During Deerhunter’s performance at 80/35 this past weekend, a small group of attendees asked to take some pictures of The Current’s delegation for the Iowa Public Radio website. It was a happenstance encounter that led us to meet the small and dedicated team behind Studio One, an adult alternative music station relegated to the 7PM to 5AM timeslot when IPR News isn’t serving as the primary service.
Music Director Al Schares explained the conception of 80/35, a festival in downtown Des Moines which now regularly draws over 30,000 music fans six years after its debut installment. Once on the verge of a cultural collapse, Des Moines was revived in part by the non-profit Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) in 2004, tasked with re-energizing a city which was often passed over by bands and bookers.
The DMMC has definitely succeeded in putting this pocket of the Midwest back on the musical map, and it seems that a helpful city government, major corporations, art boutiques, media outlets and IPR have all been instrumental in making this decade old vision a reality.
This junction where interstates I-80 and I-35 meet has allowed the city to consolidate their music and arts into a centralized location, making it easy to take a few steps and experience a whole new world. Within the festival grounds alone at Western Gateway Park, we were treated to three stages and over 40 acts within just five blocks. And the 80/35 organizers are no rookies when it comes to booking talent: this year, attendees got a chance to see heavy-hitters like David Byrne and St. Vincent, Yeasayer, Menomena, Deerhunter, Wavves and Wu Tang Clan. Early editions of the festival are nothing to scoff at – everyone from The Flaming Lips, to The Roots, Public Enemy, Broken Social Scene, Ben Harper, Modest Mouse, Spoon, Yo La Tengo, Girl Talk, Death Cab, The Avett Brothers, Dinosaur Jr. and Edward Sharpe have played… and that’s just scratching the surface. More impressive? A two-day ticket bought in advance only cost $65, and that price tag indicates just how much funding is allocated for this annual event due to its proven returns to the city.
We rolled in Saturday afternoon in time to see the Minnesota bands on the bill, conveniently all scheduled within only a few hours of each other. First up was rising duo Strange Names, who put out a polished, debut EP last year that took many by surprise in the Twin Cities. They’ve been busy playing multiple festivals and gigs this summer as they prepare to record their first full-length with bassist Andre Borka and drummer Fletcher Aleckson backing them up live. All indications from their show at 80/35 (in addition to 10 Thousand Sounds a few weeks back) illustrate a new, more refined direction. And if you thought that EP was catchy with singles like “Potential Wife” and “Luxury Child,” fans will be pleased to see and hear just how much the band has grown up and started to own the stage. Banter comes easy for frontmen Liam Benzvi and Francis Jimenez, movement is perpetual and high-energy and the beats are stronger than ever. The crowd was a little sparse compared to Apollo Brown’s Guilty Simpson right before, but they did play a stage that was free and open to the public (as all the Minnesota bands did), so at least many passersby were exposed to the music.
We made the short jaunt to the paid, main stage for Deerhunter who promptly tore through much of their new record Monomania while keeping their stage antics to a minimum (remember their show at the Cedar?). And Bradford Cox looked like he was in a particularly want-to-please mood by playing the band’s hits off Cryptograms and Microcastle, two records which launched their career back in 2007 and 2008 and gave them a major label signing to 4AD. Inbetween each song, he called out various audience members who were wearing t-shirts he found to his liking. And he also singled out 21 year-old Tony Thonesavanh who became a prominent figure on the festival grounds due to a large print-out of Nicholas Cage’s face that he was carrying around on a stick. Lockett Pundt sung “Desire Lines” – it was absolutely the highlight of the set, and it turned into a gorgeous, extended jam session with both he and Cox casually talking in each other’s ears as the multitude of guitar lines washed over the crowd. They made it all look so easy.
Back outside of the main stage, we hit up The Pines who were playing to a slightly more dense crowd at the HyVee stage, and it became immediately obvious that the Kum & Go stage where Strange Names and Jon Wayne & The Pain played was just too far from the action and main entrance points to garner a consistent, sizable audience. With the sun setting behind them, the band played their brand of spacey folk with ease, foregoing a drumkit and yet still sounding as fleshed out as ever. Looking out at the audience, there was a clear entrancement with the band – we think it’s time we get another Pines album on the books.
Wu-Tang Clan was next up to end the night. It didn’t really matter that they were an hour late to take the stage; the beer was flowing and there were dozens of beach balls being thrown about the crowd to keep the 9,000 people focused. Right before 10PM, the crew ran out and started without hesitation, and everyone knew they were seeing something rare with RZA, The GZA, Method Man, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killah, Cappadonna and DJ Mathematics all in attendance. We got a 75-minute set, we got sprayed with a lot of champagne and there was of course much characteristic stage talk about marijuana, with Method Man taking a moment to congratulate Des Moines on its weed and style. It was also the first time Wu Tang had ever played in Iowa, and if you think a bunch of Midwest kids can’t get down to some dirty east coast hip-hop, then you are dead wrong. I haven’t seen a crowd that wild in a very long time, not to mention displaying such high levels of camaraderie for complete strangers.
For all the music festivals we have in the Twin Cities, it was interesting to note that nothing comes close to the atmosphere that 80/35 has. The DMMC was able to wrangle and curate dozens of indie local and national bands on free and paid stages with a slew of local vendors over two days. And for once, the corporate sponsors were hardly the main focus, a clear indication that the festival organizers were intent on making an experience founded on community. I don’t know if 80/35 has always been this well run in the past, but major cities should take a cue from this small pocket of Iowa who are obviously smart about implementing their ideas and creating long-term goals for the cultural health of a metropolitan region.