I doubt the crowd at this year's Dundee Day rock show was expecting what it got when a sweaty, shirtless Darren Keen, a.k.a. The Show Is the Rainbow, jumped from the stage into the audience like a 250-pound Tolkien (or maybe, more suitably, toke-in') battle dwarf, his shaggy red beard blowin' in the wind as he performed his unique style of electronic funk-rock to a sheepish, half-drunk white-bread crowd, most of whom had stood at that same spot 12 hours earlier scooping plates of flapjacks into their gaping maws (served up by that Midwestern culinary hero, The Pancake Man), completely oblivious to the fact that 12 hours later they'd be subjected to glistening flopsweat, in-yer-face obscenities, hash-talk and an avalanche of hyperactive beats.
But I'll get to that later.
First, there was the annual Slowdown Block Party, held Friday night in the parking lot of America's (or at least Nebraska's) favorite indie music club. Now in its third year, Slowdown's free outdoor concert continues to draw larger crowds (estimated head count: 2,400, the biggest yet), thanks to booking bigger acts. Year One featured Azure Ray and Cursive (and was brought to you by Mutual of Omaha). Year Two was The Mynabirds, Rural Alberta Advantage and Built to Spill (brought to you by Toyota Antics).
Those tiny Antics cars were back this year, parked throughout the Slowdown lot like prizes on a game-show set -- shiny, multicolored spaceships dropped from a far-off Toyota mothership signaled to from below by a giant "aNTICs" sign projected on the side of The Slowdown building. Say what you will about the tackiness of Toyota's sell job, but it was the car makers' cash that made the event possible (and for free). These days you'd be hard pressed to find any outdoor event or "festival" that isn't draped in a sponsor's precious brand. Call it a sell-out if you want to, but get used to it because sponsorships ain't going away, especially in the growing shadow of the dwindling music industry.
Omaha ambient dreamscape ensemble Conduits was on stage -- statuesque frontwoman Jenna Morrison stood front and center, belting it out in her Siren tones while the band poured on thick dollops of droning, throbbing rock. The band just keeps getting better, honing its stage show, waiting for someone to pick up their recording and release it to a hungry public. What's taking so long?
San Diego sunset rockers The Donkeys were next, then came indie "supergroup" Mister Heavenly, the Sub Pop-fueled mega-trio of Honus Honus of Man Man, Nick Thorburn of Islands and Joe Plummer of The Shins/Modest Mouse. It was Man Man's wonky circus caterwaul, which owes a lot to early Modest Mouse, that dominated their sound.
The crowd ballooned for The Hold Steady, who seemed determined to make up for their past limp performance at The Slowdown. Frontman Craig Finn, looking like Mike Mogis' long lost accountant brother, was a bundle of nervous ticks and awkward dance steps; impossible not to watch as he barked out lyrics in his trademark flat, nasal monotone. It was a fun night that left me wondering why Slowdown doesn't do more outdoor parking lot shows.
Saturday afternoon was a street-dance death match between Farnam Fest and Dundee Day -- two competing outdoor neighborhood shows overflowing with local talent. Proximity and variety won the day for Dundee, where I showed up in time to catch Gus & Call's set. G&C is my favorite band on Slumber Party Records' roster, and deserves a deal with a mid-sized (or larger) national indie label. With two great vocalists and talented musicians, their sound blends warm, introspective folk with blistering rural rock that's as good as anything from the alt-country heyday. Wilco could not find a better opening act.
After a strange, unexpected hour-long break, on came Digital Leather. From the outset, the band seemed an odd fit for a suburban neighborhood street dance, and apparently they agreed because the trio blasted through a set of bloody-knuckled punk songs as if they couldn't wait to get off stage. Frontman Shawn Foree barked out the lyrics to songs like "My Hand, Your Glove" and a cover of MOTO's "Deliver Deliver Deliver," sounding like an auctioneer on meth.
Finally, Keen, who wore a shirt when he jumped on stage prior to his set. Among his opening verbal salvos was an attack on yours truly for having not reviewed his latest album, Tickled Pink, suggesting that I was offended by the cover art -- a drawing by Lincoln artist Jimmy Lee of a woman's shaved private parts with his band's name spelled out in a liquid substance across her scarred flesh. Not true.
From there, he took on a couple hecklers as he cued up the first pre-recorded track on a laptop that sat on the edge of the stage, unleashing the opening beats of album highlight "Return to the Microthrone." Then off came the shirt.
Keen and his belly bounced into the crowd, spitting out lines like, "I want to touch your macaroni," with a tangled mic chord trailing behind him. His in-your-face performance style is old hat to any longtime The Show Is The Rainbow fan -- Keen's performed from the floor as long as I can remember. But for those uninitiated Dundee-ites, there was a sense of shock and awe as Keen invaded their personal space. Once they realized the big man wasn't going to hurt them, the crowd got into it, embracing Keen, his music and his humor. By god, a few even danced.
It ended with Keen precariously climbing the tower of speakers that balanced on the edge of the stage, looking like a big pink bear climbing a tree in search of a bee's nest. Once on top, he looked out over the crowd he just conquered, and saluted them with his microphone.
Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at email@example.com.