80/35 Festival | 07.04-05.09

8035_sm.jpgSometimes you encounter a band, in a random and unexpected way or place, and you think, "Where the hell has this music been all my life?"

 Des Moines, Iowa

Remember a time when music festivals were rare events that usually took place far away from where you lived? Sure, there might have been free summertime concerts in your town, and occasionally multiple bands would tour together, but the full-on, multi-staged, wristband-required, dozens-of-bands thing was more legendary vacation than readily accessible reality. Then some of the more remote festivals got bigger and better, and their weird monikers (Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, et al) became household names. And now we have entered the halcyon days of summer musical festival domination, in which some surprising cities draw big names and large numbers for hot days and humid nights of live music overload.

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The Scene

So it was with Iowa’s capitol city, Des Moines, and the 2009 version of their burgeoning music festival, 80/35 (pronounced eighty-thirty-five). In its second year, 80/35 featured over 40 bands spread over two days and took place in the heart of Des Moines’ reawakening downtown, on a green stretch sandwiched between high-rise office towers and low-slung, sprawling insurance company headquarters. The festival offered three stages: one Main Stage that required a ticket to enter, and two smaller free stages nestled on side streets far enough apart to prevent noise bleed.

To get between the stages, crowds walked through a gauntlet of tents offering everything from ice cream cones to henna tattoos. I saw a pregnant woman belly-dancing on a small stage in this area, and a person dressed from head to toe in a snowman costume. I also witnessed the procession of the "painted ladies"-a group of exhibitionist young women wearing nothing above their waists but body paint. For Des Moines, this was very out-there stuff.

The Prodigal Son Returns

A note on why I’m qualified to make that last statement and not be a provincial snob: While I haven’t lived in Des Moines in nearly a decade, I grew up and spent my formative years there, and I visit often. For me, 80/35 was as much about seeing how my little hometown would do at putting on a music fest as it was about the music itself. I wanted to know if the city’s revitalization I’ve been hearing so much about since I left could support something as ambitious as 80/35 purported to be. I was also hoping (fingers crossed!) to have as many awkward conversations with former high school classmates as possible. (I ended up running into former classmates, but there was a real lack of awkardness, damn it all!)

After making the six-hour drive to Des Moines, I arrived on Friday around 5 p.m., met up with some old friends, and got ready for the parade of live music. One of the opportunities of a smaller festival like this (or one of the challenges, depending on your viewpoint) is that, beyond the headliners, most of the groups are unknown, even to music-nerd types. I saw 17 bands over the festival’s two days, most of which I was mostly unfamiliar with before seeing them live. I had some surprises, both pleasant and otherwise. Mostly I just enjoyed the music, my friends and being back in my home city.

Is That a Rabbi on Drums?

The festival’s Main Stage opener on Friday, Matisyahu knows how to bring the Hassidic reggae/hip-hop. Or maybe not. Since the man is essentially a genre of one, it’s hard to say. I can say this: Despite the rain (which dogged all of 80/35’s first night), the crowd of about a thousand was digging on the man’s deep grooves and message of Judaic love and peace. Considering how loud the sound was at the Main Stage, it would have been difficult not to. I enjoy Matisyahu, and I’d never seen him live before. He’s got a great band with him (including, yes, a heavily bearded fellow wailing on the skins), but my complaint is that verbal noodling is still noodling, no matter how uniquely packaged it is.

Hey, I Know Those Guys!

My first side-stage band was The Autumn Project at the West Stage. All I knew going in to see this group was that they are a Des Moines-based trio that plays instrumental metal. As it turns out, I know the guitarist and bass player from my days working as a barista at Java Joe’s, Des Moines’ awesome coffeehouse. Which makes it even more satisfying to write this: These guys really kicked ass. I listened to them play for 20 minutes, and they never stopped. I don’t know if what I heard was one song or more, but their fuzzy rocking ebbed and flowed like a metallic tide, with low points of buzzing ambience that built to chugging, head-banging crescendos.

Angus! Angus!

Chicago-based Maps & Atlases (Friday, East Stage) need to blow up, and soon. Their driving, quirky brand of what can only be described as math-pop is catchy as hell. Frontman Dave Davison, dressed in a pink argyle sweater vest and maroon cord cutoff shorts as if he was a Wes Anderson-film version of AC/DC’s Angus Young, led the band through an energetic set that was a lesson in overcoming adversity. First, the rain had picked up significantly just before they started, so the crowd of 400 or so was getting soaked. More importantly, drummer Chris Hainey broke his snare drumhead two songs in, and apparently didn’t have a replacement. So he turned the drum over and kept playing the underside, and even somehow managed to keep the beat up when the same drum then fell off its stand, mid-song. Songs this good by a band that’s working this hard to earn it? I’m in!

Indie-Rock Death Match on the Main Stage

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If Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks (Friday) engaged in an indie-rock death match with Broken Social Scene (Saturday), who would win? Both bands play flawless, rocking, pretty straightforward songs. As a former member of indie-rock gods Pavement, Malkmus is naturally a heavy hitter. The Jicks also have an all-female rhythm section, and everyone knows that chick drummers kick ass. But Broken Social Scene has a four-guitar lineup, which is pretty awesome, and they’re more "current" on the indie-rock scene. It’s a tough call. Malkmus probably wins because it’s hard to beat that pedigree. But wait! BSS comes out of nowhere with a smoking (and timely) cover of "Beat It!" Maybe we’ll just call it a draw.

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I’m Too Bald for This Music

If you or someone you love is into the whole patchouli-rock thing, then you or someone you love should check out: Iowa City-based reggae conglomerate Private Property (Friday, West Stage), Des Moines-based groovers Floodplane (Saturday, West Stage) and San Francisco jam-band middleweights New Monsoon (Saturday, Main Stage). They were all, like, totally groovy, man. (No, really, they all were…tight sounds all around.) Additionally, when you or someone you love is in Des Moines, you or they should find and listen to Mr. Baber’s Neighbors, who play acoustic bluegrass the way it was meant to be-tight, fast, and accompanied by giant shit-eating grins.

Yes, That Is the Coolest Name Ever

At a festival like this, sometimes the thing to do is go see a band just because you like the name. For me at 80/35, that band was Cymbals Eat Guitars. The imagery of metal discs chewing through fretboards inexplicably captures the band’s sound, which is a particular kind of noise rock characterized by a loud/quiet/loud song structure. The style’s most popular standard-bearers currently are Titus Andronicus (with whom CEG has toured). I’m not sure if the mix was off slightly during their set at the West Stage on Saturday (it seemed to shift pretty dramatically throughout the portion of the set that I saw), but they didn’t strike me as having the same dynamism as TA. I was glad I caught them, but at this point, the name does more for me than the music.

Chick Singers

8035_miss-derringer_300.jpgAt this year’s 80/35, all of the female-fronted bands were on the side stages. Neo-soul group Cleo’s Apartment (Saturday, East Stage) sported an eclectic lineup that included a DJ and a woman beating a hand-held drum. Their first song was a smooth instrumental, but they were joined by vocalist Crystal Fields for the rest of their set, and her smoky voice was a nice addition to the band’s horn-driven, deep grooves. Los Angeles-based Miss Derringer (Saturday, East Stage) is a really good band groaning under the weight of a goth-country affectation. I had a hard time enjoying the hard-driving, twangy songs because I was distracted by the contrived pretense. Does the drummer really need to wear a bandana over the lower part of his face? Does singer Elizabeth McGrath really need to preen and pose like a pinup girl? I like a performance as much as the next person, but let’s keep our focus on the music, please. Take, for instance, Derringer tour-mates Girl In a Coma (Saturday, West Stage), an all-girl pop-punk trio from the great state of Texas. Sure, there was lots of flannel, black eyeliner and tattoos, but none of that got in the way of the chugga-chugga songs and Nina Diaz’s powerful guitar and vocals. Which is as it should be.

Honorable Mentions

I only got to catch a few songs by Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s (Saturday, West Stage), and when I was there the set was plagued with sound problems. Despite that, the band played with high energy and the largest crowd I saw at that stage loved the chamber-indie songs from this Indianapolis-based group. Around the same time, Brother Ali was playing at the East Stage to a smaller but just as enthusiastic crowd. Ali may be the best, most under-appreciated rapper on the indie hip-hop scene. He brought flowing rhymes and a political sensibility to his set. As he said to the crowd, "I know it’s the Fourth of July, ya’ll, but if you love somebody, you tell them the truth." Word.

Holy Shit, That Band Just Blew Me Away

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Sometimes you encounter a band, in a random and unexpected way or place, and you think, "Where the hell has this music been all my life?" That phenomenon slapped me across the face when I saw Man Man on the Main Stage Saturday afternoon. Wearing all white with white war-paint stripes on their faces, behind their tightly grouped instrument "stations" (they all played multiple instruments, as well as various objects scattered across the stage), the five members of Man Man began their set with a protracted, almost orgiastic drum circle, then launched into an hour-long musical performance that was more primal, frantic and joyous than any I’ve ever witnessed. This music is both a cry for and against…something. Or it could be just a brilliant vaudeville circus, set to the spectacular, whirling sounds of a carnival. What I know is this: If we as a species are headed for a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic Earth, this music could be the ecstatic, righteous, totally fucked up soundtrack. Sound over-the-top? Catch Man Man live, get as close as you can to the stage, and see if you still think so.

This Is What We Came to See

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Each of the two nights of 80/35 had a Main Stage headliner. On Friday night, it was Public Enemy. After a weird opening by PE’s current supporting act (Heet Mob, which seemed to be 30 or 40 guys on stage, yelling at each other) and as the rain poured down, Chuck D took the stage after a Michael Jackson-themed intro from turn-tablist DJ Lord and announced to the crowd that Flava Flav was in a Las Vegas hospital and so would not be performing. I think I almost liked Public Enemy better without him, as it gave Chuck D the ability to really dominate the stage, which he did all through the group’s performance of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in its entirety. Liberally (get it?) sprinkling political and social statements (including admonishments against "Weapons of Mass Distraction" and "Twiddiots") and shout-outs to various facets of Iowa, Chuck powered the band and the crowd through the album, and then closed the set with "Fight the Power" and "Terrordome." The mood of the crowd was best exemplified by a ten-year-old-ish blonde boy wearing a volunteer t-shirt, who was energetically cutting a rug in front of where my little group of friends was doing the same.

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Saturday night’s headliner was Ben Harper and the Relentless 7. I must admit it: I was significantly less excited to see Harper than I had been for Public Enemy. I’ve never really been a fan of Harper’s previous work with The Innocent Criminals. The songs, while happy and cheery, always seemed canned and inoffensive to the point of tedium. Harper’s new group was much more "rock" than the Criminals were, however, which increased my enjoyment of their long set. Having said that, it’s probably not a good sign that the two songs I enjoyed the most were covers: Led Zeppelins’s "Good Times Bad Times" early in the set was sufficiently rocking (although Harper played guitar sitting down during the song, and I’m not sure guitar-sitting is something I’m comfortable with during a Led Zep cover); "Under Pressure," which came toward the end of the set, was a nice surprise, and good way to end the long two days of music.

So Is This Hometown Boy Proud?

The answer to that question is an unreserved "Yes." 80/35 is obviously still young, and you can feel the organizers (who are a local nonprofit) learning as they go and getting their feet under them. I would make suggestions (How about signs at the side stages that tell what band is playing, so we’re not confused if the timing gets off? And can we turn down the between-act music so my old-ass ears can rest a little?), but I have no major complaints. I’m excited to see where 80/35 is in five or six years, and I can’t wait to tell those I talk to then who live in far-flung places, "Yeah, the 80/35 festival? That’s where I’m from." | John Shepherd

All photos by John Shepherd

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