Live Review: MACRoCk 2011 (Day 1)

Harrisonburg, VA. Home of James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University, not to mention some spectacular mountain vistas. But it's a pretty small place, and in truth, I was pretty surprised when I learned a few years back that there was a happenin’ little festival (well, conference) that took place in Hburg every year, but now, having had the pleasure of finally attending said conference myself, it all makes perfect sense.

To begin with, there’s the setting itself. Harrisonburg might only be 131 miles from DC proper in terms of mileage, but driving down I-66 and I-81 one feels light years away from the hustle and the bustle and the kerfuffle of the big city. In the span of my two-hour drive I saw picturesque dilapidated antiquities streaked by sunshine and glorious mountain views given an extra mystical feel by quickly-moving clouds, making this weekend jaunt feel more like a real vacation with every mile that clicked on my odometer. Once in Harrisonburg, I managed to tear my eyes away from the mountains long enough to find my hotel (The Jameson Inn, which has delightful staff and a good location should you ever find yourself in Hburg needing a place to rest your head) and grab some food. And then, friends, it was time to get down to business.

Another great thing about a festival (excuse me, conference) in a smallish city is that it’s pretty hard to get lost. Well, except for the trouble I ran into looking for the Elk’s Lodge, where we press folks had to collect our badges (you mean that giant elk statue was a clue? D’oh). After the badge-hunting and the parking spot hunting (con for a smaller city: less parking to acomodate revelers), I made my way to the Artful Dodger to check out Oldermost and The Cinnamon Band, two of the bands I most wanted to see over the weekend. Sadly, I was thwarted in this endeavor, because evidently lots of other MACRoCk attendees had the same idea, and the scarcely-moving line meant I was shut out of those sets. Alas.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom that first night, though. After that slightly inauspicious start I ended up having quite an evening. First, I headed to the cozy confines of the Blue Nile’s basement to take in some soothing (not really) metal. But since some Richmond folks were on the bill, I obviously couldn’t not make an appearance. Immediately upon entering the basement I noticed the bucket full of free earplugs, which was both nice and necessary, given the volume of the bands. As soon as Windhand started, I could feel my inner eardrums vibrating. And that was with the pretty pink plugs. To my surprise, I noticed a familiar face behind Windhand’s drumkit: TJ Childers, drummer extraordinaire for Inter Arma, had filled in during Windhand’s set. As a yardstick of talent, friends, you know you’re pretty awesome when you can convincingly fill in for a band having practiced with them but once and make imperceptible mistakes. Windhand was catastrophically loud, but in a good way. Unrelenting leaden riffs and chords and drums came crashing down from the stage at every moment. And it was delightful. It had been a long time since my last metal show (Liturgy, perhaps?!), so it was wonderful to take in the sounds and beards that a good metal show provides. And while it’s probably true that I wouldn’t be able to recognize a bad metal set if I heard one, Windhand was pretty much awesome. My metal favorites Inter Arma ripped it to shreds, friends, and once they got going I realized how much I’d missed seeing them live. Their unapologetic, hellacious snarl of sludge and insanity makes for one hell of a live experience. Richmond is no joke when it comes to metal, friends. And Inter Arma is, without a doubt, the best of the best. After a couple songs I left Blue Nile and headed over to Clementine, where another Richmond compadre was doing his thing with newish band White Laces.

I first met Landis Wine through another band he was in, the much-missed Cinemasophia, and was happy to hear he’d gone and formed another good band. White Laces definitely holds shoegaze and post rock dear to their collective heart, but managed to give their songs an almost poppy undercurrent. Of course, this means their sound was rather appealing. The crowd at Clementine was a lot bigger, and it was soon sticky hot and not just because of the tunes. “Play it loud!” yelled someone from somewhere in the room, and Landis cheekily replied, “You’ve heard it loud and you know it hurts” before proceeding to, you guessed it, play it loud. I verily enjoyed the darkly impish nature of White Laces, and hope to see them live again soon.

Around the end of the White Laces set, I started getting a little tired. Hey, it was a long day. So I ventured out to find the Court Square Theatre to take in some quieter, yet no less awesome, music. I wasn’t expecting it, but some of my favorite sets of the weekend happened in that very theatre. I first had the pleasure of seeing Roanoke’s The Missionaries, an expansive ensemble with ties to, you guessed it, the Magic Twig Community. With such associations they couldn’t not be wonderful, and they were oh so wonderful indeed. Their drumkit read “Thank God 4 The Missionaries,” and that’s not just whistlin’ Dixie y’all. I’ll put it to you this way. The band has a song called “Chester Behind The Foliage,” which is about a dog that rides a flying horse. Sounds twee, possibly, but couldn’t be farther from it. The Missionaries were enchanting, combining that Magic Twig level of quality with a quirky, mountain country folksiness. Also, their closing song, “John Hughes,” was fantastic for reasons other than the name and the line “John Hughes, John Hughes/tell me what to do.” The band threw in a little of the Hughes ouevre by their inclusion of the line “Don’t you forget about me,” but in a totally non-80s synthy kinda way. All of the Magic Twig-related bands are so different, sonically, but are on par with each other because of their skill and their creativity. Love ‘em all, my friends. The Missionaries are officially my newest Roanoke-ian loves.

The love-fest continued with Small Sur, one of that group of anti-Baltimore Baltimoreans. I say that merely because their music was so stunning and so more suited to the country, I almost couldn’t believe it was Baltimore. Their sound was delicate yet powerful, with moments of total pastoral beauty washing over a crowd that was hushed in attentive appreciation. “We started early so I could take a really long time to tune,” quipped be-bearded singer/guitarist Bob Keal, and the band continued with their gentle humor and glorious swells of sound all set long. Small Sur was exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it: A heavenly sensation of being lulled into a state of blissful sonic hypnosis. Obviously, I need more Small Sur in my life, and will be henceforth working on making that happen.

My first night at MACRoCk finished up with some of my favorite Richmond songsmiths, Jonathan Vassar & The Speckled Bird. Perched three in a row on stools across the stage, the trio played a set full of their glorious sepia-toned tunes. As people continuously filtered into the theatre, the band continued to play lovely song after lovely song. “Nothing casts a shadow in the darkness” from the song “Nothing Casts a Shadow” has to be one of my favorite lines of recent memory, especially given the warm yet somewhat melancholy glow in which it’s sung. Their timeless quality really sets them apart from so many, and their delicate strength is truly something that must be experienced in person. I found them just as good as when I last saw them in December, if not a bit better, somehow.
But after that, it was back to the hotel for me, exhausted but as pleased as the cat that got the cream and the daggum canary to boot.

Stay tuned, my recap of Day 2 is coming soon, lovely loves.

mp3: The Wind (Small Sur - go here for more info)
(many thanks to Draw Us Lines!)


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