MUSIC MIDTOWN 2012: A Retrospective

Written by Andy Stewart – Photos by William Haun

My shower on Sunday morning following Music Midtown was one of my best and most necessary bathing experiences in recent memory. After having my ears bludgeoned and my body battered and baked for two straight days, it was all I could do to just make it to my bed after Pearl Jam’s performance Saturday night—hygiene be damned. So when I was woken by the sound of a passing siren too early the next morning, I felt like my ears were stuffed full with gauze, and I was a hot, sticky mess of smoke, suncreen, and sweat—my own, of course, as well as that of about 52,000 others, give or take. Before I could even begin thinking about writing this, I had to first reclaim my humanity with some shampoo and a bar of soap.

So was it all worthwhile, you may ask? Was finally seeing Eddie Vedder in person worth the sunburn, dehydration, and claustrophobia? Was Music Midtown’s decision to return to a two-day format, after last year’s one-day test drive, an overall good and profitable decision? And more importantly, was the festival’s lineup—which some initially dismissed as incongruous, over-the-hill, and irrelevant—engaging, dynamic and, above all, fun?

If you’re judging purely by the festival’s attendance, the answer is unquestionably, yes. According to the festival’s Web site, tickets to Saturday’s shows officially sold out at 4:20 in the afternoon (author’s note: c’mon, that can’t possibly be true. You just wanted to make a weed joke, didn’t you, Peter Conlon?). And by the time Florence and the Machine wrapped up their set at around 8:00 in the evening, the Tenth Street Meadow of Piedmont Park was so slammed full of festival-goers that I, sadly, resigned to missing Girl Talk’s set.

Luckily, though, even if you ignore the overwhelming high level of attendance, and judge the festival instead by the quality of its performances, Music Midtown 2012 still fared pretty well overall. One of the most common criticisms that was levied at the festival was that its lineup featured too many bands—namely, Pearl Jam, The Foo Fighters, Garbage, Joan Jett, and Adam Ant—that are supposedly too far past their prime to be relevant. And to be fair, there seemed to be at least one point during each of their sets when these bands commented upon how long they’ve been active. But to the credit of these performers, all of whom have been making music for nearly two decades or more, they each brought a level of energy and excitement that evenly matched—and sometimes surpassed—their less-road worn festival mates, and far-defied their respective ages. And with bands like the The Avett Brothers, Florence and the Machine, and Neon Trees to inject a bit youthfulness into the proceedings, you would have never guessed that over half of the Music Midtown lineup have been in the business for twelve years or more.

With that in mind, though, some of the weekend’s sets inevitably stood out more than others, so let’s look back at Music Midtown’s most memorable performances.

Pearl Jam

Being twenty-four and an avid Pearl Jam fan can be a lonely experience. On one hand, I’m too often reminded by older people that I was only three years old when Ten was released, suggesting that, because of my age, my devotion to a band like Pearl Jam is ridiculous. On the other, I’m laughed at by some of my good friends, who believe that the band is over-the-hill and hasn’t been relevant in over a decade. But in the Meadow at Piedmont Park on Saturday night, you would’ve thought it was still 1994, that the band was still at the height of their popularity, and that you’d be considered an outcast for not having a fanatical dedication to Eddie Vedder.

Over the years, Pearl Jam has been called different things by different people. Some have called them the greatest American rock band. Others have dismissed their studio work as formulaic, ham-fisted, and inconsistent. One thing that is almost universally agreed upon, though, is that Eddie Vedder and company are a powerhouse live act. So, even if you consider “Even Flow” to be a silly track that romanticizes homelessness, or “Jeremy” a pat Freudian psychodrama, I dare you to experience them live and not be totally enthralled.

Vedder is a powerful figure, in his physical appearance as well as his voice and stage presence, and so he has no problem commanding his audience’s attention. Through fan-favorite sing-along’s like “Betterman” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town,” he managed to enrapture everyone in attendance, and effortlessly turned his audience into a mob of Scott Stapps—that is to say, a bunch of people determined to mimic his every moan and inflection. In fact, one girl was so emotionally invested in the band’s rendition of Nothingman that she thought it necessary to yell at me for writing in my notebook during the song—apparently, I was killing her buzz. For me, though, the highest point in an overall strong, if somewhat surface-level, set came during “Do the Evolution.” In its relentless riffing, psychotic yelps, and propulsive rhythm, the song sums up everything that’s great about the band, and that makes me unabashedly proud to be a fan.

Foo Fighters

Full disclosure: the last Foo Fighters album I listened to from beginning to end, was 2002’s One by One. And even though “Big Me” was one of the first songs that I learned on guitar, my exposure to the band in recent years has come mostly through their singles and videos.

That’s not to say, though, that I was not excited to see the band play live. And honestly, I don’t think I was alone in my relative ignorance of the band’s more recent material. A few songs into the band set, Dave Grohl asked who in the audience had seen the band live before. And despite that Grohl has been making music under the Foo Fighters moniker for “eighteen f***ing years,” probably three-quarters of the audience joined me in putting up their hands. So for me, and I suspect for others as well, my excitement for the band’s set was in part because of the sentimentality I feel for their early music, sure. But even more than that, I was excited because Dave Grohl is, for lack of a better word, f***ing awesome.

Much of The Foos success as a live act depends on the individual personalities of the bands members, and how well they interact on stage. Like Pearl Jam’s set the next night, the band’s show was a mix of their biggest songs from their early albums—Learn to Fly, Monkeywrench, My Hero, Everlong—as well as their more recent radio hits—Times Like These, The Pretender, and Best of You—so it was still accessible even for any of the uninitiated in the audience. And though they translated these pieces live admirably, some of the most fun and endearing parts of their set were the quips and complements they yelled at each other, and the stories they told in between songs. The Foos have obviously been around a while, but all of those years on the road have formed them into a tight, evocative, and undeniably entertaining live act, not a staid and boring dinosaur.

Florence + the Machine

Admittedly, even I reacted a bit cynically to hearing that Garbage was part of the Music Midtown lineup. To their credit, however, the band convincingly rocked their brand of post-grunge indutro-pop and had the crowd singing and dancing along to boot. But of the two fire-headed euro-divas playing on Saturday, Florence Welch was definitely the queen. While she may have come on stage to a dead microphone, and then botched the introduction to her band’s first song, she did so with the highest level of grace and panache. And even after a rocky start, Welch recovered and delivered a performance that was not only technically impressive, but also fun and impossibly charming (I secretly wanted to marry her after the show).

Welch and her Machine’s set mixed songs from both of their albums, and throughout the set Welch interacted with her audience, commanding them to “Jump! Jump! Jump!” during “Shake It Out,” and then to hug it out during “No Light No Light.” And despite looking like an opera singer in her formalwear, Welch presented herself more like a rocker than crooner, sprinting off the stage and through the crowd during the band’s performance of “Spectrum.” But of her entire set, it was the first song from her first album, the joyfully-named “Dog Days Are Over,” that really got the crowd moving.

The Avett Brothers

I’ve seen Chris Thile’s post-Nickle Creek bluegrass outfit The Punch Brothers twice: once in a hole-in-the-wall club with about two hundred other people, and once in a giant theater. And though I wasn’t disappointed by either show, the first, smaller, more intimate experience definitely felt more natural and appropriate for the music. Like The Punch Brothers, The Avett Brothers play a type of bluegrass that thrives in the atmosphere of a tiny club, sans microphones if at all possible, so I was admittedly a bit wary of how well their down-home sound would translate into an arena setting.

Even though there was a part of me that wanted to be listening to them at Eddie’s Attic, I was nonetheless impressed by how determined the Avetts seemed to prove that they could stretch their sound and fill an amphitheater with little more than a banjo, a guitar, and a bit of attitude. The band seemed particularly eager to play their newer material, balancing rockers like “Paul Newman vs. The Demons” and “Kick Drum Heart” against softer tunes like Winter in my Mind. But it was the band’s encore—featuring older numbers like “Murder in the City” and “Talk on Indolence”—that were the highlights of the evening, and that proved why their music is so appealing, and can work in an arena as well as a club—because they aren’t afraid to mix a dash of punk with their Americana, and they can thrash just as well as they can twang.

Ludacris

T.I.‘s set on Friday may have had its moments—his performances of “Rubberband Man” and “Live Your Life” in particular got especially strong crowd responses—but Ludacris’ performance was unquestionably the better of the two rap acts at Music Midtown 2012. And while many of the artists at this year’s festival looked for ways to get their audiences more involved in their music, whether by prompting them to jump around, bang their heads, or pump their fists, none was more interactive than Luda’s set on Saturday afternoon. At various times, the audience was asked to stand up, act a fool, shake their money makers, and throw them bows; to throw their hands, their fists, and their middle fingers in the air, and then to put their hands together; to take their broke asses home (if, for some reason, they didn’t have no money); and to move, at one point when Luda moved (just like that), and at another to (bitch) get out the way. And through the hour-long set, the crowd seemed willing and excited to match his every command, dancing and singing all the while.

Neon Trees

You may not know Neon Trees by name, but you’ve certainly heard their music, perhaps a few more times than you ever cared to. Since its release in 2010, their hit “Animal” has found its way into nearly every nook of pop culture, and in the words of front man Tyler Glenn, there’s nothing that anyone, not even he and his band, can do to stop it. And if you can’t stop it, you may as well rock it, I suppose. Even though I’d be content to never hear it again, admittedly, the Trees rendition of “Animal” during their Saturday evening set had me bouncing and singing along.

With a synth-soaked brand of pop music that lives somewhere between The Strokes and The Killers, the Neon Trees have a sound that is absolutely huge, and a cool factor to match. A prototype of glam rock absurdity in his leather jacket and metallic pink boots, Glenn seems like he was probably born with glitter beneath his eyes. Beyond merely looking the part, though, Glenn is a natural performer with a swagger that seems distilled from years of idolizing David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. And between the thundering pulse of “Love and Affection” and the balladry of “Your Surrender,” Glenn and his band delivered what was definitely the most contagious, propulsive, shake-it-like-it’s-on-fire performance of the entire festival.

LP

Like Van Halen or Bon Jovi, LP is both a person a band. Not to be confused with El-P, or for that matter ELP, though, LP is the stage name of Laura Pergolizzi, who is probably as well known for having written songs for everyone from the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera to Rihanna as she is for being an artist herself. Before Saturday, I, like I assume many of the people in attendance, had never heard of LP. But if you were in the Meadow during her set on Saturday, she was hard to ignore.

In a way, LP is spiritual sister to her festival mate Eddie Vedder. For one, LP apparently believes strongly in the power of the ukulele as an instrument of pop construction, and worked it into several of her band’s songs. But beyond that, both Vedder and Pergolizzi have voices commanding enough to stop you in your tracks. And although her backing band was plenty competent in its own right, they functioned best like pedestal on which Pergolizzi could flex her tremendous vocals. On her covers of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Beyonce’s “Halo,” she proved that she can warble as well as she can wail, and on her original “Into the Wild,” she showed that she has one of the best whistles this side of Andrew Bird.

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