Made in America, on its way to great

Posted: September 03, 2013

What makes a great music festival?

A top-notch selection of acts, for sure. Marquee names like Beyoncé, who headlined the Budweiser Made in America festival Saturday, and Nine Inch Nails, who closed it Sunday, are necessary.

But it needs more. A one-of-a-kind setting, and a unique musical identity - not easily achieved on an overcrowded calendar where it seems the same acts are playing every 'palooza on the circuit.

In its second-year growth spurt, give Made in America a passing grade in those areas. The gathering curated by Jay Z - seen with wife Beyoncé watching her sister Solange, and checking out weed rapper Wiz Khalifa - mirrors its host city: rugged, diverse, a bit tough to navigate on a sticky weekend when the crush got intense as action shifted from one stage to another.

But also a multistage affair combining the big-beat sound of the electronic dance music that has finally broken through in America with strong hip-hop and some unassailably solid rock bands. And with its heart-of-the city locus, nobody's going to mistake it for a bucolic touchy-feely peace-love festival.

Nine Inch Nails hit the stage at 9:30. Buff, black-clad Trent Reznor, 47, opened with a spare, clenched-fist "Copy of A," from the intensely anguished Hesitation Marks, out Tuesday. Playing before a crowd much smaller than Beyoncé's didn't seem to faze him, as he fronted a savagely tight ensemble that dealt in NIN's trademark clean combo of industrial rock and techno. Minus the fun quotient, it's of a piece with the aggressive electronic attacks of the weekend's younger EDM acts.

On Sunday, the daytime lineup was stronger than Saturday's, partly due to more varied acts like AlunaGeorge and Robert DeLong, who played on the EDM-focused Freedom Stage. Also due to heavy hitters such as rapper Kendrick Lamar and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, more central to the pop moment than the headliners who followed.

The crowd thinned for the evening slate that preceded NIN, with California desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age and Scottish DJ-producer Calvin Harris. He drove the young crowd into ecstasy with pounding bass-forward propulsion, washes of synthesizer, and sampled voices of such pop sirens as Florence Welch and Rihanna.

The Josh Homme-fronted QOTSA sported a roaring, wildcat guitar sound; Homme isn't a typical headbanger. He slowed down on the moody "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" and slinky "Make It Wit Chu," during which he yelled at security for making a woman get off her boyfriend's shoulders. "Take the rule book and shove it . . . would you? This is Philadelphia, we know how to have a good time!"

Earlier, the festival moved into the home stretch with back-to-back-to-back hotshot acts.

Miguel played to a huge crowd on the Liberty Stage in a set that synthesized the R&B and rock elements prevalent all weekend. The mixed-race Californian displayed an agile falsetto on "Adore" from 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream, and his band put crunchy power chords and sinewy funk grooves to use. He was followed by Wiz Khalifa, whose set was based on burly, bass-heavy riffs offset by his easygoing manner as it built to his signature hit, "Black and Yellow."

Next up, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who have captured the zeitgeist with their gay-rights anthem, "Same Love," and anti-bling "Thrift Shop," about not letting empty pockets keep you from creating a fashion identity. Macklemore was canny, with his throwback John Kruk jersey. He wasn't kidding about one of his favorite cities: "It's the passion, it's the architecture. But let's not kid ourselves, it's really the cheesesteaks," he said, redeeming the groaner with a shout-out to South Street's Ishkabibble's.

Before Kendrick Lamar took the Rocky Stage, concertgoers wondered if he'd drop the verse from Big Sean's "Control" that inflamed the hip-hop world when Lamar claimed he was "King of New York." He didn't. He did join his compadres in the Black Hippy crew - Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Schoolboy Q - and lit up the crowd with a selection of cuts from his superb 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

On the Freedom Stage was AlunaGeorge, Brit singer Aluna Francis and beat master George Reid. With a bassist and drummer, they did a sharp, infectious set, blending song-based dance pop with electronic touches on fetching tunes "White Noise" and "Your Drums, Your Love."

On the Rocky Stage, New Jersey was represented by New Brunswick's Gaslight Anthem, whose lead singer, Brian Fallon, delivered winningly straight-ahead rock. On the dance-music Freedom Stage, L.A. DJ-programmer-drummer DeLong built loops of sound and added live percussion in real time, a common trick he distinguished with his flair for melody and high-energy attack. He sang, too, effectively on "Global Concepts," asking, "Did I make money, was I proud? Did I play my songs too loud?"

As DeLong wrapped up, Solange got going. Hipster-friendly little sister, with an assist from bass player Dev Hynes and three backup singers, charmed the crowd with a trilling voice on her own "Losing You" and a cover of the Dirty Projectors' Zen anthem, "Stillness is the Move."

Starting Day Two was Fitz & the Tantrums, the L.A. sextet co-fronted by Mike Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs. Its retro soul-to-pure pop transition may be shaky on the new More Than Just a Dream album, but they rattled the crowd awake.

"Don't they know this building is about to blow?" Fitzpatrick and Scaggs sang on "Spark," their new '80s-derived moves getting early-afternoon fans to wave their Buds in the air.

"Thank you for coming early and braving the sunshine with us," Fitzpatrick said. "It's about to get a lot hotter in here."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, ddeluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ddlucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.

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