Here we go again. I made my inaugural trip to Des Moines, IA’s 80/35 Festival last year and had one hell of a time despite not knowing a large portion of bands on the schedule and the constant rain of Day 2. If this festival taught me anything in that first year, it’s that headliners do not make a festival. Sure, Spoon and Modest Mouse put on great sets, but the best moments came from bands like The Walkmen coming to life in a downpour and William Elliott Whitmore delivering a phenomenal set to a de facto hometown show. 2011’s lineup elicited a similar response from me at first, but the good faith the festival had earned from the previous year brought me back for round two.
Day 1 - July 2nd, 2011
“It’s just so goddamned hot...” - Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
For those not in the know, it gets hot in Iowa summers. Places like Phoenix and Las Vegas situated on or near deserts may technically get hotter, but there’s no humidity to amplify the misery. Day 1 of 2011’s 80/35 featured an eventual temperature of 95 degrees, magnified to a heat index of 110+ degrees. While that peak wasn’t reached until later in the day, the oppressive nature of the day’s weather was immediately apparent and omnipresent. It’s because of this I feel I must applaud the festival and the Des Moines Water Works for providing free water bottles and many free fill-up stations situated in both the free areas as well as the paid area. During a quick fill-up, I managed to catch the very tail end of a Battle of the Bands winner The Chatty Cathys, which featured the first of many stage dives over the course of the weekend. A quick perusal of the grounds yielded an insanely hilarious interview with Titus Andronicus outside the main gate, as well as a smoked turkey leg to accompany me to the main stage for my first set of the day.
Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band
I had no clue on what to expect out of the good Reverend, but I made the foolish assumption of the band being damn big. To my surprise, the group consists solely of a guitarist, a washboardist, and a drummer, but no more was needed - The Reverend J. Peyton is one of the most accomplished guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. He’s seemingly mastered the incredibly difficult art of finger-picking blues guitar, playing rhythm, lead, and bass guitar lines simultaneously. A small but enthusiastic crowd was assembled during the wait before the band went on stage, and they were kept dancing the entire time. Peyton’s deft work on the steel-stringed resonator and charismatic stage banter continually brought in more and more listeners until a very responsive and respectably sized crowd had gathered. Peyton’s set focused largely on material from The Whole Fam Damnily and his upcoming tribute album to Delta Blues legend Charlie Patton, but also made for his shit-kicking fan favorites like “Two Bottles of Wine” and “Your Cousin’s on Cops”. By the time the band had drop-kicked the drums and smashed a flaming washboard on stage, I had been completely won over by this incredibly talented steel shredder and his big, booming voice.
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re stunt’n on the JumboTron” - Patrick Stickles
I’ve made no secret of my love for Titus Andronicus and their 2010 magnum opus The Monitor. This set was largely the reason I attended 80/35 this year, and I was not let down in the least. The band’s boundless energy was not daunted in the least by the continually rising temperature, and neither was the crowd’s. A dedicated core of fans crowded the front of the stage from the moment the band ripped into “A More Perfect Union”, and when lead man Patrick Stickles vaulted into the front of the crowd for some audience help on “Titus Andronicus”’s chorus of “YOUR LIFE IS OVER!”, the rest of the crowd followed suit. From there on out, the band had the crowd eating out of their hands. Stickles pushed himself past the brink of exhaustion time and time again, daring the crowd to match his energy. The set also found guitarist Amy Klein breaking the seal on ladies rocking the main stage for the weekend with her huge guitar work during songs like “The Battle of Hampton Roads” as well as her violin work during “Four Score and Seven”. By the time the band closed with “...and Ever”, the band (and crowd) was drenched in sweat and drained of every possible ounce of energy. Titus Andronicus set the bar incredibly high for the rest of the festival, and at the time, I thought no band would surpass the unbelievable boot in the ass these guys set forth. Surprisingly, time would prove me wrong.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
I’ve got a nasty history of missing out on surprisingly large bands until far past the initial pop. LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, and now Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have joined that shameful list. Only in the past few weeks have I come around on Up From Below, but I’m glad I did. The band’s throwback to the summer of love vibe fit perfectly with the festival atmosphere as well as the blistering heat from a sun that had finally reached its apex. Alex Ebert and the rest of the group seem to be unlikely stars in the music world, not really knowing how to approach a featured spot in front of such a crowd as large as the one that gathered to see the band’s set. The band ambled onto stage to a huge pop from the crowd, all while taking their sweet time getting settled before launching into “Janglin’” for its opener. The band proceeded to hit almost all of the high water marks from Up From Below, including the title track, “40 Day Dream”, “Om Nashi Me”, “Carries On”, and of course, “Home”. The band’s carefree attitude towards the set was at times aggravating, usually in between songs as Ebert called for requests from the crowd, but it also led to some wonderful, unexpected moments. Such occurrences included Ebert’s trip into the crowd during “Up From Below”, an unrehearsed cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and yet another trip into the crowd for several audience stories during the spoken-word interlude in “Home”. The good parts of this set were truly great and felt like the band was connecting to everyone in the crowd on a personal level, but those wandering moments where the band seemed to not know what to do next made the good parts all the more frustrating. Still, it’s incredibly hard not to smile or completely buy into the band’s semi-mystical juju when they hit that sweet spot, and all of that would be completely ruined by a more business-like approach.
The Poison Control Center
I’ve seen The Poison Control Center countless times in the past year, and yet, I never get tired of seeing the band live. Judging by the size of the crowd the band drew to the Independence Stage, neither has anyone else. I’ve seen these guys play in front of hundreds of people, and I’ve seen them play to about 20 people, but never have I seen such a large and energetic throng of people gather for the band. The band focused heavily on their recent LP Stranger Ballet, but you’d never know it was new judging by the crowd reaction. The band owned the absolutely rabid crowd from the moment the band opened with “Some Ordinary Vision” and never let up. New tracks like “Torpedoes on Tuesday” and “Thousand Colors” got the same reactions that long time favorites like “Magic Circle Symphony” and “Give It A Try” always get, proving this was a dedicated hometown crowd that takes these guys as seriously as can be. All of the usual craziness that ensues during a PCC show was evident, from Devin Frank’s upside down guitar solos to Patrick Tape Fleming’s full splits and guitar playing from on top of the crowd, to the rarely seen Rhino Lift which involves Fleming lifting Frank on his shoulders IN MID-SONG to finish off the crowd. These guys got quite possibly the largest reaction from any of crowds gathered for any bands over the course of the weekend, and they earned it. It’s not easy to do these things in front of a potentially ambivalent group of people gathered for a free stage, not to mention doing so with almost entirely brand new songs. With their set at 80/35, The Poison Control Center owned all of Iowa for a very brief moment, and sent the fans off to their next destination with buzzing ears and a permanent grin.
BONUS VIDEO: The Poison Control Center - "Thousand Colors" - LIVE!
I had anticipated catching part of Blackalicious’s set on another side-stage, but a blown generator slowed the other side stage to a grinding halt and left me with no choice to stake out a position for the first night’s headliner, Girl Talk. I’ve become a fan of Greg Gillis’s albums like many of you, but I felt quite hesitant during the wait for the grand finale of night one. I had no clue if this would merely be a retread of his albums over a deafening sound system highlighted by scads of dancers and toilet paper guns, or something else - and luckily, it was something else. Gillis entered the stage to a huge roar from the crowd and jumped right into “Once Again” from Night Ripper. My apprehension built, but I worried for nothing. Almost immediately, Gillis earned his paycheck by quite nearly all of his 90-minute set playing new music....or at least new to us. Many times the crowd would hear the beginning of a sample they recognized from one of the albums, only to be fooled with a complete recontextualization of the sample over something entirely new. It’s a testament to the man’s talent that he’s able to make so many people dance AND pay attention to the music simultaneously, and it paid off in spades. Very rarely did the party let up, and those instances were used to pump the crowd up via Gillis’s hype men, punctuating high points of the show with confetti cannons and other party-enhancing stage gimmicks. It’s an intoxicating feeling being immersed in a crowd that is entirely overjoyed to be there, and Girl Talk’s charms even got me and my usually steely demeanor dancing like a fool (though the free samples of plum-flavored Pearl vodka no doubt played their part). By the time the final cannonade of confetti rained down over the crowd, several thousand people had worked themselves into a sweaty lather. The concert-goers left to diffuse across downtown Des Moines for the after-parties peppering the landscape and the clean-up crew with the monumental task of preparing the grounds for day two.
Day Two - July 3rd, 2011
“ALL OF YOU, UP! EVEN YOU BASTARDS IN THE BACK THAT DON’T CARE!” - Will Sheff of Okkervil River
A mild hangover, overcast skies, and some sick bastard setting the hotel alarm clock for 6 AM set a slightly irritating tone for the second day. Early forecasts threatened rain (much like day two of 2010), but the weather gods gave us a pass and spared us from the belligerent heat of day one. It may have taken three hours of raiding a breakfast buffet and about eight cups of coffee to get me going, but movement was eventually acheived, and day two began in earnest at 12 PM.
By the looks of the sparse crowd assembled for day two’s Battle of the Band winner Rebel Creek, I wasn’t the only person leached of all energy. It’s rough playing that early in the day, but Rebel Creek took to the largest stage they’ve almost certainly ever played with aplomb. I’d not heard of the band before, but they brought their bluesy riff-rock to life with an level of energy one would expect with their fairly young ages. The band didn’t do anything terribly innovative or original with their set, but they performed admirably in what was almost certainly the least desirable time slot of the weekend. There’s tremendous amounts of raw talent in this band (as evidenced by the truly awesome guitar solos in nearly every song), and if they can harness that talent, the future will be bright for Rebel Creek.
The first (and only) main stage hip-hop came from recent Slim Shady Records signee Yelawolf. Out of all genres, I’m almost certainly least familiar with rap, but I like to think I can recognize talented artist when I see them even if I’m not a fan, and Yelawolf fits squarely into that designation. A larger (and icnreasingly hungover) crowd began to assemble for Yelawolf despite brief spurts of rain, and over time, Yela won the crowd over through sheer force of will. He raps at incredible speeds and really knows how to get the crowd worked up, even when he dovetails into the more boring stereotypes of modern rap music. He’s yet to release a studio album, but that didn’t stop the crowd from reveling in song after song after song. His nasally drone isn’t really up my alley, but if you’re a fan of Eminem, chances are you’ll like Yelawolf.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
By the time the sprawling funk/rock outfit Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe hit the main stage, I was struggling to stay awake. Denson’s got a lengthy pedigree to justify his inclusion in the middle of the lineup, but he just didn’t seem to fit into the lineup. Perhaps it was the still-sparse crowd assembled for his set, perhaps it was the improvisation-heavy style of music, or perhaps my brain wasn’t quite yet functioning at full capacity, but Karl Denson just did not do much for me. Denson and the band played very difficult music very admirably, but after three or four songs, the set turned into a giant blur for me. My interest was piqued when the band lurched into an incredibly guitar-heavy semi-metal tune towards the end of the band’s set, but I can only take so much wailling on the saxophone for so long before my mind wanders off. If you’re a bigger fan of hard funk than I, you’d probably enjoy Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe far more than I.
While I could find individual things to like about each of the acts that had played the main stage on day two, none of them had truly engaged me in the same way Reverend Peyton or Titus Andronicus had on the first day. By this point in time, I was beginning to fear that I had fallen prey to a bleary-eyed, coffee-induced psychosis and would be unable to enjoy anything. Thankfully, Okkervil River came to the main stage as the sun crested in the sky and provided the jolt that the crowd needed to get moving for the rest of the second day. Lead singer Will Sheff proved immediately up to the task of rousing the flagging energy with the opening strains of “Rider” from this year’s I Am Very Far and ran with the set from there. Sheff proved to be one of the most active and manic presences of the weekend, in stark contrast to the angsty folk-rock singer I had come to expect after repeated listens of Black Sheep Boy. Okkervil River seemed to have anticipated this lull in the festival, as they chose to stick largely to the more uptempo tracks in their library, with new tracks like “The Valley” and “Piratess” as well as older tracks like “Westfall” and festival/Black Sheep Boy highlight “Black”. The rest of the crew played the role of Eye of the Storm to Hurricane Sheff as he flailed from one side of the stage to the other, leaving the band to match his energy through the music. I got the feeling that most of the crowd was unfamiliar with the band’s work, but that did not stop the infectious enthusiasm on stage from permeating everyone within eyesight. The energy reached a fever pitch during set closer “Unless It’s Kicks”, with the band stretching the tune well past its original running time while a wild-eyed Will Sheff expended every last bit of his charms and energy in an attempt to get as many people involved as he possibly could. I never quite understood the fervent devotion some feel to Okkervil River in the past, but having witnessed their live performance, I feel I can safely say I do now.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals filling a direct support slot on the main stage was one of the more baffling parts of scheduling this year. Not to take away anything from the band, but I had never heard anything by her, nor had I heard of any mainstream success coming her way. 80/35’s now got two years of proving my misconceptions completely unfounded, and no other had act has proven that more than Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Many times, listeners of rock or some of the harder genres backslide into thinking that chicks simply can’t rock. We’ll occasionally see a Paz Lenchantin or D’Arcy Wretzky break through into the public consciousness, but only a handful of times in rock history has there been a woman that embodies that pure rock and roll spirit like so many of their male counterparts. Regardless of whether or not I am correct in that statement, Sunday’s performance by Grace Potter ensures that she’ll be included my personal annals of rock and roll badasses. Her backing band The Nocturnals hit hard and hit often with a punchy stew of rootsy and bluesy rock, but it only takes a moment to understand why Potter gets top billing in the group. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes of the woman from the moment she arrives on stage. You first notice the fact that she’s a preposterously beautiful woman, taking care to never resort to cheap tactics to ooze sexuality, but the truly impressive aspect is her musical ability. She’s got a voice that can coast from a sultry tenor to a glass-shattering shriek at the drop of a hat. She’s got the ability to use a guitar as more than a prop to increase credibility, frequently joining in with The Nocturnals as an additional rhythm guitarist. She’s got the classically trained chops to rock almost any form of keyboard put in front of her. Most importantly, she’s got the ability to work a crowd into a mush like dime-store silly putty. The women in the crowd immediately took to her message, dancing and singing along to the words while the men had no choice but to rock along to the nasty guitar solos and huge classic rock hooks. Potter may have easily taken the award for “Biggest Surprise of the Weekend”, but without a class-act backing band like The Nocturnals, all of her histrionics on stage would have been for naught. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals worked the crowd into a frenzy and surely made an impression on anyone who caught their set, and they didn’t need to resort to any cheap gimmicks or passing fads to do so. They offered straight up rock and roll music done to near-perfection, and, along with Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus, proved that women are just as capable at melting faces as men.
of Montreal has one of those shows that can’t help but cultivate an air of mystique. One day you’ll hear tales of Kevin Barnes performing a large portion of the set completely nude, and on the next there may be stories of him riding a horse onto stage. The only thing I knew to expect going into the final set of the weekend was the unexpected. Normally I scoff at such an idea - if you can expect something, it’s not unexpected - but of Montreal managed to be the first set I’ve ever seen to have built such wild expectations and completely go above and beyond anything I’ve seen. Throughout the course of the set, the incredibly excited crowd bore witness to a full-fledged luchador wrestling tournament, Kevin Barnes entering the stage on some sort of segmented cock/nipple monster, two pig-men fighting a giant fiddler crab, and a band outfits that would make Parliament/Funkadelic green with envy. Everything about of Montreal’s set was designed to fit the feel of the band’s recent work, going bigger and crazier with each passing moment. The band threw off the crowd a bit by opening with “L’Age D’or” from the recent thecontrollersphere EP, but crowd favorite “Suffer For Fashion” immediately followed and uncorked the repressed energy of the crowd. The band kept the crowd dancing for its entire ninety-minute set, occasionally bringing in bassist Davey Pierce and his side project Yip Deceiver to keep energy high while Barnes and the rest of the dancers changed into whatever bizarre iteration of the band was coming out next. The set largely featured songs from False Priest and Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, but the band also found time to work in old classics like “Wraith Pinned to the Mist (and Other Games)”. By the time the band wound down their set with set closer “She’s a Rejector”, we in the crowd had seen several unimaginable things on stage, some silly (the pig/crab fight) and some that openly encouraged deviant sexual behavior in the crowd (inflatable breasts, anyone?), but everything was done with a purpose. Every time I felt the band had nothing else with which to surprise me, something came out of the woodwork to keep me from figuring the band out. Occasionally it would some sort of shocking stage antic, but none of that would have been worth it had Barnes and the touring version of of Montreal not been so damned tight. There’s a lot going on in Barnes’ take on porno-funk, but the band proved more than capable of bringing these songs to life in a live setting. By the time the band closed with a hoedown to a medley of “America” and “Turkey in the Straw” followed by massive amounts of stage-diving, I had finally seen everything. of Montreal is certainly a bizarre presence live, but I wouldn’t have had the festival close any other way. I wouldn’t have believed you any more than 48 hours before their performance, but of Montreal stole the festival away from Titus Andronicus and gave me one of my favorite performances of all time.
When I first heard several years ago that Iowa was putting together a music festival in downtown Des Moines, of all places, I was more than a bit skeptical. We don’t generally get a lot of interesting acts in Iowa, but 80/35 has proven me wrong on a large scale. The timing of the festival works perfectly to rope in the larger acts skipping across the country from festival to festival, and the bigger bands bring the smaller ones with them. 80/35 is probably never going to get the huge bands like Lollapalooza and Coachella, but that’s ok. The festival’s organizers realize this, and compensate for the smaller scale by bringing the best of the best live acts. The crowds were fantastic, the food and drink were great, and the bands brought their all for two straight days. I’ll be back to 80/35 every year I can make the trip, and maybe one of these years, Mother Nature will behave.
80/35 Artist To Watch #1: The Poison Control Center
80/35 Artist To Watch #2: Handsome Furs
80/35 Artist To Watch #3: Titus Andronicus
Thanks to Jill Haverkamp and Hillary Brown at OnPitch Media for all of their help, as well as all of the fantastic people I met on both sides of the fence.