Hinterland 2016: Part 1
We start things out by driving through the dense & cloudy city of Chicago, onward to the rolling corn fields of Iowa. Layers of greens are packed along the highway with the most picturesque blue sky & dots of clouds above. Lucky for us, the rental car is a convertible and with a layer of SPF liberally applied, highway 80's small towns drift past us. Us being myself and Spike, resident Hear & Now Media photographer.
Landing in Winterset, Iowa to what I'm sure is the classiest Super 8 this side of the Mississippi, we ditched our bags and headed out toward St. Charles, where Hinterland Music Festival is held. Passing through a sleepy farm town, the only bustle to be seen was the parking lot for the fest (a field!). A jolly school bus took us the rest of the way.
San Fermin is up first on the only stage, under an idyllic sunny afternoon in what is a natural amphitheater between fields. I actually saw San Fermin for the first time early this year at Treefort Festival in Boise, Idaho, and had the same vantage point from the crowd oddly enough for both sets. The New York based band has some unique twists, with rock star saxophone, trumpet, violin, keys & percussion players. Announcing that it’s their last show of the year, they left it all on stage. The 3rd song, "Emily," the brass section literally comes forward to play. They use every inch of the stage with 8 of them up there, and it’s a wild good time. They play a new song last, which seems to have more people filling in the front of the stage area and seemingly starting to enjoy themselves.
Wandering around as the next band, Houndmouth, sets up it's a little sparse but also a bit hot and still early, and most people camped out on the grass on blankets in the shade. Black pants were a mistake it seems, but unlike Arizona, at least the wind here has a refreshing chill to it. The venue, as I mentioned is a grassy amphitheater with a single massive shade tree ("Hintertree"). I am really glad it's not supposed to rain, or this would be a massive mud pit from hell. There are food trucks & vendors with the typical festival type with various tie dye, fried any and everything, including spam, all perched at the top of the steep hill.
Just to speak to the variety of folks here, there are families spanning 3 generations, and one guy in a leopard loin cloth. He is very tan and might only wear that at all times. That's a first. We also met the keys player and singer of San Fermin - the luxury of small scale festivals are the chance encounters like this, which I personally enjoy. They too caught sight of the loincloth man... He seems to be the talk of the fest only an hour and a half in.
Houndmouth is up next! They look to be fresh out of a goodwill we passed somewhere between Chicago and St. Charles, in numerous prints & high waisted tweeds. I do spy another saxophone! Wait there's two! That's three so far between the first two bands. I've decided I’m going to drink every time there's a sax solo this weekend. I’m implementing it as a festival rule from here on out. Starting out the set, the drummer casually has a cig in his mouth. That is not something I’ve seen in a while…their second song switches singers and sounds like a retro good time. One of the things I was looking forward to is hearing/seeing new music that I wasn’t familiar with mixed in with old favorite this weekend. Houndmouth is a new one. They change tempos furiously and the drummer has now ditched his cancer stick to sing some decent high notes. Slowing things down for song 3, as the sun starts to set, I spy an octogenarian in bee striped overalls just dancing along. GUYS, I DIDNT KNOW IOWA WAS SO RANDOM. *Also, I later find out this is a local legend, John Kirsch.*
Sing-alongs seem to be a bit of a challenge as people get settled in. I can't quite figure out who everyone is here to see yet. With the first night being relatively short consisting of only 4 bands, it seems people are here because a two day pass was more cost effective. Houndmouth seem to have a lot of fun in their silliness, saying "This song was also about vaping." But they also seem to have the most local connection. Last song is about their cousin Greg. Who's from Iowa, and here! (And evidently not a POS like the song suggests.) Even when they don’t seem to be taking themselves seriously, they are very talented and reminded me of an early MGMT.
The grass is getting more crowded (blankets everywhere saving space) and I'm now wondering how many people will be here over all. It all reminds me of McDowell Mountain Music Festival, but if it was set in the middle of 10,000 corn farms. I get to chatting with the two other people around me: one is an engineer who just loves coming out to fun events around Des Moines, and the other is connected to those that run this entire event. I learn that they expect 17,000+ people to be at Hinterland and that while only in its 2nd year, they hope to expand as they continue to put on the event every year indefinitely.
I am one very happy human since I freaking love Cold War Kids, and they are 3rd tonight. This is my 9th time seeing them, 2nd this year, and not the last time I will in 2016 either. For now, the sun is dipping behind the hill creating some fantastic pastel skies and I reverse my thoughts on pants. They were a perfect choice for this desert dweller who gets cold in 75 degree weather.
Right on time, Cold War Kids take the stage. Personal bias aside, they put on a killer show. They are coming up on their last leg of touring in support of their latest record, out almost 2 years ago now... but they are as fresh faced & sounding as ever. By the 4th song, the family in front of me leaves and I’m happily in the very front row. The bass player turns up his own stage antics standing on various speakers as the keys & tambourine player keep up the vibes on the opposite side of the stage. By the last few songs, the sun is gone and the sky is a lovely shade of royal blue (fittingly, that’s a title of a song played) and they close out the set with the insanely upbeat “Something is Not Right With Me” and close out 16 songs in a whirl of metaphorical fireworks.
Taking a dinner break and a walk through the crowd, it's a mixed bag of sunburns, some drunks, and all the in between. Dinner by the way was a happy little plate of Hawaiian food. Way to throw a curve ball, Iowa! (I did skip the spam though it was readily available.) The cell signal here is garbage so my dreams of real time updating the masses are stomped out like a bug.
Last up for this first night is Ray LaMontagne. I’m very excited to see him for the first time, having been a fan for many years and missing him by a day. (Almost as many times as I’ve missed Iron & Wine, my other favorite raspy voiced bearded folk singer.) Dropping into my new spot for the weekend, a VIP section folding chair, with a fresh cold cider and anticipation up to my eye balls. LaMontagne starts things out with a new, super mellow song. I can't recognize it, and it’s borderline drowned out by the loud crowd. Since there are no saxophones to be seen, I'm now going to drink every time the piano player is on the mini-jumbotron screen. (Shout out to Blue Moon for the free koozy by the way.)
The stage is lit all moody with low blue lights, which makes sense since LaMontagne has moody songs. However, he's a soft singer and I literally can't hear anything he's saying other than ssssssh sounds over the hum of the crowd. (Even with noise/fuzz cancelling ear plugs.) This is very disappointing. I recognize the 2nd song at least, "Under Pressure,” but that might be because I know it? With the massive white lights from the beer tents & porta-potties, it creates a back lit effect with the stage. Its distracting with the sound and lights being low, it makes me question if it's an artistic choice.... In which case he seems to be challenging Sia: be on stage but be as mysterious as possible. If not, then it’s unfortunate planning on the fest’s part.
Two songs in, 15 minutes into his set. This is a whole different vibe from anything else tonight. LaMontagne is being majestic as hell. Taking his damn time to do anything, which I am guessing this is how his shows normally go. It's such a stark contrast to the three acts prior tonight. I feel like his show just got lost in this venue and on this crowd. Knowing that he’s currently touring through theaters vs arenas, I am jealous of all those that will see a wonderful set in a complementary acoustic setting tomorrow night in Chicago.
Paying attention to him however is rewarding. And finally, at 10:19 a song is louder than the crowd! I ran into the same singer from San Fermin around this time, and he informs me that LaMontagne worked with My Morning Jacket on this last record, and everything makes sense now about his show.
A giant yellow school bus transports us back to the car, and we drive through the star lit night to the only place open in town, Kum N Go. The neon lights buzz over head as the surprisingly clean and honestly decent QT knockoff allows us to grab late night snacks and discuss the first day. The Super 8 seemed to get their act together by the time we arrive back, and the water service seems to be restored (oh yea, there was no water when we first arrived.) I fall asleep to the sound of Jimmy Fallon on TV with a happy & tired music overloaded heart.