If you like music, it was a difficult weekend to decide which Midwest festival to attend. With lollapalooza taking place in Chicago and WEfest taking place in Detroit lakes, along with countless concerts from both large scale pop artists and trustworthy local acts, it was one of those weekends where you wished you could be six different places at once. For me, however, there was a lineup that sounded too good to be true, especially as close to Minneapolis as it was. The Hinterland Festival, taking place in St. Charles Iowa ( a little south of Des Moines) promised a weekend full of great music and fun on a hillside just off of Interstate 35. It was a meeting point for many people across the country, and for some, the world.
Opening the weekend Friday evening was Annalibera, a local Iowan band fronted by Anna Gebhardt. Their music was a great way to start off the festival, with their dreamy and comforting songs that were fitting with the crowd as they put their blankets and air couches down and found their spots on the hillside. If The Cranberries were from Iowa, this is what they would sound like. They are close to releasing their next album, but their latest albums and EP’s are on Spotify for you to enjoy.
Up next was Los Angeles act Foxygen, lead by Sam France. Describing their set takes a lot of words that don’t exist yet. Many songs took wild and unexpected turns, almost as much as Sam had in between songs. In his heart shaped glasses and profusion of makeup, he lead the band through a rambunctious set of bowie-like show-tunes, dedicating songs to “the hill people” and reminding people to tip the workers in the food trucks on the other side of the amphitheater. At one point, he joked about quitting the band after shutting down the start of Follow The Leader off of 2017’s Hang. “I don’t wanna play that one” he said, swinging the microphone around, the band slowly falling out of the into to the song. While they did end up playing it, it left the crowd silent, some asking “is…is he being serious?” and while the music was good for some who enjoy the weird jams, Foxygen’s set closed out with Sam ranting into the microphone before shouting “Thank you all, Foo Fighters are next!” many not getting the sarcasm and humor within the band, and left some people asking “What is he on?”
Luckily, The Head and the Heart was here to bring back those who were confused with the last set. The band had come off of a two night stand at Red Rocks Amphitheater, with lead singer Jonathan Russell mentioning that his watch was still set to Colorado time, and had literally ran to the stage after hanging with the crowd minutes before their set began. In between songs, band members joked about Jonathan’s outfit, mostly short shorts he claimed he did not intend to wear, but would make Bob Weir proud. The beginning part of their set contained numbers off last years Signs of Light, with the later part of their set featuring songs off of their self titled debut and 2013’s Lets Be Still. Fans mentioned that they did not expect that much old material, but had no complaints about it. While the band is still sans Josiah Johnson, fans were still pleased with their set and their sing-along last song Rivers and Roads.
The headliner for the first night was English indie rock trio alt-J, who’s first visit to Iowa was welcomed immensely by fans. The band was the least vocal of the evening, only speaking a few times in between songs to welcome fans and thank them for coming. Their set was full of their gentle electronic jams and featured many songs off of 2017’s RELAXER. Separated from one another by corrugated rooms of light, alt-J’s set focused just as much on the music as it did the unique light show that set itself apart from every other band that weekend. The screen at times showed the band in 8-bit, or in black and white. Visual senses aside, their music left fans in awe as it echoed in their ears and around the Iowan countryside.
Max Jury kicked off day two as campers and concertgoers arose from their tents and RV’s with coffee and bloody mary’s in hand. Many people didn’t expect this amount of soul and songcraft out of the 21 year old Des Moines native, but he proved himself to concertgoers and showed that Hinterland knows what they’re doing when they pick out their openers. The R&B tune Numb off of his self titled debut released last year definitely grabbed people’s attention, and while some fans may have thought about coming out of their tents later in the day, Max and his band definitely brought some people into the amphitheater earlier than they expected.
Minnesota’s own The Cactus Blossoms came out next, on a stage perhaps three times larger than their home at the Turf Club. They brought out their mellow country tunes reminiscent of the 45’s your grandpa probably has stuffed in a closet but still knows off the top of his head. Stoplight Kisses had enticed smooches between couples while Powder Blue had people swaying side to side as it began to sprinkle rain. Their first record You’re Dreaming, released last year, provided a great soundtrack to many a rainy day, and came to life with the raindrops as they performed their songs live.
But as sing-songy as Max Jury and The Cactus Blossoms were, it had appeared that JD McPherson and his band wanted to put an end to that. Their set was perhaps double the beats per minute as the last two acts combined. They managed to scare the clouds away for a few minutes and bring out the sun, and dried the crowd off with one of the day’s first, and much needed, guitar solo. Although he had produced The Cactus Blossoms last record, JD and his band gave concertgoers and vastly different sound featuring songs across his last two records. JD McPherson got us up and dancing, his music a testament to the rock and roll of the fifties without the corny car culture and Marilyn Monroe calendars.
While JD may be leading the revival of early rock music, Nashville resident Nikki Lane is a leader of the western outlaw revival that’s saving us from the country pop taking over the radio airways. Her band, whom she dubbed the Tennessee Dirtbags, had their title inscribed in yellow lettering on their denim shirts and donned cowboy hats and handlebar mustaches. Nikki’s guitar had Highway Queen engraved on the fretboard, a fitting title for herself as well as the title of her newly released album. Songs of hers like Jackpot and Right Time made an appearance in the setlist, as well as a Bob Dylan cover You Ain’t Goin Nowhere. “I changed the last lyric to be more fitting to me and the band” She told us. “I figure if Bob has a problem with it he can call me up, and we can talk it out and go from there.”
Shakey Graves didn’t have their name on a marquee when they came to Hinterland, so they brought one with them. A small yellow display with black sign lettering and flashing lights sat behind Frontman Alejandro Rose-Garcia. He hails from Austin Texas, and sounds like it. He opened his set with his voice creaking out lyrics and stomping a kick drum, all while strumming his hollowed, overdriven guitar, cigarette burning away in the headstock. The first few songs had him alone on stage in a one-man-band style setting, like a busker on a street corner, before being joined by the rest of his band to play songs across the albums and EP’s that appear on his resume as a musician starting nearly ten years ago. He’s developed quite a following across the country, and was stoked to see the amount of people that were there.
Dwight Yoakam had the most tenure and seniority of the evening, as the sixty year old and his band performed songs over the past thirty-plus years. Sometimes western, sometimes what he described as “cow-punk” Dwight and his band were well versed with the songs, and well dressed. Fans were treated to his hits as well as a couple Merle Haggard tunes, as well as the stories and tales you would expect from a road warrior like himself, including a few from hanging out with his good friend Willie Nelson.
As the sun began to set, Gary Clark Jr, the second guitar slinger from Austin Texas to appear at Hinterland, took the stage. Gary meets all the criteria of the modernday bluesman. Guitar skills that set him apart, vocals that make him sound double the age, and a talent that Eric Clapton and the late B.B. King have approved of. While it’s easy to compare him to the guitar heroes that have come before him, Gary Clark Jr. is unique in his own right, being just as skilled in his songwriting as he is with the fretboard. Fans came out in droves to see him and his band, as he performed songs stretching beyond the blues into R&B and a blend of hip-hop and soul. Concertgoers enjoyed the abundance of guitar solos from both himself and his second guitarist, King Zapata.
Closing out the weekend’s festival was Ryan Adams, whose large music catalogue, stretching across country, to rock, to metal, meant this his set would be nearly double the length of the weekends predecessors. His stage was decorated with old analog TV’s and giant cardboard amplifiers, and a few rogue cardboard cats. Fans were treated to the entire range of his music, the dylan-esque Come Pick Me Up and 80’s infused Do You Still Love Me? Off of his recently released Prisoner. Some songs remained mellow, while others turned into Grateful Dead-type jams, some over 10 minutes in length. Ryan only paused a few times to tell everyone to turn around and look at the moon, shining in the darkness through the clouds. “That’s such a heavy metal moon” he said. “That’s totally an album cover.” and again to sarcastically praise the few fans twirling laser disks in the distance. “This is as close as I’ve come to puking onstage” he said, referencing his Meniere’s Disease. “It’s like, being on drugs without actually being on drugs.” Towards the end of the set he improvised a song as his drummer fixed a drum, with the band chiming in one by one with their instruments. With as good as he is as a songwriter, fans were amazed with how well he made that song up on the spot. His set closed out the weekend around 11:00, his music fitting well with the unseasonably cooler summer evening as fans packed up their spots on the hill and retreated into their tents after a incredible day of music, and a fantastic closure to Hinterland 2017
*Ryan Adams and Dwight Yoakam did not allow photos to be taken during their sets, so out of respect for the artist’s wishes, pictures were not taken and obviously not included in this article.
Special thanks to Ryan Cutler, The Hinterland Team, and guest writer extraordinaire, Maria Eggers.