Secret Stages 2014 – Birmingham, Alabama – A Review

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For the amount of traveling I’ve done over the past few years, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I visited Birmingham, Alabama for the very first time this past weekend. Technically, I worked a show at Sloss Furnace five or six years ago, but my experiences other than that have merely consisted of passing through the downtown on the way to Texas or a neighboring state. Much to my delight, this all changed this past weekend with my attendance at Secret Stages, Birmingham’s “Discovery Festival”.

Now in its fourth year, Secret Stages was held throughout the Historic Loft District of downtown and featured more than sixty bands across seven stages. Festival organizers have continued to finely tune their focus on exposing under-the-radar acts to the general public, opting away from the traditional route of featuring two or three ban-breaking headlining acts.

Sure, those major market acts help with ticket sales, but Secret Stages seems to be doing just fine. People know what they’re going to get and they enjoy it; a wide variety of the very best of “what’s next” from around the Southeast. Between the amazing food and beer, the beautiful Main Stage setting, the light-hearted locals, and awe-inspiring performances, I’ve made up my mind to make it back to the Iron City before too long.

Unfortunately, I missed the first night of the festival but my host and associate Sam made it a point to get out and join the action. Memphis-based rock outfit Ex-Cult played a set at Das Haus that was described as “deafening, but enjoyable” and provided a perfect antithesis to the rich harmonies of Atlanta’s Faun & a Pan Flute. Nine Georgia acts appeared over the weekend including sets from Rrest, Spirits & the Melchizedek Children, and Brothers.

Highlights from the first night included sets from Mechanical River, Promised Land Sound, All Them Witches, and a number of “secret sets” at various venues around the area.

My afternoon introduction to Birmingham started with a few drinks at Good People Brewing, followed by a visit to Avondale Brewing. Rightfully unique, the two breweries offer a wide selection of year-round favorites as well as some special seasonals. Though in different parts of the city, both breweries are set in steadily growing areas that once were home to abandon industry and now play host to boutiques, restaurants, and nightlife that carries a welcoming charm.

After Avondale, Sam and I made our way down to the festival area to Adia Victoria on the Main Stage. The Nashville-based indie act showed affection to the light crowd that was already gathered for their set, swaying through up-tempo songs that were easy on the ears.

Set in a parking lot just off one of the side streets, the Miller Lite Main Stage was snug against a ivy-covered building and lay adjacent to a railroad track and a small vendor area. On multiple occasions, trains would blast by the stage, but the noise was less deafening and more exhilarating, adding a chaotic element to each set. Complimented by a wash of pink and blue uplighting, the stage was definitely one of the more aesthetically pleasing backdrops I’ve seen at city festivals and had the sound to match.

Next came Brothers, an Athens-based trio that were as rough around the edges as they were musically sound. The crowd became more dense as they worked through their set, playing songs from their 2013 debut. I could be quick to draw comparisons to plenty of other acts that share a similar style to the band, but their set was refreshing and energetic and left their audience smiling.

Sam and I spent a bit of time walking around the downtown area after that, stopping in at the VIP lounge for one of the best VIP experiences I’ve ever witnessed (pot roast, asian cole slaw, Fat Tire, massages – just to name a few things) before heading back to the Main Stage to catch Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy. Though often introduced through her connections with Drive-By Truckers, Tucker has an impressive career of her own and had the fans to show it.

The rest of the evening was spent venturing around between stages, ultimately catching the better part of PUJOL‘s set before heading to see T0w3rs close down Harold & Mod with a strangely danceable set that included a rendition of Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula”, accompanied by an impromptu duo dancing onstage.

Birmingham’s Wray closed down the festival for us, treating a packed house at M-Lounge to an ethereal and engaging set of dreamy pop.

What the festival lacked in nationally known acts was more than absolved by the number of diverse and talented performers from around the South. From hip-hop to metal to southern rock to singer-songwriters, the Southern states were proudly represented in Birmingham and seemed thrilled to play for a responsive and in-touch audience.

As for next year, I feel certain I’ll be returning, only this time I fully intend to make an entire weekend out of it. And eat barbecue.