SIXTEENHUNDRED: Shins, Sharpe heat up Arizona stage

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First Posted: 4/1/2013

“What a beautiful night!” cried James Mercer, gazing across the site of the 10th Annual McDowell Mountain Music Festival. The frontman for Grammy-nominated indie icons and Friday (March 22) night headliners, The Shins, shared in the awe of the locale.

For the past decade, bands have flocked to Arizona’s arts oasis. The MMMF, which donates 100 percent of its income, is run as a nonprofit organization produced and operated by Wespac Construction. Since its establishment, the festival has raised over $500,000 for family-based charities in Arizona. 2013 donations benefit Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Ear Candy Music Charity, and family shelter service provider UMOM.

According to Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Patricia Barney, the festival’s philanthropy resonates in the community long beyond the weekend’s festivities: “The people at Wespac have been great to work with. Last year they raised $43,000 for Phoenix Children’s Hospital.”

And that was just one-third of the charitable donation. “You know that their heart’s in the right place,” Barney smiled, “That’s why they put this on.” Wespac Project Manager Chris Hundelt explained that the festival began on a much smaller scale as “more of a company party that grew as people were willing to donate.”

On its 10th anniversary, the festival boasted a sensational array of vendors – including Deschutes craft brewery – and an incredible lineup playing the stunning site just off of downtown Phoenix’s cultural hub, Roosevelt Row, during March’s perfect tourism weather.

Still taking in the scene, Mercer continued, “I don’t think I’ve ever been here when it was this gorgeous.” The Shins played an engaging 18-song set, pulling from each of their four LPs, with emphasis on the most recent, “Port of Morrow,” starting with the album’s feedback-rich opening track, “The Rifle’s Spiral.”

Drummer Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse) thundered through 2001’s breakout hit “Caring is Creepy.” Mercer’s kite-like tenor soared over the allured crowd for single “Simple Song,” dipping low for a few emphatic line deliveries in time to the crowd’s clapping hands. The band bounced along to the “la-la-la-las” of “Australia” and shook maracas and hips during “Bait and Switch.” Among others, the group played fan favorites “Phantom Limb,” “Saint Simon,” and “Kissing the Lipless.” They blazed through an up-tempo “So Says I,” omitting the title phrase but compensating with twice the rock.

Richard Swift’s keys and Mark Watrous’s slide guitar carried the slow, western rendition of “Port of Morrow” ballad “September.” The album’s title track chimed with Nick Teeling’s glockenspiel, soulful vocals, stunning harmonies, delicate keys, and somber strings that buzzed into the beloved “New Slang.” The audience echoed Mercer’s celestial delivery, and a swelling interlude led to “Sleeping Lessons” off “Wincing the Night Away.” Mercer plucked into the 2008 hit, then casually slung the guitar over his shoulder for some hushed vocals. Like Chekhov’s gun trope, bells hung from the fingers of a statue atop the kick drum; Mercer’s mic picked them up as Strummer shook them downstage and the band erupted into a dreamy jam. Yuuki Matthews kicked off the encore with a bass-laden “No Way Down,” followed by the beautifully muted “Girl Sailor” and an elastic instrumental into a pedal-fed, haunting, “One by One All Day.”

Three sensational acts warmed up the main stage. SoCal decimette Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros played an enchanting set, scattering crowd pleasers from their debut album, “Up From Below,” and their more recent LP, “Here,” including “That’s What’s Up,” “I Don’t Wanna Pray,” and the chart-topping “Home.” During the latter, singers Alex “Edward Sharpe” Ebert and Jade Castrinos – who bellowed so loudly that she clapped her hand over her mouth, giggling – playfully exchanged stories and opened the mic up to the crowd. The folk pop ensemble shared the love, wading into the audience and serenading swaying fans.

Balkan Beat Box and Arizona’s favorite gypsy-tinged collective, Dry River Yacht Club, filled the afternoon with world music. BBB brought passionate political lyrics, reggae beats, and an array of Israeli instruments. Dry River Yacht Club – think Amanda Palmer meets The Decemberists at a poetry reading – stomped, plucked, strummed, and warbled their way across the stage. The band’s nine performers each played somewhere between the homegrown vaudeville of NEPA’s And the Moneynotes and the Brechtian theatre rock of Gogol Bordello; each member was a different gem glimmering under the same desert sun.

The array of local, national, and international bands drew an eclectic crowd to the festival’s new downtown home. “This is my fourth year,” asserted Phoenix resident Jeff Watkins, formerly of Wilkes-Barre, “but it’s the first they’ve had it downtown.”

Watkins was thrilled that the festival was moved from Scottsdale to the metropolis. “Downtown is booming,” he added, hoping that the festival, and its patrons, would continue to celebrate in music and philanthropy in downtown Phoenix.