McDowell Mountain Music Festival: Scottsdale, AZ 4/25-26/08

What is it about music festivals these days?  How come every-time I visit a music related blog that’s not hyping Vampire Weekend, they are announcing another festival whose lineup card is bragging “my lineup can kick your lineup’s ass.”  And more likely than a $5 bottle of Aquafina,  that lineup will include Flaming Lips, NIN and Wilco. 

Well enough is enough of this big stuff; maybe it’s about time we get back to the roots of the whole festival explosion.  How about a two-day event where you can walk to relieve one’s bladder without missing more than a couple song verses?  How about a festival where in order to claim a standing spot near the stage, you don’t have to cop a spot with a sleeping bag and canteen the night prior?  What about a festival where you can actually park your car within a three iron of the stage?   What about a festival where the music is only playing on one stage at a time and you don’t have to hold your finger in your ear to avoid getting an eerie combination of "Built to Spoon." Anyhow, easier said than done or perhaps this reviewer is just getting old.

Obviously a comfortable festival scene as described above pretty much leaves off Radiohead and Bob Dylan as headliners, but in Scottsdale nobody cares.  The McDowell Mountain Music Festival is a charity event and gears itself towards more “roots” or “jam” oriented acts.  Yes, there are hippies in the Phoenix area or they might have come down from Flagstaff, but either way the turnout was mellow, while the tribal tattoos and sandals came out.

Friday’s lineup kicked off with a couple local acts on the big stage, before The Subdudes brought their Cajun, blues, gospel, funk to the stage. By the time Grace Potter and the Nocturnals arrived, the colorful crowd had their buzzes roaring via compliments of Sierra Nevada whose woodsy logo was tattooed throughout the festival grounds.   Fair enough, the VIP ticket buyers were treated to twelve drinks, free Barbecue and a fresh white concert t-shirt that hangs to your knees.  Try pulling that off Coachella.

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals made their way from the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Brown Mountains of the McDowells.  Potter was working her tan line in a denim mini skirt, but backed up that sex appeal with a riveting set that covered most of her concert staples including “Ah Mary,” “Stop The Bus,” “Aint No Time,” and “Joey.”  Whether strumming simple chords on her flying V or raging on her organ, Potter copped off old classics like Otis Redding’s “Pain In My Heart,” to the newly recorded “Sugar.” However it was during a flourishing set conclusion of “Northing But The Water” where the band caught their niche, as they jammed out the version into a full band drum circle.

Robert Randolph and The Family Band on the following bill, were predictable in their whole sacred steel deal. Sure Randolph is arguably one of the best pedal steel players in the world, but the whole group constant screech thing gets a bit tiring fast. From “Wanna Be Starting Something” teases to Hendrix covers, Randolph, like the Flaming Lips, needs a live show reivention.  Randolph is certainly adapt at getting the party started, but come the 7:00-8:30 slot, The Family Band were better geared for a BBQ joint.

Headliners Gov’t Mule, were introduced via “the hardest working man in rock” and “23rd Greatest Guitarist of All Time by Rolling Stone” tag.   Although the band has a rabid fan base, there didn’t seem to be any set-list jotters in the crowd, as it gave Warren Haynes and his mates a free ticket to do whatever the hell they wanted, not that the grizzly front-man needs anyone’s permission.

From the quintessential Mule song, “Thorazine Shuffle” to the instrumental mayhem of “Sco-Mule,” Gov’t Mule delivered the potent originals alongside a stellar cover ride that included: “I Can’t Quit You Babe, Hunger Strike-> Dear Mr. Fantasy->Hunger Strike.”  The band invited out friends Grace Potter and Scott Tournet for a boogied out version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” that got the crowd movin’ following the bluesy-growler “Time To Confess.”  And of course it wouldn’t be a Gov’t Mule show without “Soulshine,” which ended the set with Robert Randolph guesting on pedal steel.

Saturday brought hotter temps and more attendees, as word was spreading that this festival might be the best kept secret in the Valley outside of Dick’s Hideaway breakfast.  Toubab Krewe delivered their rock/West African fusion, while JJ Grey & Mofro proved why they fill such a distinctive space in music. 

So at this 5:30 point, we were ten bands in and no reggae yet? What kind of festival is this?  Well out come The Wailers.  Under the leadership of bassist Aston Barrett, The Wailers sounded almost like the real thing.  Heck, lead singer Elan Atias does such a dead on Marley voice, that lip-synching seemed a distinct possibility.  But that’s not to discredit the band’s enthusiasm.  After all, playing “Jamming” and “Get Up ,Stand Up” over and over never seemed to get tiring for the Wailers and not tiring for the 6:00 audience as well. 

You got to feel bad for Blues Traveler.  There’s probably no other band that got cursed with having a hit single (“Run-Around”) than these live music titans, who practically launched the jam-band movement along with Phish.  Since Bobby Sheehan hasn’t been on stage with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, things have just seemed like a constant struggle of credibility for the band: are they has beens? Can they still rock out?  The answer is a little of both. 

Playing “Run-Around” and “Hook” showed they still need to pledge allegiance to their 6 million copy selling fourth album, but their new material didn’t get enough chance to breathe some on stage magic.  The now lanky John Popper still plays the harmonica like he weighs 300, but maybe they need to start going back to two set extravaganzas to rebuild their early 90’s momentum.  The only thing that was missing were Calvin & Hobbes shirts, white hats and maybe DJ Logic.

Who would have thought that the John Butler Trio would be headlining a festival? Well this Australian instrumentalist nailed his slot as he had the crowd waiting to the end that mixes the best moments of Dave Matthews Band, Xavier Rudd, Jack Johnson into one soulful punch of inspirational rock.  At this point, the band was serving as background music for many of the drunken crowd, but what damn good background music it was.  And on that note, what a well run small-scale festival the McDowell Mountain Music Festival has become in this crowded summer of big festivals.  Do yourself a favor this summer and hit  up a small one for every big one.

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