By Matt Arena
The 2012 summer festival season has been a great one. Though at times it may have felt more like a Jack White/The Black Keys festival tour, there were some rather pleasant surprises. The inaugural year for Firefly Festival was quite possibly the best of the summer, and the incredibly well organized (and Metallica curated) Orion Music + More Festival both prove that you don’t need to stick to any of the major mainstays to have a great weekend of music. Closing out the festival season with its second year back from hiatus was late September’s Music Midtown. Though once a popular stop on the festival circuit in the early 2000’s, it took a couple years off and resumed as a one-day test run of sorts last year. It was successful enough not only to warrant another go this year, but to spread it to two days. Booking two major headlining acts like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters no doubt helped too. Add to that hometown and down south rap legends like T.I. and Ludacris, and it seemed impossible for Music Midtown to be anything other than a rousing success.
With a rather short first day (the first act came on at 4 pm), there wasn’t the lull that sometimes comes with the early acts. Though they do tend to be some of the most underrated ones on the bill, Music Midtown instead decided to jump headfirst into the deep end of the pool on day 1, with T.I., Avett Brothers, and Foo Fighters all crammed into one night.
Though Van Hunt and Joan Jett had each played their respective sets, the crowd didn’t really seem to ignite until T.I. took the stage. A hometown hero at this point in his career, he came out with one of his most popular (and earliest songs) ‘Rubberband Man.’ At this point the crowd had swelled to its largest size of the day, reaching as far back as the hill a mere few feet away from the entrance. Though that may be more of a statement about the size of the park itself, it was clear that T.I. was the first act of the day to have a real pull. He then went into his smash hits, ‘Whatever You Like,’ ‘What You Know,’ and ‘Live Your Life,’ which all got the teeming crowd from as close as the front to as secluded as the VIP area dancing wildly.
Just minutes after T.I.’s set ended, The Avett Brothers kicked into their performance on the second stage. Though they definitely had a dedicated crowd already waiting for them, the short lapse in time between sets didn’t really allow for T.I.’s entire crowd to find their way over too quickly. But those that were there obviously had come solely for The Avett Brothers. With their old-school-bluegrass-meets-modern-rock sound, they bridged a gap between straight country and alternative rock fans. Equal parts Mumford & Sons and The Black Keys; though The Avett Brothers have been around longer than either of those two bands, their sound definitely found a home with such a southern crowd. A rock/bluegrass act following a rapper may not seem like a formula for success, but Atlanta’s well-known diverse musical tastes allowed for both artists to receive a lot of love from the crowd.
Soon enough night had fully come and it was time for Foo Fighters to take the stage. At this point, Piedmont Park had become a seemingly endless sea of people, with the crowd spilling over almost into the second stage. Festivals stalwarts at this point in their careers, Foo Fighters came out of the gate with one of their newest, heaviest, and best songs in ‘White Limo.’ It’s a literal screamer of a track that announces their presence in the very best way possible. Shrieking vocals, ear splitting guitar riffs, and thundering drum beats, it’s possibly the only way to open a Foo Fighters show. With an almost endless amount of hits, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that didn’t know a single song in the set list. Famous for their marathon shows and passion for playing as long as possible, Dave Grohl kept the banter to a minimum. “Do you guys want me to talk or do you wanna hear us play some fucking songs? Because they only let us play two hours, and we came here to play some fucking songs!” The crowd’s roar of approval was met with a string of some of their biggest hits, ‘All My Life,’ ‘Rope,’ ‘The Pretender,’ ‘My Hero,’ and ‘Learn to Fly’ all came out in a row. Most bands would be hard pressed to find that many hits in an entire set, let alone in the first half hour. They also found time to work in some of their new material, though Wasting Light is about a year old at this point, it really speaks to the quality of the album to see the non-singles still in heavy rotation. After ‘Walk,’ Grohl introduced his band, giving each member a moment to show off their skills, which built up into a full on jam session, which quickly turned into a Van Halen cover. After the crowd realized that they were actually playing ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ Grohl stopped, warning the crowd, “you don’t want us to start playing covers, man, we’ll be here all fucking night!” and then proceeded to give the crowd the rest of the song. Their older material was by no means ignored either, with ‘This Is a Call,’ ‘Hey Johnny Park!’ and the Taylor Hawkins lead vocal track, ‘Cold Day in the Sun.’ After a great cover of Pink Floyd’s In the Flesh, they resumed diving into their big catalogue of hits. ‘Best of You’ and ‘Times Like These’ both preceded a surprise guest appearance by Joan Jett for ‘Bad Reputation.’ Closing the set with their biggest hit, and possibly the greatest closing song in history, ‘Everlong’ had the crowd nearly drowning Grohl out completely. Of course a crowd sing-along to ‘Everlong’ isn’t the first or last time it’ll happen, it’s always a surreal moment to hear over 50,000 people all shouting the lyrics so such a legendary song in unison.
Day 2 started off a bit earlier, but as a whole was much more loaded with quality acts than Day 1. From the moment gates opened there was quality music to be found, as Atlanta natives O’Brother started off on the secondary stage. One of the loudest, heaviest, and head-bangingest (yes, that’s a new adjective) bands out there, O’Brother brings a whole new take on progressive rock. Sometimes ambient and other times a wall of screams, they’re able to use a bevy of sounds to warp and thrash their songs to life. Playing tracks off their stellar debut album, ‘Garden Window,’ they were hands-down the most underrated act on the bill. Tracks like ‘Lo’ and ‘Poison!’ sorted out the metal heads in the audience, as heads were quickly banging and if it weren’t for the early set time, one could easily imagine massive moshpits forming. They closed with the two part ‘Machines,’ which starts off like a punch to the face, then dips into a subtle throbbing before coming back with one of the best breakdowns and riffs in recent memory. If anyone left Music Midtown not a fan of O’Brother, they definitely did something wrong.
Up next on the main stage, was Civil Twilight. Hailing from South Africa, they’ve developed success quite well in the US, due to their unique sound. Sometimes piano rock, other times incredibly atmospheric, it always works. Their latest album Holy Weather saw a development of their sound, further venturing into a light electronic piano-rock territory. These songs sounded great live too, with ‘Fire Escape’ being a definite highlight of the set. Being the first act on the main stage, they roped in quite an audience and no doubt garnered that much stronger of a fan base.
Another big pull for the festival was Ludacris, another Atlanta grown southern rapper who had a myriad of fans awaiting his set. Playing with a live band (a rarity for the rapper), it definitely helped his sound. Rappers that utilize a live backing band sound that much better, as having an actual person play the parts instead of using a backing track is always the way to go. Though he seemed to lack the presence and energy that T.I. brought the day before, he had the crowd just as enthralled. With an eight album catalogue to pull from, Ludacris reached as far back as his very first hit with songs like ‘What’s Your Fantasy’ and ‘Southern Hospitality.’ Not only was the crowd into it, but backstage Civil Twilight’s Steven McKellar and Florence Welch could be seen dancing along too. His established collaborative work came into play too, as his popular songs with other artists made appearances too. And I’d be lying if I said hearing a crowd roar back the lyrics to ‘Move Bitch’ wasn’t one of the most entertaining things I saw all weekend. Ok maybe I did too.
Again with a rapid shift in genres, Neon Trees were up. The pop band has grown exponentially ever since their first album and continued it with the success of their second album, ‘Picture Show.’ Though a physical fireball of energy, the band seems to lack the musical punch on stage that most seem to have when performing live. The songs feel somehow lower, as if someone turned down the dial on the drums and guitar. Lead singer Tyler Glenn’s vocal work always impresses though, as he manages to belt out the lyrics while whirling around the stage like a spinning top gone rogue. Their earlier material is definitely lighter on the pop elements that seemed to have invaded Picture Show, so songs like ‘1984,’ Sins of My Youth,’ and ‘Animal’ came across much better than the newer tracks. Regardless, the crowd seemed to eat it up, yelling before ‘Animal’ even started and singing along to nearly every word to the catchy ‘Everybody Talks.’
Florence + The Machine were up next on the main stage, and though at first dealing with some technical difficulties, Flo’s charm kept the audience on her side and she continued into a very well received set. Her earth-mother vibes come out not only on the songs, but the way she carries herself, floating around the stage like a heavenly Poison Ivy. While it does get to be a bit much, not only her moves but the similarity of her songs, the crowd didn’t seem to care as her fans up front matched her energy with an almost alarming level of passion. Florence is most definitely a talented singer, but if you’re not a fan before seeing her live she isn’t one of those acts to change your mind upon seeing her perform.
Closing out the festival was Pearl Jam. Their reputation for being one of the hardest working and best live acts out there precedes them, and they somehow managed to eclipse it. Lots of bands were popular in the 90’s, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that’s still as respected, loved, and downright rocking as Pearl Jam is. They’re one of those bands that live for their hardcore fans, evidence of this by the unparalleled amount of diversity in their set lists. People see them countless times and very rarely ever see the same show twice. While this is a bonus for hardcore fans, they run the risk of alienating the more casual audience members, especially at a festival. But that wasn’t the case at Music Midtown. They had a perfect mix of hits and b-sides, and speaking from the standpoint of somewhere in between a casual and hardcore fan, it wasn’t remotely boring even for a second. ‘Elderly Woman Behind The Counter in a Small Town,’ ‘Better Man,’ ‘Do the Evolution,’ and ‘Even Flow’ made early appearances in the set and had the swelling crowd in a trance. Being able to hear songs like ‘Alive’ and ‘Black,’ ones that are so famous it gives that immediate giddy sensation of “hey, hey it’s THIS song!” is truly something special. Pearl Jam showed why they’re such a respected live band and why they were chosen as the anchor for Music Midtown. Plus hearing ‘Jeremy’ live is finally something I get to check off my concert bucket list.
All photos courtesy of Matt Arena