Local history will look upon the 2016 Maha Music Festival maybe not as a game changer, but certainly as a course change from the direction the festival was headed after seven years of growing success. It was a course that had to change if Maha wanted to keep it moving forward.
After last year’s “sold out” festival that featured Modest Mouse, Purity Ring and Atmosphere among others, a satisfied indie music audience was left scratching their heads wondering, “What can Maha do to top this?” The answer: Don’t try to “top” anything. Instead of bigger, make it different by catering to a younger crowd while not losing track of who brought you to the party.
Or, as singer/songwriter/musician Matthew Sweet said from the stage, the festival appeared to be “somewhat divided.” He didn’t say exactly where that division fell, but it was obvious to anyone with a modicum of pop music knowledge and a set of functioning ears.
Matthew Sweet’s band fell into the more mainstream rock acts that included somber alt-country band Jay Farrar Trio, British alt-power trio The Joy Formidable and local indie-blues showman Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal. The dance-centric / beat-centric bands included CJ Mills, Vince Staples, Grimes and official headliner Passion Pit. While punk was defined by Diarrhea Planet, Car Seat Headrest, Diet Cig and See Through Dresses.
So yeah, this year’s Maha Festival (which took place Aug. 20 at Aksarben Village) enjoyed a sort of a personality disorder that some might consider divisive and others might consider eclectic. I fell into the latter category. Or as one person told me— this year’s festival had a level of diversity matched only by the crowd itself (at least from an age perspective. From a racial point of view, Maha’s audience still lacked color).
Notes from the day: Heavy rains that had struck Omaha the night before had their way both with Stinson Park’s turf —a soaking mess — and the sound system on the massive Weitz stage. Not only did the festival get a late start, but early-day bands scheduled to play the big stage were moved to the smaller Javlin stage.
When I arrived after 1 p.m., Josh Hoyer and his band were in the middle of their usual swinging, professional set. Punk rock duo Diet Cig followed with a performance that far outshone their rather lax effort a few months earlier opening for Front Bottoms at The Slowdown. Front woman Alex Luciano said from the stage she thought she had a concussion at that Slowdown show, but her head trauma wasn’t enough for her to forget that Ted Cruz had dropped out of the race that same night leaving “He Who Shall Not Be Named” alone in the GOP race. “We’re living in a Harry Potter world, do you realize that?” she said before kicking into another high-kick-fueled punk song.
Diet Cig’s crowd looked larger than early-day crowds from past Mahas — a testimony to the band and festival organizers’ chutzpah for putting on such a comer so early in the day. A sharp, road-hardened See Through Dresses, whose sound isn’t dissimilar to Diet Cig’s, took the Javlin stage next, pounding out a short set of ’90s-flavored indie rock songs that vacillated between Dinosaur Jr. (when Matt Carroll sang leads) and, I don’t know, Juliana Hatfield? when Sara Bertuldo sang (though no one quite has Sara’s sweet coo).
Throughout the festival, time between acts was filled with other local entertainment — slam poetry readings, swing dance lessons and, best of all, a performance by two Omaha Girls Rock! bands: Fear the Wisteria Juice and, my favorite, Citrus Mountains, who had the audience clapping along. Future Maha stars?
Which brings us to the food portion of our show. Foodwise, the festival had more options than last year, most resembling food truck fare. I mistakenly ordered lunch from the lone “healthy option” — a strawberry salad that lacked strawberries. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible to screw up an $8 salad. My fish & chips for dinner was far more satisfying, though a lot less healthy.
I would like to say I got loaded on Boulevard beer, except Maha continues to use a “drink ticket” system. I tea-totaled because I was too lazy to walk all the way to the fairway to get more tickets.
Jay Farrar Trio, the first band to take the big stage, came on at around 4 p.m. Consisting of an acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitar, the group played soothing renditions of songs from the 1995 Son Volt album Trace that would have been perfect had the set been scheduled two or three hours later when the sun was going down. Farrar fans watched with pride, little knowing what they were in for next.
One of Diarrhea Planet’s claims to fame is the fact they have four —count ’em four — guitar players. Some might call it overkill; their fans only wanted more. Not so much punk as pop-metal, the band was massive in its audacity, sounding much better live than on their records. Moshing did ensue.
Unwilling to be topped in the power category, The Joy Formidable took the big stage and crushed a set of arena-quality hard rock. Imagine a band like Stars but with epic guitar riffs that pushed songs into Garbage (the band) territory. I admit to knowing little if anything of their catalog, and, afterward, was unlikely to seek it out.
Which brought us to the five-band home stretch and the act I was most excited to see. After a quick pitch job by billionaire Warren Buffett to get out and vote (“Your vote could decide the election!“), Car Seat Headrest played a sweet set that included at least three songs from the album Teens of Denial (2016, Matador), including “Vincent,” “Destroyed by Hippie Power” and anthem “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” not to mention a daring, soaring version of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” that recently has become a standard part of their set.
Throughout Car Seat Headrest’s performance, some guy stood on the big stage and did a mic check. “Look, it’s Grimes,” said frontman Will Toledo. I guess that’s what happens at rock festivals when two stages are so close together. Reaction after their set: People were either thrilled with Carseat Head Rest or indifferent. The same was true for hip-hop act Vince Staples.
Staples’ highly lauded full-length debut, Summertime ’06 (2015, Def Jam), ain’t my thing. I prefer a more tuneful brand of hip hop and, as such, his performance left me cold, but like Atmosphere, who supplied the hip-hop last year, Staples got the bouncing crowd with their hands in the air even though few could make out a word of his rushed prose. It was the beat that mattered, which could’ve been another good a slogan for this year’s Maha Festival.
Next up, local legacy indie rocker Matthew Sweet and his band (Paul Chastain and Ric Menck of Velvet Crush, plus guitarist John Moremen) performed a set consisting mostly of songs from breakthrough album Girlfriend (1991, Zoo) which no doubt his fans came to hear. As Sweet toiled on the small stage, a now huge crowd stood impatiently in front of the big stage waiting for him to wrap up what felt like a very long set. You could feel them seethe in anticipation, and when Sweet announced, “This is our last song,” they cheered, providing energy to fuel a feedback-drenched version of “Sick of Myself,” complete with a few extra false endings just to keep everyone on edge. Attaboy, Matthew.
Then came the headliner, well, as far as I was concerned. I’m sure there are reasons why Grimes didn’t headline, including a few provided by singer/songwriter/producer Claire Elise Boucher, who is pistol-hot right now thanks to a hit song on the new Suicide Squad soundtrack that is the film’s only redeeming quality.
Performing alone but accompanied by three dancers, Grimes sang pitch-perfect atop a dense gallery of pre-recorded samples and beats, bounding back to her computer console every once in a while to press a button or key. Add lighting, walls of smoke and a few thousand glowing fans, and you’ve got the highlight performance of the festival. You could argue it was EDM karaoke, but there was a tunefulness and energy to Grimes’ music that floated the performance.
How many people left after Grimes is hard to say, but there’s no question the crowd deflated slightly while technicians swapped equipment on stage for the “real” headliner, Passion Pit, and Team Maha made their thank yous and took group photos from the adjacent stage.
What can I say about Passion Pit? The band belted out their sugary-sweet dance music designed to inspire this year’s tagline, “Maha Moves.” And move they did, in my case right out of the park, but then again, I’ve never watched a Maha headliner’s full set.
So yes, it was another successful Maha Festival, even though attendance was down vs. last year (7,600 according to the Omaha World-Herald). The conventional wisdom from fans I spoke with was Maha’s move to a more dance-oriented line-up was necessary to keep it from gaining a rep as “that old indie-guy rock concert.”
To me, beyond being a daylong concert that showcases some of the hottest indie talent from today and yesterday, the Maha Festival has evolved into a community event that showcases the best the city has to offer. Forget bigger. Just figure out how to maintain this level of quality and Maha will have done something that no other city in the country could pull off.
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 email@example.com