The first thing we did Friday was head over to Steelstacks, where we caught a bit of Dueling Pianos. This was one of the most boring shows we caught at Musikfest this year. Although the crowd was packed, they were playing to an audience whose median age bordered on ‘nursing home’. And while they sounded OK musically, they didn’t really ‘duel’, like you’d see in a bar of a similar name. It was a pretty lackluster time, but the crowded room set up the stage for the next amazing act. More on that in a bit.
This is Mree/Marie, an immensely talented young songwriter who has been to Musikfest in the past. Her music has grown over the years, and her songs are becoming increasingly complex and beautiful. With a subdued sound an a voice as delicate as a butterfly’s wings, you could hear a pin drop in Lyrikplatz when she wasn’t playing or singing. Her haunting vocals make you want to put on her albums and watch as the snow falls outside on a cold winter’s eve. At one point in her set she started looping her songs, starting with ripping a piece of paper, then tapping on a book with a children’s drumstick, creating a distinct and catchy beat that was not unlike The Postal Service. On her last song, a cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” she invited the crowd to sing along, but she had the audience so enraptured that no one dared utter a note. It was truly a spectacular performance.
Next up? Our show of the fest. Puddles Pity Party, who gained fame from a YouTube video of him performing a Lorde cover with Postmodern Jukebox, was a funny, charming, weird, and entertaining. For a guy whose videos pretty much solely consist of him standing there awkwardly, towering above everyone in a really odd clown suit, his show proved to be spectacular. He was entered through the back of the Musikfest Cafe, grumpily making his way through the crowd, carrying his suitcase. Not saying a word, he took out a small American flag, messed around with it a bit, and had the audience stand as he sang the Star Spangled Banner. He sang a series of covers, and interspersed them with odd humor that only he could pull off. He pulled a kid, Kevin, supposedly, and sang happy birthday to him (it wasn’t his birthday), and gave him a balloon that said “Clarence” on it. When some dude screamed, “Freebird”, he jumped down off the stage, tracked him down, and did the same, and then made him sing karaoke to Whitney Houston. His voice is just as beautiful in person as it is in his videos. Although his comedy was keen, him singing something like “Hallelujah” was the real treat (although people were inexplicably laughing throughout the song, despite him doing nothing to warrant it). He played to the crowd, and the crowd ate him up. The house was packed more than I may have ever seen it before for a seated show, and for good reason. Puddles isn’t just a sad clown who sings sad versions of songs, he’s an emotional and vocal powerhouse, who, despite his awkward and brutish demeanor, can elicit laughter from even the shiest of kids or grumpiest of adults.
Oh, OK then.
Just some late night grilling
For our last fest show of Friday, we hit up favorites Gangstagrass, who were playing to a pretty packed tent down at Volksplatz. Since we last saw them two years ago they switched their line-up around a little bit, which has given their music a more refined, focused sound. While we still agree with what someone said when we first saw them, that many of their songs sound similar, their unique take on two styles is still fresh and appreciated.
Then it was off to the Wooden Match to snap a few pics, have a few beers, and listen to Bethlehem favorites Trouble City All-Stars
Saturday the first band we saw were new Bethlehem pop-punk band Cedar Green, who were booked as part of a high school program that Artsquest works with where students pick the acts. These guys had potential, however fell short due to shoddy lead vocals. Not only that, but the vocals were being drowned out by the drums and guitars, leaving the whole thing sounding very sloppy. They played half originals and half covers (Blink 182’s “First Date, Paramore’s “Misery Business”, All Time Low’s “Dear Maria”, and Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down”), the last of which probably sounded the best. For a relatively new group, they’ve got potential, but they’ve got a whole bunch of kinks to work out before they get there.
After Cedar Green, we caught a bit of Philly group Kuf Knotz, who provided for funky grooves on a sunny afternoon, which was welcome, but fell short of really capturing the attention of anyone in attendance. Kuf’s music sounds much more energetic on his recorded material, something that failed to translate to his live show.
Holy Infancy’s chicken with rice and beans, which we discovered was the perfect drunken food to pass around as a community plate.
Ah yes, our favorite, the Hogar Crea shish kebab. While we heard a variety of people bitching about them this year (a few fellow festers got burnt ones, another person almost died [literally] eating one), luck had it that ours had huge chunks of juicy beef done just right. And we didn’t die.
Following an eating binge, it was time to hit the other side of the bridge for the band that backed Puddles in his infamous video, Postmodern Jukebox. For those who aren’t in the know, these guys are YouTube stars in their own right, discovered by the crazies over at Reddit and propelled to stardom from a few videos shot in the bandleader’s apartment. They play jazz and big band-inspired covers of modern songs, which, when performed live, were delivered with mixed results. We didn’t stick around for their entire set, but they played Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Miley Cyrus, the last of which was their best. Armed with a lot of singers (some who notably superior to others), a large band, and a tap dancer, they put on a visually impressive show that impressed us and the audience at Americaplatz.
This is Nick D and the Believers, an Ohio trio who we were very excited to see. Their single, “Bang Bang” is an infectious, poppy, radio-ready hit that should get them some decent play somewhere. They played two sets, with a bunch of the same songs in each, which we didn’t mind as it was our first time hearing many of them. These guys put on a great show, rocking out with their synth and guitar in the street, to a fairly unenthusiastic crowd for a Saturday night. Check them out, as they could be the next big thing. Between their sets we caught a bit of Gangstagrass, who were playing over at Liederplatz to a sizable crowd, hence the few pics thrown in the middle here.
It was then the long walk over to the SouthSide to the TD Community Stage to see White Like Fire, a great indie act from Pittsburgh. They played from 11 to about 12:45 and put on a great show, albeit to a fairly small group of late festers. I’m always curious as to the reason bars are packed until 2am on Saturday nights after Musikfest but you can’t get people to stay and watch a great band? They were even serving beer fairly late, so that wasn’t even the issue. Yeah well, people missed on a solid set from these guys.
Following the mass consumption of beer on Saturday night, what’s better to get some spring back in your step than buffalo chicken and cheesesteak eggrolls with spicy ketchup? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. These were from festival newcomers Grateful Spread, and they were fucking AWESOME. We were a little said their ‘crabby’ fries looked shitty, but the more we can save our cholesterol levels the better, at this point. We should also mention the lack of photos for Sunday, which is due to a camera malfunction (as in we’re dumbasses, forgot to charge the battery ,and tried to conserve it all day) and because we didn’t see one damn musical act all day (save for a tiny bit of the Blues Brotherhood). We took in some food and dinosaurs and called it a day after the fireworks.
Next up was a grilled cheese from Bee’s Knees. We had one of their specialty ones earlier in the festival, in the form of sandwich with havarti, avocado, arugula, and pesto. This time we opted for a classic grilled cheese on white bread with bacon, which hit the spot just fine.
These are the dinosaurs, which were creepy, awesome, and insane. Performers on stilts stand in them, and control them with body movements and electronics. The eyes and the beaks move and can peck at people, and the dinosaurs emit sounds as they’re tromping around the festival grounds. It was quite a spectacle to see, and I have to give big props to Artsquest for bringing such an awesome and unique thing to the festival.
We had one of these for the first time last year, an awesome gourmet popsicle. This one was basil pineapple, which sounds like a weird combination, but worked surprisingly well and was extremely refreshing.
And to top off our Musikfest coverage, what better to end with than a Portuguese donut, a piece of fried dough as big as a small car?
And thus wraps up our photos and reviews of Musikfest 2014. It was a stellar year for Artsquest and for attendees, other than the violence that struck the town throughout. We’re not a crime or politics blog, so we’ll leave that to other websites to comment on. What we can say is that the music and the food this year are some of the best we’ve ever seen at the festival, and it was a banner year for all involved. That said, we have a few complaints and suggestions we’d like to get out there:
1) We’d love to see more food vendors on the SouthSide. We realize Artsquest is there with two vendors, and Cactus Blue, Island Noodles, and Aw Shucks are all present, but there really needs to be more options for the amount of traffic they get on some days. There’s room enough for a few more stands and I’m sure they could get vendors to fill the slots.
2) This is a yearly complaint, but we, and many from the general public, want more craft beer. Naturally there’s limitations to this given that Banko Beverage has very close ties with Artsquest, but people want a better product. The only place to get a better mug fill at the festival itself is on the SouthSide, and even then the options aren’t as good as the Steel Pub or MacGrady’s. On the North there’s a lot more options with the likes of Brew Works and McCarthy’s jumping in the fray, but better beer is better for everyone.
3) Venue problems. We’ve commiserated in the past about the Main Street venue and it hasn’t gotten any better. It’s a cramped, super-shoddy stage with bad lighting and a layout that creates a terrible bottleneck if there’s a hyped/good band playing on a weekend. They need to rotate the stage 90 degrees and put it right against the barricades on Broad and put a real stage up like we’ve seen at countless other festivals and street fairs. It wouldn’t be hard or cost a lot and might even alleviate some of the youth hanging around that particular corner in front of Brew Works and the Aardvark running store.
We also noticed the absolute awkwardness of the Liederplatz venue this year. When you have a band like Ganstagrass at Volksplatz rapping in people’s faces, it gets the crowd going. When you’re standing or sitting looking up at a stage like you’re watching a rocket launch, it ruins the vibe a bit. And while this is a proper stage, there’s a big ass tree that gets in the way of viewing the show. We’re not sure how to fix this, but I’m sure some enterprising stage engineer could come up with a clever solution.
And lastly, there’s a chair problem at Musikfest. Obviously chairs are needed at venues, because not everyone can stand, or wants to stand, or is coherent enough to be upright. That said, if there’s a band like the Red Elvises, or Splintered Sunglight, or any number of large, crowd-drawing bands coming to play a venue, chairs and tables need to be cleared out to make a larger dance area. We watched as poor interns ran around trying to collect chairs last minute at Splintered Sunlight because people were just tossing them to the side. We saw an insanely crowded dance floor at the Boogie Wonder Band spilling into the aisles and people being kicked out due to fire code (or something). Chairs are fine. Great, even. But when you’ve got a band drawing hundreds of people and you just can’t physically pack them into a small dance area, something else needs to be done to make a better solution for everyone, the sitters and the standers.
And that concludes our festival coverage for the year. We hope you enjoyed it, and we’ll see you again later in the year when the Musikfest 2015 concert announcements start rolling in.