West Bank Music Festival with Dessa, 8/20/11

West Bank Music Festival
August 20, 2011

Echoing the grand times of Cedar Fests of old, the second annual West Bank Music Festival took place on a spectacular Saturday filled with great music, good eats and cold drinks. Even though the three blocks of Cedar Avenue that were shut down to accommodate the outdoor stage and various food trucks and tents can't compete with some of the more picturesque settings of other local outdoor festivals, the overall vibe was relaxed and welcoming, while the all-Minnesota music lineup was captivating from start to finish for an emerging festival that is still gathering momentum. [jump]

I was only able to catch the last two songs by the opening act, Brother and Sister, Michael Gaughan's wildly energetic duo/performance piece. But the last song set a festive tone for the day, as a microphone was set in the crowd, and as the participating audience members circled around in time to the music, they were asked to sing into the mic as they passed by. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves, and had smiles on their faces that would remain there for the rest of the day.

​The local "supergroup" Gramma's Boyfriend was next, led by a visibly pregnant Haley Bonar, who energetically sang their pop/punk tunes while enjoying herself on stage. Not surprisingly, the lyrics of their songs seemed to be focused on food ("Chocolate Sandwich" was a title of one track, and chants of "Pizza, Pizza, Pizza" were spread throughout the set). Musically, the talented group bounced easily from one genre to the next, going from a simple, electronic pop song to a minute-long thrash number the next, keeping the growing crowd off balance with their stylistic change of pace. But it was a fun, experimental performance that was quite fitting for the lovely late afternoon.

​The Goondas (fresh off of playing the SoundTown festival earlier in the afternoon) provided a real spark to the festival, drawing the crowd close to the stage with their gritty garage rock and wild stage antics. Their set was a high-octane blast that truly ignited the fest, as the band showed no ill-effects of playing what amounted to their third show in 19 hours (they also played the Rock The Boat benefit the night before). Frontman Brenden Green was perhaps a bit more subdued than the other times I've seen the Goondas perform, just briefly hanging from the top of the small stage while the band tore it up behind him. Green also ceded the lead vocals on a couple different occasions, including when drummer Josh Miller led the band through a spirited cover of the Pixies' "Hey" that was a highlight of their blistering set.

​Retribution Gospel Choir always seem to deliver devastating sets every time they play here, and Saturday was no exception. I was a bit worried about how the relatively small stack of speakers and amps would be able to handle their volatile sound, but that didn't prove to be a concern, as the band sounded absolutely amazing as they tore through their energetic set. Opening with a fiery version of "Your Bird," the band never really looked back, only taking brief breaks so that frontman Alan Sparhawk could tell some twisted jokes or encourage people to "Come back up to Duluth. It's safe."

​The band reworked an energetic version of Low's "Hatchet," that was an early set highlight, along with what I think were a couple new songs from the trio as well (who have been recording again as of late). There was a long, reggae-tinged intro to a blistering version of "Poor Man's Daughter" that really proved to be a showstopper during their wild set. A terrific version of "Hide It Away" eventually dissolved into a long, experimental jam, with Sparhawk leading the way with his deft, dynamic guitar work. The one-two punch of "Breaker" and "Electric Guitar" really ended the set on an absolute high, as Sparhawk wailed away with reckless abandon before confidently bringing the set to a close. This stirring performance most assuredly won RGC some new fans, while making their longtime supporters excited to eventually hear album number three.

​Dessa closed out the outdoor portion of the festival to the biggest crowd of the day. And unfortunately, the concerns I had about the sound system earlier proved to be a big issue during her headlining set. Dessa had a terrific three-piece backing band behind her (featuring Dustin Kiel on guitar, Joey Van Phillips on drums, and stand-up bassist Sean McPherson), and Aby Wolf joined her on vocals for most of the set. But while the band was plenty audible, it was Dessa and Aby's impassioned vocals that were mostly washed away.

Brother and Sister

Brother and Sister

While she tore through a good portion of her excellent record, A Badly Broken Code, her vocals didn't carry that well, causing the tracks to lose some of their kick in the process. So while "Mineshaft II," "My Chaconne," and "Dixon's Girl" typically bring the house down, from where I was standing the songs were mostly just lost in the night air. It didn't sound much better up front either, as their vocals were sadly overwhelmed by the intoxicating rhythms of the band. But Dessa's supreme talent and passionate spirit easily won over the crowd despite the sound issues.

​The party continued with indoor shows at all the bars along Cedar Ave., all drawing large crowds to their intimate stages. The Nomad was as packed as I've ever seen it for performances from Fuck Knights (which unfortunately didn't start until nearly 11, killing some of the momentum of the well-paced day), and the 4onthefloor, who closed out the night with a highly-charged, energetic set that stretched into the early hours of Sunday morning. The 4onthefloor's lengthy, stellar set featured tracks from their fantastic new EP ... And 4 Riders Approached at Dawn, as well as requests from the well-lubricated, boisterous crowd. There was even crowd surfing during their set, the first time I've ever seen that happen at the Nomad. It was a wild and fitting way to end a great day of music on the West Bank.

Critic's Bias: There are few things I like more than a good outdoor music festival.

The Crowd: Relaxed and easy-going at the start, filled in quite nicely by the time RGC and Dessa played, and grew quite inebriated by the time the late-night shows went down.

Overheard In The Crowd: "You going to drink that?"

Random Notebook Dump: I only hope that this festival gets better every year. The many musical gems of the West Bank should be celebrated.

For More Photos: See our full West Bank Music Festival slideshow by Tony Nelson.

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