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Cover Story

11 days of corn dogs, butter cows, blue ribbons & music

8/7/2013

Ah, the fair. It’s that magically stereotypical time of year that exemplifies the best and silliest things about being Iowan: the butter cow; every imaginable kind of food (and several it would have never occurred to you to think of) on a stick; the oppressive August heat, which may just give us a pass this season; the small-town farmer folk visiting the big city per their annual tradition; and, of course, the Midway and its crop of reasonably shady carnie folk.

For better and worse, no bigger reason to be proud of where we come from exists. We can rip on east siders all we want, and we can talk about things like the butter cow or the Big Boar with equal parts fascination and embarassment, but at the end of the day, when someone visits from out of town, we tell them, “You’ve got to see the fair.”

A big reason for that is the music. Local favorites, nationally or globally recognized touring acts, Grammy winners, platinum-selling artists, one-hit-wonders and a couple of has-been fad bands all come together for 11 days in Des Moines to give the state’s premiere event its own distinctive sound. This year is no different. So here it is: Everything that’s going to be singing, playing and making joyous noise through the next few hot summer days. Gather your friends, grab a funnel cake and find a spot within the masses to dance.

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Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson is kind of like Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew, the longtime Minnesota Twins first-baseman, is a player who is not necessarily fully appreciated by the casual fan. He didn’t spend his career in media hotspots like Chicago or New York and was often overshadowed by contemporaries like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. But make no mistake, Killer hit the hell out of the baseball. (Before all this steroid nonsense began running rampant and the tops of the leaderboards became overrun by modern players, Killebrew was one of the top 10 home run hitters of all time, and he still sits at 11th, ahead of players like Mantle, Banks and Ted Williams.)

So, too, with Jackson. You’d be hard pressed not to find a country music fan (or just a fan of music) who doesn’t know the name Alan Jackson. But it can be easy to lose him in the shuffle of his contemporaries like Garth Brooks and George Strait. It’s only when you look at the numbers (or talk to the purists) that you understand Jackson’s influence on music. According to a 2012 Billboard article, Jackson is the ninth-highest selling artist of the past 20 years, regardless of musical style: more albums than Kanye; more than The Black Keys or Slipknot; more albums than Bieber, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga combined.

And unlike the megastar Brooks — or nominally country acts like Swift or Shania Twain — Jackson hasn’t done it by chasing trends. What makes Jackson’s brand of country so memorable, so identifiable, is just that: It’s straight, no chaser country music. Jackson sings about the personal issues that are so endemic to rural music better than just about anybody working today, and that’s due in no small part to Jackson’s penchant for writing his own songs. Rarely known to collaborate with studio writers, Jackson’s music is about as from-the-heart as you’re going to find in music today.

“I can’t wait for the Alan Jackson/Gary Allan show,” said KJJY morning host Eddie Hatfield. “(Jackson) is just about as pure of country music as you can get.

“It could shape up to be THEE concert of the Iowa State Fair.”

                 

Skid Row

It’s easy to write the Budweiser Stage off as “Has-Been Alley,” as some fairgoers have called it. To be sure, the Bud Stage is the traditional home of acts whose best days have passed them by. But when it’s all said and done, when you’re wandering the fair at night, where is the biggest non-grandstand crowd? The Bud Tent.

Skid Row takes the Budweiser Stage at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9

Skid Row takes the Budweiser Stage at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9

This year is sure to be no exception, as the Bud Stage plays host to classic rock acts that include Blue Oyster Cult, Foghat and L.A. Guns. There’s something visceral and inherently fun about being able to sidle up to acts that once dominated large arenas and see them in an up-close and personal way that you’d never usually get to. Sure, time has faded its glory, but it also offers opportunities for new and fresh memories, not to mention nostalgia.

Skid Row was one of those acts that dominated glam metal’s dying days. Seriously, it’s almost easy to forget how ubiquitous its sound was in 1989, when “Youth Gone Wild,” “I Remember You” and the anthemic “18 and Life” were simultaneously destroying the air waves. Its self-titled album went platinum five times and made Sebastian Bach a household name. Despite 1991’s “Slave to the Grind” debuting at No. 1, Skid Row never really reached the heights of its debut again. Now, 24 years after dominating the rock charts, as is true with many rock legends still kickin’ around on tour today, the Skid Row you’ll see at the Bud Stage this year isn’t your dad’s Skid Row. Bach was fired in 1996, and none of the band’s albums since “Slave to the Grind” has really connected with fans or critics.

But the Bud Stage isn’t where old bands come to show new tricks. The sets that bands entertain fans with on the Bud Stage tend to amount to greatest-hits compilations. They’re a chance for a band to reconnect with its core audience, banter a little with fans and remember a time when the world was young and eligible. Even though “18 and Life” and “I Remember You” will be performed Bach-less, expect them to still be played and to be the crowd favorites that makes a night at the Bud Stage worthy of any music-lover’s time.

                 

The Nadas

For a local, independent band with as much staying power and success as it has, The Nadas get a ton of grief. Looking over the band’s past members gives you a veritable who’s who of really good Des Moines musicians: Tony Bohnenkamp, Scott Dawson, John Locker and Ian Shepard can all list The Nadas on their resumes, and the current lineup is no slouch with guys like Jason Walsmith and Brian Duffey pulling duty.

All that talent has lead the band to some success. The Nadas were named “The best college band you’ve never heard of” by Playboy Magazine, back when people still kind of read Playboy, and the group has toured and performed pretty much nonstop since the Clinton administration, pausing just long enough along the way to release seven studio albums and two live LPs.

Yet criticism of the band will sometimes flow like manna from heaven. The generic refrain of “the Nadas suck” gets a lot of play, and one particularly clever friend once referred to the band as “The Nod-offs.” Paradoxically, the reason so many members of the local music scene give the band grief is the very thing that’s given the band such staying power: The Nadas have the inoffensive pop song down to a science. Everything the band produces is radio-ready and easily consumable by a large audience. So while local music purists may give the band a hard time about not taking many risks or fully exploring its sound, The Nadas continue to be one of the most consistently popular bands in the state and one of the biggest free stage draws at the Iowa State Fair.

The consistency of the The Nadas sound is comforting and admirable even. The group has maintained a steady identity despite a rotating cast of musicians and has cultivated an impressive and devoted fan base by simply playing music that families can enjoy together and doing it proficiently. Whether they’re performing 1995’s “Little Tree” or 2010’s “Wrecking Ball,” fans know what they’re going to get from The Nadas, especially those from Des Moines. And that’s exactly why the Nadas rightfully is an Iowa State Fair mainstay for as long as it wants the gig.

                 

Vintage Trouble

How good is Vintage Trouble? After getting together in 2010, the Los Angeles-based four-piece wrote its first album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, in just three days. And the result wasn’t a slapdash piece of work, either: Total Guitar Magazine named “The Bomb Shelter Sessions” one of the top 25 guitar albums of the year in 2012. The band’s sound is a throwback to the glory days of ’50s and early ’60s rock-n-roll. Front man Ty Taylor is the spiritual successor to acts such as Otis Redding and The Animals, while guitarist Nalle Colt’s licks give the retro sound some modern horsepower. And drummer Richard Danielson’s facial hair is a force to be reckoned with all on its own. Wonder if he realizes there’s a contest for that at the Iowa State Fair, where the band is scheduled to return again this year.

Vintage Trouble topples the Fairview Stage at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18. Photo by Darren Tromblay

Vintage Trouble topples the Fairview Stage at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18. Photo by Darren Tromblay

Vintage Trouble has enough to offer just about everyone: Fans of driving, high-energy guitar rock will love the free-wheeling, hook-heavy sound; fans of retro rock will find themselves drawn in by Taylor’s vocals and the band’s songwriting aesthetic. Vintage Trouble is really the perfect free stage act, because it is one of those groups that can entertain entire families and multiple generations with the same song.

It hasn’t taken Vintage Trouble long to get noticed, and the group has opened for everyone from The Rolling Stones to Lenny Kravitz and traveled to Europe this summer in support of The Who. The exposure has opened the band up to more new fans, which in turn has fueled its continued growth. Like any indie band trying to make its way, Vintage Trouble understands the symbiotic relationship between a band and its fans.

“(The fans) have been one of the main things that have kept Vintage Trouble going,” Taylor said in an interview with Billboard. “They’re like part of our band, management and press team. We definitely couldn’t do it without them.”

Make a point of seeing Vintage Trouble for free this year, because the next time they come through, it’ll be at Grandstand prices.

                 

Kristen Kelly

Kristen Kelly is commonly referred to as something of a throwback. And for a girl who pulls influences ranging from Johnny Cash to Bonnie Raitt to Fleetwood Mac, Kelly remains an artist who embraces the idea of boiling country music down to its roots.

“I think I’m such a big fan of Merle Haggard’s music and his songwriting because it’s simple,” she said. “I’ve always believed that country music was three chords and the truth, and that’s more or less what he did — and what all the great blues musicians did.”

Kelly’s own music isn’t quite that fine of a distillation, but the notion is easily identifiable in her sound. Her debut single “Ex-Old Man” strikes right to the heart of Country 101: My best friend stole my sweetie. It’s a story line that runs the risk of being reductive and stereotypical, but Kelly makes the idea her own and gives her listeners a new look at old angles by walking a very fine line vocally. It’s clear when you listen to her sing that she’s got the pipes to belt with the likes of Brandi Carlile, but she keeps herself reigned in and mostly understated. The result is a sound that’s remarkably clean and easy to listen to but still full and robust.

“Ex-Old Man” was a middling hit last year, peaking at No. 30 on the country chart. Her next single, 2013’s “He Loves to Make Me Cry,” received an even more modest reception. But Kelly continues to forge her own path, writing her own songs and making them as personal as she can. Kelly believes that truth can set you free.

“I’m a happy person,” she said, “but what I write has a lot of angst and realness to it, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced or somebody close to me has experienced. To be able to give voice to pain that I’ve felt, to be able to say ‘it hurts’ when it hurts, is part of my music. And if something I’ve gone through helps somebody get through something in their life, then I think that’s the ultimate reward for being a survivor.” CV

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