A festival in the middle of July in Birmingham, Alabama was going to be a challenge from the inception of Sloss Music & Arts Festival in 2015. Have you been to Birmingham, Alabama in the middle of July? With the weather alone, anything could go wrong. Not only are three daily showers and eight daily liters of water expected, but the city's previous foray into summer festivals was the long-running City Stages, an event that spent its final days in a financial crisis that left many bands and vendors unpaid after the plug was pulled.
So from day one, this Red Mountain Entertainment creation had something to prove, and they have. Despite the cancellation of many acts this year due to weather, the festival has proven that if you build it, they will come. Even with some patrons leaving disappointed this year due to poor communication between the festival and the audience, the show went on.
Wholly, people dealt with the struggles on Saturday because the cancellations were minimal, but on Sunday, things took a turn. Even though the lightning and rain seemed far off, the festival played it safe and preemptively canceled several sets. Included in these cancellations were acts that don't often come to Birmingham like Rainbow Kitten Surprise and AJR as well as acts that do like The War on Drugs had to bail.
But you know what this festival and this city could control that it has continued to improve on every year? Making this festival uniquely Birmingham. Which is to say, visitors may not have seen all of the things that actually made this weekend special because you have to know your way around for this city to be everything that it can be.
There was an "official" pre-festival concert at Iron City on Friday with Dwight Yoakam and there was a "secret" DJ set Friday night at Mom's Basement with DJ Windows 98 (Arcade Fire's Win Butler). Rumor has it that Win showed up at Marty's later. For the uninitiated, Mom's and Marty's are in the top five, unmistakably Birmingham bars. The former is a new establishment but worn-in, a place that literally looks like your mom's basement, while the latter is one of about four establishments that stay open and serving drinks until dawn, a thing that only happens a few places in America.
Those are the places that hosted all of the "after parties." Places like The Nick. Places that world-famous musicians remember playing because they were simultaneously a dump and incredibly charming. Places that you walk out of at 7 a.m. blinded by sunlight. Places like Marty's that don't open the kitchen until 11 p.m. That's what this festival and this city did absolutely right last weekend.
On Sunday night, the hometown boys, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, which were among the canceled acts, played a free set at Saturn at 11:30 p.m. There was about an hour's notice and the place (which holds 500-600) reached capacity. This very specific thing is Birmingham's identity. It's dirty and it's scrappy and it's an underdog, but it's friendly and there is something to do at any hour of the day. It's New Orleans with punk rock. It's Philly with smoked pork. For the downtown crowd, Birmingham has become carefully and deliberately insulated. It's unlike any other part of Alabama, for better or for worse. Birmingham is the Southern city that never sleeps.
I saw seven total acts this weekend between weather delays and various cancelations, but I spent the entire time surrounded by very close friends and never particularly worried about the things that I didn't have; just the things that were around me.
Here's the best of what I DID see:
1. Arcade Fire - Arcade Fire hadn't been to Birmingham since going on before Teen Getaway at The Nick roughly ten years ago. Their set is big, hit-laden and fun. I think this is a band with a very specific demographic, but I am in it and this set was worth any hours lost and any bands not seen.
2. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Isbell and company cut 15 minutes from their original set. It was a tight 60 minutes; not much talking and heavier on rockers than slower tunes, but perfectly executed, per usual.
3. Nikki Lane - I don't totally know why Nikki Lane doesn't have Kacey Musgraves's career, but she should. If you're not listening to Nikki, fix it.
4. Vance Joy - There was something serendipitous about watching Vance Joy play "Saturday Sun" after the rain delay on Saturday and before the sunset. The type of moment that defines a festival weekend.
5. Margo Price - Margo and her band are straight up jamming right now. They've gone beyond an act that borders Americana and country into a full-blown rock and roll jam band that rivals Sturgill Simpson. Unfortunately, even though she was one of seven acts I saw this weekend, her set was on when rains came, and it was cut short.
Photos by Mary Fehr for Bullet Music