I hate camping trips. I was a Boy Scout for a year or so in preadolescence, but I don’t really like to talk about it. As I saw it, the one camping trip I was forced into was the only “great outdoors” experience I’d need for the rest of my life. One weekend of bugs, tents, and crappy, battery-operated appliances was enough to make me never want to do it again.
So this hipster faced a bit of a dilemma: how can I avoid road-tripping to Bonnaroo? It’s only a day’s drive from where I live, and I’m sure I know people who were going. Thankfully, Atlanta’s Music Midtown provided a way out: not only did this year’s lineup—including Bloc Party, Louis XIV, Interpol, the Pixies, et cetera—outdo Bonnaroo’s, but I have a friend with an actual house: walls, roof, running water, the works. And Atlanta is also within driving distance, as the two festivals are only a few hours apart. If anyone asked why I wasn’t in the Tennessee wilderness for the weekend, it’d be pretty easy to take a few cheap shots at Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer and leave it at that. The truth was, I really did want to see the bands at Music Midtown more than the ones at Bonnaroo. I swear.
Unfortunately, Music Midtown had a few drawbacks—the city of Atlanta, for instance. The city is not full of indie rockers, which meant that the crowds for the shows I was interested in, which were all on just one of the five stages, were a little weird: the huge crowd included a surprisingly large contingent of middle-aged rednecks, too many drunk frat boys, a few emo-core kids (not to be mistaken with emo kids), and random passersby who would listen to a few songs out of every set before deciding to head back to the pop/country area where they could enjoy the sweet sounds of Alan Jackson, Tom Petty, and Counting Crows. But the crowds weren’t the worst of it, the weather was: it rained every day, and through almost all of the worthwhile performances.
But, hard-working critic that I am, I weathered as much of the storm as I could. Here are the performances of note:
Interpol were pretty much what I expected. They sleep-rocked through a short set of songs from their two albums, playing them the way I already knew that they sounded while wearing post-Bob Newhart coat-and-tie ensembles. Clean-cut in sound and appearance, they weren’t anything special, but I was willing to bear the light drizzle to see it the whole way through.
The White Stripes
The White Stripes weren’t great. Jack White emerged wearing his Zorro outfit (complete with a hat that I could have pictured on Michael Jackson) and played his guitar masterfully. Unfortunately, he and Meg made some bad choices when they picked their set, settling a little too often for short songs that sound cool on their albums but are difficult to move to. They also fell out of time every once in a while, which is probably a frequent problem for the two-member act. I stuck with them as long as I could, but it started raining a little hard towards the end, so I left during the last song.
Louis XIV took the stage the next afternoon, but I only caught their closer, “Finding Out True Love Is Blind”, which is probably my favorite track from their album, The Best Little Secrets Are Kept. I’ve liked them since I first heard them, but their performance was disappointing, because the smooth female vocals and the generally carefree sound that I had grown accustomed were missing. What was left was something that sounded a little too much like bad punk rock. I was having trouble getting that song out of my head before I heard the performance; that’s no longer a problem.
Bloc Party, who are supposed to be this summer’s answer to the Strokes or the Killers or whatever indie rock fad you want to name, were one of the weekend’s better performances. Silent Alarm never really resonated with me the way it seemed to for other people, but now I’m convinced: they’re the real deal. Singer Kele Okereke was unassuming and chatty on stage, but he and his three bandmates sounded like rock stars when they played as such. For a band with a relatively shallow catalog, their set was interesting and accessible—even to the largely-uninitiated crowd. Not only did I stick around in the rain, but I bought a sweet Bloc Party t-shirt after they finished. (I know, I know: I’ll have to stop wearing it once they’re featured on The O.C..)
The Features were next, and they were equally good. Their no-nonsense rock and roll is just fun to dance to, and knowing that they came to Atlanta for the weekend even though they’re from Tennessee made it even more rewarding. I had heard their six-month-old debut album, Exhibit A, and an EP, The Beginning, before the show, so I wasn’t expecting anything new; but they did play two or three unfamiliar numbers, all of which seemed a bit more downbeat than anything on their universally-upbeat releases. It was probably for the best, because they would’ve worn all of us dancers out if they hadn’t slowed things down occasionally. But, from the sounds of things, the Features should stick to the mood and tempo that suits them best when it comes time to record again. My friend and I both wanted t-shirts, but the merch table ran out before we got there.
Keane came on as rain started again, but that didn’t bother me, because their music kind of reminds me of inclement weather. Or maybe I’m thinking of Coldplay. Either way, I had written off Keane before they came on stage; I was just sticking around as a formality, so that I could be absolutely sure that they weren’t worth much of my time. I listened long enough to hear a few songs, but I wasn’t impressed. For a second as I was about to leave, it sounded like they were going to play “Yellow”, which would have been hilarious. But it turned out that it was a different song after all, so my friend and I left to look for a restaurant in a nearby Atlanta business district. The off-the-meter cabbie ripped us off on our ride there, but it was worth it.
The Killers were hardly worth the cab ride back. It was good to be able to say I saw them, but the sound system was a little off. They might as well have just played their recorded songs through the speakers, because the only difference between their set and Hot Fuss was that it wasn’t mixed correctly. Had they not shown camera shots of the band on the jumbotron backdrop the whole time, nothing about the show would have been remotely interesting. But, of course, they drew the biggest crowd I saw over the whole weekend.
The Pixies‘s performance is what gave me the confidence to come down so hard on the Music Midtown crowd, because the venue emptied before they even went on. How wack is that?
“It’s the Pixies, man. Yeah, they had a song on the Fight Club soundtrack. They were also formative in the development of grunge. They’re really good… Oh, you’re not staying? Yeah, you’re right, they aren’t the Killers. Fine. Leave.”
The band still put on a stunning performance, though, and there’s not much more that I can say. You know how the Pixies are supposed to sound, and that’s how they sounded. But they were live, and I got to see them up-close, because the Killers went on earlier.
Tegan and Sara were on the next morning, after a crazy night of resting my calves (there were no places to sit inside the festival) and doing other things. I wasn’t all that familiar with them before I saw them, but I think they could get pretty popular. They’re in that alt-country/folk/rock genre that seems to be reviving itself right now, and they’re good and fun and friendly and all that. It was a good band to hear early on Sunday.
Coheed and Cambria, that unassuming, pseudo-mainstream emocore hair band, were the last band I saw at the festival. Listening to their records for the first time now (years after they were recorded), it’s easy to place them in the relatively large category of “emo” or “punk” music, which carries with it images of young guys with chiseled abs rocking out with their shirts off, exposing tattoos that make them look tougher than their songs let on. It was too easy to forget that Coheed and Cambria were around before that category of music became what it is. Those who had forgotten soon remembered. Their live show—complete with off-the-wall guitar solos, loud bass, complicated drums, and plenty of distortion—puts them closer to Guns ‘N Roses than New Found Glory. All this was a little unexpected, but it was really cool.
In general, I guess I can say that I enjoyed Music Midtown. I’m happy I saw the bands I saw, I liked the city of Atlanta, and I got to stay in a house. But I won’t claim that it was cooler than Bonnaroo might have been, if only for the crowd. I underestimated the importance of fellow festival-goers when I made my choice between the two extravaganzas, and I might choose differently next time. That is, if I can’t come up with an excuse next year.