Make a Mixtape, It Always Helps- 80/35 Music Festival 2014

Chris Ford and Patrick Tape Fleming of Gloom Balloon

Chris Ford and Patrick Tape Fleming of Gloom Balloon

I almost bought into it. I did. I dunno if it is my natural depression, my often weirdly intense paranoia or the fact that I spend too much time on the internet, but the somewhat harsh outcry and the excruciating six week wait between band announcements and I almost caved into a thought that I just wouldn’t like this year’s 80/35, or maybe even worse, I nearly became apathetic to it. I knew I would go, and all the good things about the festival that I have spoke of the last two years were going to happen: the community building, the resume building, the memory building would all be there. But would I care?

The second announcement snapped me back into it, but after my work on the 80/35 website was done, I just sort of spaced. I drifted off a bit into this weird land where I started thinking about all the things that I may not like and not the things that I knew I would. I thought of the crowds and spending the money I didn’t really have. I thought of missing my family on the Fourth. I thought that a lot of the bands I only sort of liked, or at least that was what I had convinced myself. And, ugh, what if it was hot?

A couple of days before the festival, I did something very simple to hype myself up. I made a playlist just for me. I picked a handful of my favorite songs from many of the artists on the bill and I listened to them. I listened to them because I liked them. Not because I wanted to write about them or because I wanted to share them and get other people excited. I did it because there was a music festival in my town with bands playing songs that I liked and I could go and listen to those songs.

I knew I wouldn’t get to hear all of these songs live. Time constraints meant I wouldn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, or at least their whole set. Hell, there was a possibility that the song just didn’t make the setlist (in some cases a very big possibility. See: Oberst, Conor. In others, there was no way it wouldn’t make their setlist. See: Dawes). But I knew that if I could at least get a handful of them, everything would be alright. That my fretting and weirdness would just slip away.

It worked.

80/35 was awesome and I shouldn’t have had any doubt. The weather was perfect. I charmed and begged my way into slightly overcoming my money woes. The usual stuff happened: the community building, the resume building, the friendship building and the memory building, but also there was some great music. With respect to some of the great acts I saw like Raz Simone, TWINS, Fury Things, Boy and Bear, The Envy Corps and more, here is just a snippet of that playlist.

Gloom Balloon – Fix the Sunshine

Gloom Balloon is a peculiar project that requires a peculiar touch. Luckily, Gloom Balloon is fronted by two peculiar individuals with exceptional charisma and, most importantly, a complete commitment to the act.

Patrick Tape Fleming of Gloom Balloon somewhat famously wrote the majority of these songs while in a near suicidal depression, but it doesn’t really show in the performance. He and Chris Ford are so in tune together when they perform, that even the somewhat chaotic moments of running in the crowd and rolling around on stage feel completely natural. They seem to be enjoying their performance so much all the time that you get lost. You forget that Gloom Balloon is essentially a suicidal man’s struggle to overcome his own thoughts and emotions.

What always gets me is how Tape Fleming handles his depression. I run as fast as I can from my problems, from everyday issues to more substantial emotional struggles. He seems to be going full bore with it. He is such a strong performer that it seems remarkable that he ever had a struggle. Maybe it is just submerging himself in his emotions that he’s now winning the struggle.

This song in particular is a wonderful reminder of the person he is now. There is so much going on lyrically and musically that it is a blend of happiness and sadness. There is no running from who he is, though. It is not only a great song, but also an admirable declaration and understanding. With video packages and live painters, the camaraderie and the dancing, the joy and the hugs, you forget that the struggle is real. But believe me when I tell you, it very much is.

Dawes – When My Time Comes

Family plays a huge role in Dawes’ music. With the two brothers in the band, the connection is obvious, but they just have this feel to them. It feels like real life and real experiences presented in a real way.

“When My Time Comes” feels like it should be a popular song amongst the karaoke crowd, or at minimum the drunken bar singing crowd. It has a very simple chorus to sing-a-long to. That always wins people over. What I like about it, though, is it feels very real to me. It takes a look at something I struggle with often and puts it in a real way.

My life isn’t exactly where I want it to be, and sometimes I get frustrated by it. It is easy to look at the things you do and wonder why your accomplishments aren’t greater. Sometimes, I lash out and wonder where my slice of the pie is. Why am I sitting on the couch writing things for free while others succeed in a much more traditional sense? Sure, I have my life and my family, but I often wonder when my time will come and get frustrated that it hasn’t yet.

Dawes played at the point in the day when my wife and two children came to the festival. The sun was out and the air was perfect. There was this gentle breeze and mild temperature that felt unlike a traditional Iowa summer. It felt very right to have them there for Dawes. They’re perfect family music, fun but not too distracting. When they played “When My Time Comes” I got to scream the chorus along with everyone else, but I could also glance to my right and see that maybe I need to be happy with what I have already have and figure out how to get the other things. I need to change my behaviors a bit, but not so much that it ruins what I already have.

If this is the best my life ever gets, I can be comfortable in knowing that I am doing what I can. And I can stop paying for my successes with all my defeats.

River Monks – I Am A Lake

This is what happens when you spend the bulk of the last two months listening to one album. You end up at their set whether you planned on it or not. See, the thing with The River Monks is they are a local band, so I have a better chance of seeing them than someone like Surfer Blood, who is awesome and I may never see again. But this song has just been stuck in my head for so long, I found myself convinced that Surfer Blood was having a subpar set, just so I could escape guilt free to see The River Monks.

Truth is, Surfer Blood was probably pretty good (as evidenced by their aftershow(see below)) but I just couldn’t escape the thought that The River Monks were probably going to play this song and I was within walking distance. I guess that is the beauty of the local bands and why I have taken on this task of trying to champion them so much. They are really quite good. Many of them are so good you would be a fool to ignore them when they played.  There are so many on this scene that would do so much with just a little more attention.

There has always been a thing about Iowans that we really like Iowans. Tom Arnold is still considered a celebrity here. Whenever Ashton Kutcher does something remotely newsworthy, our media outlets pick it up. John Wayne is basically a god here. In pretty much every national news story, from triumph to tragedy, we have to read a story about an Iowa tie, no matter how tenuous. We love to hear about Iowa.

So, it is always weird to me that people seem reluctant to hop on board local music. Do they have to make it big in order to get that sort of attention? If that is the case, we have to make them big in Iowa first.

“I Am A Lake” might be a perfect song. Performed live, it still carries all the weight and emotion that it does in studio. It is a beautiful, emotional masterpiece. The fact that they happen to come from Des Moines is not relevant other than that it took being here to write it.

Monsters of Folk (Conor Oberst, M Ward, Jim James and Mike Mogis)- Say Please

The internet has given many people a forum to pretend to be experts. Often, people who are just fans, no matter how diehard, get in over their heads with discussions that they maybe don’t know anything about. A big one with music festival fans is where various bands fit within the various billings. For example, way too many characters have been spent about whether Oberst is a headliner for a festival this size. A lot of it is based anecdotally, ie “I haven’t heard of him, therefore he is worthless.” I will admit that I got a little bit too into the discussion myself. I often prefaced my discussions with “I’m not a huge fan of Oberst but…” but then continued with some form of “…if you look at his album sales/his reputation/his position in other festivals vis a vis previous 80/35 headliners, he is a perfectly acceptable choice,” as if I actually knew what I was talking about.

I did it enough that I eventually just dropped the qualifier at the beginning. By the time the festival rolled around, I felt like I was pretty excited for Oberst. I had stuck up for him so much that I eventually convinced myself that Oberst was going to be incredible.

Here’s the thing. Oberst was exactly what I thought he would be. He was a perfectly acceptable headliner for a festival of this size and I still wasn’t his biggest fan. Dawes did remarkably well as his backing band, keeping the pace up a bit more than I expected, but I dunno, it just wasn’t for me. I guess I upped my expectations too much. I forgot that while I can appreciate all that Oberst does, that I am not his biggest fan.

I guess I went hoping for Monsters of Folk and instead got a quarter of that. This isn’t particularly Oberst’s fault, as the crowd he brought was receptive and appreciative. I just wish I would’ve been among them. That might be on me, because what Oberst does, he does well.

He was still a perfectly acceptable choice for a headliner, whether I have the data to prove it or not.

Surfer Blood – Swim

Venue can be huge. State of mind can also make a difference. Accepting limitations and overcoming them is fun. So, when I saw Quick Piss and Surfer Blood at the Basement Bar of the Des Moines Social Club for an 80/35 aftershow, I had the privilege of experiencing a band that I enjoy in possibly the perfect setting. All I had to overcome was this thought that I didn’t belong there.

First off, the Basement Bar is exactly what it sounds like. It is a concrete bunker with some lights and booze. The guitars and drums bounce off the concrete making even the slightest noise amplified and the loudest noise an excruciating test of the limits of pain and suffering. Quick Piss had their instruments up loud enough to drive out Noriega. Their vocals were basically non-existent because of the sound bouncing off the wall and destroying my ear drums.

It took a few songs before I just gave in. Either I was too old to be there and needed to leave, or I was going to enjoy myself. So, I enjoyed myself. I had a beer, I bobbed my head, eventually I got in a mini-mosh and tossed around some youngsters for a while. Normally my thoughts are so muddled with thoughts of what tomorrow brings and what I’m going to do after that I don’t just act anymore. Quick Piss were my catalysts towards action.

Once Surfer Blood came on, I was more relaxed. They chose to turn their instruments downs a touch compared to Quick Piss, which was helpful (either that or my ears were just destroyed and I couldn’t tell). Once I was no longer focused on whether or not my ears were going to bleed or if I needed to get home to rest up for day two of 80/35, I realized exactly what was happening.

Here was a world renowned band. A band who has played in front of thousands at huge festivals. And they were in a basement in my home town, just wrecking shit. If stuff like this was happening when I was young enough to fully appreciate it, I had no idea. If it wasn’t then this felt like a huge deal for the kids young enough to give a damn.

They started “Swim” while I was in the bathroom and I sprinted out still tying up the board shorts I was wearing. Probably wasn’t the most mannerly thing in the world, but I didn’t care. In that concrete room, Surfer Blood nailed “Swim”. It sounded incredible, and I was packed in with about thirty or forty other people screaming the lyrics.

For the first 80/35, I was 27 and in my last year child-free. Now at 34, I am a father twice over. This is the last year of my life where I get lumped into the “young persons” category for Juice Magazine. You young people better appreciate what is happening in this town because there is quickly coming a point in my life where I’m not sure if I can. But dammit, I will rage as long as I can.

Foxholes – Drive

Here are the things I know about Foxholes:

1. Their lead singer is really nice to me on Facebook.

2. I think their drummer works with a friend of mine from high school.

3. They are good at music.

That’s pretty much it. I don’t know if that says more about me or about Foxholes, but they seemed to come from literally nowhere to be one of my favorite acts. I’m not misusing literally, either. They could have morphed in from another plane of existence for all I know. It just seemed like they weren’t here and then *poof* they were. Fully formed sentient beings ready to rock.

They played “Drive” pretty early in their set, but it is my favorite track off their album. If it had come out at a different time in my life, it might’ve been the song that caused me to get into my car and get out of town for a few days. Now, I just listen and reflect. It makes me think of choices I have made to get to where I am right now, both good and bad. I think about the opportunities I have had to leave town for good. Nothing concrete, but just the fact that as a twenty-something year old, my now wife and I weren’t especially tied down.

I was just so happy to have a group of friends and to feel popular for once in my life that I didn’t bother to leave when I had the chance. “Drive” makes me think of the bad times, but the good ones as well. Foxholes used the most of their time and energy. They sounded great live, the right amount of grime and the right amount crispness.

It’s bands like Foxholes who remind me of who I am and where I come from and it’s bands popping up all over the state that reminds me that even if I didn’t get out and see the world, that I made the right choice on where I settled.

Caroline Smith – Magazine

Change is good. Especially if you are the catalyst and not an outside force. For Caroline Smith, she went from folk singer in the Goodnight Sleeps to full-fledged soul diva. It was a change you wouldn’t expect on the surface, but Smith pulls it off both musically and live. Watching her live, you realise that this, maybe over all other genres and styles, is what she was born to do.

While “Magazine” was the song I came to hear, Smith’s entire performance was one of my favorites of the weekend. She is a gifted songwriter and a surprisingly adept comedian. She had a moment when she and her backup singers told a tale of a date gone wrong that had many people laughing. It was charming and helped take away some resentment from people who might be like “oh, little folk singer from Minneapolis wants to be a soul singer now, huh?” Her ability should win her many fans, but it is her charm and affability that will likely make her a superstar.

And “Magazine” was great.

Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose

Those Darlins are maybe the perfect example of why everyone should use the tools we have to listen to and find new music. Radio is fine, but it barely scratches the surface of what is out there.

I first heard Those Darlins in 2011. Their album Screws Get Loose was an album I stumbled upon when I went on an often overwhelming search to find all of the best albums form that year. Screws Get Loose is the one that reminds me of that time. It reminds me that there is music everywhere, in all cities and in all forms, that should be discovered.

It gets a bit too big at times, but I urge everyone to, at minimum, find reliable sources online: critics, bloggers, fans, friends, whatever, and listen to their opinions, but more importantly, listen to the music and make your own opinions.

I wasn’t sure if they would play the title track, “Screws Get Loose”. They have a new album out now that I assumed they would focus on. Plus, discovering them they way that I did, I had no real idea what they considered a single and what they didn’t. But when they hit the first notes, my heart jumped a bit. I felt like Nelson Muntz when Andy Williams finally played “Moon River”. If you looked at me at that point, you may have seen tiny cartoon hearts flying around my head.

They sounded perfect, too. An outdoor venue can be hellish on sound, sometimes, but they didn’t miss a note or a vocal. Jessi Zazu sang perfectly, sexy and sweet but still maintaining her badass, whisky fueled edge. She came across as the type of girl who is probably really nice and loyal to her friends, but also one you wouldn’t want to cross.

Performances like this are what make 80/35 really special. I’m not sure if Those Darlins would play anywhere else, as our venues are kind of weird as far as size goes.

CAKE – Sheep Go To Heaven

CAKE was wonderful. We were all pretty sure they would be. I know their announcement saved this year’s 80/35 for a lot of people, as I heard much less debate for their spot as a headliner than I did for Oberst (and the arguments against were fairly laughable).

The last band of the weekend always reminds me that this is the city we live in now. That all year round we get to experience live art from local artists that wasn’t as prolific a decade ago and, maybe even better, we get to get together once a year as a city, as a state and as a community and celebrate that fact. 80/35 is always a blast, and what it means on a grander scale has been documented lots of times, by me and by others. Just know that this is important and this is real.

Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood

Foxholes

Foxholes

Caroline Smith

Caroline Smith

Those Darlins

Those Darlins

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