Music Midtown 2013: A Retrospective

For the third consecutive year since its resurrection, Music Midtown lived up to its reputation as the ‘Ultimate Neighborhood Music Festival’, though the overall success of the event was not without its share of snags and snafus.

Friday, September 20th

Friday provided some of the best weather Atlanta has been blessed with all season, and the vibe along Tenth Street on the way to the fest was nothing short of jubilant, if not somewhat surreal. Having parked along West Peachtree with a considerable trek before me, I had one of the most immersive people watching experiences of my life. The usual gaggle of Peachtree dog walkers and road racers collided with a salmon spawn strength influx of Piedmont Park bound pedestrians intoxicated by PBR, Andre laced mimosas, and the overwhelming sense of a single tribal purpose driven by the undertow of a distant drum call.

Other than a common destination, a vast majority of the Piedmont Pilgrims seemed unified under a singular banner of chic turned cliche. High waisted cut off shorts. The sheer volume of distressed denim surrounding me, along with the presence of a pair of giant schnauzers who’s appearance resembled something out of the Star Wars universe, left me somewhat confused and disoriented. ‘Fashion’ usually has this effect on me. Granted, I know this is Atlanta, and we like all things edgy and ‘progressive’, but I don’t see how garments with aesthetics that parallel those of a freshly soiled diaper are appealing. Can we just have yoga pants and leggings back?

Friday started off with a pair of polar opposite Atlanta acts, Drivin’ N Cryin’ and 2 Chains. Kevin Kinney and crew treated the early arrivers to a 45 minute set that was full of more grit than bluesy ballad vibes, kicked off by the always welcome “Fly Me Courageous”. In ironic fashion, their confession filled acceptance of hard living and its consequences, “Straight to Hell”, was interrupted by the first few bars of 2 Chains’ set at the adjoining stage. The irony here lies in the copious glorification of Atlanta strip clubs and allusions to the city’s not so subdued drug culture throughout his performance. However, he truly did put on a great show, with a talented cast of live instrumentation and fluid lyricism.

The Mowgli's @ Music Midtown 2013

The Mowgli’s @ Music Midtown 2013

After a brief spell at the Mowgli’s‘ set, I made my way down to the Ballroom Stage to catch Phoenix. The Mowgli’s were energetic and charming, just as I assumed from the interview I did with Matthew di Panni. Shortly after their set, William met the band to film a special acoustic performance that we’ll be debuting in the coming weeks. You won’t want to miss it!

Phoenix provided an excellent backdrop for the waning hours of daylight, and summer for that matter, with a host of ‘songs you know but didn’t realize you did’ such as “Too Young”, “1901”, and “Lisztomania”.

Crowds swelled as the park filled to the brim early in the evening, and the atmosphere began to resemble that of being at a state fair. Vendors both local and traveling peddled shirts, souvenirs, and snacks to a crowd that seemed at times to have more interest in the social scene than the show itself. The air was thick with a feeling of hometown pride and a sense of communal celebration as the moon rose and highlighted the Atlanta skyline. Spirits were high, the craft beer and Red Bull infused cocktails were flowing steady, the work week was over, and Atlanta was primed to get a little weird, and a lotta nostalgic.

Cue my favorite performance of the weekend, Jane’s Addiction. The duo of Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro is as electric today as it was in the height of the band’s popularity. Seriously, it’s hard to believe their first album came out when I was two years old, ahem… in 1988. I’m fairly certain Navarro never ages. Their entire set was presented full tilt, though things got a bit loose at times. I’ll allow it. No one likes a sterile set when it comes to funk-punk steeped in the angst of the early 1990’s anyway. A near capacity crowd was treated to all of the appropriate gems, my favorite being ‘Caught Stealing’, which was introduced through a rambling homage to their early Atlanta shows from Farrell. With night having set in, we got our first tastes of the festivals on stage light, video, and effects production. Jane’s Addiction’s set was supplemented by eerie smoke fountains, erotic imagery of some lovely ladies, and an aggressive color palette of strobes and banks of LEDs.

Cake @ Music Midtown 2013

Cake @ Music Midtown 2013

A quick run to the johns and beer tents at the close of their set foreshadowed some of the issues the fest was doomed to face on the following day. Lines for toilets swelled, as did their holding tanks. Wait times for relief were 30 minutes or more, causing many people to miss chunks of bands they had paid a fair amount to see. What must have seemed to be an appropriate number of toilets by the planners did little to service the crowds of 50,000+. But seriously, if there were any more port-a-johns in the place, they may have blocked stage views.

The sheer volume of humanity in the immediate area also wreaked havoc on cell phone reception, which accompanied by overlapping sets and long distances between stage areas made meeting up with friends difficult or impossible.

Journey @ Music Midtown 2013

Journey @ Music Midtown 2013

Though I was fully aware of expected attendance and total ticket sales, I was still taken aback by the enormous crowd that gathered in expectation of Journey. I’m never really sure how to describe what being in the middle of fifty thousand people feels or looks like. One minute you’ve got plenty of room around you and a clear route behind you to the beer tent, then, you turn around to go get that brew, and realize there’s now about fifteen thousand folks between you and that drink. Suddenly it’s not that important anymore.

As Journey took the stage for one of the largest crowds I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t help but wonder how many attendees had turned to the person next to them and exclaimed, “I never knew Journey had an Asian vocalist!”. But seriously though, Arnel Pineda has an amazing voice, and an even more incredible rags to riches story regarding his discovery. Even if he isn’t a founding member he sings with conviction and emotion that projects out to the fans before him. Considering many of the people in attendance had not been born yet at the time of Journey’s conception, myself included, the crowd response was mixed at best. Sure, there were epic sing-a-long moments during “Open Arms”, “Separate Ways”, and of course, “Don’t Stop Believin”, but I just felt that much of the audience lacked a genuine connection with the band and their music.

Saturday, September 21st

What began as speculation quickly became certainty as thick rain clouds drifted over Atlanta early in the morning on Saturday. This did little to deter ticket-holders as tens of thousands again descended upon the park and its wary staff. An unseen complication nearly crippled the festival early in the day as heavy cloud cover restricted the functionality of ticket scanners. Wait times for access to the park grounds exceeded an hour, and frustrations built. Eventually, the order was given to open the gates and to cease scanning tickets so that patrons could get their money’s worth. Energetic sets from Weezer and The Arctic Monkeys helped to keep spirits high until the weather broke, just in time for Imagine Dragons to take stage.

Music Midtown 2013

Fans @ Music Midtown 2013

However with nearly five hours of rainy conditions, the damage had been done and Music Mudtown was in full swing. Fifty thousand pairs of feet and a few drunken mud luge enthusiasts had effectively turned the meadow into a mire and greedy mud pits attempted to steal sodden socks and shoes from those who dared enter them.  With the rain gone many shed their now cumbersome ponchos and footwear and discarded them either where they fell or shoved them into bins throughout the park.

During the bottleneck debacle at the gates, I spent a fair amount of timing trading war stories with some of the staff, who, despite weathering the pelting onslaught of precipitation peppered with insults from unruly patrons, were all smiles. Let’s be honest, like most big holiday celebrations and community based festivals, Music Midtown is somewhat of an amateur hour showing of inexperienced concert-goers and those that are just there for the party. In contrast, most members of concert staff have seen the front lines a time or two, and have the tendency to carry thick skins and generally amicable attitudes. I mean, they are getting paid to go to concerts, after all. Even after patrons had been allowed to stream through the gates unchecked to fill the viewing areas, they still seemed detached and emotionless. Hardly anyone was dancing. Piedmont Park was a sea head nodding metronomes. Bobble-headed automatons in ponchos and puddle hoppers.

Music Midtown 2013

Fans @ Music Midtown 2013

One of the Tenth Street attendants, the area hardest hit by tech problems and chronic congestion, gestured toward the stretch of stoic onlookers with an air of dismissal and amusement. “They spend all that money and ain’t even partying. You ever been to a Widespread Panic show? Now that is a party. A little rowdy, but a party for sure. And Phish shows? They’re all happy. Every one of ’em. Granted they’re all tripping their faces off, but everyone’s just happy to be there. Hell, I let lots of these people in for free without tickets when they told us to open the gates, and they’re still mad. But, I will say this weekend has been better people watching than a trip to Wal-Mart!” Yes ma’am, it has.

Speaking of, there’s one sure place to witness humanity at its finest when attending any large concert or festival. The bathroom line. Whether it’s from displays of generosity, charity, and unabashed affection through gifts of clean tissue and hand sanitizer produced from fashionable purses, or the incongruous ingenuity of those who have managed to clog the entire receptacle with all available forms of detritus and defecation, you’re guaranteed to walk away from the experience shaking your head in a mixture of awe and disgust. Festival toilet tip. Lock the door. I don’t need to witness your public evacuation strategy first hand. To the guy that was tickling his girlfriend in the middle of a thirty minute wait for relief, I was really rooting for her to soak your shoes with something other than mud. That not so secret cellphone photo you managed to snap of the port-a-potty door she resided behind is going to look great on Instagram too, bro. You guys must be into some kinky shit. Pun intended.

Music Midtown 2013

Fans @ Music Midtown 2013

When you’re squishing around in the dark, squinting and scribbling on a saturated server’s pad from your restaurant job in an attempt to record the spectacle you’re bearing witness to, people’s shamelessly silly uses of technology really stand out to you. Lighters held aloft during ballads have been replaced by the LED glow of countless cellphones, tablets, and other devices set to record and held blindly overhead. Have you ever put yourself through watching some of these recordings that actually make it to YouTube and the like? Most of them sound and look like they were recorded through a potato with earmuffs duct taped to it. Long story short, just enjoy the show and put the iPads and GoPros away. Save yourself the disappointment, Spielberg.

However, I did witness one unforgettable piece of amateur photography first hand. Seeking sanctuary from the slop atop a knoll about two thirds back in the crowd, I found myself amongst strangers in good spirits. A group of girls just ahead were dancing with the sort of sensual rhythm most in the crowd weren’t blessed with, and a clan of college aged guys were steadily priming their engines for the evening with pulls from a communal flask and chases of ten dollar domestic beer. All was peachy until a ‘well’ dressed man in a fedora stepped confidently from the crowd behind me, cellphone in hand, obviously preparing to take the concert photo of a lifetime. He stepped directly between myself and the collegiate cronies, appraised the gaggle of girls before us, and pointed his phone directly at a pair generous glutes scantily clad in leopard print, high-waisted cut off shorts. Click. As I raised my eyes incredulously from the gent’s phone, I caught the wide eyed stare of one of the ‘frat daddies’. As the flask slipped from his lips, he asked the fella, “Do you even know her man?”. With a prideful shake of his head and a smile, Captain Couth himself slipped again into anonymity. The moral of the story here ladies, is that bad things happen when you wear high-waisted cut off shorts.

However with nearly five hours of rainy conditions, the damage had been done and Music Mudtown was in full swing. Fifty thousand pairs of feet and a few drunken mud luge enthusiasts had effectively turned the meadow into a mire and greedy mud pits attempted to steal sodden socks and shoes from those who dared enter them.  With the rain gone, many shed their now cumbersome ponchos and footwear and discarded them either where they fell or shoved them into bins throughout the park.

Music Midtown 2013

Fans @ Music Midtown 2013

One of the finest moments of the weekend came during Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ slot, as fifty thousand attendees and artists alike were treated to an astoundingly spectacular sunset. The sky and stage were ablaze as Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs delivered an energetic set supplemented by a surprisingly powerful stage presence. The crowd regained its wits and rallied through the riff oriented rock of Queens of The Stone Age in expectation of a high energy set from the Chili Peppers. The anticipation for their set was so high that fans had shown up to the gates of the park at 6 am that day in order to vie for a front row spot.

The Peppers most certainly delivered with crowd favorites such as “Dani California”, “Scar Tissue”, and “By The Way”. The high point of their set was a powerful rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” which seemed oddly appropriate in light of the earlier downpour. Flea’s bass work was as good as it’s ever been and reached a thundering crescendo during “Higher Ground”. Of course, like Navara, Kiedis never seems to age and he stalked the stage like a jungle cat all the while delivering a stellar performance.

There’s no accounting for Mother Nature and her fits of fury, and she did little to dampen the mood this weekend, especially considering we ATLiens have become accustomed to soggy weather this season. That being said, I deem Music Midtown a great success on all accounts. Lessons were learned, great times were had, and as long as Piedmont Park is expediently restored to its former glory, this will surely be an event to look forward to year after year.

– Rhett Shirley – Photos by William Haun

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