Monday, July 26, 2010

Maha: Grading Omaha's festival (wrapping up what happened and looking at what's next, plus comments on Spoon and It's True)

Laura Ballance, left, and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk. (Photo by Chris Machian/The World-Herald)

If you were to compare the second annual Maha Music Festival to the inaugural concert, it was a smashing success. I remember in 2009 when a couple hundred (and that's a generous estimate) stuck around to watch headliner Dashboard Confessional.

On Saturday, a few thousand were packed in front of the main stage to catch The Faint and then headliners Spoon.

One Percent's Marc Leibowitz told me they had attendance of more than 4,000, though an official number is still pending. That's an astonishing improvement over last year's fest, which was said to draw a few thousand, but there never seemed to be more than a few hundred there at any given time.

I say good job to the organizers. I had a great time and so did my friends and pretty much everyone else I talked to. It was a vast improvement over 2009 both in terms of talent, organization and atmosphere. I'm looking forward to next year already. I really hope they soldier on, especially considering how stressful it must be to put on. It's not easy to put together a lineup and an event like that for only 4,000 people. But I hope they keep it indie, keep it small and let it grow on the merits of the indie-style lineup I hope they maintain going forward.

Organizers Tre Brashear and Mike App were running around like crazy, but didn't seem to have any problems after the delays early in the day.

There were hiccups. On Maha's Twitter, I saw them say something about refillable water running out. And I saw a few people arrested. But that stuff happens. The water thing should be fixed, but no one died. And it wasn't the first (and certainly not the last) time people have been arrested at a music festival. Woodstock '99 anyone?

As for the important stuff, I thought the music was excellent (my favorites being Superchunk and Ben Kweller though It's True, The Faint and Spoon were great, too) and it was a stellar lineup. I think that's what got all those people there and caused them to stick around. The Faint appeared to have the biggest crowd but even Kweller (a favorite of mine, but not hugely known) had a sizable number smashed in front of the barricades.

What's next for the lineup and headliners? I don't know. I hope they keep the same feel to the lineup (well-known indies with a decent following) but up the ante a little bit. One or two more edgier or much-buzzed-about choices (Sleigh Bells, Frightened Rabbit, Titus Andronicus, Delorean) would be cool topped by a big headliner such as Wilco, The Strokes, Arcade Fire or some such. That means more money to spend, but I imagine they'll get there soon enough. They'll have to if they want to expand.

I only had a few complaints with the music. The way the local bands were selected - by voting battle of the bands-style - is pretty sub-par, but that's been my opinion for awhile. Something tells me that's going to change since it's been a major complaint by myself and others.

The other thing was the way they were arranged. I like local stage "headliner" Satchel Grande. They're always a good time and good grooves. But sandwiching them between Superchunk and The Faint was an odd choice. Though it was a good set, it didn't fit.

I'd like to see the fest have a big headliner (or two if/when it moves to multi-day) and a smattering of other talent during the day, local and otherwise, and not limit the locals to the side stage. It's True proved that a local group can and will kick ass on the big boy stage. Mix them up and put them wherever they fit.

While I'm on the subject, the second stage was pretty awful to watch/listen to. The sun was right above/behind it the whole time and the sound was awful. For example, if someone asked me if Betsy Wells was any good, I honestly couldn't answer. It sounded like total crap over there. Plus it doesn't feel much like a stage so much as an afterthought ("Where should we put stage 2, Bob?" "How about on that concrete slab over there, Jim?" "As good a place as any, Bob."). I hope they do better next time.

I'll be honest and say that I've never liked the riverfront as a venue. It's kind of "plug and play," which is why it was chosen in the first place, but it's hard to get to, it's difficult to find parking, concrete sucks to stand on all day and the layout is just goofy (the stages were too close together and the bathrooms and merch tables felt miles away).

For a multi-day thing with a few stages, camping and several thousand people, they're going to need to move. Where? There aren't any places currently used as venues that would work well (in my opinion), but we live in a rural state and I'm sure there are more than enough flat, open pieces of land where some stages, a fence, some port-a-potties and merch/food booths could be erected without too much trouble.

So, what's in the future? I'll be talking to Brashear, App and others soon to find out. You'll be the first to know.

* * *

I omitted a few entries from Saturday's blogging, namely Spoon and It's True's final, final show (the afterparty at the Waiting Room). Why? Basically, I got home at 3 a.m. and was too tired to continue.

Excuses, excuses, right? Apologies. Here they are a couple days late...

* * *

Spoon's set was great, although the band is no Faint or Superchunk. They kinda groove and they're always pretty mellow, but I liked it a lot.

The crowd thinned out a bit from the Faint's set, which I think came because the Faint was just plain a big draw and because it was getting late and some people didn't care to see Spoon. Sad, really.

Spoon is indie rock with some thump, a little bit of groove, and sometimes a bit spastic. I liked it. I like them. Reminded me a lot of their SxSw set I saw in March.

Britt Daniel, clad in all white, seemed pretty excited to be there.

"We haven't been here in awhile," Daniel said. "The last time we were here - maybe the last four or five times we've been here - we played at Sokol. It's been too long."

(I actually think it was the Orpheum, but whatever... you get the point.)

The brought out a 6-piece horn section, most notable on a fast-tempo version of "Underdog," and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster joined them several times for some extra percussion.

"Wurster was the first guy in indie rock to decide that Spoon was cool," Daniel said.

All in all, I thought they made for a great headliner. Big name. Good music. (Even if they were mellow.)

* * *

So, It's True performed their final show at the Maha afterparty on Saturday.

It was kind of a melancholy scene, although that wasn't quite apparent until the set was over. Adam Hawkins was joking around with the other guys before and during the set and they were all smiles. It was virtually the same set of songs they played earlier in the day, although I don't think they had a setlist. Hawkins appeared to just call out the songs to Karl Houfek or Kyle Harvey and they just started in.

"So, this is the last hurrah," Hawkins said near the end, kind of realizing that it was over.

He profusely thanked the fans (many of whom were singing along, word for word) several times. Before the show, Houfek thanked "our wives, our girlfriends, our boyfriends" and everyone else who has supported them.

After the show, they gave away CDs and everyone was hugging each other. Even Hawkins, who seems to have initiated the breakup by moving away (though I can't be sure what the official story is), was sad and was hugging everyone, including fans.

The fans were sad, too. While I was standing there, one kid told Houfek that he and his friends drove all day from Lander, Wyoming, just to see It's True's last show. You can't say they don't have fans.

It sucks to see a group that talented and with what appeared to have such a bright future kind of abruptly fade away.

Someone I saw earlier in the day snarkily called It's True "the stupidest band in Omaha." Those of us that heard him say it all kind of laughed it off, but I can't help but agree on some level. "Stupid" may be a bit harsh, but I still can't figure out what they were thinking.

As sad as the band members were, I can't help but think that they're not sure either.


  1. Great wrap up, Kevin! I feel like eventually "too tired to continue" also included walking and talking...what a full day.

    I really liked the size of the event, and I hope they can keep that same friendly Omaha spirit as it grows. It would be *amazing* if they could get a Frightened Rabbit, The xx, etc. type buzz band. I'm not a booking agent, and I don't know the cost vs. benefit on those types of bands, but I can assure that there would be a hard core minority that would be ecstatic to see them folded in with the larger acts.

    I have to disagree with you in that I liked the venue/layout. The Landing is unique, if oddly shaped, but there was plenty of room for all without feeling "empty" and the convenience of constant music without having to move couldn't be beat.

    As for It's True, I wrote a fairly lengthy bit on them in my MAHA Awards piece. I'm sad to see them go, and I'm trying to hold back from making too many guesses as to their thought process. Only they know in the end...

  2. Thanks Jordy! I liked your piece as well.

    I've just never liked the Landing. Maha will definitely grow out of that space and I'd rather see them make a move sooner rather than later. It's not like they need to expand to Bonnaroo proportions or anything, but a slightly larger place with better stage placement would please me quite a bit.

    I'm definitely looking forward to who they'll be booking.


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