When the Maha Music Festival organizers announced that this year’s headliner was going to be Death Cab for Cutie, I was relieved. Maha has a tradition of booking the most boring act of its annual day-long concert to play last, and this year appeared to be no exception.

Last year it was Flaming Lips, whose black-confetti strobe-light-mountain visual spectacle was absorbed in the first five minutes of the set, leaving only Wayne Coyne and Co.’s droning, monotonous cacophony. Like Garbage and Matisyahu the prior years, the Lips was a band that, after just a few songs, you could confidently say, “Well, I’ve seen enough” and head to the gates guilt-free knowing you weren’t missing anything.

Death Cab seemed to fall in this category, based on their track record. It’s been one boring show after another from the Seattle band for more than a decade, and this would simply be one more in a series, or so I thought. But as Ben Gibbard and his band tore into “We Laugh Indoors,” with its pivotal line “I loved you Guinevere,” I realized the massive Maha crowd (more than 7,000, according to one Maha board member) was in for a special evening. For once Death Cab was bringing something to the stage more powerful, more urgent than what they’ve recorded in the studio. Gibbard, usually a sad, sleepy mope, never sounded so intense.

But it still wasn’t enough to keep me there. By 10:45, Maha had officially whipped my ass with its day’s worth of fine music and booze.

It had been a long day. Unlike years past when I’d wandered into Stinson Park at mid-festival, this year I was in line when the gates opened at noon to see local post-punk legends Domestica light up the main stage. I’ve been following the husband-and-wife team of Jon Taylor and Heidi Ore since the early ’90s, back when they called themselves Mercy Rule (albeit with a different drummer). I would be goddamned if I was going to miss them kick off one of Nebraska’s largest music festivals, even though only a handful of people were there to see them. 

Cited as an influence by every successful early Saddle Creek Records band, you could argue Domestica deserved a better time slot, but you could make similar arguments for every band that played before 6 p.m. The fact was, Maha was loaded this year. 

Domestica was followed by strong sets from singer/songwriter Matt Whipkey and his band, and the newest member of the Saddle Creek roster, Twinsmith. But the first surprise of the afternoon was M34n Str33t, a local hip-hop crew with Conny Franko a.k.a. Conchance on the mic. Prior to their set, they leaned a stack of hand-made protest-style placards with sayings like “2 Good 2 Die Young” and  “Keep Omaha Good Weird” along the stage and invited fans to hoist them around the compound. Props. But they effectively reminded us all of the crew’s brutal, beat-heavy set every time someone got clubbed over the head with one like a baby seal. 

By 3 the forecast rain that never materialized was replaced with dense, soul-sucking humidity. After one song from Doomtree, I made my getaway to decompress for a couple hours, missing St. Joe punk band Radkey, but sacrifices had to be made. 

I returned to Stinson in time for the day’s main attraction (for me anyway): The Both — Aimee Mann and Ted Leo, together. By the time they got to the stage at around 4:30, the haze had shifted to skin-searing sun. Concert-goers ducked into whatever shade they could find, hiding beneath the park’s straggly trees. 

I scrunched down with the gaggle of sweaty fans who had pushed into the shadow of the main stage, The Both just a few yards away. Mann, dressed in a pleather rock ‘n’ roll power dress and fishnets, her long golden hair lying flat against her back, let us know the sun was burning the back of her legs in a waffle pattern. The heat took its toll on their energy level as Mann and Leo walked through the songs off their debut album — one mid-tempo ballad after another, punctuated by awkward between-song patter. 

Word had gotten out that “Voices Carry,” the ‘Til Tuesday ’80s mega-hit, was on their set list, but before they got to it, the trio did a kick-ass Leo number called “Bottled in Cork” (Tell the bartender, I think I’m falling in love) that made my festival. Afterward came a timid version of “Voices Carry,” better left in the ’80s. 

The Both were followed by locals Envy Corp, a band I’d all but written off until this gig. I was talking to a musician and another music writer outside the VIP tent during their set and all three of us were like, “Who the f___ is this? These guys are pretty awesome.

It was back to the stage area to see Local Natives play the first festival-sounding set of the day, ramping up the crowd for the coming evening. But what really got the crowd pumped was rock-dance act Icky Blossoms. Their old favorites from their debut album were as good as ever, but their new stuff pointed toward a different, more punk-fueled sound. Edgier, despite their dresses.

Then came indie folk rock act The Head and the Heart, who had sold out Red Rocks the night before with its lush, if not forgettable, music. 

Then came Death Cab serenading a crowd that filled the park.  

As good as the music was, the Maha Music Festival has matured into something beyond its music. It’s become an annual must-attend event thanks to the accouterments that surround it and its precise team of 300 volunteers determined to make sure every single person has a good time. It’s a tribute to the four caballeros who founded the festival way back in 2009 and are “stepping back” from Maha next year for a well-deserved break. Can Maha continue its momentum without them? We’ll find out next year. 

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

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