Savannah is one of those old, lovely, hopelessly touristy towns, with its shameless endorsement of alcohol consumption (street-legal, like New Orleans), plentiful foodie options, and reasonable walkability. Although not known as an established music scene (say, with the exception of Johnny Mercer) it deals in so much other fun/entertainment options, establishing a music offering seems like a logical inclusion. In its second year, the Stopover Music Festival serves as a respite for bands about to embark on their grueling festival grind. It's a place where they can play to intimate crowds, catch other artists' sets, stay in fly pads owned by local luminaries and enjoy great late-night food, drink, and dance parties. It benefits from Savannah's inherent warmth as "The Hostess City," and the booking of up-and-coming artists shows a strong critical organization. Basically, it's a place where you can catch a handful of the buzzed-about acts you'd likely be chasing after all over SXSW, but without the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds or hectic over-planning. While the fest suffers a little from some sophomore-year scheduling hijinks, Stopover shows bright-eyed promise of becoming, if not an all-out spring festival contender, a smooth and amiable alternative to the old guard.
Certainly one of the highlights was the sheer taste behind creating this fest. While a bit Brooklyn-heavy (hard not to be, perhaps?), there was obvious care in selecting acts more on the up-and-coming and critically beloved side rather than popular mainstays: the biggest headliner was dream-pop starlet Grimes. While this booking caters to the blog-obsessed set of music fans, it probably takes some toll on general attendance. While the Grimes party most definitely reached capacity, it causes one to wonder what else might have readily filled up.
Genre-wise, programming leaned a bit heavily on blisteringly upbeat indy pop, Brooklyn drone, and laptop/dance-rock. Fine with me, except it never hurts to throw in a bit more hip-hop. Though revered local rapper KidSyc opened for Edmonton's Cadence Weapon—why not some more indie rappers, maybe even some representative of the region?
The earlier sets on Thursday night saw Montreal's TOPS charm with their glowy reggae-pop numbers and strangely soulful female vocals. Brooklyn's Caged Animals brought the crunchy pop ballads with witty lyrics and adorably nerdy banter—their jam "Girls on Medication" (which plays like a Woody Allen joke) is one of my favorites from the past year. Unfortunately, likely because of the early hour and the weeknight slot, the sets weren't terribly well attended. I tried (and failed) to catch DIVE, one of the most anticipated acts, who had to reschedule from Wednesday night, but their venue change and set time was announced so last-minute I arrived somehow after they'd played. Later on, atmospheric garage four piece Xray Eyeballs delivered an entrancing set to a thickening crowd, complete with kids breaking out some sick dance moves. Nashville's Turbo Fruits closed out the night with their party-anthem garage-grit re-imagined through southern rock harmonies.
The sets originally slated for the Sea Museum Garden outdoor venue on Friday night were rescheduled (with little announcement other than a blip on Twitter and a printed sheet of paper taped over the sign) to another venue during other set times, so I wasn't able to catch Cheyenne Marie Mize as hoped. However, the Born Gold/Grimes party at the Jepson Center was fabulous—the perfect location for the post-apocalyptic light show that is Montreal's Born Gold. When the frontman wasn't dancing in his light-up computer jacket the sidemen performed masked fan-dances and jumped around the crowd wearing helmets and beating each other with drumsticks. Sound is always a tricky feat in a giant marble atrium, which later became an issue for beloved Grimes, who complained throughout her set about not being able to hear herself in the monitors. Despite this glitch, she was as bumblingly charming and semi-creepy as ever, wearing a silken hooded tunic that rendered her looking exactly like a Bene Gesserit priestess from Dune (her namesake, after all). Her set was enhanced totally by Born Gold's assistance—she jammed some of her best singles and got everybody dancing. The purple and green lights firing up the white walls of the atrium gave a futuristic, unholy vibe to the party.
The night closed out with a high-energy triple-header from Brooklyn: the evil bellows of Preacher & the Knife's walloping no-wavey rock, followed by Guards' high-tenor vocals, epic jamming, and crowd-loving stunts, and a hearty finale with Brooklyn's sludgy, minimalist four piece the Men—hearkening to a thrilling, fusty punk-club feel.
Saturday's weather was nice enough to chill in the Sea Garden Museum Garden during the tail end of the Mazarine Records (of Athens, GA) showcase, including some bright, sensitive pop from Smiths fanatics pacificUV. That evening, with the sun down, things cooled off quite a bit but the crowd was cozy, clustered in jackets, for the slow southern rock of Brooklyn's Country Mice, followed by a very tardy appearance from the War on Drugs. The turnout was excellent, and everyone kind of huddled together in the chill for an expansive set of their high-distortion lyrical ballads. The warmth of the songwriting and frontman Adam Granduciel's hoary and penetrating vocals (not to mention his skill with a biting one-liner) reverberated throughout the garden's enclave, feeling actually almost romantic.
In truth, the booking on Saturday evening was so well timed and extensive that it gave the first taste of being at an actual all-out citywide fest. It was almost a relief to be able to finally venue hop and find bands running like clockwork. At the Kanine Records showcase, Eternal Summers dazzled with their grungy plaintive drone-pop. Nearby, Nashville three piece PUJOL churned out uplifting power-pop anthems peppered with small-town anecdotes and references to vampires and Batman. The rollicking carnival of Raleigh's The Love Language offered an intense, ecstatic kind of jangle pop that completely wooed the crowd, producing the comfortable sense that you've heard every song before and already know all the words. The night closed a couple blocks over to the guitar-effects orchestra that is Delicate Steve, which is a must-see kind of set for an intimate venue, since each musician (at times as many as seven onstage at once) works with such enthralling precision around frontman/guitar madman Steve Marion to create mostly instrumental chamber pieces, each one more ascendant and glorious than the last.
Location & Weather: B+
This time of year is Savannah's own festival season—St. Patrick's Day is a pretty big deal there and folks are already out in numbers wearing wacky green outfits, embarking on elaborate pub crawls, and running charity 5Ks all over town. Even Friday night's cold-front sprinkle wasn't overly unpleasant. The whole of downtown still felt ready to party. Saturday returned the glorious sunshine that begged for day show visits, but the temperature plummeted unexpectedly at night, such that standing heaters were necessary for the outdoor sets.
The venues, each offering a feel very different from the other, were in fairly close proximity to each other, with a few curious outliers. Perhaps it couldn't hurt to have events placed more closely together, but there's always going to be a ridiculous amount of hoofing it at any of these festivals.
Savannah itself, while beguiling in its own unique way, doesn't seem to have much of an internal support system of music freaks other than a few transplants and the whole student body of Savannah College of Art and Design—which does give it a curious edge. The biggest drawback is its out-of-the-way location. It's certainly a less centrally located region stop like an Atlanta or Nasvhille. It offers plenty in terms of lovely background and inherent charisma, however, this fest will likely take off when attendees appreciate the fest's offerings on the same terms as the performing bands—a sort of chill vacation to toddle around and relish.
Every single member of the staff, volunteers, organizers, PR folks, door folks, whatever, were some of the kindest and most helpful I've ever encountered. I don't know if it's the stereotypes about southern hospitality that apply here, but over all, everything about the personnel experience was commendable.
However, there are some necessary growing pains for all concerts and festivals, and, in addition to other aforementioned shortcomings (last-minute poorly advertised venue and time changes) Stopover has a bit of work to do on their set scheduling. By Friday, I finally hit the gist of how far behind showtime every single set was, so, through a curious benefit, I was able to catch bands that should have been playing concurrently or at least with some overlap. This stroke of luck, however, didn't outweigh the general annoyance of showing up at one time to see an artist and having to wait an hour or an hour and a half before they started. Mostly, it seems, this setback was due to slot times not accommodating set up and sound check, which is always a process that's twice as long as anyone wants it to be. Since I managed to hit a stride with the serious delays (and didn't mind having a chance to catch some fresh air) I overheard complaints from many other concert-goers, presumably locals, who might currently be Stopover's largest contingent and might interest them to make some effort to appease. Although, by Saturday bands seemed to adhere more to the designated set times, the lone exception being War on Drugs, who apologized for the delay even as they took their time at soundcheck. Also on Saturday, cancellations were emailed out (at least to press) by the PR team instead of leaving us to scour Twitter for fleeting updates.
It might also behoove organizers to keep day shows to a minimum. The attendance was pretty sparse, with a few exceptions for well-followed local bands. Especially if you're interested in highlighting local acts to out-of-towners, it would help to have the options streamlined. Also, the coastal weather in early March (or at least this time around) wasn't exactly comfortable for day-show hopping, which, naturally requires some consistent warmth in order to endure the outdoors for several hours on end.
It's exciting to attend a fest in its fledgling stages—despite glitches and scheduling difficulties, which really all come with the territory quite expectedly. The turnout on Saturday was so much more robust that organizers might want to consider paring down weeknight sets and save the big guns for the weekend bustle. Ultimately, it's obvious that the folks behind Stopover are dedicated to offering a different kind of music festival for this region, which is already rife with jazz-in-the-park fare and a heavy rotation of popular artists who fill up outdoor concerts with ease. Savannah, though a tiny bit out of the way, with all of its gorgeous foliage, party vibe, and creepy history is really the perfect place to feature a destination indy music showcase. Here's hoping, with time, it ensconces itself as a regular festival season option.