While Washington has had its share of “festivals” – Trillectro, Sweetlife, Virgin Mobile Fest – we’ve never, until this past weekend, really had something that’s specifically for D.C.
Staged in West Potomac Park adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, the inaugural Landmark Music Festival brought the scale, along with the uniformity, of other more seasoned fests like Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza. That’s not surprising, as Landmark was thrown with veteran production company C3, now the third-largest production company in the U.S., working in conjunction with the Trust for the National Mall, who aims to fund their ongoing Landmark Campaign.
The National Mall faces more than $400 million in deferred maintenance on top of hundreds of millions of dollars in needed updates and sustainable improvements. Landmark Music Festival is helping us to build awareness and raise funds to meet the needs of our country’s most iconic, beloved and visited national park. – Landmark Trust’s MacKenzie Babb
The hope, of course, is that the iconic, beloved draw of the park itself will transfer completely to an event that is eventually regarded in much the same light. That's a mission that even the most jaded of music fans SHOULD be able to get behind.
Kicking off the whole shebang was Washington, D.C.’s very own Ex Hex. While they have always had a powerful presence, the trio of Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and Laura Harris have somehow upped the amperage. Even with the small early morning crowd dwindling in, there were times during their set, when the giant Jefferson stage, slated to feature superstar Drake, seemed barely able to contain them.
Ex Hex wasn’t the only local fare to make some noise over the weekend. Hitting the Miller Lite stage at the opposite end of the park, D.C. rock stalwarts U.S. Royalty banged out some anthemic festival-ready indie rock, complete with fog machines, while Empresarios took the BMI stage by storm just a short distance away, fusing Latin rhythms with dub and house to a packed tent of early-morning partiers. Later on in the day, D.C. faves Vandaveer took to the same stage to deliver a set of high-energy Americana that their rabid fans have grown to know and love. And Wale? This local D.C. rapper delivered one of the most exuberant sets of the weekend, and definitely the most interactive, as he dove headfirst into the crowd merely two songs deep in his mid-day packed-field Jefferson stage set.
Of course, for better or for worse, most fest goers were coming for the big game, and as the field in front of the main stage slowly filled up over the course of the day, those fans who weren’t camped out for Drake got their money’sworth of the typical festival fare. Twin Shadow, Band Of Horses, Daughter, and the Lone Bellow all brought serviceable sets to the table, but it was Miguel who turned up the heat on the largely overcast day.
Miguel, who despite what anyone (ahem, Kyle) will tell you is not the next Prince…nor even remotely so, is one hell of an entertainer. Even as his between-song banter became more and more “self-aware” and positively “splooshing” with feels (He’s really worried about “what is ‘normal’,” guys!), it couldn’t detract the seductive, quasi-sleazy star power that Miguel and his band brought to the festival. Suffice to say, if anyone was to win the “Most Likely to Sleep on a Bed of Panties and Money” Award, the superlative would no doubt go to Miguel.
Finally, The War On Drugs, the last best act of Day One, took the stage as darkness and rain began to fall in equal measures. At this point, Adam Granduciel and Company’s set is locked shit-tight, and if you go to see The War On Drugs, you know exactly what you’re in for. And their benzo-glow set of what has now become their standard certainly did not disappoint.
If Day One was largely your standard festival fare, then Day Two was full of surprises. Of course, surprising to nobody who’s read a single word published on this site should be the fact that Richmond, VA’s Avers positively ripped Landmark a new one. Much like Ex Hex, this five piece continues to get better every single time they play, but the combined rock moves of Adrian Olson and Charlie Glenn put just about every other artist that performed over the course of the weekend to shame. If there was an MVP award to give out, Avers would win it in spades.
Equally ferocious but more with a refined slow burn were North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger. MC Taylor is as self-assured live as he is on record. But when given the chance to loosen the reins, his songs more often than not became twang-soul rave ups that threatened to jam off into outer space if given even the slightest push. In similar fashion, fellow North Carolinian Rhiannon Giddens served up a set that jumped blithely from mining old-time gospel to covering the likes of Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan. While the sound isn’t much different from her work in Carolina Chocolate Drops – much of her current band did time in that group as well -- the freedom to not just recreate a musical history, but to draw lessons from it to be woven into a more modern context, obviously suits Giddens well.
If this trio of artists were the beating heart of Sunday, then Baltimore’s Dan Deacon was surely the soul of the whole damn weekend. Seemingly on eterna-tour for his most recent effort Gliss Riffer, Deacon doesn’t just lay down dance beats for the masses; he seems to have the uncanny ability to change lives, if only for five minutes at a time. An easy place to start to understand Deacon’s performance is his recent visit to the Tiny Desk. But out in the wild – at a fest, no less – it is a site to behold. At a festival where “innovative” bands like TV On The Radio (who delivered a fine set in their own right), Alt-J, or even Manchester Orchestra should have given the crowd the crucial Day Two shot in the arm it needed, it was Deacon, on the tiny Roosevelt Stage, who mustered up the most heart, vigor, and straight-up joy of any act the entire weekend.
This left it to ever-rising synth poppers CHVRCHES to close out the evening for the fans that had decided NOT to camp out at the Jefferson Stage all day, missing just about everything that was good at Landmark so as to see The Strokes. Hot on the heels of their latest album, Every Open Eye (and we do mean hot -- the album was released the Friday before the festival), Lauren Mayberry and crew did just that, proving that even if it isn’t your jam, per se, when in doubt serve up some emotionally charged pop with a side of synthesizers and the crowd will eat it up.
All said and done, the takeaway from this weekend is that Yes, D.C., you can do a festival in the city that has the potential to rival monoliths like ACL, Bonnaroo, or even Coachella. The grounds proved to be fantastic, not just location-wise, but for transportation in and out. The vibe overall was relaxed, and for natives, the “this is kinda cool” factor of seeing all of this happen in a park that they frequent regularly was strong.
Still, other logistics proved more challenging: Beer, food and bathroom lines seemed to be the main complaint from Saturday’s attendees and have sadly been the focus of some (read: most) of the reports on Landmark Music Festival (instead of, you know, the music). But an appropriate question to people getting truly torn out the frame over it would be this: “Do you even festival, bro?” Any time that you cram 25K people into a space the size of West Potomac Park for 10+ hours a day, you’re going to have lines. Further, those issues were largely resolved by Sunday. That said, if you got stuck in a beer line on Saturday, your struggle was real. Even so, it shouldn’t have been totally unexpected.
Another place where the fest could see some improvement is the lineup. While we don’t claim to know the financials, it’s a safe bet that if you spend much (read: all?) of your money on Drake and The Strokes, then you have no latitude to curate the rest of the festival. Next year, and we hope there is a next year, maybe don’t shoot for the stars, or at least those stars. Instead think about artists more likely to be aligned with the cause that Landmark is raising money for. Even better: Remember that D.C. isn’t just a hotbed of politics and political activism; it’s got one of the most vibrant music scenes in the country right now. Tap into that. Set up a local stage in place of the “Musical Petting Zoo” (a great idea in theory, but everyone, and we mean everyone, needed more cowbell). Bring the artists that bring life -- to a town often stereotyped as a cold and procedural, at worst, or remembered and romanticized for a bygone halcyon age, at best -- into the cause and you’ll see results that initially couldn’t have been anticipated.
2015 Landmark Music Festival: We had our doubts, but in the end, you did us proud. Let’s do it again next year… but seriously, guys: Let’s not tell Drake. Everyone knows Meek Mill is better anyway.