L.L. Cool J
Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisTo those outside the city of Atlanta, Music Midtown may sound like just another summer festival, but to the 300,000 annual attendees, it's like a weekend in musical heaven. Known for its incredibly diverse lineup of over 150 acts spanning every possible genre, Music Midtown is the nation's primary three-day meeting point to catch both classic superstars and developing talents. This year's points of attraction were virtually unceasing, including musical fixtures like timeless troubadour Bob Dylan, R&B legends The Isley Brothers, the Grateful Dead spin off Bob Weir & Ratdog, spastic soul man Joe Cocker, hair metalers Def Leppard, and folk favorites Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The lineup also included top name's from today's generation, ranging from vibrant pop/rocker Sheryl Crow to neo-soul sister India.Arie, to the acoustic based Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, along with alternative genre benders Zwan, Godsmack, Evanescence, and Something Corporate.
Here's a closer day by day look at both the old school and new school performers and how well they faired in the highly populated setting:
Opening night of any festival is always greeted with the most anticipation, as fans with performance schedules in hand disperse throughout the festival grounds. Friday's affairs started as the workday wrapped up with the Les Claypool Frog Brigade, the first act of marginal prominence to christen the Bellsouth Z93 stage known for its mostly nostalgic rock lineup. The bass playing Claypool may be a little young to fit into the retro category, though his original band Primus certainly falls into the phased out division and these post hippie jam based bass rants weren't even half as alluring.
Across the festival grounds at the Miller Lite 99X stage, American Hi-Fi took the stage to much more updated rock and roll stylings filled with abundant hooks, contagious enthusiasm, and choppy guitars. Led by drummer turned guitarist/vocalist Stacy Jones (of Veruca Salt and Letters to Cleo fame) the band breezed through its past single "Flavor of the Weak" along with instantly memorable material from their brand new The Art of Losing disc.
As American Hi-Fi's set was nearing its end, a fellow blend of buoyant pop and gritty rock courtesy of Sheryl Crow was underway on the main Dodge/96 Rock/ UPN stage, but the experience was cut very short as a ominous rain clouds enveloped the grounds. Following the opening hit blitz of "Steve McQueen," "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and "My Favorite Mistake," a rapidly approaching flash flood forced Crow to flee the stage.
The sounds of silence would continue over the next two and a half hours until the storm subsided, but thankfully Crow picked up where she left off and Steve Winwood took a nearby stage as planned shortly thereafter. The former Blind Faith, Spencer Davis Group, and Traffic member was welcomed after a lengthy touring absence, making a point to cover many of those past bases in his hour long set. As enjoyable as it was to hear songs like the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimmie Some Lovin'" and several Traffic selections, it was extremely disappointing and inconsiderate of Winwood not to include one single solo hit. His ignorance of the immensely popular "When You See a Chance," "Valerie," "Higher Love," "Back in the High Life" and at least a half dozen others were greatly missed and cause for audience grumbling.
Back at the main stage, timeless troubadour Bob Dylan did a much better job balancing the hits and deep cuts, realizing that those in the massive crowd ranged from the dedicated followers to the casual admirers. Whether performing tracks from his last two records Love and Theft and Time Out of Mind or classics like "Highway 61 Revisited," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "All Along the Watchtower" it was one of the many nights when Dylan was on and surprisingly engaging towards the crowd. For a man who rarely speaks or looks up from the stage, Friday night included introductions of each individual band member plus a series of smiles as he switched from playing keyboard to acoustic guitar.
In keeping with the trend of diversity, veteran rapper L.L. Cool J and local heroes the B-52's hit respective stages after Dylan's set, keeping the crowds dancing to hits like "Momma Said Knock You Out" and "Private Idaho." Despite L.L. Cool J starting extremely late in the evening and the B-52's excluding "Love Shack" from their show, smiles and sing-alongs abounded in both settings.
At first glance outside, it appeared Saturday's forecast would be a rain reprise, though aside from holding up Sixpence None the Richer's appearance on the Ford/Fox5 stage it held off entirely. Clearly, singer Leigh Nash and her band mates were frustrated with the climate and relatively low turnout as they begrudgingly churned out back to back opening covers of The La's "There She Goes" and Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." Luckily members' frowns turned upside down as the weather broke by the time originals "Breathe Your Name" and "Kiss Me" made their way into the set, proving to be points of magnetism for lingering loiterers.
The sun continued to shine for another variety filled afternoon, ranging from the reggae tinged rapper Shaggy to the other main Traffic man Dave Mason, to jam band Leftover Salmon. However, in all of the above cases each act was overrated, starting with Shaggy's derivative Jamaican beats, followed by Mason's snooze worthy adult contemporary reworkings, and ending with Leftover Salmon's unceasing hippie-infused goofiness. Such interminable and self-indulgent jam sessions continued with Medeski, Martin, and Wood that day plus Sunday's Bob Weir (of Grateful Dead fame) and Ratdog performance, both of whom you had to be high in order to even remotely enjoy.
On a more desirable note, fresh face Marc Broussard set up on the same stage that housed Sixpence hours earlier, showing off his soulful acoustic compositions from his recently released Momentary Setback project. Falling into the "I wish I was Jeff Buckley category," Broussard's songwriting is vulnerable and tender hearted and his voice possesses a wide and welcoming range, so it's quite possible we'll be hearing more much from this rising youngster in the coming months. Evanescence is another act over whom buzz is building, and the band's tight knitted set confirmed its legitimacy. If the haunting vocals of Bjork or Tori Amos were crossed with the electro/goth rock undertones of Nine Inch Nails or Prodigy, you'd have the blueprint for what their concert experience and debut album Fallen is all about.
Come nightfall, the soul circuit picked up rapidly, reuniting Jodeci members K-Ci and Jo Jo to sing their mega ballad "All My Life," Purple Rain movie stars Morris Day and the Time to party "Jungle Love" style, and pimp daddies The Isley Brothers to "Twist and Shout" all night long. Adding convulsive rock mannerisms to the mix, blue eyed soul man Joe Cocker let his R&B influences show on everything from top hit "When the Night Comes" to a unique cover of INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart."
Unfortunately, fellow Woodstock alums Crosby, Stills, and Nash weren't as capable of transcending time, wallowing in the group's late 60s folk protests that have lost the majority of their flair without the help of fourth member Neil Young. David Crosby looked particularly out of shape and uninteresting, and after awhile the trio's musings turned into melodic geriatric boredom.
Old timer Tony Bennett did a much better job conquering the generation gap living up to his ultimate showmanship legacy over a span of 19 tracks. Backed by a jazz/swing quartet, he took fans through the Essential Tony Bennett double disc, opening with the striking swinger "Watch What Happens," alluring fans with the strolling "The Best Is Yet to Come," and covering all the necessary bases. Even as the night wore on and Bennett broke several sweats, his chic blue suit lit up the darkened skies and his sincere smile actually got wider. And so did the looks of delight on everyone's faces as they joined the old timer in fellow time period definers "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" and "It Don't Mean a Thing."
Next to that stage the moronic jock rockers Godsmack were basking in the fact that they are the current taste of the day, screaming indecipherably amidst factory generated nu-metal nothingness. Besides having no musical merit whatsoever, members apparently aren't the nicest guys either, reportedly snubbing a PR photo opportunity with Tony Bennett because it was too far of a walk to his stage. (Keep in mind, they were set up within a two blocks of one another). Such disrespectful meatheads didn't even deserve to be in such primetime billing, let alone the same state as a performer like Bennett who radiates with class and finesse.
Atlanta's very own Collective Soul closed out the night to a hometown crowd, but like Godsmack will soon learn, their spot on top didn't last very long. After attempting to revive past hits like "Shine" and "The World I Know," Collective Soul pulled out new material that fell on dead ears and seemed like a waste of regurgitated time.
The first act worth noting on the final day of Music Midtown was former Til Tuesday front woman Aimee Mann. The enigmatic singer/songwriter's set mirrored that of her most recent tour (in support of Lost in Space) and as always, she was prolific and poetic. It's a shame the following acoustic act Jack Johnson couldn't come close to her songwriting propensity, instead dwelling on a few catchy phrases continuously while catering to his teenage audience like a Dave Matthews clone.
Sassy rapper Ashanti appealed to the same post-pubescent demographic, but unlike Johnson, she stood out from her peers with originality and confidence. At a mere 21 years old, she's accomplished more than many twice her age, collaborating with some of hip-hop's leading acts (Ja Rule, Fat Joe, and the Notorious B.I.G) in addition to scoring number one solo singles and sold out concert tours. Add that to the fact that she's beautiful and incredibly interactive on stage and it's easy to see why her set was the most densely packed out of all Music Midtown's shooting stars. Whether performing cuts from her self-titled debut, like the rhythmic and rhyme filled "Baby" and "Happy" or the current mega-hit "Foolish" (featuring a sampled melody line from DeBarge's 1983 hit "Stay With Me") Ashanti dominated in a way that would make both Missy Elliot and subsequent act India.Arie proud.
After Ashanti, the entire crowd stuck around for hometown girl Arie, who not only scored points with those from the region, but was also embraced by fans from all parts of the country after making national waves with her string of 2002 Grammy nominations. Consider her a female Stevie Wonder, who not only writes her own material and plays guitar quite well, but is filled with sincerity, grace, and pristine vocal ability. Equally arousing as Arie's urban groove were The Gypsy Kings' Latin flavored nuggets of robust guitar work and flamenco backbeats. Taking up virtually every corner of their stage with an instrument or prop, the troupe was a wall of sensual sound that tickled each taste bud.
At the same time on the main stage, Everclear was far less eye or ear catching, falling into the same "long past their prime" contingency as Collective Soul. Performing the same three chords while complaining about their dysfunctional upbringing got real old real quick, as did the same old stage routine that hasn't changed since the band's inception.
Festival finale act Def Leppard also stuck closely to their longtime shtick (the debauchery drenched '80s hair metal vibe to be exact) which despite seeming silly, shockingly drew the biggest crowd of the entire weekend. Thanks to the band's opening guitar revelry and familiar melodies, a mass exodus took place from all surrounding regions of the fairgrounds to get close to the action (stripping even the majority of Zwan's fairly thin crowd). And pumped by the deafening roar of the masses, Def Leppard dove deep into hits like "Photograph," "Hysteria," "Promises," "High and Dry" and "Pour Some Sugar On Me,' providing festival goers with the optimal guilty pleasure level of feel good summer fun.
For additional insight into the weekend's festivities and a complete line up of performers, log onto www.musicmidtown.com.
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