Big Thief, who headlines this year's Maha Music Festival, equals Emmylou Harris fronting the Rolling Thunder Revue.

When I read the list of bands playing at this year’s Maha Music Festival to a middle-aged friend of mine, I was met with a blank stare and an eye roll.

“Big Thief? Are you kidding me?” he said. “What kind of name is that for a band? Black Belt Eagle Scout? That’s just made up, right?”

Like most people his age (including myself), this guy grew up with FM radio rock bands like Journey or AC/DC or Foghat, a band whose name I’ve never understood but whose songs — “Slow Ride” and “Fool for the City” — were staples at my neighborhood Skateland.

All popular music — be it indie rock or otherwise — is derivative of music that came before it. There haven’t been any “breakthroughs” or “new directions” in popular music since hip-hop and punk rock emerged in the early ’70s. Rock ‘n’ roll and pop music have always been a wash-and-repeat sort of thing performed by a rotating cast of younger, better-looking people who sometimes use modern technology alongside their Fender Stratocasters.

Indie music is nothing more than the same singer/songwriter stuff we’re all familiar with, except it’s just smart enough and different enough to not get played on the radio, and doesn’t, at least not in Omaha.

So, for my friend and those who went to college in the ’80s and lost touch with music after landing their first corporate gigs, finding their like-minded spouses and raising their inevitable replacements, here are some of this year’s Maha Music Festival performers translated to bands you (might) know and remember. In the music business, they call this RIYL, or Recommended If You Like — a term despised by all indie acts that are insulted by the mere idea that their “art” could be compared to anyone else’s. Hey, folks, just think of this as free marketing.

Big Thief — This year’s festival headliner, the band’s front woman, singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker, sounds like a willowy Emmylou Harris fronting every band that backed Bob Dylan during his Rolling Thunder Revue phase.

RIYL: Brooklyn hipsters who sound like they’re from the Smoky Mountains.

Alvvays — A Canadian band that sounds nothing like RUSH, whose front woman, Molly Rankin, has a soft, cooing voice that often stands in stark contrast to the band’s shimmering rock, a la Cocteau Twins.

RIYL: Laid-back Linda Ronstadt or Nancy Sinatra fronted by “Big Boys Don’t Cry”-era 10 cc.

Turnstile — They call their sound “hardcore punk,” but this isn’t the hardcore punk you remember. Frontman Brendon Yates has a great voice, sort of like Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Ferrell, but backed by Nirvana at 180 BPM.

RIYL: Fast, pumping Metallica sung by someone who can actually sing.

Black Belt Eagle Scout — Not a group of martial arts Boy Scouts but rather a band fronted by Katherine Paul, who has the same breathy coo as, say, Astrud Gilbarto — the woman who sings “The Girl from Ipanema” — but backed by The Psychedelic Furs.

RIYL: Siouxsie and the Banshees.

OK, this has turned out to be much harder than I thought.

The Beths — Fun-loving Australian pop band that’s a cross between The Breeders and Liz Phair. RIYL: The Go-Go’s sung by Olivia Newton John.

Ekkstacy — Catchy mostly electronic music sung in a fuzzy voice. RIYL: (early) The Cure.

Peach Pit — RIYL Classic FM vibe music a la Ambrosia or Little River Band.

BIB — This really is the hardcore punk that you remember. Yell/scream vocals, but strangely tuneful. RIYL: Broken glass and bombs exploding.

M34N STR33T — Hip-hop you’ll be surprised came out of Omaha. RIYL: Beastie Boys. Seriously.

Icky Blossoms — Modern psychedelic fashion show runway music that would feel right at home anywhere in the world. RIYL: The Human League sung by Nico.

After running these descriptions by my friend, I was still met with the same blank stare. “Here’s the thing,” I said. “If these bands and performers weren’t good, they wouldn’t have been invited to play at a festival. Right? I promise you’ll hear something you’ll like, and if not, at the very least it’ll be a nice afternoon in the park … (long pause) and there’s beer available.” That’s all I needed to say.

The Maha Music Festival is July 28-29 at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village. For more information, go to

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at

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