Maha 2021. The words still feel good to say.

While live performances have returned here and there, most people in Omaha probably hadn’t heard a chord strummed or melody crooned since COVID-19 made landfall. But on July 31, a sold out Stinson Park filled for the first time since 2019 for thousands of people to jockey for space at the stage or lawn for a chair. Local acts like Dirt House or J Crum played while a hazy sun hung in the Saturday sky. By the time it set, national headliners like Japanese Breakfast, Thundercat and Khruangbin lit the night while the sky turned murky indigo. 

The Reader spent the day talking to the people that made Maha happen. From volunteers to sponsors, fans to workers, we wanted to know what that day meant. And it’s complicated. The pandemic isn’t over. There was trepidation about the delta variant of COVID-19 and low vaccination numbers in Nebraska which is leading to higher caseloads. But most people also just breathed a sigh of relief. Music, community and some sense of normalcy seemed back on track.

Andy Warhol and The Hidden Banana

Melinda Sorenson (left) and Angela Gahan (right) dressed as Andy Warhol for BFF at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Angela Gahan peered over her black Ray Bans to get a better look at the banana.

The volunteer with BFF Omaha dragged a black Sharpie maker across the spotted yellow skin to make a recognizable signature.

“Andy Warhol.”

Gahan and Melinda Sorensen, volunteers with BFF and their MaMo Gallery, walked around the park dressed as the famous pop artist and cultural trendsetter. With white wigs and striped shirts, they were easy to spot for festival goers who’d taken the art organization’s challenge of finding bananas (a reference to the Velvet Underground & Nico album which Warhol designed) hidden around Stinson Park during Maha.

“[The festival goers] are electrified,” Gahan said. “We decided we can’t touch because if we do like things might implode.”

From left to right: Angela Gahan, Liz Dahlke, Jill Bertino and Melinda Sorensen take a selfie at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

After a year that brought so much polarization, sickness and isolation, it feels good to come out, dress up and troll the sidewalks for people like Liz Dahlke and Jill Bertino to find. The two teenagers brought the Warhol Twins their found banana to get a signature.

This isn’t either of their first time’s at Maha, which is in its 13th year at this point. Both said they needed something like this—light and fun to contrast the past year.

“I don’t know a lot of the bands here. I’m just here because I love Maha,” Dahlke said. “It’s super fun and I need to get out of the house or else I was going to go insane.”

“Same here,” Bertino laughed. “Same here.”

Glitter Disco at Maha

The first sounds of the festival came not from guitars or live vocals, but rather the pumping beats of disco and club music. Dancers in glittery flares and roller skates blew bubbles and grooved to the rhythm, welcoming attendees into BFF’s MaMo, temporarily renamed and transformed into “Studio 55” for Saturday’s dance party sessions. 

See All Our Photos from Maha 2021

Meanwhile, BFF volunteer and local photographer Grace Weihs stood in front of a table of bananas, encouraging people to take one and track down the signatures of two Andy Warhol look-alikes walking around the festival for a prize. 

“I feel like people are in good spirits, happy to be out. This is the first thing I’ve done on this level.”

Surrounded by the nostalgic and enthusiastic energy of the booth, Weihs grinned as she discussed what it felt like to be at Maha again after missing last year. “We’re ecstatic about it.” Although unsure about the future of live music and crowded events due to the COVID-19 delta variant, Weihs mentioned her excitement to hear headliner Khruangbin’s set–of course, after her volunteer shift is done.

Disco, Dancing, Rollerskates

Sasha Quattlebaum, Maddie Rosonke, and Lauren Mankin smile, taking a break from roller skating around the festival grounds with bubbles and encouraging people to join the 1970s-themed dance parties at the BFF booth. Photo by Emma Schartz.

“Get vaxxed so we can party with you,” Lauren Mankin yelled over her shoulder as she skated away, weaving back through the crowd with fellow skaters Sasha Quattlebaum and Maddie Rosonke. 

The trio joined forces with BFF this year, riding in fun formations, blowing bubbles, and hyping up concert goers as they milled through the food area and pavilion all day Saturday. The skating trio, which operates largely through Rosonke’s skating instagram @curlyfry.skates, received a message through social media about coming to Maha and immediately jumped on the opportunity.

“This is like a dream come true, self actualization” Mankin said. “At the beginning of summer, I had a sketchbook where I [would] draw and write down little things. And I wrote down, like I want a gig on skates this summer, like I wanted to manifest it,” Rosonke elaborated.

Decked out in halter tops and flared pants, the female skating trio perfectly embodied the booth’s 1970s disco theme. The group attended Maha previously as regular concert goers, citing 2019’s Lizzo performance and 2016’s Grimes show as memorable moments. This year, the group most looked forward to seeing Thundercat, impressed with his spot in the lineup. 

Yet, the group enjoyed roller skating and contributing to the palpable energy of this year’s festival. “Being able to hype people up, this is what I love to do,” Mankin said. “Yes, being a part of the vibe” Quattlebaum said, followed by infectious laughter. 

Kethro Starts It Off

Maha 2021 artist Kethro poses for a portrait after his DJ set at the festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Sam Crisler.

Omaha DJ Kethro was tasked with opening the festival and setting the tone for the rest of the day, which comes with its own set of challenges. 

“I really, really put a lot of time in thinking about that, like ‘How do you kick off a festival like this and make people feel welcome?’” he said following his performance. “My sound is a really great way for people to feel relaxed and feel comfortable about being in a social situation again.”

Part of his goal for the set was to introduce festival attendees to music that was produced and recorded at Make Believe Studios in Omaha, where he works as a recording engineer. That included spinning music from Omaha artists like Conny Franko and BXTH, as well as Kansas City’s Dominique Sanders and London-based Jay Prince.

“It was really exciting to get to play a bunch of music that the city has just not heard yet,” he said. “We just stay really busy at Make Believe, so I tried to put together a 30-minute version of 2020.”

J Crum’s Dream Come True

J Crum peforms at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

While Maha is one of Nebraska’s largest confluences of high-profile touring acts, it also gives local musicians the opportunity to show their stuff on the big stage. For some, like Omaha rapper J Crum, performing at Maha is realizing a fantasy.

“I used to dream of this, so for it to be something to do is really cool,” J Crum said.

He wasn’t letting nerves get to him, though. J Crum said before his set that he was approaching the show like any other.

“I feel like what we’ve been doing is what got us here, so we’ll just bring everything we got,” he said.

Dirt House

Annie Dilocker of Dirt House performs at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.
Roger Lewis performs with Dirt House at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

A Sign of The Times

Jamy Elker interprets lyrics into American Sign Language for attendees of the Maha Musical Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Across about 10 hours of live music at Maha, bands cycled on and off stage. But two performers who never got to leave the grandstand were Jamy Elker and Pamela Duncan. The certified sign language interpreters mouthed lyrics and guided the music into words for Omaha’s deaf and hard of hearing community.

Elker said the two have had a busy pandemic. Any time information about COVID-19 had to go out, she or one of her colleagues in the signing community were there. But she’s happy to be back at Maha. As someone who grew up with music, she loves these summer days where rock, country, hip hop and every other genre fills the air. 

But even more than herself, she thinks about what this means to people she’s helping in the crowd.

“[2020] was so isolating for deaf people,” Elker said. “Throughout the year, it was just so isolating.”Now there’s something to look forward to again. Maha is back, live music is on its way and musicals, Elker’s favorite, are also coming back. She’s particularly excited to sign the rapid fire of lyrics that accompany Hamilton, as well as old favorites like Wicked and Cats. She hopes we can get there. With the delta variant of COVID-19 leading to increased hospitalizations, it feels like history repeating itself. But all she can hope is that people do the right thing. She’s vaccinated and takes the proper precautions to stay healthy. If other people do the same, it’ll ensure she, and the people she serves, will have something to keep looking forward to.

Keeping The Good Vibes Flowin’

Springo founder Dan Warren poses for a portrait on his mobile water refilling station at Maha Music Festival 2021 on July 31, 2021. Photo by Sam Crisler.

There was no excuse to become dehydrated at Maha, with water refilling stations scattered around the festival and plenty of drinks for sale in kiosks. Also helping the cause was Springo founder Dan Warren, 46, who could be seen at Maha pulling a mobile water tank hooked up to his bike. Saturday was his sixth time working the festival.

“[Maha] was one of my first big, main clients,” Warren said. “They gave me an opportunity, and since doing Maha, it’s led to so many good things.” 

Warren also owns Pedalpushers, a Lincoln-based pedicab service. He said Springo is an extension of that idea. But as COVID numbers climb again, Warren said he’s concerned about the effect the virus could have on his businesses and the events industry.

“We’re co-dependent. I gotta have them to do this, and without them, I can’t.”

For Saturday, though, Warren was just happy to be back at Maha again.

“Today’s Maha,” he said. “They pulled it off.”

Omaha Girls Get to Rockin’

Matt Cox and The Marauders

Matt Cox of Matt Cox and The Marauders performs at The Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Maha Board Member Wants to See Memories Made

Maha Music Festival attendees watch Drive-By Truckers on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In recent years, Maha transitioned from a one-day festival to a two-day event and expanded to include the Big Omaha conference as part of its programming. But the pandemic prompted organizers to scale the event back to one day and stick to music, capping attendance at 7,000, according to Maha board member Sherry Huffman. 

“We set that so that there would be an opportunity for spacing and just to be comfortable that people wouldn’t feel nervous about attending,” Huffman said.

Maha wasn’t a sure thing this year, either. Huffman said the board consulted CDC guidelines and took the pulse of other festivals to decide whether to go through with this year’s event.

“We want our reputation to be where anybody can come and feel comfortable and leave thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I always remember that year at Maha,’” she said. “We don’t want it to be something where people leave and it becomes a super-spreader event.”

It remains to be seen whether Maha will have any impact on Nebraska’s case numbers, but during the festival, Huffman was happy to be running errands, helping volunteers and to be in the presence of a sold-out crowd.

“The weather is perfect, people are showing up for a thing I think that they missed during COVID, and people are smiling, so, as a board member, that makes me feel proud,” Huffman said. 

‘It’s An Easy Way to Feel like A Hero’

Damian David, a Springo Water representative and an avid Maha fan, smiles at the edge of the festival grounds before he returns to the heart of the event, stopping often for spectators to refill their water bottles from the trailer hitched to his bike. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

Damian David, 44, circled festival grounds on a three wheeled bike holding a small white trailer with two taps on its side. Enclosed within was free drinking water from Springo.

 “You’re everybody’s best friend at an event like this,” David said, minutes after two festival goers in matching earth-toned outfits had thanked him and walked away from the taps with water bottles filled to their brims. 

“I came into it just thinking I was gonna sit around and block people’s view of the concert,” David said. “People actually appreciate an opportunity to have water at an event.”

An avid Maha fan and musician himself, riding the hydration bike is how David has chosen to spend the past three Mahas. “It’s an easy way to feel like a hero.”

Patties on The Grill

Gregory Foote, the manager of the Mobile Grace Cafe food truck, flashes a smile from his grill between cooking back-to-back orders of burgers, seared tuna and more for a long line of Maha festival-goers. Photo by Bridget Fogarty.

As the sun began to set and crowds grew in anticipation of headlining bands, demand for S. 67th Street’s food vendors grew high.

Gregory Foote, the manager of the Mobile Table Grace food truck, worked nonstop to get made-to-order signature Irish burgers, exclusive sushi-grade seared tuna and other dishes onto his grill and into hungry Maha fans’ hands. 

“I don’t put that patty down until you order, and within five minutes you have a hot steaming burger, ready to go,” he said. 

Mobile Table Grace is the food truck of Table Grace Cafe, 1611 ½ Farnam St., a donation-based community cafe and nonprofit offering pay-what-you-can meals to all in Omaha’s community. All revenue from the Maha sales went back to the cafe, and upon check out customers had the opportunity to donate a meal voucher to a future cafe customer.

Foote, who along with running the food truck serves as sous chef at the restaurant, prides his kitchen both on its mission and on its cuisine, and was excited to be a first-time vendor at Maha.

”Just because we are non profit doesn’t mean we cut corners, we are out there giving our best,” he said.

Edem Soul Music

Edem K. Garro of Edem Soul Music performs at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Drive-By Truckers

A Jubilee at Japanese Breakfast

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast performs at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021.

“The joy was just everywhere,” said Yoon Kim, a 20-year-old student from Chicago, of Japanese Breakfast’s sunset set. “It was really cathartic… her energy was super infectious,” she said.

Kim said she’s been a fan of Japanese Breakfast for a while, but reading lead singer Michelle Zauner’s vulnerable and honest memoir Crying in H Mart changed the way she perceives the Korean-American artist’s music.

“A lot of her book and her previous music is filled with grief, and rightfully so,” she said. “She even says so herself, Jubilee was supposed to be really joyful and that was awesome that I got to see that transformation.” 

Kim chose Maha over her own city’s music festival this weekend. Chicago’s Lollapalooza has raised concerns nationwide in contributing to Chicago becoming a COVID-19 hotspot, as potentially hundreds of thousands of fans flocked to Grant Park for the four day long festival this past weekend.

For Kim, Maha felt more intimate, family friendly and enjoyable than other festivals she’d attended in the past. “It was a super memorable performance,” she said, “We were able to see (Michelle Zauner’s) face, which was crazy,” she said.

Family Celebrate Maha through The Years

Longtime festival volunteers Erin Browning and Fritzi Schatz pose in the merchandise tent as they prepare for the growing evening crowds. Photo by Emma Schartz.

Sitting in the merchandise tent with matching magenta colored hair, Erin Browning and Fritzi Schatz are Maha festival icons. The niece-aunt duo started volunteering with Maha after Browning attended the inaugural concert at Lewis & Clark Landing in 2009. “I’m a concert kid,” Browning said. 

Throughout the years, the pair has aided in nearly every aspect of the festival, from street teaming and allowing their front porch to be co-founder Tre Brashear’s drop-off site for all things promotional to running the front gate and now working the merchandise tent. Although last year’s cancellation was “heartbreaking,” both women agreed that Maha consistently made the right calls to protect participants and honor public health guidelines.

“Coming back and doing one day of music is easy peasy. This kind of takes us back to our roots of when it was just one day of music only,” Browning said.

As Browning and Schatz reminisced about earlier festivals, they emphasized their shared amazement at the growth and development of Maha, with previous expansion into two days and hearing national radio stations shout out the festival when playing Japanese Breakfast’s new album. 

Browning appreciated Maha’s unique emphasis on all-ages community involvement and musically diverse lineups, offering “band names that jumped out at different flavors of people.”

Browning and Schatz no longer live in Nebraska, yet both make it a priority to come back to Omaha every year for Maha because of their love for live music and the tight-knit volunteer community.

“It’s a good way for a broke ass kid to get a ticket, but it also introduces them to volunteerism and nonprofits and being a part of their community and a part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Browning said. “They may be doing it for an ‘I’m poor’ reason, but it’s more fulfilling than just a free concert ticket.”

As guests started to flock to the merchandise tent and the two women had to return to work, Browning summed up her feelings with one simple question.

“Can it get any better than live music on a nice day with your friends and family?”

Company Man

Japanese Breakfast. Maha Music Festival 2021.

In the middle of Maha music festival sits a ferris wheel. All day and night, attendees stood in line and rode the contraption, treated to free views of the festival grounds, stages, and the Omaha skyline. Werner Enterprises sponsors this ferris wheel and a tent with complimentary merch for attendees, which this year featured light blue water bottles, koozies, and trucker hats.

“It’s a great way to reach out to a vast audience and connect with people and get them to know about Werner,” dedicated division employee and Maha volunteer Dillon McDowell said.

McDowell, a 15-year Werner employee, is one of the company’s experienced festival volunteers. Going into his fourth year, McDowell signed up to work the promotional tent and listen to the bands without even recognizing any of the artists on the lineup.

“When I first got started, I was honestly not looking forward to [Maha]. I didn’t know what Maha was, and my boss nominated me to go. And when it didn’t happen last year, you know, you miss out on that.”

Beyond the festival experience, Werner’s involvement also fostered a sense of community within the workplace. McDowell described employees meeting weeks in advance to go over plans and share in the general excitement for the upcoming event, always meeting up at Brick Street Tavern before the festival. “It’s just a good time,” McDowell said.

Looking behind McDowell, the Werner tent brimmed with millenials sporting the company merchandise, chatting and nodding their heads to the distant live music, looking more like a group of friends rather than a group of young professionals at a work event.

Thundercat

Stephen Lee Bruner, better known as Thundercat, performs at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Khruangbin

Mark Speer (right) and Laura Lee (left) of Khruangbin performs at the Maha Music Festival on July 31, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

contact the writers at chris@thereader.com, emma@thereader.com, bridget@el-perico.com and backbeat@thereader.com.


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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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