After two successful summers at Huntsville’s Lowe Mill arts center, Happenin Fest will be relocating to Good People Brewing Company on the afternoon of Saturday, May 24. While the music festival – which takes its name from Happenin Records, a micro indie label out of Montevallo – is moving to the Magic City in a marriage of convenience, it’s also to celebrate the many vibrant, and increasingly connected, elements of Birmingham culture.
Founded in 2006 by Chris McCauley and Dustin Timbrook, Happenin Records has blossomed into one of the most rejuvenating examples of the DIY ethos in the greater Birmingham area. The label has survived as a business venture largely because of its founders’ enthusiasm and its well-honed aesthetic (McCauley, for one, credits the gorgeous work of designer Derek Prevatt for the festivals’ success). Whatever the genre of music, all of the Happenin acts are unified by an infectious, sincere love of a good time. The off-label acts who round out the Happenin Fest bill fit in seamlessly by providing some of the most joyous, entertaining music in indie rock today.
“As long as it seems like it’s coming from a real place, as long as it seems like the person who is creating the music is committed to it and that they love what they’re putting out there, it’s hard for someone to deny that,” said McCauley, event organizer and frontman of pop-punk band Holy Youth. “Whether I’m looking at a country artist or an electric artist or a punk artist, if I get the sense that this person is coming at this from a very earnest, real, deeply creative place, then I’ll put whatever free time I have into putting it out there.
“You might not sell out the BJCC if you sign with Happenin, but we can help you have some fun,” McCauley added.
That sense of fun, completely devoid of hipster irony, is one of the things that make the Happenin Fest lineup such an easy pitch. Just the acts from Nashville alone would constitute a bill that’s worth the $10 ticket: Jeff the Brotherhood, whose 2012 record Hypnotic Nights was produced by Black Key Dan Auerbach, offer pitch-perfect, sun-bleached garage rock; Natural Child, returning from the original Happenin Fest lineup, bring riff-heavy Southern rock; and the Google-unfriendly Music Band combine the aggression of the Stooges with the sonic palette of the 13th Floor Elevators. Miami’s Jacuzzi Boys are a chalk pick to put on one of the best shows of the day, since their anthemic approach to new wave is ideal summertime music.
The Birmingham acts more than pull their weight, however. Scene regulars Wray create fuzzy noise rock that’s also perfect for the season, while ambient artist Holly Waxwing’s gorgeous atmospheres landed him a spot on NPR’s list of the 10 best cassettes released in 2013. Drew Price, formerly a synth-heavy artist who could alternate between Deerhunter-style walls of sound and Reggie Watts-style riffing, has gone in a more stripped-down pop direction that’s more than a little evocative of Mac DeMarco. His frequent collaborator, Travis Swinford, brings a similar knack for the sweet science of pop music to his glam band Plains.
Both Price and Swinford expressed excitement about seeing their label-mates Vacation Club, a dreamy pop-punk act out of Indianapolis, perform in Birmingham for the first time. “They know how to have a good time,” Price said. “If anybody’s living the lifestyle of their music, it’s these dudes. They’re insane. … That’s something about live music – you either believe it or you don’t. And there’s no doubt with these guys.”
Price, who’s been performing in venues around town since he was 14 years old, feels that Happenin Fest couldn’t have happened in the Birmingham music scene he grew up in. Now, however, the cultural infrastructure is in place to support it, from forward-thinking breweries to radio stations that incubate an appreciation for the entire musical spectrum.
“We [as musicians] want to lean on other cultures, but we want them to lean on us, too,” Price said. “We want to be a vessel for cultural flourishing. All of it – so many things are happening all at once. I think that it’s not just a rock ‘n roll thing; I think that it involves the perspectives and endeavors of everybody else, all the other cultures and businesses leaning on each other.”
Happenin Fest – whose sponsors include, among others, Substrate Radio, Seasick Records and Weld for Birmingham, and which will feature numerous local food trucks on site throughout the day – moved from Huntsville with a mind to be a distinctly Birmingham festival, according to McCauley.
“We wanted it to be Birmingham-centric, but also, from a bird’s eye view, something community-oriented,” McCauley said. “I don’t make beer, so the guys who brew great beer can provide that beer; I don’t run an internet radio station, but Substrate does, and they’re awesome. It was just finding the people who thrive in their own little realm of expertise and collaborating and complementing one another as a result.”
In McCauley’s mind, it’s just one contribution that he and his friends can make to the broader cultural renaissance in Birmingham. Following social theorist Steven Johnson, McCauley said, “You’ve got to create downtowns in such a way that people with different ideas and different interests can run into each other, so that even if they’re different, they can exchange ideas and create something great. You’ve got to make opportunities for people to randomly interact; that’s where all the great inventions and cultural innovation comes from.”
That kind of serendipitous cross-pollination between different aspects of Birmingham culture makes for an ambitious goal, but the beauty of Happenin Fest is that ambition is never the first priority.
“You’re not gonna start a war with this music,” Swinford said. He’s right – you’re just gonna have fun.
Happenin Fest will take place at Good People Brewing Company on Saturday, May 24, with the first show kicking off at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information on the festival and its lineup, visit happeninrecords.com.