Alumni Lawn had a true festival atmosphere on Saturday for Rites of Spring 2013.
When the Music Group announced the 2013 Rites of Spring lineup, the reaction was mixed at best. To many, there didn’t seem to be a real headliner, and overall the acts weren’t nearly as big as they have been in the past (unless you were a Christian rock fan, in which case you were ecstatic about NEEDTOBREATHE). I myself considered the lineup to be fairly iffy when I wrote a preview of it in March. This lack of hype really manifested itself in the week leading up to Rites; most people I know were far more excited about every fraternity throwing down on Saturday. My own, Delta Tau Delta, had a crawfish boil featuring live music from Lockwood Barr and Gage, and as you all know if you follow the blog or the show, live music is all I need to have a good time. As such, I was at Rites for EVERY ACT, on both Friday and Saturday, live-tweeting the show until my phone died right before NEEDTOBREATHE came on. And overall, I’d have to say that the show was better than I expected. While there were a few duds, most of the artists put on a great live show, and the people who did come to the concert were very high-energy for the most part. In case you missed part (or all) of the show, here’s a recap of Rites of Spring 2013.
- NEEDTOBREATHE was the best act of the weekend. Part of this may be based on the awesome crowd they played for–while the band’s Christian inspiration may have put off many potential concertgoers, those who showed up were loud, energetic, and clearly very dedicated to NEEDTOBREATHE (also, they may have set the record for most sober Rites audience ever). But even without the huge show of support, this would have been the highlight. Frontman Bear Reinhart has a great voice for the Southern-rock style, and I love how they incorporate banjo and mandolin into rock music without a hitch. My favorite parts of the music were the extended jams between songs, when the band’s musicianship was on display. Although there weren’t any noteworthy solos, there wasn’t really a need for any, since the performance was so tight. Some highlights were excellent covers of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Stand By Me,” both of which were given a bluesy makeover and were sung along to by the crowd. Drew Holcomb and his wife Ellie, of their namesake band, were invited out for “Stand By Me,” which drove the crowd into a frenzy. As a bonus, they ended the encore with an emotional acoustic piece, “Difference Maker,” that will be featured on their yet-to-be-released album. Try as I might, I cannot find any weakness in this show…NEEDTOBREATHE was very crisp, they worked the crowd incredibly, and the music was at the forefront of their performance. They are consummate professionals at the top of their game, and the audience benefited massively.
- Baauer needs to take some tips from Rusko. Though both produce electronic music, Rusko far outclassed Baauer on Friday night, showing who’s the veteran of the genre. He probably benefited from playing later, and thus having a more inebriated audience, but Rusko did a great job of making the most out of a scant setup comprised of a folding table, two turntables, and a mixing board. He was dancing around the whole time, periodically got the crowd pumped up by shouting into a microphone, and varied the tempo nicely to keep things fresh. Thus, what amounted to ninety minutes of straight dubstep was fun throughout, as evidenced by the constant moshing of the crowd. Perhaps my only complaints were that the lights accompaniment was subpar and that Rusko has stereotypically British teeth (you know what I mean). Other than that, he was all that was to be expected out of one of the biggest names in dubstep: creative beats and constant engagement of a rowdy audience.
Baauer, on the other hand, may have been the worst act of the weekend. His music did not vary in tempo at all, and I didn’t find his samples very interesting. He was also poor at engaging the crowd, for the most part just standing on stage and bobbing his head to the music. To his credit, he tactfully omitted the line “Con las terroristas” from the Harlem Shake in the wake of events in Boston, but even the Harlem Shake was fairly anti-climactic…the most notable thing that happened during the song was one kid going crazy at the drop and shaking his beer all over the people surrounding him (including me). Overall, Baauer was a massive disappointment and really showed his lack of experience in playing electronic music for large crowds.
This is the most interesting Baauer ever got.
- There was a wide variety of frontman skills on display. The best was easily Mat Kearney. His music is fairly generic singer-songwriter stuff, although I though some of the electronic drum effects he used were original and cool and his melodies were well-written and singable. But the reason he succeeded was because of the energy he brought to the performance and the things he did to get the crowd invited. He made excellent use of the steps on the stage side of the fence keeping the audience at bay, climbing right up to the crowd and addressing them directly. At one point, he crowd surfed standing up, which was one of the nimbler feats I’ve ever seen. He also did a lap around the audience while singing, and it is an indication of the energy of Kearney compared to his band that the crowd literally turned to follow him around while the band kept playing. In addition to these mobile antics, he struck a great balance between keeping the music coming and talking to the crowd. He also pulled a Billy Joel by inviting an audience member to come on stage, though stomping on a suitcase/bass drum takes decidedly less skill than playing the piano part for “New York State of Mind.” This awesome crowd engagement, combined with above-average music, made Mat Kearney probably the second-best act behind NEEDTOBREATHE.
Miguel was surprisingly underwhelming as a frontman. He showed off his great dancing skills and definitely used his body to psych up the crowd (I’m pretty sure he flashed some gratuitous pubic hair at one point), but didn’t do a great job balancing talking and singing. The stories he told about his life were interesting but not what the crowd wanted to hear, and certainly not for several minutes at a time. In addition, I found his voice weak, and if you’re touring as a self-named act with a backing band, your voice had better be the highlight of the show. Instead, I thought Miguel’s guitarist, Dru, was the best part of the act. I got to talk to Dru after the show and he told me that he and Miguel go way back, which may explain why Miguel basically treated him as a co-frontman. His solos were impressive, but the best moment in the show was when Dru dropped his guitar and he, Miguel, and the guy triggering the pre-recorded tracks did a dance together. So even though Miguel himself was less than I expected, his band picked up the slack and put together a solid performance.
Delta Spirit was a different animal entirely. They were probably the craziest on-stage performers I’ve ever seen, to the point where it got a little too crazy. The music, while good, was too loud for me to discern any individual parts or really enjoy it, though I got a general indie-punk vibe. Also, I’m pretty sure their frontman was on some sort of substance during the show…he often opened his eyes to the point of looking like Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, which definitely creeped me out, and he was mostly unintelligible when addressing the crowd in his raspy voice. These negatives put a damper on what was otherwise a decent performance; I liked Delta Spirit’s use of secondary percussion and keyboards to build an atmosphere, and found the combination of punk with the echoey trends of modern indie alternative to be interesting.
- Juvenile was…juvenile. He certainly wasn’t helped by the Music Group’s bizarre placement of him between The Apache Relay and Delta Spirit on Saturday, which was dominated by rock music, indie or otherwise. He would have fared better before Friday’s crowd, perhaps switching with The Kicks. However, I don’t even know if that would have saved him. The problem was that Juvenile took himself very seriously while the crowd seemed to regard him as a joke. His rapping wasn’t bad, but his lyrical themes revolved solely around bitches and hoes, which may have been popular when Juvie got popular during the Crunk movement of the mid-2000s but just sound dated now. The fact that the crowd only knew the last two songs he played–”Slow Motion” and “Back That Azz Up”–rendered him unable to engage the crowd effectively, and when he was unable to provide a smashing live performance to make up for this, it became obvious that he was an ordinary rapper who happened to ride the Crunk wave to momentary stardom. In addition, he said some things that simply aren’t oay to say when you’re 38, at one point calling 55% of Vanderbilt women “hoes” and openly talking about the alcohol he had put in his Sprite. Overall, it was a poor performance, but I almost feel bad for Juvenile…he hasn’t been relevant since “Slow Motion” hit Number 1 in 2004, and he’s trying very hard to reintroduce himself to the world stage. In the end, though, he was playing for an audience that was clearly not there for him and saw him as humorously pathetic, and this perception was echoed when Delta Spirit and Mat Kearney made subtle jabs at him, the former directly, the latter by omitting him from acts he was proud to be playing with.
- Music City’s homegrown talent was on display. Including the Battle of the Bands winners, seven of the acts this weekend had Nashville roots. Aside from Mat Kearney, the best of these acts was probably Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. Their music was fairly typical of roots rock bands and not too original, but Drew Holcomb did a good job of engaging the crowd, getting them to sing along to songs like “Tennessee.” The melodies were anthemic and the music was powerful, creating an energetic sound that was best displayed in their cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and their closing number, “Fire and Dynamite.” They weren’t afraid to slow it down at points, though…one song was sung with just acoustic guitar and the voices of Drew and Ellie Holcomb. Overall, this was a very tight band that made the most of their crowd support, which has undoubtedly been boosted by virtue of their touring with NEEDTOBREATHE.
The surprise stars of the show.
The Kicks were hard rock’s representative this weekend, and played the part very well, wearing all black and looking like rock stars. They worked the Friday crowd pretty well, providing good energy, but I thought the most impressive aspect of their performance was the music, which falls somewhere between Neon Trees and Jet in terms of mixing catchy melodies with good riffs. They made good use of unison singing during their choruses, and their breakdowns were a great display of their ability on their instruments. I was particularly impressed by the way their bass player subtly added color to the songs, creating a full sound that allowed for more soloing by the lead guitarist and freed up their singer from having to play rhythm guitar. As a fan of bands like Rush and Led Zeppelin, it was nice for me to see that hard rock is still alive, even if it is no longer at the forefront of American popular music. As their bassist Gabe told me, “Who would have thought that banjo’s in the Top 40?”
Hard rock isn’t dead!…except in the Top 40.
The Apache Relay and Humming House both represented this trend toward folksier music in the Top 40. The Apache Relay’s sound had a very dreamlike, atmospheric quality to it, and reminded me of the “Wall of Sound” popularized by Phil Spector in the 1960s and revived by Oasis in the 1990s. This was abetted by the wide variety of effects used by their musicians, especially the violinist, who looked particularly crazy. The mandolin also added a nice folksy element to the music. Overall, they provided a huge, echoey sound, but I thought they could have worked the crowd better…they just stood there and played, for the most part. Humming House was far more minimalist, going Mumford-style and having their bass player use a kick drum to keep a ubiquitous thumping rhythm. Their lead singer and songwriter, Justin Wade-Tam, told me the band formed out of Sunday night traditional Irish jams at his house, and that sound came out through their music, which featured cool interplay between the different string instruments and good variation of fast and slow songs. Out of the musicians, I thought the violinist was given the most opportunity to shine through solos. However, I didn’t find the music very catchy or differentiable from similar acts. Part of this may be that this type of lyric-centric songwriting really requires multiple listenings to be fully appreciated.
Apache Relay violinist, or Theon Greyjoy gone wildling?
The Battle of the Bands winners did a great job showing why they were considered the best of the eight acts from Thursday night and of 28 overall submissions to the contest. Joel Heumann’s band sounds like a mix of Earth, Wind and Fire dance-funk with 1940s big band music, perfectly fitting his goal of playing “music people can move to,” as he told me. Interestingly, in talking to him I learned that he started out playing hardcore and metal but became allured by the groove of funk and jazz. The highlight of his set was his song “Feeling Good,” which will appear on his EP, Self-Titled. Acklen, on the other hand, was more of a modern rock-blues band, and featured solid guitar interplay, good guitar and bass solos, and an awesome cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. Their lead vocalist was a bit pitchy, and their songwriting wasn’t all that original, but they rocked hard and their passion for the music came through.
Well, if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this review, I appreciate it. All the acts this weekend, whether good, bad, or Juvenile, put in 110% effort to put on a good show. Though the headliner was polarizing and some of the acts were poorly placed in the lineup, on the whole the Music Group arranged an awesome concert.
That’s all for now. Tonight we’ve got the season finale of The VU Backstage, featuring Elizabeth Lyons. If you like what you just read, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to get updates on all the musical happenings at Vandy!