Sloss Music & Arts Festival: Day 1
Music journalist J Matthew Cobb lays down the good and bad notes of one of the newest, buzziest music festivals in the South
For its inaugural year, the Sloss Music and Arts Festival (named after its historic campgrounds) kicked off as if it it had been invented for sometime. The bold lay out, expanding on Sloss’s very own parking lot with two stages parked on both ends, was truly staggering. It appeared more organized and polished than any music festival parked inside Birmingham’s city limits. VIP booths were planted perfectly, so were the Steel City Pops carts providing juicy relief to be those looking for a quick fix. Beneath the overhead bridge of the First Avenue North viaduct rested the gargantuan main entrance, giving off amusement park splendor. Once in, a row of festival-friendly setups teased with organization filled the view, from nab-and-grab art shops to an artsy ten foot tall Jolly Lama art piece a free water station. More art exhibits were planted near the steam works area, and there was plenty good reason to go back that way. A Piggly Wiggly-sponsored craft beer section and a few food trucks were nearby, giving Sloss a little rustic homegrown flavor. The Shed Stage, the premiere destination for any underground rhythmic, was also nearby. And thanks to its tilted slope, everyone had a decent view of the entertainment at that stage.
There were a few things to gripe about: long lines for water, the blazing sauna heat from the Shed (causing most acts booked there to blurt out obscenities), lack of light, diversity issues, high ticket prices, absences of stage monitors. But it still proved to be a good year for the infant festival. And although it was scorching hot and the threat of incoming thunderstorms were announced, none of it discouraged music lovers to abandon ship. By the way, the festival grounds hardly saw a drop of rain. So kudos to the Big G in the sky for not peeing on us.
Don’t believe the hype. While checking my timeline full of Sloss worship, I realized much of the posts centered around Modest Mouse. And I get it. They have a song that everybody knows. Even the average hipster’s momma knows it. But Big Gigantic was really the stars of opening night. The two-piece electronic band sweated it out underneath Sloss’s recognizable pavilion with a set that was free-flowing with bad ass EDM-meets-jazz instrumentals. Its frontman, jumping on sax throughout each song while messing around with his laptop, talked back to the oversized crowd with glowing adulation, probably most grateful to see the entire shed packed with dancing machines. “WHAT’S UP SLOSS FEST,” Dominic Lalli shouted to the audience. “We’re glad to be back in Birmingham.”
The set, stacked with live drums from Jeremy Salken, showed off their synth-heavy repertoire (“It’s Goin Down,” “Get On Up”) while also opening up to clever old school jams (DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A”). I promise you every soul at that stage was dancing to the beat, or were clearly mesmerized by the super-futuristic lasers being beamed to the crowd from the LED screens. When they whipped out “Sky High,” the crowd roared back with approval as they gleamed over the glowing cannabis on the screens, also gyrating to the funky rhythm.
If the Stones had a younger brother, Cage the Elephant would be it. Frontman Matthew Shultz strutted across the stage using Mick Jagger animation. He was loose, even combustible and hammered his solos with a headliner’s appetite. Cage the Elephant is one of the go-to acts most top-tier festivals pick up, even in years when a new album isn’t on the shelf. And it makes sense: they cover The Strokes-styled jams, punk, trippy rock and a dash of bluesy alt-rock all rolled up into one performance. The band, still relatively young, soared through their small, but impactful collection with rollicking takeouts of “Take It or Leave It,” “Come a Little Closer” and “Aberdeen.” Even The dreamy “Cigarette Daydreams” conjured a heavenly sing a long. An extra bonus: they whipped out an Alanis Morissette cover. By the time they jumped into “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” a Beastie Boys track meshed in Delta blues, the entire crowd had ascended into rock heaven.
Due to the heat and all that adrenaline, Shultz tossed his shirt to the side, acting as an erratic Magic Mike. And the crowd loved every minute of it.
When Shultz asked the crowd “If I told you I loved you all, would you believe me?,” the mighty crowd of thousands chimed back at him with a resounding yes. “Well I love you,” he replied. That bit of strange first encounter love, still bubbling in its infancy, created one of the most magical lines of the night.
Wished I stayed around to hear “Shake Me Down.” That one line “Even on a cloudy day, I’ll keep my eyes fixed on the sun” is literally rock gold. But a bro had to rush to another stage.
Another poignant memo echoed from Shultz: “Sloss is boss.” Has a definite ring to it, even if it’s not exactly true.
I was deeply impressed with Lord Huron. It’s frontman — Ben Schneider — is a Southern-seasoned looker, blessed with modelesque features. Along with an outer appearance that smells like Nashville, the band plays with an unexpected diversity of music, as he provided an delicious spread possessing New Wave and Americana. The music from his set, scheduled in mid-afternoon, provided the prefect backdrop to a cloudy, but powerfully sunny day. The tease of a cool breeze only intensified the glory of the occasion.
And so was Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas. She sounded like Duffy backed by St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ horn section. Her song are a bit sporadic for pop, but in due time she will find her place in the big leagues.
There was something magical missing from Modest Mouse set. As the very closing act (and Saturday headliner), there was something obviously lacking about their set. With a decades worth of material on their backs, they weren’t short of songs to perform.
As if they were playing to the euphoria most known for Grateful Dead jam parties, their stage presence appeared lifeless. The back talk was still and dry. The mic feedback was irritating. The endless instrument problems caused long pauses in between songs. We did get some “apologizes” from lead singer Isaac Brock, but it wasn’t enough. Especially as he dipped into a disparaging realm of dark comedy that didn’t connect. “Why are you all still here?,” he asked the crowd midway into his set. Maybe because they are high or drunk to leave. That’s why.
Immediately after they revved into “Float On,” the crowd did manage to slack off as those in the back rows of the crowd made their way to the exits.
There was no encore. And judging from the unenthusiastic crowd, save for a few stoners, it probably was best.
New Yorker Gabriel Garzón-Montano expressed early on a little uppityness on the Bama crowd as he warned the crowd that this was his first visit to Birmingham. Probably perturbed that he had an average 200 listeners congregated at the stage, Garzon-Montano came off as a little ungrateful. His music, mixed with Stevie Wonder off-kilter soul and urban swag, was much better than his lack of appreciation. “Everything Is Everything” sounded like Bill Withers on D’Angelo funk, proving to be a decent opener. If only the attitude was a bit more rousing. Hey, we know it’s hot as hell, and only 200 people are here, but be ye thankful. This is our first festival. You’re a part of history.
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