BY MELISSA RUGGIERI and YVONNE ZUSEL (Video by Ryon Horne)
Two days, 30 acts, four stages and a lot of sunshine.
Yep, year five of Music Midtown –since the return, of course – is a wrap.
Here’s a look at some of the performances from Saturday’s day-long event at Piedmont Park (and check out our reviews of Friday’s performances).
X Ambassadors – Singer Sam Harris promised the crowd gathered under a brutal 1:45 p.m. sun that they would be entertained. He was correct. The quartet from upstate New York unleashed a fevered performance of melodic indie rock, particularly by Harris and his keyboardist brother, Casey (who happens to be blind). From “Loveless” to “Hang On” to “Love Song Drug Song” and its burst of sax courtesy of Sam Harris, X Ambassadors captivated. Of course their hit “Renegades” (heard on a car commercial near you) prompted the obligatory sing-along – as well a dip into the crowd by Sam Harris – and proved why the song is so popular. But frankly, of the material X Ambassadors played during their 45-minute set (the ballad “Transmission” also made an appearance), “Renegades” is the most pedestrian of the lot.
Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness – Preppily handsome in shades, a work shirt, tie and jeans, McMahon quickly demonstrated his ability to work a crowd. As he darted from behind his piano to the front of the stage while singing “Maps for the Gateway,” the former Something Corporate frontman came off a bit like Ben Folds without the snarkiness. McMahon presented an earnest brand of piano pop – bouncy and pleasant on “Dark Blue” and honeyed on “Canyon Moon.” He also reminded the crowd that he’s not a Music Midtown novice before launching into “The Mixed Tape” from the days of his Jack’s Mannequin project.
Alessia Cara – Her set was only 30 minutes long, but Canadian pop singer Alessia Cara managed to pack an emotional wallop that belied her 19 years. With shades of Amy Winehouse, particularly on the haunting "Here", Cara poured her heart out into songs about putting it all on the line for true love ("Outlaws") and the difficulty in making the transition into adulthood ("Seventeen") off her EP, "Four Pink Walls." She gave a nod to her YouTube roots -- she got notice on the site for her popular cover songs -- with a slinky cover of The Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather". With a rich voice and earnest yet spunky likability, Cara is poised to move from buzzed-about artist to pop's Next Big Thing.
Elle King – A few songs into her refreshingly candid set, Elle King inquired of the audience, “Who’s got my album?” She waited a beat and then, “Prove it!” What might seem like rudeness from other performers instead made King all the more endearing. She’s like Bette Midler with a banjo with a voice that projects a little rasp, a little twang and a lot of attitude. In between songs such as “Jackson” and “Good to Be a Man,” on which she switched her guitar for a banjo, King told stories about dating and addressed the crowd in a relatable manner filled with humor (after all, her dad is comedian Rob Schneider) and f-bombs. Her debut album, “Love Stuff,” has spawned the shuffling rock-blues hit “Ex’s & Oh’s,” and live, it was a pleasure to hear her flip from the banjo strummer “Kocaine Karolina” to a full-throated cover of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Expect to hear her name a lot more in the coming months.
Daryl Hall and John Oates – It’s easy to classify the Philly soul-pop duo as a nostalgia act. But don’t even think about putting an expiration date on their classic catalog because they and their crackerjack band can still roll out those hits to perfection. While there still isn’t much warmth between the pair onstage aside from a few friendly smiles, their professionalism was evident as they thrilled a large crowd with “Maneater” (complete with a searing solo from longtime band member Charles DeChant), “Out of Touch” and the soaring “Say it Isn’t So.” Both Hall and Oates’ voices sounded robust – Oates even turned a little Ray Parker Jr.-esque for his part on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” – and the extended jams that accompanied most of their songs demonstrated how much they still enjoy playing. “She’s Gone” sent Hall’s gritty voice into the stratosphere, while “I Can’t Go for That” benefited from a lite-funk groove and keyboards from Hall. A new apex arrived with an encore that included the fizzy bop of “You Make My Dreams Come True” and “Kiss on My List,” which incited a hearty crowd sing-along.
Billy Idol – At the start of his set, Billy Idol compared having a good backing band to "having a good sports car under you -- it's almost sexual," he said. Indeed, Idol's energetic set wouldn't have had half the zip it did without the jaw-dropping guitar chops of his longtime guitarist Steve Stevens. Stevens, every inch the glam rock star in leather pants, painted nails and blown out hair, nearly outshone Idol with his breathtaking solos and playing behind his head on two songs.
Which isn't to say that Idol didn't bring his rock star A-game -- if anything, the two complemented each other. Sporting his trademark spiky bleached 'do, Idol ran through his many hits -- and a couple of solid new songs, including the anthemic "Can't Break Me Down" -- with the unflagging energy of a rocker half his age. Not to mention the abs, which he made sure to show off during a short onstage striptease.
Idol's songs lend themselves to nostalgic singalongs, and Idol encouraged audience participation in the form of fist pumps along with the surf rock licks of "White Wedding" and the howling "Rebel Yell." It was an '80s rock party led by a man who might be getting older, but refuses to show it.
Icona Pop – If anyone’s energy lagged by the time the Swedish duo of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo took the stage at 5:45 p.m., the girls rectified that problem immediately by turning the stage into a discotheque. The pair emerged together onstage singing “All Night” in unison. Their sweet, higher-ranged voices are ideal for their glossy pop and at times they sounded like a modern, European version of Expose. While a DJ provided the backbeat, Icona Pop energized the crowd with “In the Stars” and “Girlfriend,” an ode to friendship set to a pulsing synth beat. None of it is deep, and after a while their sound becomes repetitive. But they project froth and fun – and that’s perfectly OK.
Run the Jewels – "Let the mayor know, like General Sherman, we're about to burn Atlanta down," Killer Mike, one half of the rap group Run the Jewels, told the crowd at the beginning of the duo's set. He made good on that promise -- figuratively, of course -- with his partner, El-P, over the course of a blistering hour-and-some-change set. The duo's in-your-face, tight delivery electrified songs including "DDFH" and "Early," during which the pair referenced Michael Brown and the Ferguson shootings and encouraged the crowd to put their hands up.
Killer Mike, Atlanta born-and-bred, recalled listening to music at Piedmont Park as a kid, and thanked his mom for "smoking weed and listening to music." Indeed, the duo truly made the set a hometown and family affair, with Mike shouting out his hometown several times and bringing his kids out on stage. Several big name Atlantans also made cameos, including Big Boi -- who promoted his upcoming album with Phantogram -- and T.I., whose Grand Hustle Records Killer Mike was signed to several years ago, plus Gangsta Boo from Three 6 Mafia and rapper Bun B.
Even without the special guests, it was a killer set that served as one of the highlights of the weekend.
Panic! At the Disco – Moments before the suave-looking quartet hit the stage, chants of “Pan-ic! Pan-ic! Pan-ic!” erupted from the very loyal mass of fans of the Las Vegas-bred band. Singer Brendon Urie is the only original Panic! member, which is ideal since his distinctive lilt of a voice is what helped them stand out from the mid-2000s wave of emo-pop-punk bands. Well, Urie’s voice and the band’s tendency toward wordy song titles, that is. From the disco-tastic “Ballad of Mona Lisa” to the crowd sing-along “Hallelujah,” Urie and his three bandmates sounded taut and polished. The band even broke out a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an effective choice that suited Urie’s upper register. Now, if we could only get him to stop spitting on the stage so much…
Lenny Kravitz – In his ripped jeans and sunglasses at night, Lenny Kravitz effortlessly demonstrated how he’s the kind of cool that just happens. He doesn’t even try, which makes him one of the coolest of all. Kravitz hadn’t played Atlanta since 2009, and he and his ace army of musicians reminded the crowd from the sinewy groove of opener “Frankenstein,” just what they’ve missed. The staccato riff of his version of “American Woman” exploded from the stage and sent the audience into an early shriek-fest before Kravitz dialed back to 1991 for the elegantly soulful “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” during which he delivered a clean, ringing guitar solo. Some scorching sax work accompanied “Dancin’ Til Dawn,” which found Kravitz locked in his own groove as he hooked a thumb in his jeans and made sexytime with the mic stand. Kravitz reminded fans that he wrote “Always on the Run” with his onetime schoolmate Slash before performing the song, another throwback to Kravitz’s early-‘90s career, long before Cinna and “The Hunger Games” made him recognizable to millions of 15-year-old girls.
Van Halen – Longtime Van Halen fans always greet news of a new tour with mixed emotions. Sure, who doesn’t want the opportunity to play air guitar (or drums) with the Van Halen brothers on “Hot for Teacher” one more time? But in recent years, original singer David Lee Roth’s voice has been so spotty and the relationship among some band members so publicly fractured that it’s natural to wonder if maybe retirement isn’t such a dirty word.
The band’s headlining performance at Music Midtown was a typically varied affair. Eddie and Alex Van Halen were as fleet-fingered and footed as ever on their respective instruments, bassist Wolfgang Van Halen did a credible job holding down the low end and singing Michael Anthony’s harmonies and Roth sounded better – at least early in the set – than he has in years. Die-hard fans also thrilled at the opening notes of the rare-until-this-outing “Light Up the Sky” and “Drop Dead Legs.”
No doubt, Roth is still the P.T. Barnum of rock, a shimmying, grinning salesman of Van Halen Inc. But he’s also a yapper, and more than a few times the show turned into the DLR talk hour. He tacked on a soliloquy at the end of “Dance the Night Away” about various dance moves (amusingly, he noted how Jon Bon Jovi does the “half Jesus” pose and then joked, “I understand (Jon’s) having some trouble with his guitarist,” before pulling a face and laughing. “I’m just kidding! We’re a f****** family!”). Roth later sat down to play harmonica and acoustic guitar and launch into a lengthy tale about something or other that eventually led to “Ice Cream Man.”
In between, the band locked into the harmonies of the easy-swinging “Beautiful Girls” and followed it with a dose of double bass drum pumping from Alex and sizzling fretwork from Eddie on “Hot for Teacher.” Alex’s drum solo – a highlight of any Van Halen set – proved that the 62-year-old has affirmed his status as one of the best rock drummers of all time.
But toward the end of the band’s set, the growling guitar on “Unchained” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” vaguely masked the reality that Roth had slipped back into speak-sing mode, and fans were once again left to decide whether or not the show really needs to go on.
Sam Smith – Brit singer-songwriter Sam Smith has had a pretty big year, by most anyone's standards -- a haul of four Grammys in February, continued commercial success for his certified platinum 2014 debut album, "In the Lonely Hour," and the announcement that he'll be tackling the theme song from the upcoming James Bond film "Spectre" (not to mention a slimmed-down appearance thanks to work with a nutritionist -- we'll leave aside a judge's ruling earlier this year that he add Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to the songwriting credits on his monster hit "Stay With Me"). So it's no wonder the crooner took to the Music Midtown stage for his headlining set with a smile that rarely left his face, even while singing mournful songs about unrequited love.
While Smith's vulnerable tunes work best in a more intimate venue, as they did during his winter tour kickoff at the Fox Theatre in January, his buoyant energy and gracious demeanor translated surprisingly well to such a large stage. Of course, it helps when you have a voice as big and emotive as Smith's, as well as great taste in backup singers who complement you without drowning you out. He was flawless throughout a set that included a stripped-down version of "Latch," the 2012 Disclosure song that first got him noticed, the heartbreaking "Lay Me Down" and the slinky '80s groove of "Like I Can." In Smith's hands, Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love" was turned into a plaintive, shimmering plea, and "Stay With Me," though omnipresent over the past year or so, was performed with such emotion that you'd guess Smith was singing it for the first time.
Smith has a common guy appeal that enables him to connect with people, but it's his highly relatable songs -- who hasn't had their heart broken? -- that can create the sort of magical, heart-on-the-sleeve crowd singalongs that were on display during his set. The feelings of camaraderie were apparently mutual -- Smith reportedly mingled with fans at Blake's on the Park after the show ended.
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