The size of the young, multiracial crowd on Saturday was all the more impressive considering that the opening-day bill was not as uniformly strong as in the past, or as it looks to be on Sunday this year.
There were weaknesses - too much EDM, prominent slots given to slight acts, such as uninventive record-spinner DJ Cassidy or pop duo Cherub. But much was worthwhile: Michigan postmodern soul man Mayer Hawthorne; North Carolina rapper J. Cole; Brooklyn indie rockers The National; punkish bands like Pissed Jeans and the oOohh Baby Give Me Mores.
But the whole day felt like a prelude to West, the unfailing attention-getter atop the bill. He'd previously played MIA in 2012 in a guest spot during Jay Z's headlong set.
This year, West followed DJ Steve Aoki, taking to the Rocky Stage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at 10:37 p.m.
This year, that kickoff slot went to an all but unknown act: The oOohh Baby Gimme Mores, a Toronto punk-funk band who garnered the most online votes in a Budweiser contest for the top Philadelphia MIA bill.
The interracial quartet, fronted by guitarist Densil McFarlane, made the most of its opportunity, gathering a crowd of early arrivals on the Skate Park Stage. Boarders rode ramps in front to their right, and attendees flew high above in the de rigueur Vertigo amusement park ride behind them.
"We ain't Kanye West, but we're gon' put on a good show!" McFarlane promised, leading the band into a nuevo-hardcore, high-energy set that was enough to inspire the first Made In America 2014 mosh pit.
Young & Sick baptized the Liberty Stage Saturday afternoon with "Continuum," a representative slice of the L.A. band's synth-driven dream-pop. With Dutch-born frontman Nick Van Hofwegen playing guitar, they went from to romantic ("Heartache") to jagged ("Valium") to kinetic ("Glass").
It was a tough gig with a diffident crowd still drifting in. In the middle of "Ghost," Young & Sick's seventh song, their performance was suddenly muted because Cherub had started playing on the nearby Rocky Stage. It was the Made in America equivalent of being "played off" in the middle of your acceptance speech at an awards show.
How does a band win over a Made In America festival, and inspire a patriotic chant while they're at it? "This song's called 'Chocolate Strawberries,' said Jordan Kelley, singer of Nashville electro-pop duo Cherub, the first band up on the Rocky Stage. "It's about doing that, and watching pornos. That's a pretty American thing to do, right?" He looked out at the red-white-and-blue-dressed crowd and noted, "It looks like the Fourth of July out there." Voilà: The first "U-S-A!" chant of the day.
Kelley and bandmate Jason Huber - they hail from Nashville - specialize in a brand of broadly accessible dance pop (with a few experimental touches, like Kelley's use of a "talkbox" synthesizer unit for his guitar). It might at first have seemed a little lightweight for a main Rocky Stage slot. But the largely teenage early-comers were happy to bop along from the get-go, especially when the band shamelessly tossed in a straightahead cover of Calvin Harris' 2012 "Feel So Close."
Destructo couldn't wait to rave. He took the Freedom Stage before his scheduled 3 p.m. start to unleash a marathon club jam, complete with light show and smoke machines. Destructo (seasoned Los Angeles DJ Gary Richards) powered through a throbbing, unbroken dance set that wove in distorted samples of Drake, Jason Derulo, and other artists. The bass was set so impossibly loud you could feel the hair on your arms vibrating. Destructo, don't hurt 'em.
Philly boys OCD took the Skate Park Stage in high spirits. Alternating or rapping in tandem, MCs Moosh and Twist they blazed through a frenetic set of their own songs, such as "All That I Know," and covers of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and others. The pace was more ADHD than OCD, one truncated song slamming into the next.
Mayer Hawthorne, the Michigan formerly-retro soul man born Andrew Mayer Cohen, played to a packed crowd of late afternoon partiers on the Liberty Stage. The no-longer-bespectacled singer/guitarist continued his transition from skinny-tie '60s revivalist to '70s blue-eyed soul singer.
Drawing heavily from his 2013 album Where Does This Door Go, Hawthorne and his five-man band, The County, nodded to Steely Dan and Philly soul-pop heroes Hall & Oates (and their antecedents, The Temptations) when he dipped into his 2009 debut A Strange Arrangement.
He also showed he could work a festival crowd. He took off his white jacket to crank up the guitar riff on Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." He got the hip-hop fans to push up close to the stage by referring to "my homie Kendrick Lamar." Lamar was not on hand but did collaborate with Hawthorne on his most up-to-the-minute track, "Crime."
Big Daddy Kane may be old school, but that doesn't mean there's rust on the pipes. The Brooklyn MC is still the smoothest fast rapper in the game. His set on the Rocky Stage had the feel of a vintage soul revue - except the man with the mic was spinning out words quicker than an auctioneer, all of them perfectly metered.
At 45, the rapper they once called Dark Gable still cuts an imposing figure. And his classic jams, such as "Ain't No Half-Steppin' " and "Raw," can still kick it.
Made In America is a corporate branded event, for sure, and all the red, white, and blue bandannas, bikini tops, and, yes, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson Sixers jerseys can make it seem as if entrance was denied to anyone not getting with the color code.
But in fact the festival is also an appealing, unruly mess, one that draws a digital-music-age, shuffled-up, youthful crowd far more racially diverse than at events featuring only rock, hip-hop, or EDM.
That last category dominated at the Skate Park Stage on Saturday, where Lehigh Valley-born and Philadelphia-based noise-rock band Pissed Jeans held forth in a set that overlapped with Brooklyn synth-pop duo Holy Ghost, close by on the Freedom Stage, and Canadian electro act Chromeo on the Liberty Stage.
Fronted by snidely impassioned singer Matt Korvette, PJ kicked up a righteous racket before a small crowd that could have fit quite comfortably into a local all-ages venue such as the First Unitarian Church. Bradley Fry's guitar roiled, drummer Sean McGuinness thundered, and Korvette spewed vocals through clenched teeth.
Chromeo, the Montreal electro-funk duo of Dave 1 and P-Thugg, took the Liberty Stage borrowing the marching chant of the Wicked Witch's castle guards in Oz: "Chrom-e-o . . . ooh-oh . . . Chrom-e-o . . . ooh-oh. . . ." They delivered a hotwired set, albeit one that relied heavily on pre-programming.
Chromeo's style could be labeled neo-disco: classic pop with a chilly but refreshing electro coating. As they worked through hits like "Bonafied Lovin'," "Over Your Shoulder," "Frequent Flyer," and "Jealous (I Ain't With It)," there were distant echoes of artists from Michael Sembello to Ric Ocasek's Cars.
Dave 1 even dressed nostalgically. In his black leather jacket, ripped jeans, and shades, he looked like Can't Buy Me Love-era Patrick Dempsey. Chromeo refer to themselves as Funk Lords. That may fly in Canada. Here they're just lots of fun to dance to.
Before J. Cole came out, the big screens flanking the Liberty Stage showed a montage of cops brutalizing black men and women. It was set to the doleful strains of Cole's "Be Free," a track he rush-released as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Was the party atmosphere at Made in America about to get a polemical rebuke? No: The North Carolina rapper's performance was notably free of racial commentary. Instead he gave an energetic reading of his tracks, strutting, stumbling, and jumping around the stage like a crazed scarecrow to act out the sentiments of his lyrics.
After a guest appearance by rapper Bas on "Lit," Cole built to a volcanic climax of "Can't Get Enough," "Crooked Smile," and "Power Trip." It left the performer drained. The crowd clearly wanted more.
Indie rock is not Made In America's strong suit. There are a handful of top-shelf bookings, such as Mayer Hawthorne on Saturday and Spoon and Grimes on Sunday afternoon. But for the most part, the fest pulls in its people with hip-hop and classic-rock headliners and a heavy dose of EDM.
So there was some question as how well the brooding Brooklyn band The National would go over with a determined-to-party pop audience. After all, there's a high seriousness to singer Matt Berninger's songs. The "I don't have the drugs to sort it out" admission in "Afraid Of Everyone" that Berninger shared on Saturday was an admission of paranoia that wasn't in step with anyone else on the bill (except maybe that raving genius in the top spot, Kanye West).
And to be sure, The National's stately hour-long set, complete with horn section, was a chill-out interlude in a relentlessly energetic day. But it was also one of the day's unquestioned highlights. The National builds a majestic wall of sound never overblown but, on Saturday night anyway, always compelling, from Berninger's sonorous vocals, to Bryce Dessner's careening guitar, to the percussive way Berninger knocked the microphone on his noggin. Most impressive.
One man. One mixing board. By all rights, Steve Aoki shouldn't have that much power. But with his booming elecronica set Saturday night, the globetrotting DJ had the crowd at MIA hopping like Pavlov's kangaroos for a solid hour. It's part carnival music, part sports arena spectacle, powered with an insane underbody of bass. It's all about stunning the crowd's collective thalamus. And the MIA revelers happily submitted to being short-circuited by Aoki's mad mechanics.
And then, Kanye took the stage with his first song, the blinding "Black Skinhead."
For more coverage of the Made in America festival: http://data.inquirer.com/thetalk