Music

Debut of New American Music Union Festival A Hit

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The Raconteurs' Jack White at the New American Music Union Festival, photo by C.C. Chapman

Last weekend, American Eagle Outfitters launched its inaugural music festival, New American Music Union, in the SouthSide Works area of Pittsburgh.  A sold-out crowd of 10,000 was treated to performances from Bob Dylan, The Raconteurs, Gnarls Barkley, The Roots and Spoon, among others, all under the curation of Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis.

The highlight of the weekend was the wildly energetic, funky and innovative performance from The Roots to close out Friday night.  I'd heard what an amazing live band they were, but this was my first time experiencing that. And they did not disappoint.  All of these gentlemen are consummate musicians with wide-ranging influences (which will not come as a surprise to those who know the band or who read our cover story with ?uestlove).  Their set was so kinetic and varied (across songs and within songs) that they were the only band leaving me wanting more.  If jam bands had just half the dynamism of The Roots, I might tolerate it better.  The diverse crowd (in age and ethnicity) seemed to enjoy the band every bit as much as I did.

and puts on a great show.  The Black Keys caught many by surprise with their 2-person assault.  They are always engaging.  The only real disappointment was Dylan.  His voice is so far gone that it's hard to decipher the lyrics any more.  And while his band is always tight, he continues to apply the same sheen to the arrangements of all his songs.  The current jazz-lick, mid-tempo rockabilly is an improvement over the Western swing of a couple years ago, but it's still lacking.  I admire him for reworking his classics and not just resting on his stature, but the new arrangements and melodies just don't serve his songs.  I've seen his Bobness four times in the past decade.  The first, at Madison Square Gardens, was transcendent.  The next two, at Atlanta's Tabernacle and Austin's ACL Festival, were dismal.  This performance was merely disappointing.

The festival as a whole was a great success.  It's rare that you ever see this many great acts perform for 10,000 people and only $25 or $50.  In addition to the main stage acts, the festival showcased 15 college bands from across the country.  The Black Fourtys, from the University of Southern Illinois, won the competition.  The college bands and many of the other activities (such as the peddle-to-charge cellphone charging station) were located outside the festival grounds and free to the community.  All ticket-holders also received a free festival t-shirt and a water bottle for filling on festival grounds (green was an important theme for the fest).

I have a soft-spot for smaller community-centered festivals.  It's nice to watch simply watch bands, without fighting crowds of tens of thousands to get to the festival, to get through the gates, to get close to the stage.  Seeing these bands without even needing a video monitor (not provided) was a nice change of pace.  To have this with the caliber of bands Kiedis and AE attracted is truly remarkable.

Videos of many of the performances are available at American Eagle.

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