It finally feels like summer today. Too bad it's the day after not only Independence Day, but also Des Moines' biggest independent-minded music festival: the 2nd annual 80/35. I left Brooklyn to move to Des Moines exactly one week ago, so I missed Iowa's heat waves earlier this season-- I was too busy enjoying gray day after gray day en route to what meteorologists at Penn. State have called New York City's second-wettest June on record. Nobody I've met is more weather-minded than Iowans, however: Just ask my wife to read the Doppler radar for you sometime. Despite two unseasonably damp, chilly days this Fourth of July weekend, Des Moines music lovers joined with national acts ranging from Public Enemy and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks to Broken Social Scene and Ben Harper to help make what I managed to see of 80/35 a success in almost every way.
Every way, I'm nervous we'll find out, except one. The Des Moines Music Coalition estimated Friday night's attendance at 4,500, Juice writer Joe Lawler reports in the Des Moines Register. The festival needs paid attendance of no fewer than 12,000 for both days to avoid losing money, Lawler notes. I haven't seen definitive totals yet, but organizers estimated Saturday's paid and unpaid attendance (there were two free stages) at 12,000, as Kyle Munson reports in this morning's Register. Does that mean Friday night's figure included unpaid attendees, too? I don't know yet whether the festival hit the magic number it needed to break even, but it will have been sort of miraculous even if it did-- this is only the second installment of an indie-oriented music festival, after all, in a recession year and on a rain-soaked weekend. UPDATE: Lawler reports total estimated paid attendance of 12,000, apparently meeting the break-even point, although beer sales declined.
Already, one Register commenter is complaining, "Am I the only one peeved that the city that is supposed to be in a budget crisis has putting money towards this event?" Probably not. But let me be the first to argue-- loudly, repeatedly, from every rooftop from the Ruan Building to Principal Park-- that a festival of this kind is worth it for Des Moines. I'm new here, and I realize it's up to you to decide whether more young opinionated dudes like me are even what you want in Des Moines, but I gotta say I would've been a lot less likely to up and buy a place here-- my wife's roots in the area (and my own ties) notwithstanding-- if not for 80/35 and the resurgence of downtown culture, dining, and nightlife it represents. I can't imagine I'll be the only person who feels that way. That's good for real estate prices and for local businesses. If Iowa wants to fight "brain drain," fun and well-run events like 80/35 are a great step toward doing it.
80/35 can be good for Des Moines' image in a different way, as well. Here's Public Enemy's Chuck D talking to Cityview's Michael Swanger: "I tell people all the time Iowa has always been one of the progressive states." Lest you think he's just kissing up to the hometown crowd, D adds: “When you tell the other 49 states, they’re like ‘huh?’ But they took notice last year [with President Barack Obama winning the Iowa Caucus].” The rap legend gave the city another sort of boost upon his arrival, delivering inspirational messages to local youths at Des Moines social-service agency Urban Dreams: "Y'all don't know how good you've got it here," the Register's Daniel P. Finney quotes him saying. Sure, D also still seems to think people are listening to "gangsta rap," and there's the whole confusing story of Flavor Flav's non-appearance. But the point remains: Des Moines doesn't have the major-league sports franchises of a Kansas City or a St. Louis. What it does have is a remarkable history on civil rights, from the landmark 1948 civil rights victory at Katz Drug Store that presaged the broader Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, to the mind-blowing heroics of shoulda-been first African-American Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Bright in 1951, right on through to being the first state to establish an African-American as a valid presidential candidate and one of only a few states to recognize the right of homosexual couples to be legally wed. In other words, Iowa gets it. A music festival is one way to showcase the state's open and accepting culture for the rest of the nation.
Last year I spent the Fourth of July in Denmark. I was lucky enough to get to cover the Roskilde music festival for Pitchfork. Roskilde is the biggest festival in Northern Europe, and the third-biggest in all of Europe; last year the performers included the likes of Radiohead, Jay-Z, My Bloody Valentine, the Chemical Brothers, the Streets, Band of Horses, Girl Talk, Cat Power, No Age, Judas Priest, Robyn, Lykke Li, Santigold, Slayer, and many many more. The festival was an amazing experience I'll never forget, characterized by a very Midwestern slogan: "Take care of each other." Of course, some differences between Scandinavia and the Midwest can never be bridged-- the drinking age, for example. But if a dedicated arts-focused community can bring so much talent such a great distance, transforming a historic little town of about 46,000 into a musical hub, then with time and hard work, there's no reason 80/35 can't go on to see its own large-scale successes. All it takes is time and hard work: Look at Bonnaroo. I'm not sure Des Moines is the right place for an event exactly like that one, but if Manchester, Tenn., can do it, I have no doubt Iowa can come up with a musical tradition of its own, in its own way.
So, 80/35. I can only really write about what I saw: For our first weekend back in Mrs. Des Noise's hometown, we had family priorities, too, as I hope you'll understand. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks were laconic but commanding on Friday night, shouting-out local boy Bob Nastanovich and alternating woolly guitar solos from latest album Real Emotional Trash with taut indie-rock crowd pleasers like Face the Truth's "Pencil Rot".... Great drumming from Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and Quasi.... And on a personal note, it was just fun finally to see Malkmus play live... Still not Pavement, but what is? Philly's Man Man were another highlight-- this is the second time I've just barely not actually seen them, but their carnie-rock freakouts caused dancing even outside the pay gates (Metromix Des Moines tweeted that lead singer Honus Honus was wearing "near daisy dukes"). On one of the free stages, New York up-and-comers Cymbals Eat Guitars made their retro 1990s indie-rock sound more gnarled and aggressive than I expected, which should be a good sign for this month's Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. Omaha-based Tilly and the Wall's multicolored indie-pop performance was another favorite, inciting plenty of crowd participation despite an early set time, their powerfully cavernous drum sounds almost making up for their heavy reverb's tendency to muffle the songs. I was into Hasidic reggae guy Matisyahu when he was settling into heavy sci-fi dub grooves; less so when he was parroting "No Woman No Cry" for a song from his forthcoming album. A previously unheard discovery was Athens, Ga.-based Modern Skirts, who opened with three drummers and went on to sketch out rhythmically uptight rock terrain that reminded me of times of Spoon, Pavement (from whom their name derives), and even the harmony-laden keyboard-pop of the Zombies. As with bigger music festivals like CMJ or South by Southwest, 80/35 also sparked concerts outside the official grounds, though try as I might I couldn't catch the name of my favorite among the handful of bands I heard playing at Des Moines Social Club's Sideshow Lounge-- think it sounded like "Robert Allen Hawg"? UPDATE: It's Adam Robert Haug, notes helpful commenter Chris Ford, whose precariously perched keyboard-pop with Christopher the Conquered I also enjoyed.
I was bummed enough by the lateness of Public Enemy's rain-marred appearance (um, Heet Mob? Not on the schedule) that, having seen them last year and not wanting to be responsible for everybody else there with me getting drenched on my account, I left early. (I hate that one of my favorite Iowans can now say he's been to two hip-hop shows, and yet because of performer tardiness he still hasn't actually seen one. You expect that from Mike Jones, but Chuck D?) Either way, by all accounts on Twitter it sounds like Public Enemy put on as good a show as I caught last year at Pitchfork, despite the absence of Flavor Flav. I'm not too into G. Love or Ben Harper, so I used the fact that I'm just writing about this for fun as an excuse to skip out on them. (Excuse for missing Broken Social Scene: I was hungry! Plus, if I really wanted to see them, I would have seen them before.) And I probably shouldn't write about Poison Control Center anymore, but if their noon Saturday set was anything like their free Thursday night show, it was among the festival's highlights-- like 'em live better than Cymbals Eat Guitars, that's for sure.
Final thought: Why should Omaha have a better music scene than Des Moines? (...Zoo, maybe, even airport, but actual culture? They're Cornhuskers fans, for crying out loud!!!) At this rate, pretty soon, maybe they won't.
(Photos, from top to bottom: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Adam Robert Haug, waiting for Public Enemy.)
You can read/watch plenty more (probably much more informative) 80/35 coverage over at the official website.