Secret Stages 2015: Review
Similar to many cities in the American Deep South, Birmingham, Alabama is a city attempting to heal the wounds from a troubled past. To understand the trajectory of Birmingham as a city in the 21 century, it is paramount to recognize its contingency upon the social and economic climate of the mid-20th century. Despite racial segregation in the 60’s and 70’s, and the decline of the steel/iron industry, Birmingham chooses to believe in the spirit of its people, and its burgeoning music and art scene which has fostered a sense of renewal and rebirth. In many respects, the weight of history seems to further perpetuate insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of social progression and growth. In this sense, it is important to look for tangible examples that defy this inherent instability – The recent success of the Sloss Music and Arts festival was an important moment in this city’s recent history as critically acclaimed acts Modest Mouse, Tyler the Creator, Sturgill Simpson, and countless others played to packed crowds at the historic Sloss Furnace. Coming off the heels of Sloss, it only seems fitting that Secret Stages experienced unprecedented success. Now in its 5th year, this festival accommodates emerging artists from around the southeast, giving them a chance to showcase their talents to unfamiliar audiences in bars and venues in the downtown Birmingham historic district.
This year’s festival, held July 31-Aug.1, featured over 50 artists in a wide spectrum of genre and style. Despite the lack of marquee headliners, that are used to draw large audiences and boost attendance, Secret Stages continues to be a breath of fresh air in its commitment to local artists and their promotion. This ethic has proven to be effective as more and more people each year choose to attend Secret Stages.This year especially, I was particularly excited to see some of Birmingham’s finest new artists featured at the festival.
On Friday, highlights included sets from bands Eleven Year Old, Holy Youth, and Holly Waxwing. This was another proud moment for Birmingham, reminding us that some of the best music coming out of the southeast can be found right here in our city. Eleven Year Old opened up the festival at Das Has as attendees began to trickle in. The small crowd seemed disengaged at first but more listeners made their way into the club as Eleven Year Old powered through their set without hesitation. Eleven Year Old is a three-piece psychedelic garage rock outfit spawned from the mind of Birmingham resident and musician Jacob Hethcox. Eleven Year Old challenges its audiences by creating dense layers of sound with tremolo damaged guitar noise, coupled with sensible pop melodies and harmonies. This dichotomy creates a musical dynamic for the listener that exhausts many aspects of the live experience. The band seeks to find rest in the tension between the euphoria of jangly pop and the cognitive dissonance perpetuated by Eleven Year Old’s uncanny ability to, at any moment, wonder into an abyss of chaos and sound- springing forth in fuzz filled guitar solos and wailing vocals, effortlessly filling the room to the brim. The paradox is that there is no rest in the tension, as Hethcox pushes his audiences to the brink. Eleven Year Old is a truly unique band emerging from Birmingham’s underground with potential to achieve unforeseen heights of musical ingenuity and innovation. This performance at Secret Stages reminded me why they are heralded as one of the best live bands Birmingham has to offer.
While some may find this kind of performance from the likes of Eleven Year Old alienating or disenchanting, Secret Stages offered live acts that satisfied the musical taste and interests of a wide variety of people. After Eleven Year Old finished their set, Alt-Country band Swampbird from Little Rock, Arkansas, took the stage at Das Haus. As the night moved on and the beer began to flow, Swampbird’s feel-good attitude sat very well with the large crowd that had quickly filled the club to capacity. This band gave exactly what the people wanted: country tunes with reckless abandon mixed with a heavy old-school rock n roll vibe. Swampbird’s sound called upon the architects of country and rock music such as The Band, Neil Young, and Waylon Jennings and delivered an excellent live set, one of the best the first night of the festival.
Closing out Friday night, I made it a priority to see Birmingham post-punk four-piece, Holy Youth, at the Easy Street stage next to Matthews Bar and Grill. Holy Youth is another excellent guitar band Birmingham is proud to call one of their own. Comprised of Chris McCauley on vocals and guitar, Stuart Norman on lead guitar, Travis Swinford on bass, and John Paul Foster on drums, Holy Youth utilizes dream pop and shoe-gaze driven guitar tones influenced by bands such as Slowdive , My Bloody Valentine, and Ride combined with fast paced post-punk bass and drum grooves. Holy Youth is an incredible band, but their performance at Secret Stages was overshadowed by technical problems. This was by far one of the biggest disappointments of the festival as the venue proved to be entirely incapable of facilitating a working sound system. Throughout the night, bands scheduled to play this venue continuously experienced delays because of the faulty sound system and the incompetency of the staff to fix the problems only made matters worse. Despite these complications, Holy Youth eventually took the stage and had the capacity crowd moving in a matter of moments. Their set was primarily comprised of material from their debut self-titled LP which Holy Youth has pummeled through at previous live shows for quite some time now. The Easy Street venue definitely put a damper on the weekend since other great bands I was excited to see like Athens, Georgia’s noise punk band Muuy Biien and White Reaper from Louisville, Kentucky, suffered through the same technical difficulties. Additionally, the Easy Street venue interior design resembled what I would describe as an abandoned, makeshift church youth center, complete with two defunct pool tables and lounge chairs scattered about. Secret Stages must address this issue for next year, because this was a terrible experience for all involved.
On Saturday night, the first band I had the pleasure of seeing was none other than Macon, Georgia’s own Dalmatian. As a Macon native now living in Birmingham, I was extremely proud to see such a talented band from my hometown take the stage at Pale Eddies Pour House and boy, did they ever deliver. Dalmatian’s performance at Secret Stages was one of the best of the weekend, as they played to a full house early Saturday night. Right from the start of their set, the already energized crowd responded warmly and gave their full attention. It was remarkable to see Dalmatian’s development as a live band since their early days of Woolfolk. They have evolved into a band with an airtight live sound accompanied with complex arrangements and song structures. They seamlessly moved from one song to the next in one fluid motion while simultaneously switching members of the band to different instruments throughout the set. Furthermore, their ability to pull off difficult key changes, changes in tempo, intricate rhythm patterns and harmonies was impressive to say the least. Dalmatian has almost completely abandoned the “folk rock” label pinned on them in the early days, and have emerged as a full-fledged psych pop outfit with layers of harmonies and David Byrne inspired dance grooves which keep live audiences asking for more. Dalmatian seems to be poised for great success as their following and reputation grows with each and every live performance.
Other highlights from Saturday night included Birmingham artist Chad Fisher at Rogue Tavern and another Birmingham psych punk band GT at Pale Eddies. I will admit there were a number of artists I fully intended to see, but missed, such as Memphis, Tennessee bands Spaceface and The Sheiks.
Secret Stages has quickly become one of my favorite events in Birmingham, and it will be interesting to see how the festival adapts to ever-increasing cultural changes. Birmingham is a city in transition, and the question remains unanswered whether this new growth in local music and art can sustain itself long-term in the midst of a desperate search for cultural and economic stability.
– Sam Douglass – Sam is a contributing writer to TheBlueIndian.com currently based in Birmingham, AL where he attends Samford University. Look him up if you ever go to town!