festival preview: secret stages, birmingham, alabama

magic mike @ greene street club

Secret Stages, a two day festival in downtown Birmingham featuring loads of great smaller bands, starts on Friday, July 31, and runs through August 1. Festival organizer Travis Morgan was nice enough to sit down and answer some questions for me. If you’re in the greater Birmingham area this weekend, make sure to check it out.
BNKO: This is the 5th year of Secret Stages. What inspired you to start the festival?
Travis Morgan: The festival was organized by several folks, including myself.  Secret Stages started in the wake of City Stages, which a much larger scale outdoor festival in downtown Birmingham.  When City Stages went under, we saw the need for a festival, but a much different one.  We focus on up and coming or under the radar music who are mostly based around the southeast.  We feel this type of music festival is an imperative element to a thriving music scene in Birmingham.
What are some of the challenges of planning and executing a festival? What are the most rewarding parts?
The challenges usually are funding and having a small staff, but with a festival with so many working parts.  It’s much harder to sell a festival this size and of this scope than something that will automatically attract tens of thousands of people if you book a certain band. It’s much easier to reach your audience and your sponsors.
We are all into challenges, but due to the approach and personal outlook of our festival, we are at a disadvantage.  People aren’t as accustomed to going to see a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of.  They’d probably likely pay 10 times the price to go to see a bunch of bands they already know. So, we now have a pretty solid 4 year track record of amazing bands.
Secret Stages is more difficult to sell to sponsors.  This is more of a group partnership between the bands, attendees, the festival, and the sponsors to put on an event that helps celebrate the incredible music coming out of Birmingham, the Southeast, and beyond. Once sponsors can see how they are benefiting their community, I think they are much more likely to jump on board.
Additionally, the city of Birmingham has implemented extra permit costs to us and other outdoor events. Partially because of that, we have eliminated our outdoor stage, which we’ve had since the beginning.
The rewards certainly outweigh the challenges.  When the festival is in motion and especially when it’s over, it’s easier to see what we have achieved.  We are able to bring together a wonderful selection of open-minded folks to celebrate a love of music together.
How do you select the bands who play? What’s your curatorial process like?
Rashid Qandil books all the hip hop.  At this point, I book everything else.  I think I booked 52 bands this year.
My approach is a little bit different than looking at what other festivals are booking or what’s at the top of the charts.  I have to go much deeper.  I usually go to a lot of shows, festivals, follow a lot of smaller labels, and have a relationship with hundreds of folks around the southeast.  My criteria is really based on a few factors.  Can the band write great songs? Not just one great song, but many.  Can the band perform really well? Is the band great live?  Is the band unique is some way wether it’s their genre/style, lyrical style, sense of humor, or what have you?
I stay in touch with bands, talent buyers, booking agents, labels, music journalists, and radio deejays and literally build a spreadsheet of hundreds of bands which I whittle down to about 50 or 60 each year.
Are there any bands you’re especially excited about this year? Anyone you’re psyched to see live for the first time?
This is always the question that makes me feel funny. The real answer is that all the bands that are playing made it through so many hurdles to play the festival.  All of these bands are special. I have seen a bunch of these bands, but I have never had a chance to see most of them before because they may not have played in Bham ever before.
I’m really excited to bring so many of these bands to Birmingham.  And I’m not sure any of these bands have played Birmingham before.
Bear Medicine, Bonnie Montgomery, Bo White Y Su Orquesta, Buke and Gase, Culture Vulture, Dot.s, Early Walker, Gold-Bears, Small Reactions, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Landlady, Onawa, Raindeer, Ryan Schaefer, Sweet Crude, TONE, White Reaper and Waking Astronomer.
I’m super excited to see these Birmingham bands Timber and Shaw for the first time.
I’m also really excited to see what Birmingham’s Dead Balloons, Taylor and the Puffs, and Eleven Year Old bring to the table.
Festivals can sometimes be strange to play. What do you think makes up the best kind of festival set?
The cool thing about Secret Stages, is ours is made up of 6 relatively small venues, plus a VIP venue and this allows for so much intimacy.  Since people aren’t usually too familiar with many bands, it is a time when attendees are first being exposed to a band.  It helps if a band brings all their energy and engages the crowd.  It also helps when the audience is quiet and respectful to the bands which they typically are. It’s a great platform for the bands and for the audience to hear great new bands. These are short sets from 45 minutes to an hour.  Not too much time for people to get bored, but if they do, they can always check out what’s happening next door.
Where do you see Secret Stages going? What does the festival look like in another five years?
We are always shifting things here and there, but our mission statement will always remain in tact.  Our bands are the little engine that could…The kids on the baseball or softball team that show so much promise and we are just giving them a leg up.
I hope our reputation continues to be favorable.  I hope to have more support from the City of Bham and recognition for the importance of our festival model.
In five years, I hope to double our attendance and add more venues.
For those of us who aren’t necessarily familiar with the Birmingham music scene, recommend a couple of local bands (they don’t have to be playing Secret Stages, just in general!).
Right now the biggest band from Birmingham is St. Paul and the Broken Bones.  They have recently done some dates with The Rolling Stones opening for them.  They played their first show at Secret Stages in 2012.  There’s also Lee Bains and the Glory Fires who played previously and are now signed to Sub Pop.  I think the other bands on the rise are WRAY, Future Elevators, The Green Seed, and Banditos (who recently moved to Nashville).
I personally think Through the Sparks is one of the best bands to come out of Alabama ever. I am biased because I have been working with them for a while, but they are fantastic.
Where’s the best place for out-of-towners visiting for Secret Stages to have a drink? A great meal?
What a question!  Bham is definitely a food town.  There are too many.  Within our footprint, you must try Carrigan’s, Brick & Tin, El Barrio, Trattoria, and Urban Standard. Beyond our footprint I love Ollie Irene, Olive Branch, Chez Fon Fon, Betolla, Bottega Cafe, Hot & Hot Fish Club, Silver Coin, even a sandwich at Diplomat Deli is amazing!…But there are so many good ones.
If you had a time machine and could use it to go back and see one show (one you missed, one you weren’t born for, one you want to relive, whatever), what would you go see?
I would have loved to see Pink Floyd in their prime with Roger Waters.
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show previews: what a week

hopscotch music festival: san fermin

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show — a combination of bad weather and laziness has compounded it. But hot damn if there isn’t an amazing four days in a row just in Chapel Hill (and Carrboro, mostly in Carrboro) where I can tell you go and watch some live music.

Tuesday 3/18: Typhoon w/ PHOX, Cat’s Cradle. Typhoon’s White Lighter was one of my favorite records of the year, and PHOX blew me away back in October when they opened for Blitzen Trapper. This is my birthday present to myself, and I am going to watch all six million people in Typhoon sing the chorus to “Young Fathers” and cry all over myself like a lunatic. But a happy one. Doors 7, show 8, $14 day of.

Wednesday 3/19: Reuben & the Dark w/ the Darcys, Cat’s Cradle Backroom. The Darcys’ Warring was a 2013 surprise that came to me in 2014; it’s heavy and pushed by the drums and the bass, layered over by echoing vocals and synthesizers, just like everything I love that I don’t pick out myself. (This was picked out for me by a publicist I absolutely trust.) It’s eerie and open and unexpectedly spring-like, and when I listened to it again today, writing about it, on a grey rainy Monday, it was the perfect music for that, too. It’s part the churning guitars that made the Fall Out Boy – Panic! at the Disco – My Chem scene so appealing to me, echoes of punk in everything they do, and loads of influence from New Age, and lots of sadness and desperation piled into it. It’s basically a gorgeous mess; this show will be phenomenal. Doors 7pm, show 8pm, day of $10.

Thursday 3/20: Tinawiren w/ the Melodic, Cat’s Cradle. Tinawiren and the Melodic are a pair of Anti- Records bands, and when did Anti- last sign a band that was less than stellar? Tinawiren hail from Northern Mali, and you can check out their stunning video for latest single “Islegh Taghram Tifhamam” — loosely translated “You’re Educated And You Know” — at the AV Club here; it’s a staggering piece of work, absolutely showcasing their superb brand of music and sounds native to their home country, fused with electric guitars and a fiercely compelling live performance. Doors 7, show 8, day of $25.

Thursday 3/20: Shearwater w/ Jesca Hoop, Cat’s Cradle Backroom. I’m never super compelled by former Okkervil River collaborator Shearwater’s records, but I’ve seen them twice live and they’re always enormous and wild, epic soundscapes that will definitely feud with the small, well-balanced space of the Backroom. I saw Jesca Hoop at a Yep Roc showcase at the Wine Bar in Chapel Hill a few years ago, and her enormous voice and looping talents are a perfect match for Shearwater’s sound. Doors 8, show 9, day of $12.

Thursday 3/20: La Femme w/ Wild Moccasins, Local 506. I mean, honestly, take your pick tonight: all three of these shows will be spectacular. But I’m going to be at this one, checking out second open, Houston quintet Wild Moccasins, who make this fabulously complex blend of pop music and orchestral showpieces. La Femme, the headliners, play equally compelling French surf-pop, which I didn’t know was my new favorite genre until I just typed that. Doors 8, show 9, day of $10.

Friday 3/21: Noah Gundersen w/ ARMON JAY, Cat’s Cradle Backroom. Noah Gundersen has closely edged Lydia Loveless for my favorite 2014 record to date, so, you know, is that enough? Go to this show, although it’s nearly sold out and you might miss it because you didn’t know. Now you know. Go. Go go go. Doors 7, show 8, day of $12.

Friday 3/21: San Fermin w/ Avers, Cat’s Cradle. Seeing as San Fermin’s self-titled was also one of my favorite records in 2013 — along with White Lighter — I’m definitely trying to figure out if I can sneak from Noah’s set to San Fermin’s via the back door on the smoking patio. The shows are set an hour apart, so timing wise it’s totally possible, but you didn’t hear this, Cradle staff, I’m totally not talking about it on the internet. If you aren’t into Gundersen’s clever and heartwrenching guitar pop, go see the incredibly masterful operatic pop of Ellis Ludwig-Leone, which totally boggled my mind when they played Fletcher Opera House during Hopscotch last year. Doors 8, show 9, $14 day of.

show preview: new madrid @ kings, 3/6

road trip: misty trees outside petersburg

I’m kind of really into Georgia bands right now, apparently. I didn’t mean for it to happen — I thought there was only one person in the state of Georgia with whom I was smitten! You know! The one I like to kiss! — but then all of a sudden I’ve got a couple of guys I really trust feeding me all these groovy Athens and ATL rockers, and I’m just completely obsessed.

Take Athens’ New Madrid, for example, who released their sophomore LP Sunswimmer — produced by Athens mainstay David Barbe, whose name all good Truckers fans know instantly — a few weeks ago. It’s hazy, guitar driven rock and roll — the Whigs, maybe, if the Whigs’ vocals were more muted and the guitars were more mathrock than Southern rock, and I liked the Whigs more — and I’m completely enamored. The songs crash and rumble along, some of them ending abruptly and others stretching out into soundscapes of Southern wants and universals needs that run 6, 7, 10 minutes. It’s music that wants earplugs, and maybe for you to sit down on the floor at Kings, where New Madrid plays the middle slot (between TEEN and locals Blanko Basnet) on Thursday night, so you can let all the drums and bass rumble all the way up into that spot underneath your chest.

Or maybe it makes you want to shake your ass, like “Manners” (catch it streaming on Pitchfork here), one of the only two tracks on the record under four minutes. “Manners” grooves and sputters along, and “Forest Gum” bores itself into your brain with a delicious chorus and some well-placed hand-claps. “Dead Legs” swims with pedal steel and vocals that nearly disappear under the layers of sound; “Find My Blood” flips the equation with a leading chorus and heartbreaking verses over muted, chorused acoustic guitars.

The record closes with two tracks both over 11 minutes, “Homesick” and “And She Smiles”, that amble through heartbreak and regret in something that’s almost symphonic. They’re big songs, with big ideas, and they both swell and recede like the tides; clean vocals that fade into droning guitars and back out, a shiver in the vocals and a shudder in the drumming. Ob. Sessed.

Like I said, New Madrid has the middle spot at Kings in Raleigh on 3/6, between locals Blanko Basnet and headliners TEEN. Tickets $8, doors 8pm, show 8:30pm. I recommend it highly.

preview: j roddy walston & the business @ kings

j. roddy walston & the business @ the double door

J. Roddy Walston & the Business rock. Sometimes that’s a cliche, and sometimes it’s the only way to describe what a band does. This band, fronted by the volatile and captivating Walston, rocks, and rocks hard. I had the pleasure of seeing them back in September in Chicago, and they had an incredibly diverse crowd — everyone from soccer moms to hipster girls to baseball capped bros — in the palms of their hands from the first chord. Walston writes hook-filled piano pop songs that the band backs with intense guitar lines and one of the best rhythm sections around, which turns simple choruses into dance-along, shout-along barnburners. I’ve only seen them three times since Ash introduced me to the band five years ago, but I can still firmly say that they’re one of the best live experiences out there.

J. Roddy & the Business are touring in support of a new record right now; Essential Tremors , which was released on ATO back on 9/10. In Chicago, I saw them at the beginning of the tour, and I was still pretty unfamiliar with the new songs. Now, I’ve spent a weekend listening to pretty much nothing but this new record, and I am damn excited for their show at Kings tomorrow night. Essential Tremors take the sounds that Walston and his band have been building through their live shows and previous self-titled LP, high volume guitars and repetitively yelped vocals from Walston himself, but even from album opener “Heavy Bells”, it’s obvious that the band is expanding their sound, with the over-fuzzed chorus nearly drowning out a vocal line that’s pushed to the breaking point anyway. It rumbles through a scene-setting instrumental break into Walston wailing the title over and over again, and then with a brief pause for a pealing guitar line, Essential Tremors morphs straight into the delicious piano grunge sleaze that I have come to expect and love from the Business.

There’s nothing complex about the songs on this record, or particular word play in the lyrics; that’s not what makes Essential Tremors and J. Roddy & the Business so great. These songs are simple, straightforward, and they simply, straightforwardly drive you to drink and dance and wave your hands in the air. They’re also thoughtful and real, like the slow-downed “Boys Can Never Tell”, which is part confessional and all full of J. Roddy’s wild and heartbreaking rasping vocals. Walston has said that this record is more open — the title is taken from a medical condition that he suffers from — and the quiet fuzzed out beauty of that track says all you need to say about the band’s ability to rock something intimate and clever and sad. Essential Tremors finishes up with the hooky, oooh-oooh backing vocals filled “Same Days”, the deliciously ragged piano-heavy “Tear Jerk”, and the soul-infused “Midnight Cry”, a record that draws each song from a different place in musical history, and fuses all those styles into a journey that’s personal and simple all at once. It’s a great record, thoughtful in its uncomplexity, and there’s nothing else in the world like watching J. Roddy about half thrash his keyboard to death while he wails those songs out live.

I don’t often get to see touring bands more than once in a year; that I am doing so for J. Roddy & the Business should tell you just how good they are live.

J. Roddy Walston & the Business play Kings Barcade in Raleigh tomorrow, 10/29. Door 8pm, show 8:30, Reignwolf opens, and day-of tickets are $15. Be there or be un-rocked.

rock the cape: southern culture on the skids

holden beach, nc, march 2013

I kind of feel like I’m getting an education in Triangle music history this year; back in the winter, I saw alt country pioneers the Backsliders for the first time, and even though Southern Culture on the Skids have been playing their surfabilly punk since 1983, their latest LP Zombified is the first time I’ve dug into their music. And I’m enjoying it a hell out of a lot, which is why it’s a bummer to me that I can’t be heading out to the Outer Banks for the Dare Arts Council’s Rock The Cape today. (We’re heading to DC to see Fall Out Boy instead. It’s a thing.)

SCOTS, as they’re better known, are headlining the first Rock The Cape, a fundraiser featuring local musicians and artists, to help local musicians and artists. Parts of the proceeds will go to the Community Music School, which provides music lessons to kids who live on the Outer Banks. I can’t think of a better band to play this event, because from the first moment of Zombified, SCOTS made me want to run away to the beach. It’s happy, clever summer music, made for dancing on beaches at sunset and sitting on front porches drinking your cold drink of choice.

Stream the title track below, and take a trip down to the Outer Banks tomorrow, maybe, if you’re looking for somewhere to be other than work. Rock The Cape starts at 2pm, and you’ll be there in plenty of time to hear SCOTS, in fact, rock the cape.

festival preview / interview: phuzz phest

spider bags @ local 506

I have a lot of long-running jokes about Winston-Salem, and I have to be honest: most of them aren’t particularly nice. Most of them do involve the notion of time travel and how if we could harness the vortex of six thousand miles from nowhere that Winston seems to exist in, we could actually build a TARDIS, so there’s that, but still, I don’t go to Winston-Salem very often, and I don’t bother looking to see if I would even want to go to Winston, which is selfish and stuck-up, really. So I’m grateful to Philip Pledger, who fronts Winston band Estrangers, for putting together this hot little festival to showcase his city and its bands — along with plenty of other NC bands, and national bands with connections to NC — because it forces me to work outside my safe little Chapel Hill-Carrboro-Saxapahaw box. (Saxapahaw is as far from my bed as I like to go. What? My bed is awesome. I have a million pillows.)

Check out the Phuzz Phest schedule here.

Philip was kind enough to answer a few questions for me in advance of the festival; on Winston-Salem, the bands he’s invited, and the new single from Estrangers.

What inspired you to start a music festival in Winston-Salem?

It came about somewhat organically; the first year happened because Anthony Petrovic (of Burglar F*cker) & I had coincidentally booked shows 4 days in a row, and figured it would be easier to promote the shows as a whole under the umbrella of a “festival,” than it would to promote 4 individual shows. The shows were surprisingly well-attended and well-received, so that was the impetus to do a proper “Phuzz Phest” and plan a more intentional music festival here.

As someone who doesn’t like to leave Chapel Hill, I don’t know W-S very well. What are some neat things about your city those of us who don’t visit often should know about?

Winston-Salem can be a really cool place if you know where to look. It may seem un-rock-n-roll, but if you’re coming from out of town you should take a tour of Old Salem, and eat a meal/get a drink at Salem Tavern. Aside from that there are plenty of other incredibly good restaurants and bars in downtown Winston… ask a townie for a recommendation. You should also check out Reanimator, a rad new store behind Krankies that has a great selection of new/used vinyl, video games, music gear, books and other stuff.

Why the focus on North Carolina bands? How did you curate the lineup?

A big part of the lineup comes due to logistics, Winston-Salem is in a good spot as it’s within a couple hours driving distance from most of NC’s major cities. Conveniently, North Carolina has an overwhelming number of great bands, so it’s not hard to put together a strong lineup that’s heavy on our state’s talent pool. With that as the base, we basically just try to get the best talent from across the east coast within our budget and see what happens. Hopefully we can continue to grow and expand the scope of the festival in coming years.

Anyone you’re really sad ISN’T playing PP this year?

The War On Drugs. Any of the great bands from the San Francisco garage-rock scene… Thee Oh Sees, White Fence, Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin. We briefly talked with How To Dress Well’s agent, which would have been fun. Chromatics would be sick.

And, I know you’re not supposed to play favorites, but who are you most looking forward to seeing play?

Mount Moriah, Eternal Summers, Spider Bags, William Tyler, Toddlers. I’ll also probably never get tired of seeing Airstrip.

You play in Winston-Salem band Estrangers. Close us up by sharing  your favorite track by your band.

We recorded our new full-length this past January at Winston’s best kept secret, ¡El Guapo! Recorders, an incredible analog studio on the south side. We mixed the album ourselves (with our keyboardist David-Todd Murray doing most of the real work), and our new material is my favorite since the band started. Shuffle Magazine debuted the first track from the new album, it’s called “Love’s Pure Light” and streaming/free for download.

show preview: dragonette @ cat’s cradle

the tender fruit @ the cradle

Things I love: bands from Canada, electro-pop, ladies making kickass music. Here are some things that Dragonette is: a kick-ass female-fronted electro-pop band from Canada. They’re currently touring with Major Lazer, a sold-out show at the Cradle on Thursday, and I’m going to implore you to get there early enough to see Dragonette, because I think you’ll fall hard for them. They released their third studio record, Bodyparts, last year to a whole bunch of acclaim and a Juno Award, and while I know that you’re all heading to the Cradle to shake it to Major Lazer, be ready to shake it a whole set earlier when Dragonette hits the stage.

Stream two tracks below, and check out this great interview from last fall, when the band played a sold out show in Los Angeles at El Ray.