[Editor's Note: I am one of Secret Stages' organizers, but I didn't tell Andy to change or construct his piece in any way. So there.]
Now in its third year, Secret Stages, Birmingham’s “music discovery festival” is starting to seem like a more lasting feature of Birmingham’s musical landscape. The concept of Secret Stages is fairly simple: bring in local acts and underground or unknown talent from across the country and give them some exposure so that festival goers can, hopefully, discover new music that they might otherwise have never heard.
Compared to last year, there were fewer venues involved in Secret Stages this year, but that doesn’t mean the festival has been scaled back. Moving the main stage to Morris Avenue and limiting the venues to Matthew’s Bar and Grill, M-Lounge, Pale Eddie’s Pour House and Das Haus made the festival more focused, or at least more convenient. While the festival footprint still stretches over a few blocks, it was much easier having venues grouped into two clusters rather than scattered across town.The festival also seems to have moved away from having an entirely new lineup every year. There were plenty of Secret Stages alumni in the lineup, including Birmingham favorites like The Grenadines, The Great Book of John, Through the Sparks, Banditos and Vulture Whale and a few returning out-of-towners, like Belle Adair, Mr. Invisible and Noble ArtRight (who performed as part of Bare Essentials last year). While bringing back a few acts from previous years might seem to detract from the “discovery” part of the festival’s tagline, I’m sure plenty of these acts were new to this year’s crowd, which was bigger and, from what I could see, younger than it has been in previous years.
But there were still plenty of new acts filling out the roster. Every year I’ve gone to Secret Stages, I walk away having seen a few incredible acts that I’d never even heard of before. This year was no different, with The Ninjaz and Amasa Hines both putting on great shows on Saturday night.The Ninjaz, a Birmingham hip-hop duo, brought an old school sensibility with a modern interpretation to the stage at Matthew’s. Their rhymes are solid, their harmony was spot-on and the entire show had great energy, but one of the things that set them apart was their feel for the stage. A lot of MCs like to go to the very edge of the stage and lean into your face for the entire show. The Ninjaz know how to move around and use the entire stage to great effect. At some points in the show they stood back to back without making eye contact or sat in chairs on different sides of the stage when their lyrics contrasted, and at others they danced back and forth, their movements mimicking the harmony of their lyrics. The Ninjaz are one of the fresher faces on the Birmingham hip-hop scene, but they have more talent and potential than many of the more seasoned acts. Amasa Hines, a soul rock band from Little Rock, Arkansas, frankly blew me away. Rock music has always taken notes from soul and blues, but it’s easy to imagine all of these genres taking notes from Amasa Hines. Soulful, heartfelt, intense and toe-tapping all at once, Amasa Hines is one of those rare bands that is just plain good from beginning to end, even though they’ve only been together for a few short years. They were certainly the highlight of the entire festival for me.
There were plenty of other novel acts at the festival as well, like Bit Brigade (who would have thought it would be so enthralling to watch a band play along to someone doing a speed run of Mega Man 2?), Adron (accurately self-described as “light, cocktail hour tropical pop music”) and Tuscaloosa garage rockers Looksy. Even though the face of the festival is still changing, Secret Stages more than met expectations and gave me plenty of new acts to mull over. In its third year, Secret Stages is still living up to it’s claims of being a music “discovery” festival.