[LIVE REVIEW] Secret Stages Music Festival in Birimingham, AL

Noot d' Noot

There were a number of unknowns surrounding the first-ever Secret Stages music festival in Birmingham, AL.  I knew it had a good lineup, but I didn’t know how it would function as a festival.  Would it feel like a unified event, or just a bunch of loosely connected shows taking place during the same weekend?  Would each individual venue stick to their schedule?  Would anybody show up?

Luckily, the answers to those questions were good ones.  Secret Stages definitely felt like an interconnected festival.  There was a central, blocked off area in downtown Birmingham that served as the main hub, with vendors, an outdoor stage, and several of the participating venues all situated around the same city block.  All of the other venues were nearby, too, so it never took more than few minutes to get from one place to another.  Furthermore, they all had prominent Secret Stages placards displaying their schedule out front, and they miraculously stuck to that schedule for most of the weekend.   There were a couple of logistical issues that I’ll talk about later, but for the most part the festival was run smoothly.

Plus, the music was just great.  Almost all of the lineup was composed of emerging bands from the Southeast, and the organizers had clearly done their homework.  In this case, “emerging” never meant “your friend’s brother’s bar band that plays locally 3 times a year.”  There were a ton of genuinely talented bands that look like they have great things on the horizon.

So, how was the attendance?  I would say it was about what I expected.  When the biggest names in your lineup are The Love Language, G-Side, and Dawes, you’re not going to be drawing massive crowds.  This festival is a celebration of under-the-radar bands, so they’re catering to a smaller crowd of music lovers willing to seek out the unfamiliar, and I would say they were successful in drawing in that crowd.  The club shows all seemed like they were more well-attended than they would have been under non-festival circumstances.  I think a lot of bands probably played to crowds 2 or 3 times the size of what they would have drawn had they booked an unrelated show on another weekend.  That’s especially impressive when you consider the fact that there was a ton of scheduling overlap among the 11 stages.

Day by day breakdown of what I saw below.

Friday

I got there later than I had hoped for on Friday, so the first band I really caught was Glossary (Murfeesboro, TN). They pull from alt-country and Southern rock, and should appeal to anyone who has ever owned a Lucero or Drive-By Truckers album. They played on the Miller Lite/Alagasco Outdoor Stage, which was a converted parking lot right off the shut down stretch of 2nd Ave N that served as homebase for the festival.  It was typically the most crowded stage all weekend, and Glossary drew a healthy crowd for their 8:15 set.

After Glossary, we headed over to Rogue Tavern for Venice is Sinking (Athens, GA).  Honestly, I was a little worried before the show started.  Rogue Tavern is a classier bar and restaurant than the name might suggest, and most of the room was filled with tables.  Most of those tables were filled with people who seemed to be finishing up dinner or having a few drinks with friends.  It didn’t look like the ideal setting for a band like Venice, who move at a deliberate pace and rely heavily on atmosphere.  My fears never materialized, though – the band took charge of that room and got a great response.   Most of the crowd might have been seated, but the enthusiastic applause after slow burn opener “Iron Range” suggested they had the room’s full attention.  The rest of the set was equally wonderful, as always.

After Venice, we walked over to Easy Street, a pop-up venue a couple of blocks from the main festival drag.  Easy Street was a cool little hole-in-the-wall, with the kind of gaudily patterned carpet you usually only find in bolwing alleys and arcades.  As far as we could find out, it’s normally just an empty building, but during Secret Stages it was a pretty awesome place to see a show.  The makeshift stage was actually pretty serious business, with a professional PA, lighting rig, and ridiculously high drum riser that all looked out of place in the otherwise dingy enivrons.  It had an endearing effect, and so did Baak Gwai (Tuscaloosa, AL), a post-punk band that gave off a nerdy Shellac vibe.  They’re worth looking into.

Next up was The Booze (Atlanta, GA), who were playing at 10:30 at Das House, a German biergarten that is every bit as tacky and over the top as every other German biergarten you’ve been to.  It was kind of an awesome place to see a show, too.  The room was crowded, and The Booze delivered.  They absolutely nail the ’60s British Invasion sound, and they do it with the perfect combination of raucous energy and professional precision.  I was glad to see them go over so well with an out of town crowd.

Our next stop was Thomas Function (Hunstville, AL) at Matthew’s Bar and Grill, a gloriously divey dive bar with an attached room for live music.  I dug the venue, but Thomas Function wasn’t doing it for me or anyone else in my group.  I enjoy their recorded stuff pretty well, so I would be willing to give them another shot, but on Friday they just struck me as anonymous bar band #42.

We decided to cross the street to check out a bit of Wooden Wand (Lexington, KY) at the Wine Loft, which strangely enough is a groundfloor wine bar with really high ceilings.  Based on the experimental folk recordings I had heard, I expected Wooden Wand to be stripped down, atmospheric, and kind of weird, but what he and his band were cranking out was much closer to standard alt-country.  I enjoyed it, but we were only able to catch a few songs.

We left the Wine Loft bound for the outdoor stage expecting to catch The Love Language at 11:30, but when we got there we learned that the stage had been shut down due to rain.  The two remaining bands (Through the Sparks and The Love Language) had been squeezed into Rogue Tavern’s lineup, with The Love Language scheduled to play at 1:00.  We headed over there and caught the end of The Fervor (Louisville, KY), who were fine but a little nondescript, but we bailed once Dangermuffin (Charelston, SC) started jamming.  There’s definitely an audience for that stuff, but I’m not part of it.

We ended up at Metro Bar and Grill for Madeline (Athens, GA), who plays singer-songwriter folk fleshed out by a full band.   Her arrangements and her voice are both pretty interesting, and it was a strong set. The bar was a low key place that looks like it’s more likely to host an open mic night than a touring band, but the sound was solid and it was easy enough to get a decent sightline.

After Madeline, we went back to Rogue for The Love Language‘s (Raleigh, NC) delayed performance.  It was worth the wait, and probably my favorite set of the weekend.  The centerpiece of the band is Stuart McLamb’s emotive voice, which was turned up as high in the live mix as it is on both albums.  He can sell distress better than anyone, and the controlled chaos of his backing band only bolsters the sentiment.  These songs are urgent and cathartic, and the energy the band brings to them lifts them out of navel-gazing miserabilia and turns them into something that’s almost celebratory.  McLamb can turn exorcising demons into a dance party.

Unfortunately, we were all pretty drained after The Love Language and just didn’t have the energy to stick around for G-Side (Hunstville, AL), who were closing out the first night at the Rogue.  It was 2:15 and there just wasn’t any gas left in the tank.  I guess I’ll have to make them a priority at Pitchfork in July.

Saturday

Saturday afternoon’s schedule was the festival’s only serious logistical flaw.  Music started at 2:00PM on the outdoor stage, but none of the other venues started up until 6:30 at the earliest, with most starting around 8:00.  If you didn’t like who was playing the outdoor stage during the afternoon, you didn’t have any other live music options.  It would have been nice to have at least one or two other afternoon choices, and most of the venues were already open, so why not?

We tried to get there in time for Dawes’ 2:00 performance, but we unfortunately showed up right as they were wrapping up. Since we didn’t have much of an interest in seeing the rest of the afternoon’s lineup, we wandered around and killed time. Luckily, there was an amazing junk shop called What’s on 2nd? just inside the main gate, and it had enough interesting stuff to keep us occupied for almost an hour.  That still left us with a ton of time to kill, though, so we ended up seeing a bunch of URI‘s set (Tuscaloosa, AL) on the outdoor stage.  Not my thing.  We ended up spending the rest of the afternoon playing pool at Matthew’s.

It definitely picked up later, though.  Mind Powers (Columbus, GA) played a set of decent noise-rock at Easy Street at 6:30.  It was mostly just generic Mclusky worship, including an extremely faithful cover of “To Hell With Good Intentions.”  It might not have been too memorable, but if you’re going to shamelessly crib from another band, Mclusky is pretty good choice.

Manray (Athens, GA) played Easy Street next.  They were amazing.  They delivered heavy, mercurial math rock with epic blasts of dissonance, and they never tested their audience’s patience.  Easily one of my favorite sets of the weekend.  I can’t wait to see them again.

The rest of the venues were getting started by that point.  We headed over to Rogue to see Howlies (Atlanta, GA), who played their combination of vintage ’50s rock and Ramones-style punk to a pretty big crowd.  They played a couple of new songs, at least one of which I haven’t heard them play before.  Either of them would have fit nicely on last year’s very strong Stunned EP, and that’s definitely a good thing.  Check out a video I took of their performance here.

After Howlies we headed over to M-Lounge, an upstairs event space attached to Matthew’s.  We saw the first couple of songs of 13ghosts (Birmingham, AL) set, but they didn’t make much of an impression.  Members of Oryx and Crake were simultaneously watching The Bear (Muscle Shoals, AL) downstairs at Matthew’s, and they had nothing but good things to say about them.

Noot d’ Noot (Atlanta, GA) played the outdoor stage at 9:15, and by the end of their set they had probably accumalated one of the largest crowds of the weekend.  Their performance was a shot in the arm, the perfect antidote to combat the lull in energy that comes from wandering around a music festival for nearly 7 hours.  Their psychedelic funk even managed to get the outdoor crowd dancing.

We wanted to catch Pujol (Nashville, TN) at Metro after Noot d’ Noot, but the venue was behind schedule and we unfortunately didn’t have time to see him before catching Oryx and Crake (Atlanta, GA) at the Wine Loft at 11:00.  They ran into a string of technical problems, but they handled them so smoothly that much of the audience was probably unaware that anything was wrong.  This was the first time I’ve seen them as a four piece, and it’s a cool change of pace.  The contrast between the electronic and acoustic sides of the band is more pronounced in the stripped-down lineup, so it’s like hearing a new spin on familiar songs.  The new songs are fantastic, too, especially “The Road,” which features Ryan Peoples on bowed saw.  The instrument seemed to confound the hell out of the sound guy, but I think it adds something wonderfully eerie to what might be the best song they’ve written to date.

Wine Loft is the only venue I’m not 100% sold on, though.  The low lighting and upscale lounge atmopshere might suit a band like Oryx better than a rowdy dive bar, but the layout of the room is just not that conducive to live music.  The room’s columns and the placement of the tables and couches resulted in some strange sightlines.  It almost felt like the stage area was disconnected from the rest of the room.  Maybe something to think about for next year.

After Oryx, we went to the outdoor stage for Futurebirds (Athens, GA). We took in their psychedelic country as the lightest of drizzles came down.  It was a relaxing breather between indoor sets.  After about 30 minutes, we ducked into Rogue Tavern to hear a few songs from Crooked Fingers (Asheville, NC), who sounded great. We wanted to check out Jack Oblivian, though, so we didn’t catch much.

Jack Oblivian (Memphis, TN) was the perfect fit for Matthew’s.  The stage is in a mostly unadorned room that feels like a giant unfinished basement.  It looks like it’s more suited to storing tractors or some other form of heavy machinery.  So basically it’s ideal for raucous, rootsy rock shows.  Jack played over an hour of punk-country to a responsive crowd that seemed to know the material.  Some people were dancing, and most people were drunk.  We went across the street about midway through the set to check out Skewby (Memphis, TN) at the Wine Loft, but we only managed to catch a few minutes of the Memphis rapper’s set. Apparently he went on 10 minutes early and only played for about 18 total.  Oh well – heading back across the street for the rest of Jack Oblivian was a nice consolation.

And that was it. We saw a lot of great music in our two days in Birmingham, and I will hopefully be back next year.  Word of mouth should be strong among both the fans that attended and the bands that played.  If they keep putting together equally stacked lineups, their reputation is just going to continue to build.  Let’s hope they decide to come back for round two next year.

I’ll have a bunch of pictures up tomorrow.

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    • Selby
    • May 16th, 2011

    Nice review of the weather and venues and interesting use of adjectives like “good” and “great.” It’s like reading a Mad Libs template that was filled in by someone’s retarded, boring little brother. First of all, why does this person have a blog at all? Second, can anyone in Birmingham write a decent music review?

  1. Selby,

    This review is close to 2500 words long. Do you really want me to get more in depth? I gave at least a basic description of every band mentioned, with the exception of maybe URI who I didn’t really care for.

    This was an overwhelmingly positive review about an event that I really enjoyed. What’s your problem? Are you in Dangermuffin or something?

    Also, I’m not from Birmingham.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Denton! We are glad that you enjoyed the set.

  1. May 26th, 2011

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