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Maha Music Festival Thoughts

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Disclaimer: I am a stage manager for Maha and have been since 2010. This overview is for the most part a backstage perspective from someone working backstage, and I end up missing a lot and not being able to watch the band intently. I saw Tim McMahan with Lazy-I on site and L Kent Wolgamott from the Lincoln Journal Star on site, so check those places out for more traditional reviews from longtime music writers.

The final Maha at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village is in the books. The first two Maha’s were held at the Riverfront, but they have been at Stinson Park since 2011. Next year, the festival will move back to the Riverfront in the new space that will open up in a few weeks. It will allow for more room and  three stages. It will feel like a reset for Maha. We will see if it sticks with the same vibe it has had for a while now. That vibe, whether on purpose or not, has been catering more to young Omahans, but with acts that are appealing to people of all ages.

Artists such as Peach Pit, Big Thief, Alvvays, Black Belt Eagle Scout, and The Beths had young people beaming in the front rows and singing along, but you could also see lots of people aged 30 to 50 plus out in the audience enjoying the music also. Those bands are based on music that I, as a fifty-year-old, have listened to most of my life. There is no reason why any of those bands music would not appeal to adults and people who think they have aged out of new music. Artists such as Turnstile, Terry Presume, BIB, and EKKSTACY might not, though I know a lot of people my age who enjoy them already, or enjoyed them at the festival.

Some of the performances we have seen at Stinson over the years include Run The Jewels, Weezer, Lizzo, Guided By Voices, Garbage, The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Grimes, Courtney Barnett, Jenny Lewis, Japanese Breakfast, Oh Sees, Thundercat, Beach House, and many, many more. Some of my favorites are on that list, but some other performances that I absolutely loved over the years were Bob Mould, The Envy Corps, Josh Rouse, The Millions, Tune Yards, Speedy Ortiz, Geese, and Rolling Blackouts. My favorite day of music was when we had Snail Mail, Courtney Barnett, and Jenny Lewis all in a row. I think Run The Jewels was Maha’s best performance to date.

So, this year, like the past few years on stage, everything ran as smoothly as one could ask for. One good thing about returning every year to Stinson Park is the familiarity. We have a lot of the same staff, stage hands, sound and light personnel, and the same spaces, and we have everything down to routine, and the kinks were worked out quite a while ago. We started on Friday afternoon with Omaha band BIB on the large Union Pacific stage, which is the stage I manage. BIB has received a lot of national attention and has performed shows with the Friday night headliner. They played a frenetic set of hardcore music to a pretty decent opening crowd in 100-degree heat. It was my first time seeing them, and I actually found it much more appealing than I imagined, as that is not necessarily a genre of music that I have been into since my younger days.

Up next was Hakim on the LinkedIn stage, and I saw him getting on some tactical gear before he headed onto stage. I couldn’t watch any of his set, but I was listening, and it sounded good. I love the phrase Corn Coast, which is his thing, and sure enough, I heard him shout out the Corn Coast a few times. Then the storm clouds came. Maha took the precaution to evacuate at this time. After about an hour, people were let back in, and all of the bands got to play their full sets. Sure, there were long lines to get back in, but I’m not sure how there wouldn’t be any. Lots of professional crews are on site at Maha such as police, fire, EMTs, and such, and in talking to some of them, they said that evacuation was handled properly and they were complimentary. So great job to all of the staff and volunteers who made that happen. I went and ate a hamburger. Ok, I helped tarp down a lot of stuff and went and ate a hamburger.

When the rain stopped, we ended up with cooler temps and Icky Blossoms on the UP Stage. This was the band’s first performance in almost ten years, making them the first three-time Maha performer that night. They haven’t lost anything and had the crowd dancing with their energetic set that is full of all the songs we love. The highlight for me was an epic version of their slow burner “Perfect Vision”. I forgot how much I love that song live. EKKSTACY from Vancouver is one of the acts I wish I could have watched more of. I have been listening to them a lot the last couple months, as I really like their modern take on New Wave and more. I did get to catch a couple songs, and it really had me hoping someone would book a club show with them here sooner rather than later.

The highlight for me on day one was up next with Alvvays (also from Canada) on the UP stage. Alvvays performed at Maha in 2015, when they were touring on their first album. They are currently touring on their third album, Blue Rev, which was one of my favorite albums of last year. Their dream pop and shoegaze sounds were just right for the sun going down and the dramatic clouds of the day disappearing. It would be hard to ask for a better set list from the band, and all of my favorites were covered, with the focus being on much of Blue Rev, so that was a treat. The final act of the night was Turnstile, which is the band that people were very vocal about being the one they wanted to see in the months prior to Maha. The rock band has seen a sudden jolt in popularity in the past two years. I have tried to connect with their music but just haven’t been able to. I figured the live show might help me turn the corner, but it didn’t. This is not to say that they are not a fantastic live band, as they are, and they delivered a set for the ages at Maha. Energetic would be an understatement, and not in an obnoxious way either. They feed off of the crowd and each other but are not “putting on” a show. It’s a very genuine and organic thing. I dialed in on his voice sounding like early Jane’s Addiction Perry Farrell, and I never got past that in my head. Not a bad thing, but I just kept thinking about it in my head. Yes, there were mosh pits. I didn’t see it as I was dealing with some stuff, but the vocalist jumped into the crowd off that high stage, I guess. I wish I would have caught that.

We had much cooler temps on Saturday, especially in the morning as we were loading in bands and doing sound checks. The show started with DJ Yalla on the UP stage. The local DJ told me he had just been to Israel and had found a lot of new music, and that he was focused on house music. His half-hour set had me wanting more, for sure. He says he DJs at Sonny’s in Aksarben Village, so I might look out for that and try to enjoy more of what he has going on. Omaha’s Ebba Rose started off the live bands on the Linked In stage with a band full of local music mainstays. They were very good, and Erin Mitchell is such a strong presence as a front person, very engaging and entertaining. They really started Day 2 off right. Following them was Garst on the UP stage. This band is still young, but they have been doing this for awhile now. They brought the rock show with songs from their new self-titled record and frenzied guitars and drums. A solid set that had their fans singing a long down front.

Up next was Omaha Girls Rock. This year we had two bands: AC/DC Jr. and Instrumenting EarthWormz. AC/DC Jr. sang a song called “Moldy Milk” and even threw (really pegged it into the audience) a hand-made moldy milk carton! Instrumenting EartWormz I believe, sang a song about a “worm” they were unhappy with. Both were great, and it is always a treat to have these young musicians on stage. I completely missed M34N STR33T as we were having some in-ear issues with the Say She She who were coming up on the UP stage. They got them straightened out. Say She She is a soul/disco band. Three front-persons and some seasoned funk and beyond musicians A couple of the people in that band looked and sounded like they had time warped from Donna Summer’s band or something. The band was tight, the vocalists could sing, and the arrangements were retro, jazzy, and way more complex than one would think. It was actually some pretty deep disco, funk, soul, and jazz. They performed a protest song called “NORMA” in response to the overturning of Roe V. Wade that got a good response from the crowd, which was dancing up a storm. I thought the highlight of the set was the jazz-funk “Forget Me Not,” with its vocal acrobatics and harmonies. The Say She She set was one of the highlights of this year’s Maha, for sure.

Black Belt Eagle Scout started off the dream lineup for me with The Beths and Big Thief. I really wish they and the Beths were on the stage I was working on, but it was not to be. I spent as much time as possible watching Black Belt Eagle Scout, and Katherine Paul was out front as much as one can be with a guitar in hand and giving it everything. The band is signed to Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records, and all of their albums are wonderful, with the latest, The Land, The Water, The Sky being among my favorites of 2023. Following them on the UP stage was hip-hop artist Terry Presume, who performed with his DJ. Not my style of hip-hop and not meant to be, but he had a ton of energy, had the crowd going, and performed some unreleased material for his fans. Great crew to work with as well.

The Beths from New Zealand closed down the Linked In stage. Some people may make the argument that they were the best set of the festival. Could be. They were fantastic, from the four songs I got to watch before duty called. I have seen them before, and they are truly one of the best live bands out there, and their small catalog of music thus far is mighty. When their set was done, people called for an encore, and people ran over to me for some reason to see if that was OK. Who am I to say no? So they played an encore, which was “You Wouldn’t Like Me”, which is my favorite song by them, so that worked out well. Peach Pit then headed to the UP stage to a rabid fan base that was easily the loudest sing-along of the night. The band was very good; frontman Neil Smith, was engaging, and his little dances were fun to watch, and the crowd ate them up. All of the crews this weekend were nice and easy to work with, but none were as nice and easy to work with as the Peach Pit crew. Canadians being all stereotypical again.

Big Thief closed out the Maha Festival and our time at Stinson Park. The band had themselves all close together at the front of the stage and fed off each other all night long. They are one of those bands that don’t play the same set every night, so you never really know what you are going to get. We got a lot off the new album (my favorite album of 2022), a couple of the older albums, and some unreleased songs, along with their new single “Vampire Empire”, which was one of the highlights of the set. Twice the set was stopped by the band when they noticed people in the audience that needed help. They started one song over but abandoned “Sparrow,” which was kind of a bummer for me as that is a favorite of mine. Adrianne Lenker just scorched on guitar last night. Wow. They brought out Adrianne’s brother Noah to play mouth harp on the final song before the encore. That song was “Spud Infinity,” and they gave that song some time and space and really made it special. They returned to the stage to play a stunning version of “Change,” which was the perfect close for the day. Are there thirty more songs I want to add to that setlist? There are, but that band could play pretty much anything and it would have an impact. They are among the most genuine musicians out there right now. That is all feeling up there and in the moment. That is a rarity and something special, and I am glad we got to witness it at Maha.

From my perspective, it was another great Maha Music Festival. If not my favorite lineup, it was a close second, with four bands I would travel to see and a couple artists that I learned about this year after they were announced for Maha that I am now a fan of. I thought I would age out of this festival years ago, but so far it’s still resonating with me in a big way. We will see what next year brings, it is a whole new era for Maha, and I will be there.

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