Want to know a secret? The Magic City has a thriving arts and music scene. Despite its skewed perception in the national media, in the political landscape, or in the numbers in socio-economic charts, Birmingham is the New South, a South ready to step out of its disparaging shadow and into the spotlight to take its place in the artistic canon of America.
Enter Secret Stages. The new two-day “walking festival” on May 13-14th will be located in downtown Birmingham on 2nd Avenue N. between 23rd and 24th. “It is sort of an ironic title. Our festival is called Secret Stages but we're really all about spilling the beans,” says Jon Poor, one of the organizers of the event. “All these bands are dying to get the secret about what they do out to the world. On that same note, downtown Birmingham is changing in a lot of positive ways and the merchants down there are screaming to get their secret out as well.”
Right in line with the Alabama Tourism’s declared, “Year of Alabama Music,” and the burgeoning internet radio station Birmingham Mountain Radio, the festival is about showcasing to the world how the city is varied, cultured, and relevant on a national level. Organizer Travis Morgan hopes it is a “festival that will expose the new true vibe of Birmingham.” It’s nothing short of revolutionary really, and it gives life to what movers and shakers have been trying to do in this city for decades.
Birmingham-based musician and entertainment lawyer John P. Strohm says, “These bands are up-and-coming, art-forward bands.” About 25% of the bands are from Birmingham and he hopes this will help further brand Birmingham as a relevant scene for both locals and touring indies.
The future looks bright for arts in Birmingham and there are a lot of great people working to promote it. Its success still depends on the citizens of our Magic City, so get out there and show the world that you’re in on the secret.
Here are my picks for the festival:
13 Ghosts - A hard-working Birmingham group of fellows who love to tell a good southern story, a la Drive By Truckers but without the overbearing testosterone. Their high-minded concept albums make for Americana ethereal, something truly Southern Gothic. To singer-songwriter Brad Armstrong, it is simply that, “we make rock and roll records and play them on stage.”
Chris Crofton - Puritans and frat boys beware, Crofton’s brand of absurdist comedy is gaining national attention. He is captain of a weekly podcast available through the Nashville Scene called “The Chris Crofton Show,” he’s already shared the stage with Neil Hamburger, Bob Odenkirk and Louis C.K., and appeared in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. I know that’s right.
Christopher Davis - Host of Birmingham’s own television comedy show, View of the City, Davis is good-natured and a bit silly, but it comes off completely charming. He recently opened up for Janeane Garofalo and can be found emceeing various comedy shows around town.
Crooked Fingers - Former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann produces a melancholy lot of tunes with his solo project. This brooding, honest effort showcases Bachmann’s Richard Butler-esque vocals atop a slightly Appalachian wall of sound.
Dawes - Perhaps you’ve heard their sweet harmonies on the recent Chevy commercial or you read about their gig backing up Robbie Robertson. Either way, Dawes is making a name for themselves with their soulful California folk music recalling Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in gentle, easy-listening waves.
Delicate Cutters - At once bright and brooding, the Delicate Cutters showcase Janet Simpson’s vocals against lush fiddle textures and sparse and appropriate drums. There is an element of dreaminess and hope in their tunes.
Dylan LeBlanc - Shoals royalty and Emmylou Harris-endorsed, LeBlanc writes lush songs that are utterly captivating. His delivery is tender and his country-rock sensibility evoke memories of Stars and Bars-era Neil Young.
Futurebirds - Musical stylings reminiscent of Ennio Marrcone and My Morning Jacket, these laid-back Athenians rock Appalachia with vocals awash in reverb. Subtle banjo and pedal steel add to the flavor.
Glossary - This Murfreesboro-based band have made a name for themselves with anthemic Southern ballads and distorted guitar. Glossary does blue collar with a Thin Lizzy attitude and a bit of danger.
The Great Book of John - Former Wild Sweet Orange member Taylor Shaw’s new venture is swathed in acoustic guitars, swirling strings and his trademark crooner voice. Lofty vocals paired with Bekah Fox’s harmonies make this band a must-see for a moody, eloquent evening.
G-Side - “Well Excuse me Mr. Executive I’m from Alabama/That’s probably why my music isn’t quote unquote Atlanta.” Huntsville’s hip hop lumanaries G-Side are breathing new life into the Dirty South game. Recently featured in the Oxford American, these rappers are crisp and slow all at the same time.
Jack Oblivion - A sort of rhythm and blues punker, Jack Yarber hails from Memphis and combines the traditional with the distorted. He has been a part of several bands through the years: the Oblivians, the Compulsive Gamblers, Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves to just name a few. Come prepared for a gritty good time.
The Love Language - A clear day brings sounds such as these. Stuart McLamb does indie North Carolina, and even when he sings of despair, it is resilient, echoing Ricky Nelson’s ghost and the Rock-A-Teens’ buzz distortion, a.k.a “prom rock.”
Model Citizen - This self-proclaimed, “loud and proud 3 piece band,” are Birmingham mainstays seemingly hatched from some dark, dirty place like the Nick bathroom. Harkening back to a time of golden rock, Model Citizen’s live shows are inspiring and will definitely get you moving.
Pujol - Fun garage rock from Nashville’s Daniel Pujol, formerly of MEEMAW. They were voted one of the “5 Hot Nashville Bands You Need to Hear Now,” by Spin and recently recorded a track produced by Jack White. His plans for the year are, “to get X FILE ON MAIN ST out on Infinity Cat and finish a Turbo Time LP called TCB247, and another LP called United States of Being.”
Sanders Bohlke - The Oxford, MS native is gaining popularity all around the country with his hauntingly soulful vocals and sparse arrangements. His melodramatic tunes are ripe pickings for television shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) who have used him to benefit their moving montage scenes.
TJ Young - A member of the acclaimed Beards of Comedy troupe, Young has shared the stage with comedians Aziz Ansari, Doug Benson, and Patton Oswalt to name a few. He describes his style of comedy as, “a healthy mix of American renaissance, Baroque and spaghetti western. Well, the funny parts of the first two and the spaghetti part of the last one.”
William Tyler - When not appearing as multi-instrumentalist virtuoso (Lambchop, Charlie Louvin, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Silver Jews) Tyler is composing lush musical landscapes for us to get lost in. His Behold the Spirit takes the listener to another place entirely, and all with just his guitar.
A full list of bands and festival information can be found on the Secret Stages website: secretstages.net