In its second year, Secret Stages has managed to hold on to its original identity while still making the festival better than last year’s. An average Joe probably wouldn’t recognize a single act in the lineup, but that’s part of the appeal of “Birmingham’s Music Discovery Festival.” Secret Stages isn’t meant to be a place where already-established bands can play for their fans. It’s meant to be a place where people who are unfamiliar with local or undiscovered acts can find new music to love. But the festival itself is also being discovered by the people of Birmingham. Several times during the weekend, I overheard groups of people who had wandered into Birmingham’s Loft District in search of a drink only to find that a full-blown music festival had invaded their bars. An acquaintance recognized me on the street, walked up and asked, “What’s going on here? I just came to get a beer.”
Overall, the festival managed to improve from last year. The Main Stage moved to the middle of Second Avenue from its previous location in a parking lot off the street. The audiences were bigger and more enthusiastic compared to the sparse, listless crowds from last year. Most importantly of all, the musical lineup diversified a bit more. From hip-hop to metal to that good, old standby indie rock, there was something for everyone at Secret Stages. Since I’m an admirer of anyone who can rap or scratch, I decided to check out the hip-hop fare of the festival, and I was not disappointed.
At Pale Eddie’s Pour House, MackONE took the stage and treated the audience to 45 minutes of tripped-out, infectious beats. Anthony DeWayne Mack, who performs under the name MackONE, is part of Step Pepper Records, a Birmingham experimental electronic music label. At one point during the show, a member of the audience yelled out, “Drop it!” in the hope that MackONE would turn out to be a dubstep artist and drop the bass. But that’s not what he does. His beats take their roots from hip-hop, but quickly branch out into psychedelic and indie territory without looking back. During the show, geometric patterns and video loops were projected onto MackONE and the wall behind him. A shadow bobbing through a light show in the middle of his beats created an appropriate accompaniment for his trippy, reverberating set. But his beats have a way of messing with expectations too. Just when you think you’ve got a pattern figured out or the beat starts getting cluttered, MackONE reels it in and changes direction in clever, unexpected ways. For lovers of hip-hop and electronica alike, MackONE puts on a great show.
The place to be over the weekend for any fan of hip-hop was Matthew’s Bar & Grill. There, LOBOTOMIX hosted a stage that brought in underground or emerging hip-hop acts from across the country, including Floco Torres, Cities Aviv, K.L.U.B. Monsta, Bare Essentials, Vicious Cycle, Arablak, SKIP, Mr. Invisible and Kid Daytona. LOBOTOMIX also brought their b-boy crew, Kids in the Cypher, for a couple break-dancing showcases. It’s hard to imagine any other single venue having quite the same concentration of skill that the LOBOTOMIX Stage had.
Floco Torres, an emcee out of Macon, Ga., might have to be the unexpected hit of the weekend. He danced across the stage during his songs, grinning and lip syncing along to the samples in his beats before launching into his rap. His flow is fast but smooth and his beats are unfailingly catchy. His lyrics are witty – “Lyrical gladiator, I will beat Nicholas in any cage” – without being overly obtuse or referential. Floco Torres also has a talent for building a rapport with his audience. Between freestyling to the beat of the audience clapping, dancing off stage and making a call-and-response competition, there’s a lot to like about the guy. From the production of his beats to his lyricism to his stage presence, Floco Torres is everything a talented emcee should be.
Cities Aviv, from Memphis, Tenn., was a bit more experimental than the other acts at the LOBOTOMIX Stage. His beats are reverb-heavy and downbeat with an element of grunge to them, but his vocals were the true focus of his show. With a mic attached to a distortion pedal and a groovebox, Cities Aviv’s mashed up, guttural vocals turned the performance into part hip-hop, part hardcore. He even jumped into the audience and started moshing at one point. He’s definitely not your typical emcee, but Cities Aviv is definitely doing something that not many other people are trying.
K.L.U.B. Monsta is one of the few current Birmingham born-and-raised hip-hop groups and the only one to officially be featured at Secret Stages. The group’s music is deeply influenced by the city they grew up in – the acronym in their name stands for Knowledge Learned Under Birmingham. K.L.U.B. Monsta is composed of emcee’s Kel Ricks, Joshua, Air Talley and J. Dotta, each of whom of take turns spitting their rhymes solo and playing backup to the other emcees in their show. Each emcee also manages to bring a unique style to the group with their lyrics and flow, but together they form a cohesive unit that captures some of the essence of living in Birmingham in their songs.
Bare Essentials, from Atlanta, Ga., is a duo composed of Imago Dei and Scott Anderson. Their music focuses on lyricism, and that emphasis is reflected in the quality of their rhymes – “Actually accurate, factually flippin’ it, in fact I’m rather passionate in terms of how I’m spittin’ it.” – Dei even paused between songs to make sure the audience could understand the words they were saying. True to their name, the beats are stripped down, mainly composed of a bass line and a snare. Bare Essentials is no-frills hip hop, but their skill with words and the quality of their performance more than compensates for the lack of bells and whistles.
If I were to have to single out any one performance of the weekend as the best I saw, it would have to be Mr. Invisible. Two emcees from Charlotte, N.C., Ill-use and Justin Aswell, set up matching laptops, grooveboxes and mics before launching into their set. The beats, mainly composed by Aswell, who is a classically trained musician with a degree in percussion performance from the University of North Carolina, start off somewhat slow and downbeat towards the beginning of the set and get faster and more energetic the longer the show goes on before culminating with a high-energy rush in their last song. Both Ill-use and Aswell are talented musicians and emcees, but each is clearly focused on a particular aspect of the performance. Ill-use’s flow is blisteringly fast and aggressive while Aswell makes incredibly intricate beats with his groovebox. Between their alien beats, percussive rhymes and harmonization, it’s impossible not to compare their sound to that of “Hello Nasty”-era Beastie Boys. I was told several times that, if I could only see one show at Secret Stages, I should see Mr. Invisible, and they more than lived up to the hype.
At so many shows and festivals, the artists play their set and then get out. Not so with Secret Stages. I shook hands and spoke with nearly every act I saw. There’s a personal element to Secret Stages that I really haven’t seen anywhere else. But it is, after all, meant to be a personal experience. It’s a “music discovery festival” and it more than fulfilled its purpose for me. I walked away with a stack of albums, a couple of t-shirts and a renewed love in my heart for the underground musicians who, whether you’ve heard of them or not, can still get out on stage, blow you away and come shake your hand afterwards.