In booking local band Cursive — in addition to other coups Guided by Voices and Matisyahu — MAHA lands one of the original crown jewels of the Saddle Creek Records triumvirate.
The news is in the headline, exactly as it was announced Monday night. To reiterate: This year's MAHA Music Festival, to be held Aug. 13 at Lewis & Clark Landing, will feature among its main stage bands Guided by Voices, Cursive and Matisyahu. Take a moment. Breathe deep. Soak it in. When you consider what the MAHA folks are now up against, not the least of which is MECA's six-day, three-stage, infinitely-budgeted, exempt-from-failure, yet-to-be-announced Red Sky Festival, one can only bow one's head and tip one's hat that they were able to pull off such an impressive line-up. Considered an originator of '90s low-fi indie rock, for this tour Guided By Voices boasts a reunion of its "classic mid-'90s lineup" — Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennel and Greg Demos. Cursive is one of the original crown jewels of the Saddle Creek Records triumvirate that included The Faint (who played MAHA last year) and Bright Eyes. Finally, there is Matisyahu, an American Hasidic Jewish reggae superstar. And that's just the beginning. There will be at least three more bands named for the main stage, as well as a second "local stage." All for a discount price of $30, three dollars less than last year's ticket. Let's face it, GBV alone is worth the price of admission. For Tre Brashear and the rest of the MAHA organizers, the announcement is a triumph that comes at the end of a long winter and spring of frustration. This year's booking process began in mid-January, a month after Red Sky announced its monstrosity at the brand new TDAmeritrade ball park, forcing MAHA to move its date to mid August instead of the festival "sweet spot" of July. "It has been more difficult this year," Brashear said of booking MAHA. "The change in date has been a problem, and I'm not knocking Red Sky in saying that. It’s just a fact. The weekend we moved to is in direct competition with Outside Lands in SF, Way Out West in Sweden and Summer Sonic in Japan. Combine that with the fact that lots of artists head to Europe in August because that’s when the European festival schedule starts up and it has meant that quite a few of the performers that we would like for MAHA simply weren't available." Then there's the fact that Omaha has become a virtual runway for big name national indie acts thanks to One Percent Productions (who helped book MAHA) and venues like The Waiting Room and Slowdown. "Artists like The Decemberists, Iron & Wine, New Pornographers, who would be perfect for MAHA, are already coming through this area for a routed show," Brashear said. "Then you throw in the increased interest Stir Cove has shown in booking indie acts and you end up with lots of challenges in booking for MAHA." Stir Cove, which is part of the Harrah's Casino money-printing factory in Council Bluffs, already has announced big draws The Black Keys, Flaming Lips and Mumford & Sons among its summer series lineup. Another prized act, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, has been snagged for the final Playing with Fire series July 16. But the perceived 10 million pound gorilla has always been Red Sky, despite conventional wisdom that RS will target the same acts that MECA books for the white elephant currently called The Qwest Center. Indie will likely be completely off the Red Sky radar. In fact, other than the date change, Brashear wasn't sure of any Red Sky impact. "When you are told an artist isn't available, you’re usually not told why," he said. "So we won’t know if those 'not available' responses were Red Sky related until after they announce their lineup." An announcement that could come in days, or weeks. If Red Sky was never interested in indie, why bother changing the MAHA date? "We never considered keeping the date we had originally," Brashear said. "First of all, we use MECA parking lots for MAHA parking. Second, we would have had to fight with them for publicity. Third, we don't think our sponsors and donors would have appreciated us engaging in a 'battle' with Red Sky." No doubt. MAHA has done an amazing job holding onto — and growing — its primary sponsors. "TD Ameritrade and Kum & Go are returning as our main and local stage sponsors, respectively," Brashear said. "Also, McCarthy Capital, Alegent Health, Proxibid, Centris, the Owen Foundation and Stinson Morrison Hecker are returning as sponsors (as is Weitz Funds). Our new sponsors this year include Whole Foods, HDR and Walnut Private Equity." It's those sponsors, along with last year's attendance numbers, that helped drive the ticket price down to $30 this year. "Since we are a nonprofit organization run by volunteers, making as much money as possible has never been our focus or intent," Brashear said. If there's a criticism to be leveled at the "so far" line-up, it's the age of the acts themselves. GBV's heyday was in the '90s. Cursive's biggest-setting album was released eight years ago and Matisyahu's breakout album was released in 2004. The thought that MAHA could be considered an "oldies" indie festival hasn't gone unnoticed. "We are constantly evaluating our demographics and whether our lineup is too old, too male, all of that," Brashear said. "We want our lineup to be a good cross-section of all things indie, so to do that well, we've got to feature 'emerging' national acts." Which is exactly what MAHA is targeting for the final three main stage bands. Who knows when that announcement will come. Until then, MAHA can take pride in already having landed the best lineup for any local festival in 2011. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.