Tempe (AZ) Innings Festival Brings All Rock No Filler Via Low Cut Connie, Foo Fighters, War on Drugs & More (FESTIVAL RECAP)

Mixing sports and music is typically something our country most often witnesses with the hip hop and pop sect- check NBA All-Star Weekend or Super Bowl week. But having a Major League Baseball Spring Training themed music festival with the likes of St. Vincent, War on Drugs, and Tame Impala; one would not immediately conjoin shaggy and eclectic sounds with that of round-trippers, full counts, and ribbies. 

Well, Innings Festival at Tempe (AZ) Beach Park has been mixing the sights, sound, and special appearances of MLB Players with a hearty mix of choice alt-rock and indie for four years now. Yet with all things crazy in the world these days, baseball is on lockout: yet that didn’t prevent thousands of fans from clogging the festival grounds wearing team jerseys head to head black ironic T’s. Two big stages and an athletic area to take batting cage swings, speed pitch throws, and photos with the likes of Roger Clemens, Kenny Lofton, Jonny Gomes, and Tim Raines served as a 180-degree change from the yoga, parades, dance party tents, and fun runs of “other” festivals. 

Two days of perfect weather and a semi return back to normal (not the first time we’ve heard that tease), brought a packed city park to see a shining lineup that also included: Foo Fighters, Billy Strings, Caamp, Dashboard Confessional, Matt & Kim, Black Pumas & more. With no EDM on the menu in favor of all tried and true rock bands; Innings is the rare urban festival that doesn’t play to the Coachella or Tomorrowland thump vibe. So let’s play ball and play umpire on the winners from the weekend of February 26th and 27th.

Ace: The War on Drugs 

If there is any band that has raised its sound to fill that of the big stage it’s Adam Granduciel and his six-piece band. Their hour-plus en Fuego set was too short but it proved anthemic and large, as the nine songs carried a vibrant feel as if Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers mingled with The National and covered In The Dark era Grateful Dead material. Yet all comparisons aside, no band has come into their own more recently than War on Drugs thanks to owning the best rock song of 2021 (“I Don’t Live Here Anymore”). 

Kicking off with a pronounced version of “Pain,” they flaunted the band’s atmospheric recipe of decades past rock sound. Ganduciel stood stoic yet confident, flawlessly laying the lyrics to his deeply felt songs. The panoramic jam vehicle “Under The Pressure” stood out as the band took the song to climactic heights pressing and releasing the tension intermittently to this  Lost in the Dream standout that helped them break out from clubs to theaters in 2015. Well, the Philly band is now filling arenas and 25k plus festival grounds so, this Ace has certainly arrived.

Dinger: Low Cut Connie

Another Philly band led by the hardest working piano howler in the biz, Adam Weiner, proved they can rock an early afternoon set with primal urgency. Having cooked up Tough Cookies, the strongest web series during the pandemic, Weiner and longtime collaborator/guitarist bandmate Will Donnelly have spread the word that nobody schvitzes it up for the common folk than Low Cut Connie. In return, nobody deserved a welcome back to festival mayhem than this charismatic frontman who compulsively tears up sweaty white tank tops.

“ I didn’t know if we’d do this again and play in crowds,” said a jubilant Weiner a couple of songs into his set. “I don’t care if you are from Phoenix, Tempe or wherever the fuck you are from, you deserve to be uplifted.” And “uplifted” Weiner certainly did, as had his legs up in the air smashing the keys like a bordello version of Billy Joel: yet with more swing, style, and gaudy sex appeal than any of the elder piano guys. The band has sported an ever-evolving stage lineup in recent years and this one featured a swinging band with two vocalists and plenty of shenanigans in between Connie staples “Revolution Rock n Roll,” “Shake It Little Tina” and “Dirty Water.” And while diehard fans might have hoped for one of the hundreds of novel covers performed on Tough Cookies, 45-minute festival sets are just long enough to wow ’em with your top originals.

“Arizona, how badly do you want to see me take off my clothes and jump up on the piano,” Weiner shouted to the fans,” as he jumped on top of the ivories and soaked in the long-awaited festival gig. Donnelly had his try at jumping off the piano as well and landed a Pete Townshend special, as the “Revival” served its due. The originals certainly wowed ’em here at 3:00. 

Changeup: Billy Strings

For Billy Strings, performing after St, Vincent and before Foo Fighters is a long way from his days playing between Whiskey Shivers and Cabinet (no disrespect to either- but just shows how far this edgy musician has come of late). And bringing a dose of roots-based acoustic music was just what any of the scenesters in attendance for Instagram ops, needed to keep ‘em grounded.

From a transcendent opener of “Pyramid Country” which was not your typical newgrass jam, instead of pouring in tangents of psychedelia and urban experimentation to fit the occasion. And while an hour-long set is just warm-up time for Strings at most shows, this superiorly able band includes Billy Failing (banjo), Royal Masat (bass), and Jarrod Walker (mandolin); made each song count on this carefully chosen setlist. 

Strings cooked up a smoky version of J.J. Cales’s “Ride Me High” that led into a spirited version of “Hide & Seek.” The twang was warmly welcomed as the quartet stormed through “Taking Water,” “Ice Bridges” and “Meet Me at the Creek.” Segues are always welcome in the changeup slot of a festival and these guys taught Tempe a jam or two about listening and improvisation.

Take The Hill: Foo Fighters 

For pure rock and roll headliners, there might be few this side of Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band that can rally a crowd stronger than this band led by the former drummer of Nirvana. And that bearded man, who doesn’t need any more press, sure does have a knack for being likable and making fans all the way up the hill feel like they are having perhaps the best nights of their life.

“I’m a new day rising/I’m a brand new sky,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer roared solo via the onset of set opener “Times Like These.” It is this thumbs-up trait that has enabled Foo Fighters to carry a consistent streak of rock sanctitude. And while that “Times Like These” line has been used at many a Foo Fighter show since the return of concerts in 2021, it stuck with most everyone in Tempe.

Seeing Foo Fighters live is like saying, “ahh they are  just like when I see them on TV.”  Pat Smear and his perma-smile jumped to his rhythmic power chords while drummer Taylor Hawkins, courtesy of the whitest teeth in rock, smashed with technical proficiency to all the hits. Other highlights included a spirited version of Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s “Breakdown,” which came off more together than their own “Breakout.”  Newer cut “Shame Shame” featured sweet background vocalists and a vibrant cover of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” sung by Hawkins, allowed the thousands to see everyone’s favorite grunge band drummer smash the skins.

Closer: Tame Impala

Well, they called on Kevin Parker and his cohorts of Tame Impala to finish off the festival. And their hazy psychedelic turned sheen sound collage served the purpose. The Innerspeaker band let most attendees draw into their inner selves, as the plain-spoken Parker curated a mellow set that was opposite of the Foo Fighter pep rally. Parker offered little stage banter but let his catalog of innovative psych-rock that recently got Supertramped via 2020’s keyboard-heavy The Slow Rush do the headliner lifting.

From the disco-sprinkled  “Borderline,” to the encapsulating Beatlesque “Mind Mischief” and upwards to the sneaky beats of “Let It Happen” Tame brought the goods and didn’t exactly mimic the studio versions. This made for arena light and laser show also with aplomb on the outdoor field. Although this was no Pink Floyd Animals tour presentation, it was as trippy an arena-level/festival performance gets. And for their pre-Currents fan base, Tame Impala gave “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” a run for the first time since 2015.

The rest of the festival certainly had other highlights and those bands that dosed the crows with confident sets included: St. Vincent, Black Pumas, Caamp, and Briscoe. Innings proved sports and music can find a common ground and brew their own brand of chin music.

Photos by Lisa Jacobs Handler

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