Back in December, Weld gave previewing the highlights of the spring music season in Birmingham the old college try, despite the fact that a booked calendar was but a twinkle in the eye of most venues in town that early on. Since suffering builds character, we figured we’d give it another go for the summer of 2014, which looks poised to build on the high bar set by Happenin Fest in May.
The jewel in the crown for Birmingham’s summer music season is, of course, Secret Stages. If City Stages managed to survive as long as it did largely through inertia, Secret Stages has managed to thrive through constant energy, booking exciting young talent from every point on the musical spectrum. On Aug. 1-2, Secret Stages will be building on the momentum of three successful years in downtown’s loft district.
Not every band in the lineup has announced so far, but there are already some highlights to focus on. Hip-hop acts CYNE, Tanya Morgan and locals the Green Seed earn the frequent De La Soul comparisons, thanks to their creative production styles and ability to pack real meaning and heart into their bars without ever coming off as humorless scolds. New Orleans’ Bent Denim and Oxford, Mississippi’s Morgan Pennington and the Echo both make the kind of dream pop that Ryan Gosling could drive around listening to moodily in movies.
Secret Stages has always had a really strong mix of genres, but the standout acts of these early lineups are firmly in the rock ‘n roll side of the ledger. Nashville’s Daniel Pujol – something like a headliner for a festival this size – makes garage rock that hits like a ton of bricks, and he does it with the hip panache of the early Strokes. Fellow Tennesseans Ex-Cult are a weird yet highly effective hybrid of West Coast hardcore and the depressed soul of industrial England circa 1978. Little Rock’s Mad Nomad, a sleeper pick from yours truly, make punk rock that’s long on catharsis and short on pretense.
But it’s not all festivals in the months to come. Avondale Brewing Co. will host Land Aid on July 18, a benefit for Freshwater Land Trust that will feature the Southern rock of the Wild Feathers and the more melancholy songwriting of Ocean Liner, one of Birmingham’s best local acts. Good People, in addition to hosting bands like Steelism and the Heavy Hearts in their taproom, will also sponsor the third annual High Five Fest at Bottletree in tandem with the Barbecutioners on Aug. 9, featuring the likes of Banditos, Shaheed and DJ Supreme and Beitthemeans.
Speaking of Bottletree, they’ve got as strong a summer lineup as you’d expect. WRAY, local indie rockers coming off a sensational performance at Happenin Fest, will release their new LP on Woodlawn label Communicating Vessels on July 11; self-assured indie pop sextet PHOX will perform July 15; a rejuvenated Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! will be playing in support of their new record Only Run on Aug. 14; and legendary Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis will perform at the end of September with Broken Social Scene cofounder Kevin Drew.
The Alys Stephens Center’s summer/fall series isn’t quite as strong as last year’s outstanding lineup, but it does feature one of Birmingham’s American Idols (Ruben Studdard, performing July 17), one of the country’s most well-liked blues musicians in Keb’ Mo’ (Aug. 26) and two of Birmingham’s best songwriters in Duquette Johnston and Armand Margjeka (Sept. 12). On the opposite side of town, Steely Dan (traveling as part of perhaps the worst-named tour in history, “Jamalot Ever After”) and Crosby, Stills and Nash will play the BJCC on July 27 and Aug. 22, respectively.
It should come as no surprise that WorkPlay, arguably Birmingham’s most reliable venue, has got plenty to recommend it over the next three months. Phantogram, performing July 1, will turn the SoundStage into a dance floor with their strange alchemy of haunting vocals and fat beats. On August 8 and 9, full-album cover band Black Jacket Symphony will perform Tom Petty’s 1979 breakout record Damn the Torpedoes, which is still the most popular in his long discography. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear the audio equivalent of drinking a mimosa in South Beach in 1984, electro-pop duos Cherub and Ghost Beach, both playing Sept. 21, are the bill for you.
Around the block, Iron City suffers a little from a still largely unfilled schedule. They’ll make a killing in early October – the slate goes from Cheap Trick to the Head and the Heart to AFI to Fitz & the Tantrums – but the summer highlights are indie rockers Manchester Orchestra (Aug. 7) and Lucius, a girl group playing in support of Lake Street Dive on Sept. 30 who present one of the most intensely powerful vocal performances in pop music today.
Even in the venues with sparser calendars than Iron City, there are still some shows worth earmarking. DIY Birmingham, one of the key supporters of the coolest aspects of the city’s music scene, will celebrate its fourth birthday with a big to-do at the Spring Street Firehouse on July 26. Christian rockers NEEDTOBREATHE’s Sept. 11 show at the Alabama will probably sell like hotcakes without any mention from us, but here’s your note anyhow. Speaking of bands that don’t need our help to sell tickets, Phish are playing the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre on Aug. 8, if you’re into that sort of thing. And fans of classic country should bend an attentive ear toward Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, playing Zydeco July 19.
Just like last time, this list is no doubt woefully incomplete, both due to timing and to pilot error, but there’s still plenty to get excited about. With the mercury rising and only the dog days of baseball (and a U.S. victory in the World Cup, probably) left on TV, it’s reassuring to know that, as always, Birmingham’s venues are here to help you beat the heat.