha changed it’s setup this year, adding a number of small sponsor tents that lined the north-end perimeter, replacing their “global village” with even more sponsor tents. It might be why Stinson Park never looked better-attended for its early acts, who enjoyed a sizable crowd during their sets.

While I was there for the entire day (a first), I was kinda/sorta working at the Union Pacific sponsor tent, which kept me busy, but not too busy to grab some photos and catch some sets. Some I missed altogether, though I heard them in the background…

Dirt House at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

Dirt House was the first one that got me up to the stage. Annie Dilocker has surrounded herself with some of the best talent from ‘round these parts. Backing her was guitarist Jim Schroeder (2020’s Mesa Buoy, UUVVWWZ, David Nance Band to name a few), drummer Roger Lewis (The Good Life, Neva Dinova, Conduits, local legend), bassist Sara Bertuldo (See Through Dresses) and violinist Amy Carey. We’re talking all-stars here. At the center was Dilocker, who continues to grow as as vocalist and songwriter.

Edem Soul Music at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

The biggest surprise of the day came from Edem Soul Music. I’ve never paid much attention to Edem, as the only time I’d seen her perform in the past was alone with ukulele, which is a tough sell for me. While I was running around doing stuff, I kept getting pulled into her set, thinking, “Holy shit, that’s a good song,” and them moments later, “OK, now that one’s even better.

I finally put down my stuff and went to the stage. Now I need to find out who the heck Edem Garro is. Incredible voice, but beyond that, just straight-up catchy R&B songs. Her online presence is a mish-mash (one song on Bandcamp?, a few singles on Spotify?). Looks like she has a new album coming out later this month…

Shovels and Rope at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

The national bands started at 5:30 with Shovels & Rope, who I knew but hadn’t really listened to prior to this. They were fine, though none of their songs really caught my attention — sort of alt-indie in the Felice Brothers/Dawes/Langhorne Slim vein, with a surprisingly full sound for a two-piece.

It’s a good time to mention the overall festival sound. Maybe it was where I was situated across the field, but there was a lack of underbelly to the bands on the small stage, and all the drums sounded lost in the mix throughout the night. As is the case with all festivals, bands sounded better as they got deeper into their sets, thanks to the sound folks, but there’s only so much you could do with that small stage. But even the large stage had its limitations, moreso than I can remember from any past Maha show (and I’ve been to all of them). The exceptions were the two main stage headliners.

Drive-By Truckers at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

Moving on, like Shovels and Rope, I only have a passing knowledge of Drive-By Truckers. Their style of Dixie-hotdamn-southern indie is not my thang, though there were times I was reminded of heavier John Hiatt tunes. DBT was the heaviest thing dished out this year at Maha, which in past years featured at least one (and usually more) punk-flavored indie bands. Not this year. (Did I mention The Oh Sees were the best part of the Lizzo year?).

Japanese Breakfast at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

I’m probably not the only one who wondered why Japanese Breakfast was placed on the small stage. Maybe it was because they were the only true indie-style band on the festival ticket, and we all know indie bands are used to getting placed at the smaller table. They no doubt deserved to be on the big stage, where we likely would have gotten a better-sounding set. Regardless, the band played through all their “hits” off their last couple of albums.

JB was the one band I was most looking forward to at the festival, and to be honest, their set was sorta ho-hum. But then again, hasn’t indie sort of been headed in a ho-hum direction for the past few years? Vibe bands are taking over indie music along with female singer-songwriters, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m beginning to wonder where the next PJ Harvey or Arcade Fire will come from.

Thundercat at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

Thundercat turned in the most thoroughly enjoyable set of the festival. A.k.a. Stephen Bruner showed off his amazing bass-playing chops on a set of proggy, jazz-flavored, mostly instrumental numbers that also showcased a crushingly talented band.

It felt more like a jazz set than a R&B/rock set, though the intricate, complicated arrangements stood right up there with some of the crazy prog acts I remember from the ’70s, the kind of bands that shifted effortlessness from key and time signatures while playing at breakneck speeds. Impossible to not be impressed, however if you weren’t right up to the stage (as I was from the VIP section) you might get lost in the sound clutter, as most of the numbers didn’t have memorable central melodies.

That came with their final song, “Them Changes,” which has become his funk anthem, the one they play on Sirius XMU, the song that would get airplay if we still had a decent FM rock station.

Khruangbin at the Maha Music Festival, July 31, 2021.

That final Thundercat song was the perfect hand-off to Khruangbin, a band whose music is destined to be heard for many decades playing in the background at your local grocery store.

We all knew their low-key vibe music would be a soft-lit way to end this festival, and boy, it sure was. Along with Thundercat, their sound quality was next level, and their playing was tight as a tick, but man, weren’t much going on up there on stage other than three folks spread out playing their jams. Judging by the always-present smell of weed, I doubt the remaining crowd cared. This is stoner-vibe music at it’s best, the perfect soundtrack for the stoned or for those waiting in line at The Gap.

So how does this Maha rate with past years?

In terms of overall quality of experience, it’s right up there with the best. You will not find a better-run festival with more helpful volunteers.

The line-up? It’s not fair to judge considering we’re coming out of national pandemic. It’s amazing they were able to even pull a line-up together. Most of these bands aren’t in my wheelhouse. While I like that Maha is still booking emerging acts along with more established bands (DBT, for example), I miss the indie rock, and punk. Maybe it just wasn’t available?

Who knows what the future holds for Maha? There’s talk of the festival eventually moving downtown when the new mall is completed, and spreading out shows to multiple venues, a la SXSW. That would be awesome if they can get a transportation plan in place to shuttle everyone around. In the meantime, I have a feeling we’ll all be back to Stinson Park next year, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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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 © 2021 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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