At Age 5, the Maha Music Festival Is All Growed Up

Was this year's Maha Music Festival a success?

The concert, held last Saturday at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, drew 5,100 people. If that number seems light -- especially compared to your typical CenturyLink Arena concert -- consider that you cannot hear any of the bands that performed at Maha on your local FM radio. None. They don't call it "indie rock" for nothing.

Tre Brashear, one of the festival's organizers, said Saturday's 5,100 was a 20 percent increase in attendance compared to the 4,300 there last year to see Garbage and Desaparecidos in the rain.

It was a big crowd. In fact the first thing I noticed after walking through the gates was that Maha had somehow made the park shrink. There wasn't much green space for the crowds between the massive duo stages, the food vendors on Mercy Street, The Globe performance tent and the Bellevue University Community Campus.

Despite that, Brashear said Maha has yet to outgrow Aksarben Village, at least from a music standpoint. “Stinson is large and can hold more,” he said. “Furthermore, parking still continues to be pretty easy and convenient.”

On the other hand, Maha's vendor space on Mercy Street has become too constrained. “People want more food options, more vendors," Brashear said, "but we don’t have any place to put them unless we can figure out a way to put more items on the far side of the park."

But beyond vendor congestion, if Maha ever bags its dream act -- Wilco -- organizers will have little choice but to look elsewhere, as the band could easily attract well over the park's 10,000 capacity.

Enough about logistics. Here's rundown of the bands I saw after arriving midway through the concert.

Saddle Creek Records’ latest recruits, The Thermals, played the straight-forward power-punk the trio is known for, including a number of songs off their latest album, Desperate Ground. The crowd seemed to like it, though they stood like scarecrows holding their beers and nodding their heads to the unchanging straight-four beat.

While The Thermals sounded good on the massive “Weitz Stage,” local boys Criteria sounded even better on the smaller “Centris Stage.” Don’t ask me why, but that junior-sized set-up sounded fuller (and louder) than its big brother, but maybe the band had something to do with it. Criteria, also a Saddle Creek act, boasts more dynamic songwriting vs. The Thermals' play-and-repeat, one-gear punk style.

None of that mattered when Bob Mould took the main stage and blew them both away. Grinning throughout the set, Mould rifled through a “greatest hits” selection that included favorites off his Sugar albums, new stuff off his lastest solo record, The Silver Age, and classic Hüsker Dü in the form of “I Apologize” off New Day Rising. Bassist Jason Narducy filled out the vocals when Mould couldn’t, adding tasty harmonies throughout the set.

Mould was the highlight of the day for me and for a lot of others I spoke to including Brashear, who said Maha had been trying to book him since the festival began five years ago. As for those who complained that Mould’s set was “too loud,” the term “pussy” comes to mind. It’s Bob frickin’ Mould, folks. What did you expect?

Which brings us to Digital Leather. A few years ago during a lunch meeting I tried to convince the Maha guys to book the band by playing songs off their album, Blow Machine. When the execs heard stand-out track “Studs in Love,” with lines “I like Wrangler butts / I like hairy asses / I like men” they just shook their heads and said, “Maha’s a family event; we can’t have that.”

Cut to last Saturday and there was Digital Leather on stage singing about hairy asses to a crowd that barely noticed. Why would they? Isn't rock ‘n’ roll supposed to be controversial and/or risky? What's risky about hairy asses?

The thought that Maha organizers would be offended by Digital Leather seemed ridiculous after Matt & Kim took the stage. The keyboard-and-drums duo that plays cute, shiney indie pop dance tunes spent most of the time between songs yelling profanities at the audience. Every other word out of drummer Kim Schifino began with an F or MF. I guess they needed something to "rough up" their cutesy veneer and all those colored balloons just wasn't cutting it.

It took about a dozen grips a half hour to get the set ready for festival closer The Flaming Lips. T-shirted stage hands carried huge chrome-plated globes while electricians carefully draped light strings from massive overhead crossbars. A few minutes before the set, out walked frontman/messiah Wayne Coyne in his shiny electric-blue suit, his graying mane blowing in the summer breeze. Coyne climbed atop the mountain of silver embryos and stood like a hipster Jesus grasping a weird fetus doll in his left hand.

If you came for the spectacle, you got it. The Lips' amazing light show included a huge digital back-screen that blazed with glowing imagery while pin-lights flowed from above Coyne down the chrome mountain and back to the sky like an LED volcano.

Yes, there was plenty of smoke; yes there was confetti. Too bad there weren't many hits. Coyne and Co. spent the first 20 minutes droning through depressing tonal music indicative of the band's most recent album, The Terror. They would close out their set with hit, “Do You Realize?" but by then I was pedaling through Elmwood Park on my way home.

So was Maha a success? Artistically, it was the strongest festival they’ve ever put on. Brashear said it was financially successful as well, thanks to strong sponsorships, heavy donations throughout the year, and best-ever ticket sales.

“We definitely made a profit,” Brashear said. “That profit is going to get rolled into making next year’s Maha ‘better.’ What does that mean? We don’t know just yet. Could mean more expensive talent and/or an additional day. It’s too early to tell.” 

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 04:50 pm
on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

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