Secret Stages Was Just Great
I’ve had a week to cool down from Secret Stages and process what happened. I loved every minute of it, without a doubt. Earlier I said that there’s something for everyone. That’s true. Hip hop, country, electronic, every kingdom, phylum, and genus of rock, etc. The locals brought their A-game. Newcomers were well-received. Parking was surprisingly easy. That was unexpected.
Even with City Fest in Railroad Park only a few blocks away, attendance was high. The cozier venues like Pale Eddie’s were shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m pretty sure Rogue Tavern maintained a full house both nights.
On Friday night, I made a point to see The Burning Peppermints. I’d been listening to their recordings and had to see how that translated live. I wasn’t prepared.
The Burning Peppermints played in Easy Street, a narrow space next to Matthew’s M-Lounge on 1st Avenue. The audience was impressive for early in the evening, but I made my way to the front. There, I was met with a firing squad of volume. The band was playing wide open. Distorted guitars, a synth device, two drum kits. I counted- they had two drummers and they were amazingly in-sync. The tiny space scrambled a good bit of their sound at first, guitars bouncing off the walls and crashing into themselves.
Tones evened out quickly, though, and when lead singer Jake Wittig piped up, it was clear enough. I still had no hope of understanding lyrics, but we were having a blast in the alley-sized arena. It was the sound you could feel. Not in a romantic sense- they were really moving some air. Weaponized bass rattled my jaw and shook the ground.
It was fun, wild garage rock. They went nuts towards the end. The Peppermints broke out one of their crowd pleasers- the frantic “Ned Schneebly.” When the breakdown hit, the bottom fell out. Whirling dervishes made their way to the front to whip and dance. Crazy hair everywhere. The band sent streamers flying out over the audience, set off confetti poppers. I swear, at one point, somebody just started making out. Confetti falling all around. All spurred on by this unrelenting wave of sound. I was beside myself and neither of us could handle it.
After that experience, I crossed the street into the Parthenon to decompress at the VIP Lounge. It was a good spread- free pasta, free fajitas, free Good People brown and pale. Free liquor and wine (only white this year). Complimentary cocktails by The Collins’ mixing masters. Most importantly- free water. There were musicians milling around, relaxing a bit before their show. Industry folks were also present- label reps, management, and press. The whole savanna at the watering hole.
I caught a few songs of Bear Medicine at M-Lounge. Slightly cynical psych folk from Lexington KY. We have folk in abundance around here, but it was fun to hear their take. They threw some flute into the mix. Bass came via cello.
I dipped downstairs to Matthew’s to check out the Lobotomix stage. Birmingham’s Jazz’Mine made a brief cameo, singing one song between sets. No guitar this time, but awesome as always.
The double-drum technique returned to Easy Street with …and the lawyers. The Montgomery act experiments with the mad science of music. Feedback like crazy. Forget fretted notes, this was a mating call between two desperate bullhorns. Back in that narrow space, we witnessed the full-volume deconstruction of a song, parts and pieces scattered everywhere. With sadistically high gain, it was like performing heart surgery with the patient conscious and hyped on Red Bull.
Frontman Jason Fifi’s guitar had a great deal of squeal, a bit much for the acoustics to accommodate. It was all part of the act, though. He didn’t shrug off feedback, he rejoiced in it. It can’t be overlooked that Fifi is classically trained, however. He can manipulate strings with his fingers just like any other guitarist, but that’s been done.
I think I saw Duquette Johnston performing a secret set in the VIP room, playing one of his sweet, sad songs. The Parthenon hosted several secret acts each night, a treat for those dropping in for a bite.
The VIP ticketholders didn’t have a monopoly on the surprise acts, though. Secret sets popped up throughout the festival. Birmingham’s Future Elevators made an unannounced appearance at Rogue Tavern Friday night. That’s right after playing at the Southbound Music Fest just a week prior. They’ll have a new digital single coming out in September, definitely worth a listen. No doubt they made a few fans that night. A line of listeners approached the merch table to ask “What band is this?”
The straight shot between the door and the stage at Pale Eddie’s fills up quickly. When Atlanta’s Waking Astronomer began, the place was packed. The three-piece pairs electronic elements with live drums, a welcome combination. Vocals were delivered by Afua Richardson, clad in black with an LED halo over her head. It’s hard to pin their sound. Experimental is a start. The jazz/electronic mix reminds me slightly of The Courtney John Project, an ambitiously experimental group out of Kingston, Jamaica.
Friday night starts to grow dim around then, but the memories are all good, like the parachute stretching across the crowd at Matthew’s, or the aerosol scent of folk art on 2nd Avenue.
Saturday kicked off with a return performance by The Burning Peppermints. They played in the parking lot between Rogue Tavern and Pale Eddie’s, and the acoustics served them well. They played with the same gusto as last night. A good old time. Streamers in the air again. Dancing up front. Wittig entered the crowd and wrapped up some fans in his input cable. You can tell these guys were putting in 110% and loving it.
The Parthenon hosted a genuine country act from Arkansas. Bonnie Montgomery’s outfit included a well-worn acoustic, cello, and twangy electric. Miles away from current radio country trends, it had a good bit of bounce. Clever lyrics to boot.
Baltimore’s Raindeer packed Easy Street to the pool tables with their pleasant indie pop. Next door at M-Lounge, the electronic ensemble Precubed held fast to their keyboards. Three synths, drums, guitar. If a Gameboy joined a jam band.
Below at Matthew’s, Stay Tuned rolled in from Denver. Their set was emotionally charged and socially conscious. They played to a slim crowd at first, but folks trickled in as the show went on.
Heading back upstairs, I found a real spectacle on the CW21 stage. Atlanta’s Dot.s featured an interesting mix of musical elements. The broad instrumental range included synth and trumpet. Together with soft, high vocals, it came across with an MGMT vibe. It all went together like a good indie ensemble should. Sure, but the real treat here was the frontman’s stage presence. He’d gesture and dance, part Talking Heads, part really excited Kermit the Frog.
The Sheiks were fun. Das Haus kindly put up a black curtain to hide the Alps and lederhosen painted on the stage background. The Memphis three-piece brought the bare bones of garage rock to 2nd Avenue- crunchy guitar, rattling bass, and angry drums. Deep stoner-rock riffs quickly transitioned into surf-ish rhythms, keeping the tempo up for most of their set.
Back at Easy Street, Muuy Biien sweated it out in what must have been the night’s purest punk offering. No pretense here, but an angsty-earnest performance. In 2015, it harkened back to days of permanently-perturbed youth dipping their hair in paint. Forget the dye, cut it out. Why did people do that? We had hair dye in the ‘90s, right? Try to get that ombré blend with a bucket of Sherwin-Williams.
Matthew’s was packed by the time Mega Ran hit the Lobotomix stage. The Philadelphia-to-Phoenix MC has devised a charming combination of hip hop and chip tune samples, dubbed chip hop. Megan Ran charmed the audience with stories, jokes, and heaps of charisma. His 8-bit tracks were upbeat and uplifting, like your old Nintendo was trying to teach you valuable life lessons through the power of rhythm. He had a grip on audience participation, with call and response bits and a freestyle run performed off-stage amongst the fans. At the end of his set, Megan Ran posed for a big group selfie.
It was fun. Secret Stages is the most diverse two nights of music to be found in Birmingham. We’re catching serious talent right as their career begins to accelerate. They were all excited to be there and that energy was obvious on stage.
Photos by Tom Little and Cody Smith.