80-35 (named for the two interstates that converge here) is an annual outdoor music festival put on by the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition that pretty much takes over the west end of downtown Des Moines for 48 hours. There was some hullabaloo this year since we got a new sculpture garden right where the main stage used to be, but the organizers were able to keep the festival downtown (where it belongs, if you ask me), sticking the main stage right behind our controversially cool library in the shadow of our most-recognizable building, 801 Grand. In addition to the (paid) main stage, several smaller free stages host non-stop acts of all sorts.
The first thing I really like about 80-35 is that I always get exposed to bands that a) I've never heard of before (because I live under a rock, musically speaking), and b) I want to hear again. This year was no different. Here are some of my top "unknown to me "picks, in no particular order:
- Earl Greyhound. The "eardrum damage" award of the festival. Think early Soundgarden and maybe some Living Colour (yeah, showing my age with that reference). Tight and loud. Did I mention loud? I may have taken years off my hearing at their set, but it was worth it.
- The Walkmen. I wish I could compare these guys to someone, but I'm coming up empty. Just a really enjoyable set despite the absolute downpour right in the middle of it. Kudos too for their ability to soldier on after the rain shorted out a guitar. I also enjoyed the guy behind me I dubbed Ironic Applause Man, who, instead of clapping after each song, would yell out something like, "I enjoyed that song! Please play another!" Comedic props to you, Ironic Applause Man.
- Dar Williams. And now for something completely different. Okay, so this folky singer-songwriter wasn't a new discovery (since I'm a nerd for Iowa Public Radio and was an even bigger nerd for WYEP out of Pittsburgh before that), but she did generate a surprising amount of pre-set buzz and didn't disappoint. I may have been unduly influenced by the fact that she closed her set with a song called Iowa, though.
- The Heavy. Seen a Kia commercial lately? With toys commandeering the family Canyonero and going on a joyride? Then you've heard The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" These guys dug themselves an audience-goodwill hole by going onstage when their set was supposed to start and doing a 30-minute sound check. Seriously? But it's telling that even with that deficit, it only took one song to win us over again. They're a weird mix of classic horn-funk (think James Brown at his best) and modern hard rock that works, and works well. It's telling that I actually felt like dancing at their set, since my dancing often makes others wonder if they should enjoy the irony or pity the sincerity (to steal a line from the hilarious Starz series Party Down).
- Des Moines: Hell yes.
- Iowa: Wave the next time you fly over.
- Des Moines: French for "The Moines".
- Des Moines: Let us exceed your already low expectations.
It felt pretty darn good. Or, to put it in t-shirt form, Des Moines: Hell yes.