One of Birmingham’s newest music festivals, Secret Stages music discovery festival is back for another year to fill the downtown loft district with music, food and festivities for two days.
For attendees who are underage or unwilling to stand in dark bars or clubs, a large main stage will serve as a hub for the festival and feature shows throughout the weekend.
Sam George, lead designer and co-founder of the festival, says that the festival has made some changes from last year, but that it’s still trying to maintain its original identity.
“We have increased the budget slightly, to reward ourselves and everyone who attends the festival, but in general we’ve tried to keep the scope of the festival generally as close as possible to last year,” George said.
After the festival’s success last year, there was little need to for drastic change. “The footprint and the number of bands and the venues are all similar to last year,” George said. “All the bands are different, but equally as great.”
The organizers of Secret Stages are looking to attract a bigger audience in wake of the buzz surrounding their second year. “We had close to 3,000 people show up last year, and I’d like to see that number double; I don’t think that’s unrealistic,” George said. “We’ve worked up some buzz. Only time will tell.
With so many new or little-known acts coming to town, Secret Stages is shaping up to be Birmingham’s the best event of the summer for discovering new music.
To help guide you through the festival, Weld contributors Courtney Haden, Madison Underwood, Andy McWhorter, Kenn McCracken and Katherine Webb offer a few of their picks for the festival weekend. For a complete schedule, list of venues and ticket information, visit www.secretstages.net.
Robert Ellis • Miller Lite Main Stage • Saturday • 7:45 p.m.
His publicity photo makes him out to be a wide-brimmed mack daddy in a fur coat, but don’t be fooled: Robert Ellis is more about Jones than Jay-Z. With his vowels neatly flattened by Texas gravity, the young Houston native burns with the sour-mash glow of classic country music, but his songwriting sensibility derives as much from Jackson Browne or Paul Simon.
Ellis is considered the Best Country artist by the Houston Press, perhaps in part for his regular weekly gig on “Whiskey Wednesdays” with a group called The Boys at a great club called Fitzgerald’s. However, with only his acoustic guitar for company, he can hold a room spellbound with original compositions from his first two albums.
Good picking, smooth singing, and we’re lucky to catch the rising star that is Robert Ellis here, en route to this year’s Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Festivals. – CH
Reverend John Wilkins • Miller Lite Main Stage • Saturday • 9:45 p.m.
You likely don’t know him, but if you’ve heard the Rolling Stones do “Prodigal Son,” you’re familiar with his daddy. John Wilkins is the son of Reverend Robert Wilkins, who wrote the song back in the 1930s and had to rassle Mick and Keef for the publishing credit.
Raised in Memphis, the son absorbed all the influences of his father and then some, playing at church and clubs alike in the 1960s. Then, under the father’s ultimate influence, this prodigal son came home to the Hill Country in the 1980s, to be a minister in the Tate County church Mississippi Fred McDowell once attended.
Rev. John put out his first album, You Can’t Hurry God, last year. Listen to him sing and play the blues in a sanctified style, and you’ll agree, as his daddy used to sing, “That’s the way for us to get along.” – CH
Lauderdale • Rogue Tavern • Friday • 12:30 a.m.
In the wake of the Shakes, we think folks will discover a lot of young bands that have been woodshedding around Muscle Shoals the last few years. One of the best is Lauderdale, a five-piece unit bound to be compared with Truckers but in fact running a different part of Highway 72.
Framing the songs of Niles Lee, Lauderdale moves seamlessly from the twangy chill of “Moving On” to the full frontal rock of “Tom at the Seams.” A listener notes the emphasis on melody over mere hooks, and thinks the band could start a new genre called “Alabamacana.”
This is no pick-up project. Lauderdale has been around in varying incarnations since 2005 and have developed a following so devout it was able to use the Kickstarter website to fund its last recording project. Lauderdale will keep you up late Saturday night, but you’ll still be smiling on Sunday morning. – CH
Davey Williams and Andrew Raffo Dewar • Steel • Saturday • 10 p.m.
In a perfect world, Davey Williams would be acknowledged as the master guitarist he is. Of course, in that same world, Captain Beefheart would have headlined Midnight Special and Sun Ra would have guest-starred on The Cosby Show instead of Tito Puente.
We don’t live in a perfect world, but if you’re ready for musical adventure, Davey and his Argentine collaborator, Andrew Raffo Dewar, will take you to a world of their own. The music they’ll play Saturday night is improvisatory in nature but celebratory in performance. As Davey’s said before, “The idea of being a serious musician need not include taking oneself seriously.”
It’s free jazz with a whiff of ozone; it’s surrealism for listening out loud. Guitar and saxophone straight, no chaser. The music of Williams and Dewar is not for the faint of hearing, but in a perfect world it would be. – CH
The Poison Kitchen • Pale Eddie’s Pour House • Saturday • 11:30 p.m.
The electronic music of Ian Eubanks’ solo project The Poison Kitchen is as heavy-hearted as a Thom Yorke album and heavy-beated as an Aphex Twin album. Tracks on a Poison Kitchen record blend progressive rock with electronica and dubstep to create a diverse playlist. The whimsically titled song “Comfy Pants” opens with a mellow yet cheery acoustic guitar progression before sliding into piano and electronic drums to create a highly percussive and meditative track. “Voices” steers away from the sweetness of “Comfy Pants,” indulging in a more urban and industrial world of sirens and unintelligible voices. Tagged as music capable of inducing “melancholy exuberance” by the artist, the Poison Kitchen set is bound to leave you feeling a little gloomy and glad about it. – KW
Dead Fingers • Metro Bar • Saturday • 12:30 a.m.
Married duo Taylor Hollingsworth (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band) and Kate Taylor will play tracks off their self-titled debut record. A little bluesy and highly folk-infused, Dead Fingers’ songs are most interesting in the tension between the missus’s Alabama lilt and the mister’s frog-like vocals. About the track “Another Planet,” the Oxford American says this: “the standout track best exemplifying the couple’s pleasing vocal variance. The melody is sunny, the guitar jangly and dreamy, like a cowboy in love.” Cowboys, grab the ones you love. – KW
St. Paul and the Broken Bones • Miller Lite Main Stage • Friday • 6:30 p.m.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones will be playing one of its first live shows at Secret Stages. But that is not to say that they are beginners. Bassist Jesse Phillips also plays for local band The Grenadines. The eponymous Paul Janeway previously played in Strife Rifle before singing and playing guitar in The Secret Dangers. Janeway now lends his bluesy, warbling voice to St. Paul and the Broken Bones and their jazz and blues influenced sound. The band claims to be a group of “young men giving old music a new twist,” and what little has been released certainly manages to evoke the music of bygone days while still maintaining a modern tone. For festival-goers in search of the best vocalist of the weekend, this might not be a show to miss. – AM
Solid Sender • Pale Eddie’s Pour House • Saturday • 12:30 a.m.
Solid Sender, a local quintet featuring two keyboards, an electric bass, drums and trumpet, manages to hit the sweet spot for instrumentals between jam session and elevator music. Neither too incoherent nor too middle of the road, Solid Sender manages to create listenable yet interesting grooves with a style reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s jazz ensembles. Led by Rob Alley at trumpet, Matthew DeVine, Pedro Mayor, Aaron Goldberg and Kyle McCarter round out the rest of the Solid Sender’s roster this Saturday. – AM
The Urns • Easy Street • Friday • 6:30 p.m.
For a band that’s been around for less than a year, The Urns are already establishing themselves as a name to look out for. But several members of The Urns have a pedigree to live up to. Chayse Porter and Keith Neighbors, who both play guitar and sing in The Urns, come from Younger Siblings, who will also be playing at Secret Stages. Bass player Katherine Simonetti used to play in P.S. Eliot. PJ Jones, who will play the “puffy snare” for the Urns, was in Spells. The Urns recorded their debut “We’re Just Trying to Live” in the basement of the God’s Butt venue in Southside and introduced Birmingham to their unique band of distorted pop music. – AM
The Kid Daytona • Matthew’s Bar • Saturday • 12:25 a.m.
All the way from the Bronx, N.Y., The Kid Daytona comes to Secret Stages as an up-and-coming star of the New York hip-hop scene. After joining Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, The Kid Daytona collaborated with the likes of Chris Brown, Rick Ross and Talib Kweli. He has also been featured in several magazines, including XXL, Fader and Giant, which called him an artist to watch in hip-hop. He was recently named a “Rising Icon” by Grey Goose. In The Kid Daytona’s case, the skill matches the hype. With beats that draw inspiration from jazz, pop, R&B and rock, The Kid Daytona nonetheless raps in a distinctive New York City lingo and accent that stays true to his roots. – AM
Cities Aviv • Matthew’s Bar • Friday • 12:45 a.m.
Cities Aviv’s songs are nothing if not progressive. Gavin Mays’ project out of Memphis, Tenn., builds songs around unraveling samples, a self-assured flow and unexpected lyrics about subjects as diverse as drug culture, Bowser and iCarly. The act is still relatively new though. Mays has so far only released one album and a handful of singles, but a second studio album is planned for later this year. The little work he has released so far has been well received by critics, with Pitchfork naming his single “Coastin’” one of the top 100 tracks of 2011. If your taste in hip-hop lies somewhere between MF Doom, Aesop Rock and RZA, Cities Aviv should be just right. – AM
Frank Fairfield • The Wine Loft • Friday • 10:30 p.m.
To be quite honest with you, I initially chose to write about folkways throwback artist (and former Fleet Foxes opener) Frank Fairfield not because I liked his music (at least initially), but out of some sense of Southern hospitality. I chose Fairfield simply because he is the artist that traveled the farthest to get to Secret Stages (2030 miles), and I figured we should welcome him. But one listen to Fairfield’s solo banjo, fiddle and guitar recordings makes you think he traveled not just through space, but through time. The always immaculately dressed Fairfield has a wobbly, folksy voice that sounds like it ought to be emanating from a Victrola rather than my headphones. His covers of traditional songs like “Cumberland Gap,” “Call Me a Dog When I’m Gone,” and “Nine Pound Hammer” are worth the price of admission in themselves, and the originals on his sophomore effort, Out on the Open West, are fine listening too. – MU
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires • Das Haus • Friday • 11:15 p.m.
There’s not enough room here to tell you how much I like Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires and their first record, There’s a Bomb in Gilead. I want to take this limited space to urge you to see these guys live. The young Bains, a veteran of the Dexateens, already has the stage presence of any great—he is immediately compelling, and he and the Glory Fires are obviously having a great time on stage. His voice is powerful, reminiscent, at times, of an excited John Fogerty or Joe Cocker or, yes, even the Boss. The Glory Fires are the kind of band that would be as comfortable in The Nick as they would in the Alabama Theatre, and for me, man, that’s my kind of band. And though Bains & the Glory Fires are a Birmingham-based band, I still think they’re a big get for Secret Stages (they just got off a big tour of sold out dates opening for the Alabama Shakes) so catch them here in Birmingham while you still can. – MU
The Deep Dark Woods • The Wine Loft • Saturday • 11:30 p.m.
I’m not sure if it’s my obsession with Justified (hands down, my favorite TV addiction), or the fact that my parents and siblings have all moved to my ancestral home state of North Carolina, but I’ve developed a soft spot for the cold dreaminess of Appalachian-flavored country. This is music for driving through mountains, maybe in the fall or spring when the trees are brilliant and distracting. Or maybe even the winter, those gray times when the poverty of the area somehow feels good and right. Times like those, you don’t need anything more than spacious, laid-back instrumentation and perfectly layered vocal harmonies. And maybe a half-finished bottle of whiskey — not to get rowdy, but just to keep the chill out, perhaps… – KM
Shovels and Rope • The Wine Loft • Saturday • 12:30 a.m.
When you hear the name “Shovels and Rope,” does it evoke the same dark Southern mob scene for you, too? There’s only one word in that description that is accurate —
there’s nothing really dark or violent about this duo, but the South is perfectly encapsulated. Cary Ann Hearst has a unique voice, making for some of the sexiest (hell, bordering on erotic, I’ll venture) old-school country you’ve ever heard. Imagine Johnny and June Cash, stripped own both instrumentally and emotionally, and you’re on your way. It’s the South in the summer: hot, muggy and on the edge of a smoldering night that will have the neighborhood ladies gossiping in hushed voices for months. – KM
Hiss Golden Messenger • The Wine Loft • Saturday • 10:30 p.m.
If James Taylor were to come onto the scene today instead of in the 1960s, it’s not hard to see how he would fit in. His bluesy folk comes easily and timelessly out of Hiss Golden Messenger, mixed in with more of a down-home country element and less of the FM Gold feel that people my age are apt to remember. Another bit of spice that separates the two is a soulful, classic-rock feel — his voice and delivery remind me of my friend and local singer-songwriter Heath Green, slightly subdued but with just as much sincerity. There’s a feeling of small towns, railroads as the only way out, and dry, hot, sunny days with nothing to do but enjoy the moments as they tick by. – KM
Floating Action • Miller Lite Main Stage • Friday • 8:30 p.m.
Floating Action lead-singer Seth Kauffman should have come of age in the early 1970s, although he might have gotten lost in the crowd. That’s the last time period I can remember that featured such seamless blending of disparate genres like rock, reggae, gospel, R&B and soul, with songs that sound natural and full but with clear moments of each individual influence. There’s a folksiness to the songs that should completely clash with the groovy beats, but the two are more natural lovers than different elements forced to work together. This is music that begs for (if not evokes) the crackle of a well-played vinyl disc and enough space in your den to dance like no one’s watching. – KM
Lambchop • Miller Lite Main Stage • Friday • 9:45 p.m.
The Nashville origin is clear from the start, but don’t mistake Lambchop for just another alt-country band. Yeah, there’s a definite kinship to Wilco in the feel, with touches of restless experimentalism floating underneath the surface. But there’s something more sinister, almost a calculated darkness that never quite broaches the surface. Live, they seem to have an almost Phish-by-way-of-Sigur-Ros quality (again, reminiscent of Wilco), with singer Kurt Wagner channeling Randy Newman and Bob Seeger to tell stories of love and loss. This is music that was born into the Alabama or Ryman theaters, if only those places allowed smoking and professional drinkers.
Also, any band that can cover the Sisters of Mercy and make the track distinctly their own? Champions in my book. – KM
The Secret Stages music discovery festival will take place Friday, May 11, and Saturday, May 12, beginning at 5 p.m., at several venues in the loft district downtown. Day passes are $15; weekend passes $25; and VIP passes $60. For a complete schedule and list of venues and to purchase tickets, visit www.secretstages.net.