Summer is now once again in full swing, and that means it’s time for the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition to rock the downtown corridor with the 80/35 Music Festival.
Traditionally, the month surrounding the festival is broken up into three phases: Phase One is the initial lineup announcement. Phase Two is when everybody takes to social media to bitch about the initial lineup announcement. Then Phase Three is the second lineup announcement and actual festival, which has thus far gone off without a hitch.
This year, Phase Two was particularly fierce and seemed to last quite a bit longer than normal. But, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the DMMC returned with Cake, and everything quieted down. Now, of course, the Independence Day weekend is upon us, and with it, three stages of musical madness. While there’s going to be a ton of stuff to listen to and plenty of time to find your own groove, we’ve taken the liberty of spotlighting some things to get you started. See you downtown.
Festival goers have been clamoring for the Sacramento, California, five-piece for as long as there’s been an 80/35, and the announcement of the band as this year’s Saturday headliner was met with nearly universal approval.
Formed in 1991, Cake has gained its legion of fans through a sound that served as a clever, understated counterpoint to the rest of the decade’s angst-driven alt-rock. The band first hit it big with the single “The Distance,” off 1996’s “Fashion Nugget,” then absolutely hammered our collective consciousness in 2001 with the song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” off “Comfort Eagle.” Lead by vocalist John McCrea’s signature deadpan delivery and Vince DiFiore’s idiosyncratic trumpet, Cake’s sound has remained one of the most easily recognizable in alt rock. And for the die-hard fans of 80/35, Cake is what we in the journalism biz refer to as “a good get.”
A get that nobody really thought would happen. Cake has been a staple on 80/35’s wish list pretty much since the beginning. So, without fail, the booking committee extends an annual, almost cursory invitation for them to play. And every year, the band declines. Once that’s out of the way, the booking committee settles into the business of actually looking for a headliner. That’s how 2014 initially played out as well. But then, months after first saying no, the band had a previous commitment drop off its schedule and found itself free for Independence Day. So Cake reached back out to the DMMC, and the deal was struck.
As mentioned, the signing was applauded across the board. In the true spirit of “you’re never going to please everybody,” there was, of course, the occasional Grumpy Gus. But in general, social media response was overwhelmingly positive. Even people who’d previously lambasted the festival for years expressed their pleasure at the choice, which means that Cake headlining 2014 won’t just ensure that 2015’s early bird tickets sell out, but they might just bring new faces into the fold.
When Oberst was named as the Friday main stage headliner in the first round of line-up announcements, much of the debate that swirled around Facebook and Twitter feeds had this man in the middle of it. After last year’s offering of David Byrne and Wu Tang Clan, Oberst felt to many like a step down, a quasi-local guy who didn’t have the name recognition of a true headliner. But the truth is, if you liked David Byrne last year, you’re probably in for a treat when Oberst takes the stage Friday night.
The Nebraska-born Oberst helped usher in an era of music in the mid-1990s that featured the electric twang of slightly countrified rock that became known as The Omaha Sound. Oberst founded Saddle Creek Records, which, in its earliest halcyon days, helped introduce the world to alt acts like Cursive, The Faint, Desaparecidos, Azure Ray and, of course, the Oberst-fronted Bright Eyes.
Bright Eyes (and really, Oberst’s work in general) has been afforded genuine “indie darling” status, occupying that space just before the one where critical acclaim and commercial success intersect. Blender named 2002’s “Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” as one of the 100 greatest indie albums of all time, and 2005’s “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” was on the “best albums of the decade” list of just about everyone who had one.
Oberst is known for his introspective songwriting, with his most oft-cited (and most blatantly obvious) influence being fellow Omaha native, Elliott Smith. Oberst’s early work was at times wildly unfocused and experimental, but quickly found its way and only continued to become tighter as he’s progressed. Now a mostly solo act, Oberst has opened up his sound with fuzzier guitars, and more rock-inspired tracks have found their way into his material. But at the core of it all is still the deeply personal and emotionally honest lyrics that have always drawn fans to him in the first place.
Friday’s Hy-Vee Stage Lineup
There is, to be sure, some great local music happening throughout the festival. Local hero Brother Trucker is kicking off the whole shebang at noon on Friday on the main stage, and there is great stuff to be had on both free stages over the entirety of the two-day event. But you could be forgiven if you spent your entire Friday standing in one spot, because the Hy-Vee Stage has one of the best, most diverse collections of Iowa talent you’ll hear all summer. Between 2 and 8 p.m., you can check out acts like Waterloo power pop four-piece Twins, Des Moines prog rockers Cirrus Minor, Cityview 2014 Best Local Musician award winner Bonne Finken, funk five-piece GoodcaT, indie electro-poppers Maids, insanely talented songwriter Max Jury and those monsters of folk, The River Monks. In short, while second-guessing the national talent brought in is practically an annual past time, the DMMC has really stepped up its short game in the past year and has proven itself capable of recognizing and assembling some top-notch homegrown talent.
In the case of Friday’s lineup, you better catch some of it while you still can. Finken released her newest album last month, and singles have been climbing the charts on more than 700 college stations around the nation ever since. Jury, meanwhile, is a Berklee College-trained musician who’s just returned to the state from a quick European swing, where he opened for Lana Del Rey.
The best part about this particular slate of bands, though, is its diversity. The Hy-Vee Stage on Friday is a lot like that old cliché about Iowa weather: Don’t like it? Wait a few minutes, and it’ll change. From Twins’ Elvis Costello-inspired sound to the laid back, happy jams of The River Monks to the complete what-the-fuckery of a Cirrus Minor set, there is absolutely, positively going to be something for everyone on that stage.
Gorilla Stomp Squad
Say what you will about whether or not DJs are musicians (no comment), but one thing is universally clear: If electronic music has any place in a civilized society outside of a dance club, it’s at a street party. And on Friday night, this Des Moines duo is going to be closing out the Kum & Go Stage in a big, loud way.
About the same time that Oberst will be taking to the main stage, both free stages get decidedly more dance-party in their sound, with DJ G Mint, Climax and JohnnyRAGE all taking to one free stage or the other, and that’s all by design.
80/35 isn’t just a music festival, it’s a music festival with a carefully cultivated vibe. The powers that be have always wanted fest-goers to feel like the event is a party, and for the most part, that feeling has carried through to past headliners; acts like The Flaming Lips, Girl Talk and Wu Tang all keep the crowds engaged and hopping. But it’s fair to say that Oberst, without detracting from his considerable musical ability whatsoever, is decidedly less of a party act. So the festival compensates.
So if you’re looking to finish your Friday fest experience with a loud, thumping bang, stick to the free stages. All four of the final acts will be bringing the bass, but local duo Gorilla Stomp Squad will have the potential to be the best of the bunch.
Comprised of local DJs Kong Speaks (David Huebner) and SUBliminal Chaos (Dan Green), Gorilla Stomp Squad isn’t your typical “wub wub wub” obscene bass-drop dub steppers. Expressing some of the most coherently melodic beats you’ll hear in town, Gorilla Stomp Squad will make sure you finish day one by dancing your panties off.
Minneapolis-based Caroline Smith has completely reinvented herself over the past couple years. Fans of 2008’s “Backyard Tent Set” know Smith for her indie folk sound and unfettered vocals. But this is a new Caroline Smith. New hair, new style, new sound. She’s funkier now, with a pop sound that acts as a kind of low-grade throwback to ‘90s soul like Erykah Badu.
The re-invented sound also gives Smith more of a chance to stretch herself vocally, and it’s a good thing for everyone because holy shit the woman can sing. Her 2013 release “Half About Being a Woman” allows Smith’s vocals to soar, and she makes the most of the opportunity, peppering songs with sonic dips and dives, like a pitch-perfect vocal roller coaster.
Since she’s just a few hours up the road, Smith has made her way down to the capital city a few times before. This past winter she played the Vaudeville Mews with Dustin Smith & The Sunday Silos, and made a stop by KCWI’s Great Day morning show to play a live set and introduce the city to her newly realized sound.
“I feel like I got pigeonholed,” she told Minneapolis’ Star Tribune in an interview, talking about her early folk sounds. “That’s not who I am at all.”
This will be Smith’s first foray into the waters of 80/35, and she’s bound to walk away with a new fan or two.
The Hy-Vee Stage strikes again. In the middle of a crowded Saturday card, James Biehn and Parlours perform back-to-back sets, starting at 4 p.m. While the two acts are musically quite different from one another, the one thing they share in common is that they’re really damn good at what they do.
I’ve previously gone on record as calling Biehn the best guitarist in the city, and I’m not inclined to move too far away from that statement. His act will swing from blues to rock depending on the day, venue and mood, and he’s played with everyone from Bonne Finken to Randy Burk & The Prisoners, but it’s in his solo act where he really shines. Biehn’s sound is crisp and perfect; he plays the way kids imagine when they close their eyes and dream of being rock stars.
Parlours, meanwhile, has a twee, indie pop sound that would be perfectly at home in a quirky independent film, probably one starring Zach Braff. Front woman and songwriter Dana Halferty is surrounded by solid musicians, but it’s her simple, emotionally pure lyrics and light, breathy vocals that catch everyone’s attention. Parlours’ music has been a staple on college radio stations around the country for a few years now, and Halferty & Co make regular tour swings whenever they’re able. Summer is their busy time, so here’s your chance to catch them. CV