MUSIC MIDTOWN 2011: A Retrospective

On Saturday, September 24, coming out of a six-year layover, the city of Atlanta revived its once-annual outdoor music and arts festival, Music Midtown. During its initial run from 1994-2005, the festival bounced between various locations around the city. For its return to form, however, Music Midtown 2011 overtook the Tenth Street Meadow in Piedmont Park, featuring two stages – one dubbed The Electric Ballroom Stage, the other The Great Southeastern Music Hall Stage – and ten bands, from up-and-comers like The Postelles and Young the Giant, to the arena-approved powerhouse Coldplay. Rather than having the bands play simultaneously, though, and risking bleed over and excessive noise pollution, festival organizers scheduled the performances to pinball back and forth between the two stages. A brilliant decision overall – though ultimately exhausting for me, personally – Music Midtown rarely had a down moment, and the scant ten minute breaks between acts gave fans just enough time to bustle from one stage to the other.

As the festival unfolded, the Meadow was gradually weaved into a tawdry patchwork, appliquéd by blankets and tapestries, while a mélange of dope and dirty-water hot dogs wafted through the air, and a current of beer cans ran evermore rapidly from the vendors, at a rate of just under 50 cents an ounce (10 bucks for a tall boy of Budweiser – seriously?). Over the course of the afternoon, I watched one man pass out, stand up, and keep right on rocking; another scream for joy until he could no longer speak; and yet another, laughing and bobbing despite the smattering of blood on his shirt, being escorted toward the festival’s gates. So, all things considered, the event was rife with typical festival-goer shenanigans.

Wacky attendee behavior aside, though, the day’s musical performances featured more than a few moments that should not have been missed. Luckily, The Blue Indian was there, notebook and camera in tow, watching, listening, writing, shooting – and now, detailing for you the very best of what Music Midtown 2011 had to offer.

Overall Best of Show

During the opening songs of their set, Ohio’s own blues brothers, The Black Keys, proved that just two men can in fact fill an amphitheater. Jamming through a selection of their own beloved white-boy blues catalog, as well as a cover of The Kink’s classic “Act Nice and Gentle,” drummer Patrick Carney pounded his skins like a man possessed, and full-time guitar virtuoso/part-time maraca player Dan Auerbach staggered and stumbled around stage as if each individual note was fighting it’s way from his fingers. After a decade of activity, The Keys have successfully tweaked and refined their guitar-and-drum attack such that, even in a wide-open park, their sound was never wanting or thin.

Regardless, the addition of two unrecognized musicians, one on bass and the other on keyboard, helped to round out the latter part of The Keys’ performance, taking the band’s set to new heights and adding a flourish of funk and a kick to the low end that managed to up an already-excited crowd. With a full band now in tow, The Keys launched headfirst into a rendition of “Everlasting Light” that had the crowd proudly shaking their money makers, and their performance of “Howlin’ for You” had everyone in attendance gleefully de-da-de-da-da-ing along. Even without the glitz of Coldplay’s show, The Keys boasted an energy that was hard to top. At multiple times during the set, Auerbach stopped and exclaimed, “Let’s keep this thing rolling, I like where this is going!” Me too, Dan. Me too.

Best Reason to Have a Lighter, Save for Cigarettes/Most Timely Tribute

Say what you will about Chris Martin, the man can tickle some ivory. So when he took a seat at his keys and Coldplay launched into their achingly-emotional hit “The Scientist,” I thanked god that the two girls standing next to me were smokers, because the whole cell-phone-as-neo-lighter fad at concerts just isn’t cutting it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I normally maintain a Grinch-like aversion to Coldplay’s music. On Saturday night, though, the band’s set had enough charisma to coax even me into nodding along. They had lights and they had lasers, oversized balloons and beach balls – and, oh man, don’t even get me started on the fireworks. Somewhere amidst the sheer spectacle of it all, and despite my better judgments, I felt my heart grow three times its normal size, and I found myself swaying and singing along to the band’s breakthrough hit “Yellow.” Despite whatever criticism they may receive as artists, Coldplay are nonetheless fantastic performers, boasting a live show that is engaging, dynamic, and most of all, fun.

Side note: with two Atlanta-based bands on the bill, who’da thunk it that the day’s most poignant and appropriate homage to Georgia’s music history would come from a bunch of blokes? But between their bare bones cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” – which hit particularly hard due to the band’s recent dissolution – and the “Georgia on My Mind” introduction to “Fix You,” the band effectively honored their elders and made a show of it to boot. As much as hate to admit it, maybe the British really are just more cultured than we ignorant Americans.

Most Noise per Player on Stage

The last time that The Joy Formidable came to town, they headlined The Earl, one of East Atlanta’s charmingly dank live music venues. Hearing this, and having been at The Earl the night before, I couldn’t help but cringe at the idea of listening to the band’s wall-of-noise-rock blitzkrieg within the confines of the bar’s crowded back room – in fact, the very thought of it about made my ears bleed.

As Joy walked out on Saturday, one audience member held a sign proclaiming “Keep Calm and Rock On,” which seemed particularly out of place once the band kicked out their jams. Though their songs do tend to dip into occasional eddies of shoegaze ambience and relative tranquility, these are just as soon washed asunder by the band’s trademark tempest of distortion, feedback, and cymbal crashes. So while Joy boldly embraced the latter part of this maxim – they did rock, hard – in my books, any band prominently featuring a double bass pedal ain’t exactly calm. Chaotic, frenetic, electric – in the very best sense of the words? Absolutely. But calm? Not a chance.

Best Display of Indie couture

Two tanks, a deep-V, and a bright orange pair of skinny jeans – an impressive display of scenester chic, for sure, these were the hallmarks of Young the Giant‘s wardrobe when they walked onto the Great Southeastern Music Hall stage Saturday Evening. And while clothing certainly doesn’t make the band, their style did indeed complement their sound, which has drawn comparisons to Cold War Kids, Kings of Leon, and Crystal Skulls, among other stalwarts of the Indie community.

Although the majority of crowd members’ hands shot skyward when asked who’d never seen the band live before, it’s safe to say that Young the Giant’s swaggering dance moves and harmonized guitar lines made a strong first impression on many, with the buzzworthy single “Cough Syrup” receiving a particularly loud ovation.

Best Forty-Five Minute trip into Central Park

Though they were the first band to play this Saturday in Atlanta’s largest greenspace, The Postelles brand of scuzzy britpop is straight out of a garage in Manhattan’s lower east side, sounding a bit like the Arctic Monkeys covering Is This It and making the Park’s Tenth Street Meadow feel a bit more Central than Piedmont. It was only appropriate, then, that the band paid tribute to another proud group of Yanks, covering The Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.” Despite playing during the heat of the day, frontman Daniel Balk had little trouble getting the crowd up and moving, if not solely through his band’s energetic stage presence and winsomely upbeat pop tunes, then by embracing the mindset that music should be free, and raining copies of their album down upon the audience.

Most Unbridled Display of Euphoria

The three guys next to me during Manchester Orchestra’s set were absolutely out of control, so much so that a protective barrier formed around them as others moved to avoid a wayward slap to the face. I mean, these guys had high kicks and hand claps, fist pumps and chest bumps, as well as some of the finest air guitar work this side of Wayne’s World. To their credit, though, they weren’t the only ones in the crowd to get lost in Manchester Orchestra’s propulsive live show.

The band had a lot to live up to, of course, what with being proverbial hometown heroes and recently receiving Creative Loafing Atlanta’s Best MTV-Approved Arena Rock band of 2011. The members of Manchester seemed to have no trouble meeting the hype and pleasing their crowd, however, with “Pensacola” prodding a few members of the crowd to surf atop the swell of applause and approval, and “Simple Math” receiving exceptionally powerful shouts and bouts of excitement.

Most Brazen Display of Reckless Abandon

During his band’s opening song, the Thank You, Happy Birthday cut “In One Ear,” Cage the Elephant vocalist Matthew Schultz seemed reluctant to sing the unedited version of the song’s chorus, cutting himself short mid-line or deemphasizing the expletives. Granted, Music Midtown was by and large a family affair, but this move came across nonetheless odd, especially considering that Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” blared across the park immediately prior to Coldplay’s set with all of its curses and misogyny intact. No worries, though – Schultz soon redeemed his punk cred en toto.

As lead guitarist Lincoln Parish launched into his solo during “2024,” Schultz rollicked his way to the front of the stage, swinging his unruly mop of hair around like a young Eddie Vedder and hucking himself over the edge. Luckily, perhaps compelled by the band’s already-raucous live show, the crowd was more than happy to receive Schultz’s gangly display of rock n’roll excess, allowing him to ride their surging wave of hands out and around before crawling back to stage and finishing the song. Very punk rawk indeed.

Best Free Service

Credit where credit’s due: with their station located just outside one of the festivals main entrances, the Atlanta Bike Coalition definitely did its part to help assuage the glut of people, and consequently, cars that descended on Piedmont Park Saturday afternoon. For keeping my beloved road bike safe and sound, and for making the day bit more green, a shout out and a tip of the hat to you, my friends.

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