Sloss Music & Arts Festival

2018 Sloss Music & Arts Festival Day One - July 14,

Jul 27, 2018 Web Exclusive Photography by Chris K. Davidson Bookmark and Share


Sloss Music & Arts Festival occupies a unique spot in Birmingham's musical and cultural history. For two decades (1989-2009), the town's major music festival was City Stages, which brought such diverse acts as Bob Dylan, The Killers, Ludcaris, Ryan Adams, and Jethro Tull to the Magic City every Father's Day weekend. However, the final City Stages was a financial mess that left many vendors and bands unpaid.

Other festivals such as Revival Festival and Cask & Drum Festival tried to fill the gap left by City Stages, but those events occurred in the fall, which is almost guaranteed failure in the football-saturated south. Secret Stages, the self-proclaimed "Music Discovery Festival," is in its seventh year now and has a firm grip on the August time slot, but as of 2014, Birmingham still did not have a major summer music festival to rival Bonnaroo in Manchester, TN or Hangout Festival Gulf Shores, AL.

In 2015, Red Mountain Entertainment partnered with AC Entertainment (producers of events such as the aforementioned Bonnaroo and Forecastle in Louisville, KY) to put on the inaugural Sloss Music & Arts Festival aka (and henceforth known as) Sloss Fest at the historical Sloss Furnaces in downtown Birmingham. Modest Mouse, The Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, and Primus were the headliners that first year, and subsequent festivals featured bands and artists such as Death Cab for Cutie, Ryan Adams, The Flaming Lips, Widespread Panic, Alabama Shakes, and Phantogram.

All that to say, Sloss Fest has become a highly anticipated event in Birmingham with four stages (including the Seasick Records Stage which hosted local and regional bands) and over 40 acts. Attendees drive hours to see their favorite bands. Walking along the streets towards Sloss, I saw license plates for Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas. As much as Birmingham can still get shamed for our past, seeing so many people in town to celebrate the cathartic and healing power of music (a little cheesy, sorry) was beyond encouraging.

Of course, the heat and humidity put a damper on things, but Birmingham only has so many options for the date because of festival competition agreements, and summer seems to last half the year here anyway. Though rain had been an issue in years past (Dr. Dog played a rain and mud-soaked set in 2016 to at least 300 people, though I watched from underneath the viaduct), this year turned out to be a bit chaotic, at least according to those complaining on social media. I can only speak for Day One (Kyle Jones will cover Day Two in another post), but much of the afternoon was spent underneath the viaduct because of the threat of thunderstorms and lightning. Several acts were canceled and patrons immediately took to Twitter and Facebook to vent their frustrations. Tensions were further heightened when the vendors stopped selling food and drinks and some members of the security told attendees that the festival was completely canceled for that day. Everyone was then evacuated for at least an hour, but told to remain in the area.

When the gates finally reopened, I pressed my back against the fence to make sure I did not get trampled by everyone running in (not really). Finally, we could enjoy the bands we so desperately wanted to see. Here are the acts that I was able to catch:

Joel Madison Blount (Monster Energy Shed Stage): One of the few local acts to play the three major stages, Blount pulled out all the stops in his early afternoon slot by rocking out with a six-piece band and elaborate set pieces based on his latest record, Our New Moon.

Walden (Blast Stage): I actually had not planned to watch these guys, but after grabbing some tacos from local food truck Cantina and deciding to wait by the stage for my interview with Moon Taxi, I was intrigued by a few of their atmospheric indie rock numbers. They mentioned that they had all just graduated from college. Combine that with the fact that they are from the fabled music city of Athens, GA, and Walden should hopefully have a good career ahead of them.

Lady Legs (Seasick Records Stage): Lady Legs craft the perfect soundtrack for a hot Birmingham afternoon, and after enjoying their Holy Heatwave record for several weeks, I was excited to finally catch them live. Though I stepped away for a few minutes and never got to return because of the weather delay, I was thankful for those three songs of surf rock bliss.

Moon Taxi (Blast Stage): Moon Taxi had the difficult task of reinvigorating the crowd after they had been evacuated from the festival gates and let back in. For the most part, they succeeded. Though formed/based in Nashville, several of the band's members are from Birmingham, so their fanbase was numerous, albeit occasionally boisterous and pushy. In case you forgot this was a summer music festival, beach balls were floating all around.

Love Moor (Seasick Records Stage): Though several of the main stage acts had to cancel outright because they were playing Forecastle Festival in Louisville the next day (both festivals are held the second weekend of July), the Seasick stage tried to reschedule its acts to still play later in the evening. Love Moor offered a soothing, soulful balm to the all of the scorching heat attendees endured that afternoon.

Vance Joy (Steam Stage): A singer/songwriter who has gained major airplay on Birmingham Mountain Radio, Vance Joy was greeted with a large crowd during what I believe to be his first trip to town. Along with some of his major hits, he even stuck in some Alabama classics by covering "All Night Long" by Lionel Richie, complete with a full horn section.

21 Savage (Blast Stage): I tried to find something positive in most of these acts, but 21 Savage broke the pattern. I think in an effort to cram as many songs into their truncated set as possible, they cut each three-minute track by half. The obnoxious DJ addressed the crowd so much, I was sure he was going to say "We're 21 Birmingham!"

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (Steam Stage): I have known and followed Jason Isbell's music for at least a decade now, and even though he comes to Birmingham often, Sloss Fest was the first time I caught his full set. Chockfull of hits ranging from his solo albums to his days as Drive-By Trucker, he knew how to play the crowd, remind us that he could tastefully shred, and even use dynamics to make a festival setting incredibly intimate for a song like "If We Were Vampires." And of course, his band, the 400 Unit, made the songs even better.

Arcade Fire (Blast Stage): Arcade Fire was probably the most anticipated Sloss Fest headliner to date. The last time the band played Birmingham was in 2003, right before the release of Funeral. They were the opener for local heroes Teen Getaway at the Nick, a legendary dive bar that could probably fit 75 or 100 people on a good night, and most likely played to less than half of that capacity. Fifteen years later, Arcade Fire is one of the biggest bands in the world and Birmingham was able to "Wake Up" and dance the night away. The group treated us to hits such as "The Suburbs," "No Cars Go," and "Keep the Car Running," frontman Win Butler gave an impassioned speech about immigration, and his brother Will climbed the stage's scaffolding while carrying a small drum.

Saturday at Sloss Fest 2018 was definitely a roller coaster, and I left feeling drained, but also joyful. Jason Isbell later tweeted that night "kudos to the @SlossFest crew for handling the stormy weather today in a good way. Not an easy task." I agree with him, and I hope that Birmingham, Red Mountain, and Sloss Fest will be able reconvene and make the festival's fifth year the best ever.

www.slossfest.com

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