As thrilling as day one turned out to be, day two of the inaugural New American Music Union offered so much more. From acclaimed college bands to high-profile music legends, NAMU’s final day certainly made the books.
“Too Many Headliners” should be the headline for any story about the second day of Pittsburgh’s New American Music Union. In the span of only a few hours, the likes of Gnarls Barkley, The Raconteurs, and Bob Dylan all took the stage. As I said, too many headliners. But give the fans of Pittsburgh credit. We endured being subjected to copious amounts of killer music, and I never heard one complaint…except when it was over. What can I say? We’re gluttons for punishment.
Saturday’s festivities kicked off bright and relatively early with a battle of the bands that lasted from late morning to early afternoon. Fifteen college bands from across the country were hand-selected to take part in the competition, each vying for first prize, which was a Los Angeles recording session. The Black Fortys from the University of Southern Illinois were ultimately proclaimed the winners at day’s end. Unfortunately, they played so early that many missed their first-place set. You can never do it all at any festival, and one of my regrets was that I didn’t roll out of bed and catch a few more of these up-and-coming bands. The college bands played on a free stage outside the venue’s gates, so those who couldn’t score tickets to the sold-out festival were still able to get a taste of some excellent music.
The NAMU Experience (It’s Like You Were There)
I got an F’ in kindergarten for my finger painting, but allow me to try and paint a picture of the NAMU experience for you guys anyway.
You file into the South Side Works a few minutes before The Duke Spirit are set to go on. You feel your stomach growl because you slept through lunch after being blown away by The Black Keys and The Roots the night before. You pay a semi-reasonable $6.00 for a northeastern version of a southwestern wrap. You fill your complimentary NAMU water bottle with less-reasonably priced water or beer so expensive that it must be the nectar of the Gods and not Bud Light. You notice the crowd gathering in front of the stage, so you select a spot and hold firm. You don’t care what the market says; you know that real-estate has never been more valuable. You feel the sun beating down on you, so you fashion your best attempt at Yasser Arafat headgear out of your complimentary concert t-shirt and a shoe lace from your left shoe, a beat up sneaker. (Oddly enough, on your right foot is a sandal; you credit it to the rough night and don’t think too hard about it.) You try to make chitchat with the people beside you, knowing that you’ll still be next to them nine hours later when Bob Dylan finishes. You listen to all of the terrible pickup lines that nobody is having any better luck with than you did back in college. You wonder where all of these people with tattoos came from, and you begin to suspect that all of those guys who told you their girlfriends were waiting for them up front were just trying to get closer to the stage. But you let it slide. Small potatoes. Bigger fish to fry. Fish named Danger Mouse, Jack White, Britt Daniel, and some dude that used to go by the name Robert Zimmerman. In other words, who wants to worry about some punks when you’re in for one of the best concerts of your life?
You got the vibe? Ok, now for the bands.
Saturday, August 9 – Day Two Band Reviews
The Duke Spirit
Years and years of letdowns have taught me never to get too pumped up for opening acts. If they can keep a beat and manage to not butcher a cover of one of the headliner’s songs, I consider the set a success. That being said, England’s The Duke Spirit sure didn’t play like an opening act. I knew of them by name, and I had read a recent interview with lead vocalist Liela Moss, but that was all. Comparisons to Sonic Youth and The Pixies seemed appropriate, as the band effortlessly altered between garage-like barnburners and slower numbers throughout the set. Moss, however, is what makes this band special-gives The Duke Spirit its, well, spirit! The beautiful and energetic blonde, with a great voice and sexy accent, charmed the early crowd and got the place moving a bit. Not only did she carry the vocal duties, but she played tambourine, other percussion, danced the entire set and, get this, even broke out the harmonica on a couple songs (perhaps in tribute to Mr. Dylan?). I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Moss also drives the tour bus, fills in as a roadie, and hand-makes the band’s clothes. She was aptly backed by guitarist Luke Ford and company, as the band played a set heavy on songs from their latest album, Neptune. Highlights for me were “Neptune’s Call” and “This Ship Was Built to Last,” which I think some fans misheard as “shit” rather than “ship.” Either way it worked, and my copy of Neptune is in the mail.
Vancouver’s own Black Mountain was another band that I was really excited to be seeing live for the first time. Keeping with Anthony Kiedis’s snowflake theme of no two bands being alike, Black Mountain brought along the dynamic of having lead vocal duties shared by singer, Amber Webber, and lead guitarist, Stephen McBean. The set consisted of mainly dead-slow, psychedelic rock songs that painstakingly intensified until finally erupting into distorted chaos. This was more a jam session than a series of songs, though, and the crowd never did quite get into it, even though McBean’s solos were impressive. Webber’s statuesque pose and warbling vocal style also failed to resonate with the crowd; I was close to the stage and could barely hear her. The set, which drew heavily from 2008’s In the Future, came to a close with an all-out rocker and a beautiful harmony between Webber and McBean that made me wish the set was just beginning rather than ending. The band and crowd seemed to be just warming up with that song. Unfortunately, it came about thirty-five minutes into a thirty-five minute set.
Gnarls Barkley was the band in the lineup that intrigued me most. They’ve never played near Pittsburgh, and I’ve only ever caught glimpses of them performing on television. I’m actually a Danger Mouse fan more than anything due to some of his collaborations, including his work with Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse, a favorite of mine. The stage’s backdrop replicated the cartoonish skyline album art of The Odd Couple, and the backing band came out in matching, red sweater vests and white bowties. When Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse emerged in identical (except for size), mustard-colored sports jackets, the crowd went crazy. Before playing “Gone Daddy Gone,” Cee-Lo proclaimed, “This is a party town…this will get it [the party] going,” and he was true to his word. Gnarls Barkley brought just the right combination of rock and soul to the stage, and Cee-Lo, sporting the best voice on the bill, demonstrated that he is equally apt at singing rock or being Solomon Burke. The big man was having fun the whole set long, ripping his shirt open at one point and joking, “Danger Mouse on the beatzilla…Cee-Lo on the Crown Royal.” Danger Mouse is an absolute blast to watch on stage. His lanky frame hunches over the piano-his head coming perilously close to hitting the keys as he plays-almost as if he’s too big for the instrument, like an adult playing on a child’s Fisher-Price toy piano. Perhaps the best description I can give of Danger Mouse at his area on stage is simply this: a mad scientist at the bench in his laboratory. Other highlights included the obligatory “Crazy” and a soulful “Neighbors.” The only thing keeping Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse from blowing the roof off the place was the fact that we were outside. If there is a better act out there than Gnarls Barkley, I’m not aware of it.
Some of my fellow COS writers are huge Spoon fans, and after catching their Saturday set, I can understand why. Sandwiched between Gnarls Barkley and The Raconteurs, the boys from Austin, Texas were asked to play in about as unforgiving a slot as a band could be assigned to play. But they delivered to a crowd that seemed well-versed in their catalogue and fully aware of just how good this band is live. Spoon truly was the indie-rock representative of this festival, masterfully combining hooks and pop sensibilities with an edgy style that showed they weren’t afraid to stray from the guitar tabs and experiment a little and, at times, flat-out thrash. Britt Daniel, while not having a voice that’ll blow you away, has the perfect delivery for songs like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “I Turn on My Camera.” Other highlights of the set included the charged “Don’t Make Me a Target” and a sick cover of The Stones’ “Rocks Off.” Spoon has been around forever it seems, and if fans didn’t know about them before their Saturday set, I guarantee you they’ll remember them the next time they come through town.
Pittsburgh’s a rock town. Always has been. And just like fans turned out to see The Black Keys the previous evening, I think the crowd was most pumped about seeing The Raconteurs on Saturday. The audience was buzzing as the stage was prepped, and members of bands The Duke Spirit and Black Mountain found seats on top of tour buses, not wanting to miss Jack White’s popular side project in action. Singer/Songwriter Brendan Benson shares guitar and vocal duties with White, but it’s pretty clear that this is White’s band. While Benson sang the first song of the set, White played guitar with his back to the crowd, teasing the audience who was dying to see him. When he finally turned around, fans erupted louder than at any point in the festival. The set was tight and rocked as hard as anything you’re likely to hear. Benson has a beautiful voice, and he and the others held things together while White drifted in and out of the spotlight with vocals that ranged from rock to blues to country and guitar solos that melted faces, even if they did seem a bit repetitive at times. Highlights of the set included “Steady as She Goes” and an epic version of “Rich Kid Blues.” The fans wanted a hard-hitting set of power pop, and Benson and White delivered and then some.
Bob Dylan and His Band
Bob Dylan didn’t bring the magic on Saturday. It happens. That’s not to say it was a bad set. As always, Zimmy and band played a phenomenal show that first-time Dylan concertgoers really dug for the most part; however, having seen Dylan in concert nearly twenty times, I can honestly say that we didn’t witness one of those brilliant moments that makes you realize that something other-worldly can possess the man at times. The great part about his Never-Ending Tour (over twenty years and going strong) is that there’s always tomorrow and another chance for one of those moments. And when they hit you, you know.
What Dylan did bring was a strong set featuring a mix of suped-up classics and songs from his recent trio of albums, all played by his crack band, which is led by bassist Tony Garnier, who has learned to translate Dylan’s nods and relay the signals to the other band members like a third base coach. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” kicked off the show strong with songs that everyone knew at least the choruses to. Tracks from recent albums like “Honest With Me,” “Nettie Moore,” and “High Water (For Charlie Patton)” all were delivered and met with their normal gusto. A slow version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” usually a crowd favorite, never really materialized into anything memorable. A spirited “Summer Days,” got the crowd dancing again, and a down and dirty version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” was far and away the highlight of the set.
The thrills were the normal ones for a Dylan concert. During “Spirit on the Water,” Bob sang, “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime,” which the crowd emphatically denied, and Dylan responded with, “Let me see what you got/We can have a whoppin’ good time.” On “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” the crowd, as always, cheered for the line: “Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked.” Will that line ever not be relevant? Bob went to his harmonica a few times over the course of the night, which elicited cheers. I was curious if he was playing any guitar this summer, but he seems more comfortable at the keyboard these days. Still, just seeing Bob Dylan on stage can give you chills, and it’s great to see the sixty-seven-year-old making eye contact with fans and dancing behind the keyboard.
The shortened festival set meant only one song for an encore. After a couple minutes of cheering, the lights came on, and a giant banner with Dylan’s eye logo was dropped and unveiled. The band came back and did a great version of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which turned into a massive sing-along during the choruses. It would have been nice for novice Dylan fans to see Bob’s normal closer, “All Along the Watchtower,” but Bob’s legendary song about bums, jugglers, diplomats, and Siamese cats was a fitting way to close out the night and the 2008 New American Music Union.
The Aftermath (Festival Awards)
Best Overall Set: Gnarls Barkley (Honorable Mention: The Roots)
Best Guitar Solo: Capt. Kirk of The Roots
Festival Good Guy: Questlove of The Roots
Most Disappointing Performance: Black Mountain
Jack “White” of All Trades: Danger Mouse (Honorable Mention: Liela Moss)
Best Song: Crowd sing-along to Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Worst Song: The version of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” that the guy behind me was singing during the crowd sing-along to Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Most Annoying Group: The Obama groupies that infiltrated the venue and hounded me about voting at least two dozen times. These guys wouldn’t know a g-chord from a g-string.
Luckiest Fans: The winners of the COS New American Music Union Ticket Giveaway. Glad you guys got a killer show on us.
Finally, kudos to American Eagle and Anthony Kiedis for giving Pittsburgh a great festival with a phenomenal lineup. Students got two days of great music and fun for only $25, and this also included a festival water bottle and t-shirt. Good luck finding another bargain like that.
Now, we yinzers’ just have to wait until next year. Ain’t gonna be easy n’at.
— Be sure to respond and let me know if you agree or if I’m dead wrong. I love to hear from you either way. Also, be sure to check out footage from the festival now up here.
Many thanks for additional photo support by C.C. Chapman