So Las Vegas has the “I Heart Radio Festival” with Bon Jovi, Taylor Swift, Usher, Rihanna, No Doubt, Green Day, Mary J. Blige and a ton of other artists taking over the MGM Grand Arena this weekend.
Apparently, if an act isn’t playing out west, they’re in Atlanta, and that’s cool with us, right?
On Friday night, Music Midtown – back for a second year in expanded form after its five-year hiatus – packed Piedmont Park with the lineup of Van Hunt, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, T.I., The Avett Brothers and Foo Fighters.
I am admittedly terrible at gauging crowds in giant open spaces, but I’m going to take a semi-educated guess that the audience eclipsed last year’s main event night with Coldplay (about 38,000).
And this was the “smaller” night.
Today, the musical festivities continue with Atlanta’s O’Brother at 1 p.m., followed by Civil Twilight (1:30 p.m.), LP (2 p.m.), Garbage (2:45 p.m.), Adam Ant (3:45 p.m.), Ludacris (4:45 p.m.), Neon Trees (5:45 p.m.), Florence and the Machine (6:45 p.m.) and Pearl Jam (9 p.m.).
But back to Friday night.
This is really a seamlessly run event. Yes, the entrance can get congested when thousands of people show up at the same time, but with plenty of beverage tents, enough green space for sprawling, an impressive lineup of food vendors (reasonably priced, though I still balk at paying $4 for a bottle of Coke Zero), interesting merchants and a musical rundown that ran on time all night, it’s hard to find a complaint.
If you didn’t attend Friday’s six-and-a-half-hour musical smorgasbord, here’s what you missed (and here’s a gallery from last night’s show):
He hails from Ohio, but the unique singer-songwriter-guitarist rose to prominence in Atlanta. He started his set by noting in a self-deprecating manner, “You don’t know us, but you’re clapping anyway. That’s cool.”
Though Van Hunt was backed only by drummer Ruthie Price, they made a sound much bigger than two (hello, White Stripes), starting with a cool reggae-funk remake of “Mrs. Robinson” and continuing though his “At the End of a Slow Dance” and “Dust.”
Van Hunt is a musical chameleon, bouncing from funk-rock to soul with shades of Prince on some songs and elements of punk on others.
He did have the thankless task of opening the festival at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, so his audience wasn’t huge, but those who caught his set had to be impressed by his diversity.
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts:
Here’s what most awesome about Joan Jett. The woman never changes. Even at 54 (her birthday is today), her black mane looks the same as in her Runaways days, she’s still a compact, muscular package in a black tank top and red glitter pants, and her songs are simultaneously gritty and melodic.
She kickstarted her hourlong set with “Bad Reputation” and “Cherry Bomb” before leading the growing crowd of a few thousand in a singalong of “Do You Wanna Touch Me?”
Though she can be temperamental, Jett seemed happy to be on stage, grinning alongside the Blackhearts – a grizzled bunch who looked as if they were broiling in their black clothes under the brutal sun.
While fans loved hearing the well-worn hits, Jett tossed in a couple of new tunes, the four-on-the-floor stomper “TMI” and “Hard to Grow Up,” which she said was about, “experiences in life that test who you are as a person.”
“Love is Pain” and the obligatory “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” brought things back to familiar terrain, and Jett sounded vocally robust throughout her set.
She’s always been a master of unpretentious rock ‘n’ roll, and bless her for remaining true to her roots.
(I had to file a story for the print version of the paper during his set, so here’s a recap from my editor, Jamila Robinson):
One of the more enthusiastic crowds was for Atlanta rapper T.I., whose wave-an-A-shaped hand- in-the-air performance showed off his charisma, if not his fluidity of his skills. Backed by a team on drums, bass and guitar, a DJ handling tracks and the requisite on-stage entourage, T.I. performed his hits “100 Grand,” “Whatever You Like” and his 2010 smash with Rihanna, “Live Your Life.”
With five albums under his belt – or whatever one uses to secure sagging pants – T.I. raced through a lot of material during his 45-minute set, sometimes performing only 60-second snippets. However, his brevity didn’t disappoint this hip-hop-savvy audience that bounced and roared when some of those samples included covers of Kanye West and Jay-Z.
The Avett Brothers:
The North Carolina outfit had reason to be gleeful since their latest album, “The Carpenter,” bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard charts last week.
Indeed, the band’s set sprinted out of the gate with the spirited “The Fall” and for 90 minutes, the guys took listeners on an emotional journey that traveled through the twangy “January Wedding,” brought down to a whisper by singer-guitarist Seth Avett, and through the rollicking raise-a-pint-and-your-fist “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” its peaks and valleys giving brother Scott an arena to shine on banjo.
The Avetts craft songs that are made to be played live, in front of thousands of people who gregariously (and sometimes, a little drunkenly) dance and sway along, such as “The Prettiest Thing” which employed an infectious Celtic swing.
The band’s achingly musical set might have been slightly incongruous to the brute force that would soon be unleashed on the stage next to them, but that’s the beauty of these diverse fests.
At first, drummer Taylor Hawkins seems most worthy of the comparison to The Muppets’ Animal. After all, he is a drummer, and his insane pounding doesn’t seem as if it could be pulled off by a human.
But then you watch frontman Dave Grohl for a few more minutes and it becomes clear that no, he’s the Animal of this group. A relentless rock ‘n’ roll beast who leads the Foo Fighters through their aggressive – and exhausting to watch in a live performance – songs.
With hair, spit and sweat flying, Grohl howled and growled though a decent portion of the band’s catalog, from “All My Life” to “Hero” to the hard groove of “The Pretender.”
Though many in the mass of people packed near the stage and spread up the hill seemed to be singing along to most songs, when Grohl asked for a show of hands of who had never seen the band before, at least half the crowd chimed in.
“Jesus! We’ve only been a band for 18 f-ing years!” he said jokingly, later noting the obvious that this was the biggest show the Foos had ever played in Atlanta.
Along with their string of familiar tunes, the band broke out “These Days,” from their current CD “Wasting Light,” a song which Grohl said was his favorite of all he’s written.
After a humorous detour into Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some” (“We know the first minute of every rock song,” Grohl said) and the introductions of guitarists Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee (who will probably stick around all weekend since his full-time band, The Wallflowers, play Smith’s Olde Bar on Monday), Grohl introduced “The rock ‘n’ roll love of my life.”
Joan Jett bopped out for a hug from the singer, but then left the stage as he dedicated the buzz-sawing “Monkey Wrench” to her.
Fans who might have been disappointed at that point that there wasn’t a Jett duet were satisfied later in the show when she returned to crank out “Bad Reputation.”
The Foos set was a nonstop sensory assault of skittering strobe lights, Grohl’s yowling and Hawkins’ beat-down on the skins. Quite simply, a perfect night of unvarnished rock.