PHOTOS / REVIEW: Music Midtown 2011 Rocks Atlanta

78 degrees, sun, enormous park in the middle of the Midtown neighborhood in Atlanta – those are some helpful ingredients for a music festival. It also helps when the festival goes off like clockwork, with great food and not too many long lines. But what really makes any music festival a success is the music itself, and that ingredient certainly didn’t disappoint yesterday at Music Midtown, Atlanta’s major festival that was returning for the first time in six years.

While the headliners were great, I thought it was the earlier acts that really gave the festival a bit of a unique identity and personality. The Postelles started the day off, unfortunately not for much of a crowd, but they put on a great show of very Strokes-esque rock. Local favorites The Constellations followed, bringing over an hour of indie and sometimes almost rap-rock sounds to a crowd that slowly started spilling in, but was very into the set. WALK THE MOON, a young four-piece out of Cincinnati that’s been picking up some buzz lately, was my favorite set of the afternoon. Their poppy, art-rock sound is surprisingly polished and they brought some awesome energy to the stage, complete with paint that put a face to the name “neon indian”. They showed some love for the local crowd, mentioning that they had recorded their new album (produced by Ben Allen) down the street from Piedmont Park back in July of this year. Their cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” was a highlight of the afternoon for me, as I thought they really made it their own, especially with lead singer Nicholas Petricca’s throaty vocals as a contrast to Byrne’s more polished tone.

With only two stages and no scheduled conflicts, it was pretty easy to see almost every minute of music throughout the day. I headed back over to the main stage after WALK THE MOON to check out The Joy Formidable, a band that I had heard a lot about but really hadn’t listened to much, aside from their single “Whirring.” This trio has an absolutely killer stage presence and very big sound, thanks in large part to lead singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan. I think it always energizes a crowd to see a fine lady just ripping on guitar, and it was very cool to see her up close.

The Joy Formidable @ Music Midtown, Atlanta 9/24/11

Back on the smaller stage, Band of Skulls, a trio out of Southampton, England was getting cranked up. Their brand of bluesy rock is right up my alley, and I was really excited to see these guys for the first time since their Thursday night set at Bonnaroo. They put on a great set again, and I was surprised at how much the crowd seemed to be familiar with their material. Clearly being featured in a Ford Mustang commercial helps.

Band of Skulls @ Music Midtown, Atlanta 9/24/11

Hometown favorites Manchester Orchestra followed on the main stage and brought the first truly dark sounds to the festival. Their set was both incredibly intense and loud, and it was awesome. The sound reminds me a lot of Dead Conferedate’s first album, Wrecking Ball, complete with very dark, melodic and almost twangy guitar tones, and the occasional high-pitched scream. I’m definitely looking forward to checking these guys out more. Lead guitarist Robert McDowell was also really fun to shoot. That Gibson SG 61 Reissue is one of my favorite guitars.

Manchester Orchestra @ Music Midtown, Atlanta 9/24/11

Young the Giant played a quick 45-minute set on the smaller stage just after this, and honestly this is when I had to take a quick break. I shot through the first song and heard most of the set from a distance, including the hit “My Body”. These guys were definitely a fan favorite.

I headed back over a little early to the main stage to make sure I got a good spot for The Black Keys, whom I have quite the soft spot for. The park really started to fill up at this point, and you could tell just by looking at t-shirts that much of the crowd was here for this set. If there was a picturesque moment of the day, the first 15-20 minutes of this set was it. The sun was setting over the Midtown skyline, and the temperature dropped just a few degrees. The opening picture was taken right before The Black Keys took the stage, and the sun continued to give us photographers some incredible light for the first few numbers.

The Black Keys @ Music Midtown, Atlanta 9/24/11

Even with their newfound fame, the Keys still manage to craft 1-hour sets that keep all of their fans happy, which is not an easy task. In just a little over an hour on Saturday, they touched on all seven albums. Crowd favorites seemed to be “Tighten Up”, and “I’ll Be Your Man”, while “Stack Shot Billy” is always killer live, as Dan Auerbach gets to show off his slide skills a bit and the song lets them run the gamut from soft-pounding rhythms all the way to fuzzed out freakouts. This band is only going to get bigger, and I think they are truly going to get better too. Apparently their next album is pretty much done, and it should be out near the end of the year, complete with Danger Mouse behind the production wheels (he produced Attack & Release as well). I’m happy for these guys and hope I get many more chances to see them.

Second to last we had Cage the Elephant, the most British-sounding American rock band of all time. These guys had crazy energy on stage and also had quite the crowd of dedicated fans camped out for good spots up front well before their start time. They started off hot with most of the hits from their first album (self-titled), including “In One Ear” and “Back Against the Wall”. One of my personal favorites is “Tiny Little Robots” and I was psyched to hear that from up close in the photo pit. Their sound translates very well to the live setting and I thought they put on a great show. These guys were super fun to shoot, especially lead singer Matthew Shultz.

Cage the Elephant @ Music Midtown, Atlanta 9/24/11

The Cage crowd was a bit small for their stature but very energetic, taking Shultz on a crowdsurfing ride early in the set. Many festival-goers chose to camp out for “limestone rockers”, and headliners, Coldplay at the larger stage.

Judging by the increasing crowds towards the end of the night, it seemed that some people had arrived late just to hear Coldplay. The first 1500 feet or so out from the main stage were completely jammed with excited fans that probably hadn’t seen the band play in quite a while. That group got really amped for some plain ole’ recorded music from one of everyone’s favorite artists playing over the PA system before Coldplay’s set.

It’s amazing how a crowd of Coldplay fans also happen to love Jay-Z, I mean who doesn’t love Jay-Z?

Coldplay came out to a huge roaring crowd and definitely seemed happy to be touring again. They hit staples “Yellow” and “In My Place” right off the bat, both of which were pretty nostalgic for me. You’ll just never forget those songs, even if you can’t exactly remember the words. The highlight of their set, without a doubt, was a very special cover. Chris Martin spoke for a minute or so about the band’s love for Georgia and Georgia musicians (they’ve been quoted as saying they love playing at The Tabernacle), and brought up R.E.M.’s recent break-up. Martin said R.E.M. is a huge inspiration of the band’s and then went into an excellent rendition of “Everybody Hurts”.

The Coldplay stage setup was very cool, especially from up close. Ghostland Observatory-style lasers combined with street graffiti in front of their giant screen gave off the feeling of a Broadway show more than a rock concert, in a good way. They closed with old favorites “Clocks” and “Fix You” before ending the show with their newer single “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”.

Overall the festival was a huge success, bringing solid headliners together with a very well-curated collection of smaller bands as well as some delicious food and perfect weather in the picturesque urban setting of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Early signals indicate that it was profitable for the organizers, which is a good sign that Music Midtown will be back next year, maybe even as a 2-day event.