Even before its rebranding to M3F, the festival formerly known as McDowell Mountain Music Festival was never a full-on rock fest. It was the state of Arizona’s sole jam and blues festival, a place where the likes of Bob Weir, John Butler Band, or Umphrey’s McGee can swarm up some vibes in the Grand Canyon State.
Yet slowly the festival began to reignite itself with its 2013 move to Hance Park in downtown Phoenix with the arrival of headliners The Shins and The Roots. And from there on the rest is dance music history as the festival slowly began to unravel itself into a carefully curated three-day festival that would typically be one day jam; one-day indie rock’ and another day devoted to EDM acts.
Well the EDM has certainly helped define the festival as one that can sell a whole lot of VIP tickets and one where they can erect temporary suites on the side of the stage. Yeah, this festival has turned semi-glamorous yet it’s rooted in good cause and mission as all proceeds go to charity thanks to the good folks at Wespac Construction who continually stage this urban shindig with little to no whipping of their name around.
So almost two years to the weekend where the 2020 M3F was the country’s last festival before the world shut down the following weekend, Phoenix was hungry indeed to return to Hance Park. For the maskless crowd, beats were the drawing card of this fest led by rhythmic professors: ZHU, Leon Bridges, Kaygranada, Jungle, Jai Wolf, and Parcels. And while electronic dance music isn’t necessarily this publication’s foray, there were still enough organic musical highlights to pinpoint five standouts sets that made 2022 M3F a downtown winnner.
Soon To Be Arena Headliners
Australia’s Parcels certainly know how to lay it down with one of the tightest rhythm sections one would hear from five stylish white boys. But don’t let their pretty Euro appearances fool you, as Parcels brought a huge mature and polished sound that could very well have been disco-made for Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage.
Dropping a modern take on live rock band disco, their helium harmonies were all spot on. From the charming opener “Free,” which sounds like a modern remake of Sylvester’s 1978 disco classic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” the five pieced proved conveying their live show can stand up to their polished studio efforts.
“Lighten Up” featured a Niles Rodgers/Chic/Daft Punk vibe that had guitarist Jules Crommelin (who looks like a thin young mustached Paul McCartney) chomping away on the chords while bassist Noah Hill and his Fender jazz bass laid a bouncy and elastic feel that kept drummer Toto Serret dropping some undeniable beats. The hypnotic “Famous” proved anthemic and led into a sprawling jam, that was one of the top musical moments this festival has hosted outside The Roots in 2013. Imagine if your bass player was Flea and instead of Anthony Keidis you had 1977 Barry Gibb? Well, that was kind of the vibe Parcels is putting out.
They Got This Down
I LOVE when bands sound live exactly as they do on their recordings,” said a YouTube commenter about a live Jungle performance live on KEXP. Yes, these British falsetto ambassadors really knock their studio sheen onto the stage flawlessly. Imagine if Erasure and The Brand New Heavies jammed with Jamiroquai and you get the contagiously seductive sounds of Jungle. They certainly wear their influences on their setlist, but the arrangements and accessibility of their live set overcome any lack of originality.
On the opener “Keep Moving” Jungle brought a symphonically funky presentation that had leaders Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland throw down beats straight out of Studio 54. And sparking of that fiver number, that vibe translated into Jungles own “Beat 54” that dove into a Bee Gees tease. Add in the thumping bass of “Casio” and Jungle could very well be the final headliner of an electronic dance festival and fool all the uninformed bystanders.
Small Stage Surprise
“I think we should jump again,” proclaimed a spirited Bryce Vine” who held court as the festival’s lone hip hop act. The viral artist surely covered some ground with a full-on rock band that proved a worthy alternative to the large stage helmed by ZHU. Vine never takes himself too seriously and his rock band that tore through Irish punk on “Empty Bottles’ ‘ and the fearless alt-pop that 25 years ago this guy would be breaking every musical rule. But instead, Bryce was just happy to be here and his youthful charisma was a well-needed break from the younger electronica stage that doesn’t need any press.
“This is my first festival since the covid,” said Vine as he then jumped into “Drew Barrymore” and “Life Goes On,” which conjured a Michcale Franti rage of positivity. Ending the first night on a small stage might have been a letdown for some but Vine made the east side of Hance Park a keeper.
As one of the only true rock bands on the bill, New Madrid performed a scorching psychedelic-filled set that too many people missed. Yeah, they share their name with a beloved Uncle Tupelo song and a Missouri town, yet this four-piece boldly mix grunge, Alt-country, and psych into a full brew of unrelenting improvisation and uptempo rockers. Comparisons run wild during a New Madrid set but let’s try Roky Erickson meets Jason Isbell.
On the galloping rocker “I Tried To Wait,” guitarist Graham Powers who channels Mountain’s Leslie West with his big curly hair and heavy guitar riffs, produced liftoff. New Madrid has one of the most adventurous discographies out there and this blaring work deserves more ears and even more fans at its 4:00 set, yet any rock was a welcome addition to 2022 M3F.
Prime Time Clinic
No, Khruangbin didn’t show up with one festival’s marquee name for a run through some of their worldly funkified collaborative Texas sounds, but Leon Bridges and his orchestral band did turn in a noteworthy headlining set: even if it was only for an hour.
“Can you play something so funky so that they can smell it all way in the back?” asked Bridges as they kicked the rhythms into a run through “Steam,” “Bad Bad News” and then a stab at “C-Side” from the Khruangbin collaborative Texas Sun EP. Bridges’ showmanship was that of a Bruno Mars or Anderson Paak as he collaged his falsetto with ripe dance moves and even some on-point guitar playing, the latter of which he joined with back-up singer Brittini Jessie for a spirited take of “River.” Although there were certainly a handful of credible ballads; when done, Bridges’ set provided remarkable gusto.
Photos by Lisa Jacobs Handler