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Festival Review: Savannah Stopover 2013

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While most of the music business were readying themselves for the musical, physical, and emotional onslaught of South by Southwest, a brave few got the party started early at Savannah Stopover. Already in its third year, the festival, as its name might indicate, “capitalizes on the logistical good fortune of Savannah, Georgia’s proximity to interstates 95 and 10 by presenting traveling musicians with a welcoming place to play en route to Austin’s annual SXSW.”

In a way, Stopover definitely serves the role as a warm up for many bands. Established acts like Thurston Moore can test-run his new band Chelsea Light Moving, more buzzy acts like a Merchandise can get a feel for the national spotlight and the grind of festival life, and up-and-comers can work to raise enough interest to get some more butts in the seats once they hit ATX. Plus, it even helps festival-goers and journalists knock out a few shows as a way to lighten their own SXSW schedule. Logistically speaking, it’s a nice bit of mutualism, the live music experience of those little birds that clean out dirt and food from the mouths of hippos or alligators.

Even still, Stopover is more than just a dry run for industry insiders. Just as SXSW has molded and shaped itself to the cultural and physical make-up of downtown Austin, Stopover is working hard to ingrain itself to the city of Savannah. On one hand, it’s about recreating the laid-back, easy-going vibe of the city — a festival without pretense. And while SXSW is a daunting task that absorbs most people’s entire stay in the city, Stopover has learned to share the wealth with its municipality, staging later showtimes and fewer gigs as to accommodate more touristy options. It may not make for as an exciting and rushed time as SXSW, but Stopover isn’t focused on out-doing SXSW. Instead, it’s looking to bring prestige to an unheralded city.

There’s no denying it’s a young festival with plenty to learn about minute planning details like parking and transit, expanding at an incremental pace as to still maintain its primary goal, not outgrowing the city as a whole and thus becoming a burden, and generally the sort of topics that only can be learned by the awkwardness of experience. Still, it’s on its way to fulfilling a specific role while demonstrating that the festival circuit isn’t all about competing lineups or who can outshine who. So, enjoy our look at the little festival that can, something we hope will one day be as important of a tradition as SXSW itself. Just minus the ceaseless exhaustion and blistered feet.

– Chris Coplan
News Editor

Thursday, March 7th

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Merchandise -  Knights of Columbus – 9:30 p.m.

Early into the band’s set, Merchandise frontman Carson Cox told the crowd, “This next one is a slow one. So you don’t have to dance. You can even fucking turn around.” No doubt, the young Florida band was responding to an air of uncertainty from some of the crowd, many of whom stumbled in to catch Chelsea Light Moving. But Cox got it wrong; the crowd wasn’t wondering who they were, but rather what they were.

But that may well be when the band is at their most effective: with audience members off-guard, the riffs have more impact, the anthems more alluring and inspiring, and every dissonant twang of the guitar or pounding drum part combines the audience into one collective mass hungry to be tossed around inside the faceless musical cyclone. And by the time the crowd had begun to figure out the band’s path, they brought out dual saxophone players for some Springsteen-inspired post-punk jam where sweat-soaked dancers and waves of pure noise and dissonance collided. But this latest development helped clear the air, turning that sense of uncertainty into one crisp with the crackle of exhilaration and astonishment. Whether members of the crowd had been moved enough to seek out the band later on, there was at least that span of one hour on a beautiful March night where every one knew the name Merchandise.

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Chelsea Light Moving – Knights of Columbus – 10:30 p.m.

I have this sort of sense of Thurston Moore, one that may or may not be totally accurate. As a founding member/guiding force of Sonic Youth, and thus a purveyor of noise as a whole, Moore should be rocking stages across the world. But here he is, playing in some hall to a couple hundred people on a Thursday night, and the fact that he’s doing so as part of Chelsea Light Moving doesn’t take away from the fact that this is Thurston fucking Moore. But he shot my little theory right to pieces when he presented himself as the most fun-loving, easy-going, and accessible guy of perhaps the entire weekend. He made jokes, cracked wise, told funny stories about songs he’d written, and his thoughts on Rolling Stones albums; he even shared a beer and a hug with a devoted fan who named her kid Thurston Rex. And not only was he the kind of guy you’d let date your sister, the music itself wasn’t half bad, either.

The alt-leaning fury of the band’s debut album gets fleshed out live, thanks in part to the interplay of Moore and his band members bassist Samara Lubelski, guitarist Keith Wood, and drummer John Moloney.  The joy they get from playing together was written on the band’s face, and that kind of dedication is something slightly unsuspected and wholly relieving as a fan who wants to see something as pure and essential as rock stars being in the moment. It seems odd that having Moore and co. playing fucked up punk rock would be this wholesome, life-affirming experience, but it just goes to demonstrate that some preconceptions are totally groundless. Oh, and Moore was also way less tall looking in real life.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Von Goellner

Hunters – Taco Abajo – 12:00 a.m.

If there’s someone who is actually doing it really right, it’s Isabel Almeida from New York’s Hunters. With her pink hair and long, lanky limbs that remind of a serpent or a praying mantis, Almeida’s stage performance evokes a kind of mixed sense, with the innocent looks and casual sex appeal of the Runaways combining with the more jagged, unapproachable qualities of Wendy O. Williams, resulting in a compelling blend of attraction and compulsion.

Whether she’s curled up in a ball on the monitors, screaming her heart out, or coming dangerously close to thrust kicking guitarist Derek Watson in the dome, it’s like watching a wild animal stalk its prey. The only downside, though, is that Hunters may be a talented group with an ace in the hole with Almeida, their music can often be unfocused, falling into the vast ocean of garage-/art-rock bands. Just don’t tell her I said any of this; I don’t want to take a roundhouse kick to the teeth.

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Mac DeMarco – The Jinx – 1:00 a.m.

For as much as I totally miscalled Thurston Moore’s stage presence, Mac DeMarco confirmed every single thing I ever assumed about him and his music ten times over. If the groundhog from Caddy Shack and Billy Murray from the same film were somehow combined using the teleporter from The Fly, I’d like to think the resulting lifeform would be Mr. DeMarco. As much as some of his kookiness can distract from the really earnest and universally-accessible lyrical constructs, there is almost that sense seeing him on stage that you’re seeing him in his truest and most pure form.

Even as he does a goofy voice or engages in an extended duck-walk across the stage, the whole time DeMarco is pulling strings and dictating the evening’s pacing and energy. He’s a masterful band leader, his goofiness is just enough to be charming while also placing an emotional distance between himself and the crowd. And without making too much of a big deal about it, the crowd ate it all up like nachos or cheap beer, even if DeMarco’s hooks and songwriting were overlooked in favor of his gimmicks and the song’s inherent danceability. While he may be one of the more unpredictable frontmen in rock and roll today, DeMarco takes that position more serious than a heart attack.

Friday, March 8th

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Von Goellner

Whiskey Dick – The Jinx- 6:00 p.m.

Full disclosure: I totally chose to go see Whiskey Dick based solely on the name and to find out what guys who would dare to use such a moniker might look like. As it turns out, though, the group is mostly just musician Tony Beasley, a big, burly dude who looks like he’s in a sludge metal band. Beasley’s music couldn’t be further from his appearance, a lonesome, self-deprecating blend of outlaw country, folk, and bluegrass that sees him on guitar while accompanied by, apparently, various musicians. For the most part, Beasley only really sings about whiskey and women because, in his words, “what else is there?”

But leaving boozin’ behind, Beasley did stretch his wings slightly, demonstrating real emotional depth with an anti-marriage song that featured the goosebump-inducing line “Why let that ring be an endless circle/when it’s only one of misery and lies”. But like any good country artist who understands the inherent disappointment and disregard of the genre, Beasley seemed at ease with performing for less than five people at the bar he works at, so long as people hear what he’s got to say. And, despite the goofy name, we should all be listening by now.

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Von Goellner

of Montreal – Forsyth Park – 8:00 p.m.

While the park setting didn’t exactly work out for Royal Canoe, it went over like gangbusters for of Montreal. Not only was the setting a perfect place for one of their off-kilter psych-pop dance parties, it demonstrated just how many varied social groups can get behind what Kevin Barnes and company lay down. At one point, my immediate vicinity was made up of a couple of bros, some hardcore dudes, a couple of hippie/rave chicks, a mom and her two young sons, and a man with a massive poodle. Yet every one of those people made sense at an of Montreal show, which makes you feel a part of some larger social group, which in turns gets you on your feet and shaking your posterior muscles. Still, what I enjoy about the band’s live show is that, while I felt comfortable, they craftily make the experience both wholesome and family friendly while they also make it really naughty and kinda subversive.

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Alex Bleeker & The Freaks – The Jinx – 10:00 p.m.

Frontman Alex Bleeker is more well-known for being the bassist of indie darlings Real Estate. But when he and his Freaks are doing their own thing, their music is vastly different from that of his day job. I like to think of them as the band Camper Van Beethoven probably would have been had they continued along the path of their debut LP, Telephone Free Landslide Victory (though this may have just been born after I interviewed CVB’s David Lowery earlier in the day for a separate piece.) Like CVB on their debut, Bleeker and company sort of toe the line between punk and indie and country; but where CVB infused more psych and Middle Eastern music in those early LPs, Bleeker has gone for more of a pub-rock/blues combo, which really helps to add some context and texture to their driving rock sound.

In the very same way that CVB had a penchant for cover songs, the outfit busted out a random cover of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine”, turning the old pop standby into a jangly piece of strummy power-pop that evoked the wit and playful ferocity of a Cheap Trick. Bleeker and his gang did more than just evoke thoughts of other bands; they were a tight-knit unit whose subtle interplay was remarkable despite the project’s relative youth (their debut EP dropped in 2010), displaying a lot of depth despite singing more basic numbers about friendship and having a good time. If you’re going to toss back a few brewskis on a Friday night, Alex Bleeker & The Freaks should be your choice of soundtrack.

Saturday, March 9th

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Photo courtesy of Andrew Von Goellner

The End of America – Sparetime – 6:00 p.m.

Though I came to Whiskey Dick because of the name, I came to see New York’s The End of America because of Beck. Shortly before Stopover, the trio were flown out to Los Angeles, where they performed ”Please Leave a Light On” from Mr. Hansen’s Song Reader as part of a showcase for the man himself. Sure, the band made sure to mention it, and they made sure to play said song again, but even without Beck’s (somewhat tangential) seal of approval, these guys have got it going on. First and foremost, their harmonies; I don’t want to compare them to Crosby, Stills and Nash, but their harmonies are so beautifully blended that they evoked the same sense of awe as the more famous trio’s golden pipes. Each man also has what I’d call the Frontman Quality, that magical and rare blend of talent, charisma, and communicative abilities that made the group seem even more equal and effective than even the prettiest of harmonies.

Still, there is one sort of major concern, and it’s some of the song choices they’ve made. While they bring forth the rural fury with guitar and mandolin, the lyrical concepts are often limited to the hokier realm of country, like living in small towns and spooky cemeteries. Countering that, though, they embraced the genre’s cheesy tendencies and delivered a slightly clichéd song where they unplugged their instruments, drew the crowd in, and sang like the dickens. It’s been done a million times, but felt like a special moment because they embraced it with an invigorating sense of authenticity.

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Shark? – Taco Abajo – 8:00 p.m.

Brooklyn’s Shark? (yes, you do say it like a question) is a weird band. They don’t have some hook like weird clothes or makeup; instead, they’re a rather frighteningly average pair of four white dudes. Frontman Kevin Diamond looks like a software designer, drummer Andy Swerdlow makes the weirdest faces ever, guitarist Chris Mulligan has an ugly haircut, and bassist Andy Kinsey looks like almost anyone’s creepy second cousin (you know you have one). But man oh man do these dudes rock the fuck out. Their sound is fractured, stuck between noise and punk and garage, trying desperately to juggle every influence and either succeeding or failing so loudly and spectacularly that the resulting song is still a marvel of pure white dude angst. They may look weird while out on stage, but they’re technically sound and skilled enough to build up those quick, honeyed grooves.

Rock and roll should be made by dudes too busy to think of cool shirts to wear and guys who literally rolled off the floor of the van to destroy your ear drums and sing tunes about stupid girls who live in California. It makes it more real, more accessible, and it makes the audience more invested no matter the emotional endgame they’re trying to get across. Because, in a way, you see them as you friends and buddies, making us believe that real rock prowess is attainable by anyone with a guitar to play and an axe to grind. So, to my painfully average fellow crackers, I salute you.

Field Report – B&D Burgers (Upstairs) – 10:00 p.m.

Here is a truly rare instance where the venue doesn’t matter and the band will hook your ears and heart-strings no matter how many Bud Lights are tossed back. Wisconsin’s Field Report took the stage of the wonderfully cheestacular B&D Burgers and did not retreat from the crowds of wholly uninterested. Instead, they laid down their atmospheric blend of folk-rock, never shying away from building it as slowly and methodically as they’d always intended to. Even as guys in crowd drunkenly screamed stuff like, “Play happier music!”, the band continued along their own path, actually getting more delicate and nuanced in the building of their huge, sparse anthems of forlorn and heartache.

Perhaps what allowed them to be so dedicated, so brazen in their pursuit of a certain musical truth, is that the band rely heavily on each other. Tons of bands demonstrate a sense of cohesion as they build to some grand emotional moment, but Field Report are plotting along together the entire time, with every quiver and shake and worried face being facilitated and purveyed by the entire band. It’s that kind of emotion that is contagious, moving from the stage to the crowd and making it easy to forget that you’re surrounded by people who have, whether by choice or circumstance, are neglecting such an emotional experience. It’s also the sort of work that proves that even the worst kind of heartache and loss can be uplifting, no matter of the location and/or its number of neon signs or stuffed gator wall art.

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Filligar – Congress Street Social Club (Inside) -11:00 p.m.

I found the lads of Shark? to be unattractive but totally rocking. Any guesses as to what I thought of the dreamboats of Chicago’s Filligar? It’s odd that their music is so decidedly unappealing. Inspired by everyone from Bob Dylan to Wilco, they play a really popular brand of bluesy garage rock, with a lot of emphasis on the more impassioned key work of one Casey Gibson. Yet, everything that should be really prevalent and vibrant from those influences, the reckless abandon, the spontaneity, and even the more rough-around-the-edges sensibility, is either absent or painfully lacking in the band’s sound. Not to say that they’re phoning it in, cause they’re skilled musicians, or even that they just don’t know life’s struggles enough to really sing the blues, because most acts might not either.

But there’s just something missing from the band to help them get that much-needed X-Factor. And I don’t want this to come off as the ugly weirdo hating on a bunch of pretty boys as a means for vengeance; if anything, I’d love for them to have the whole package as they could be a truly successful band. But as is, there’s nothing to keep them moving upward, aside from more supporting gigs behind The Black Keys or Otis Day & The Knights. But, on the bright side, they’re probably getting enough tale to make this the least of their concerns.

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Photo courtesy of Brooke Atwood

Turbo Fruits – The Jinx – 12:00 a.m.

As a whole, Savannah Stopover has a lot of things going for it. It’s hometown is beautiful and easy to navigate, plenty of bands will play on their way to SXSW (ergo, the whole “stopover” concept), and the whole city seems to be behind it in working toward a shared goal of cultural and financial success. But if there is anything it’s got going against it, it’s a lack of diversity Still, I am glad I closed out the weekend with the stylings of Nashville’s own Turbo Fruits. Everything about this band screams garage or punk, from the huge hooks and chords to the lyrics about money and motorcycles and even frontman Jonas Stein’s American flag guitar.

Still, the band stand out by infusing way more metal tendencies, a vein that’s especially prevalent in their tight, focused live show and synchronized rocking. It’s also prevalent in the level of polish the quartet have worked to build into their overall sound, sounding like they’ve got a real sense of themselves and a dedication to a decisive end as opposed to the musical meanderings of some of their peers. They don’t exactly bring the house down like some other bands in their scene might, but there is a ton to be said of consistency, reliability, and a certain musical prowess. Here’s hoping that their particular musical aesthetic becomes a benchmark for all future Stopovers.

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