Review: The 17th Annual MACRoCK Festival

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Within the quiet and picturesque Shenandoah Valley lies one of punk’s hidden gems. Harrisonburg, Virginia’s MACRoCK Festival started in 1996 to showcase the best in independent rock and spread the gospel of DIY culture. Although it was originally a project of WXJM, James Madison University’s radio station, the festival is now organized by a handful of dedicated volunteers. Supported by the power of DIY ethics and local businesses, Macrock is an independent, non-profit event that has brought the likes of Best Coast, Fugazi, War on Drugs, Darkest Hour, The Dismemberment Plan and so many more to the quiet town of Harrisonburg for the past 17 years. 2014’s fest left little to be desired: friendly staff and outstanding venues resulted in a weekend of the best kind of controlled chaos. 

Part of what makes Macrock so easy to enjoy is its accessibility. Downtown Harrisonburg is composed of no more than a few square blocks, so concertgoers could effortlessly bounce from one venue to another. Plus, most venues were attached to restaurants or cafes. If crowdsurfing left you starved, Clementine Café had you covered with cheap and delicious bacon burgers; if you needed a second wind, stop by The Artful Dodger for a cappuccino. And, of course, if you needed a drink, you could find that anywhere.

Virginia Beach’s Pissghetti ripped open The Blue Nile. As the name implies, they deliver equal amounts of wit and power through their irresistible pop punk songs. Always honest, often melodic and sometimes heartbreaking, songs like “Earth Sucks Without You” and “I Miss Steve” had the audience swinging from melancholy and that je nais se quois glee that only comes from pop punk group vocals. Frontman Vincent Castellano humbly and thoughtfully delivered touching lyrics about breakups and breakdowns, such as this excerpt from “Good Old Virginia Beach”: “We’ve got a stupid home and fake photos / But at least we’re not alone.”

Following the emotionally traumatic bowl of Pissghetti came Rozwell Kid, a three piece that formed under the guidance of Demon Beat drummer Jordan Hudkins (and a whole lot of Weezer-in-their-prime influence). Now on guitar and lead vocals, Hudkins takes the Macrock award for best power moves, from high kicks to lunges to, by the end of the set, lying on the ground amidst the audience, legs bent backwards over his head. Rozwell Kid featured sweet licks in “Van Man” (from 2013’s Unmacho) and an inexplicable “Day By Day” Godspell intro to “Rocket” (from their 2011 self-titled debut LP). Hudkins, bassist Devin Donnelly and drummer Sean Hallock were supported by some of the most dedicated fans of the fest and delivered an unforgettable performance.

Down the street at the Artful Dodger, Brooklyn’s LVL UP was the first of a slew of fantastic sets at the unique venue. Like a first draft of a Moulin Rouge set piece, the small stage was framed by red velvet and metallic curtains, with a dangling crescent moon’s face dripping tears upstage. LVL UP treated the crowd to some new songs from an upcoming (and currently untitled) record, expected this fall. “Hex” was one, concluding with a resounding and powerful plea to “Make me new again.” But the New York quartet ended with old favorite,  “ *__* ” in which fans joyfully aided in shouting the minute-long lines: “I quit a long time ago / Gave up long ago / Buy my blessing with fucking ice cream / I’ll give you all of my love.” Frustration met heartbreak and empowerment, as LVL UP brought together fans new and old with lyrics so personal they could have come from your own secret folder of poetry.

Continuing the magic within the Artful Dodger came two Exploding in Sound darlings, Disco Doom and Ovlov. Switzerland’s Disco Doom produced a hypnotic wall of heavy, atmospheric grunge rock, at times ambient and, at others, shockingly present. Though they gave the impression of improvisation, their often instrumental songs were actually carefully crafted, solidified by intent and continuity. Besides their geographical origins, they were one of the more unique Macrock acts by focusing attention away from the vocals. Lyrics were buried under the noise but surfaced at decidedly intentional moments to effectively create senses of danger or resolution. A trio of weathered and professional musicians all in their ‘40s, Disco Doom were the surprise standouts of the festival.

To the surprise of none, Connecticut’s Ovlov put on a wildly engaging show. Guitarist and vocalist Steve Hartlett, though decidedly drunk, was hilarious and determined. The night before, they had played in Haggerstown, Maryland, and had an unfortunate run-in with a Port-o-potty. Somewhere between that toilet and taking off their shirts, Hartlett announced a split with Philadelphia’s Little Big League. He was also sure to thank EIS labelmates Grass Is Green, without whom Ovlov wouldn’t have recorded their 2013 summer powerhouse record am. “Nu Punk” and “Where’s My Dini?” from that record, were obvious fan favorites. It was apparently the longest set they’ve ever played, and yet the audience could have rocked even longer (were it not for the overlap with Grass is Green at another venue).

As the sets blurred, one unavoidable topic of Macrock fans was the ever-changing question of women musicians. Punk rock is obviously male-dominated, but riotgrrrl up-and-comers Skating Polly were the perfect follow-up to Friday’s set from DC queens Ex Hex. Rumors wafted that the Oklahoma City duo included the youngest musician of the fest— 14-year old Kelli Mayo. That said, no one would have dared to mess with Mayo and barely-legal Peyton Bighorse. The first words out of Mayo’s mouth were “Girls to the front!” inciting the spirit of Bikini Kill. The pair began their set with Mayo on bass and Bighorse on drums, then switched halfway (with Bighorse on guitar), then switched once more. Skating Polly treated the girls and the boys to selections from their recently-released Fuzz Steilacoom, beginning with “Ugly” and ending with “Alabama Movies.” Their empowering set is sure to become a Macrock legend; later, during a particularly rowdy afterparty mosh pit, a gang of girls, crushed by the weight of sweaty dude bodies, chanted “Kath-leen Hanna! Kath-leen Hanna!” Anyone who wants to talk about the place of women in punk should have a chat with Skating Polly.

As Saturday night neared its end (well, sort of— if you don’t count the afterparties that would have R. Kelly’s head spinning), all anyone could talk about was the Diarrhea Planet vs. Big Ups finale. Two awesome bands with overlapping set times caused panic, self-doubt and heated arguments against friends. Infinity Cat pop punk princes Diarrhea Planet are hardly strangers to Harrisonburg. Despite being from Nashville, the shred-til-you’re-dead six piece have been warmly welcomed there for several years, when a few unforgettable house shows made them best buds with apparently everyone in town. New York’s Big Ups, however, were expected to put on a no-holds-bar show with a mosh pit one could only dream of. It was a win-win situation; either set would leave you sweaty, exhausted and with about 100 new friends.

In the end, a particular writer found herself back in the basement of The Blue Nile for Diarrhea Planet. With a lovable lineup of funny and jaw-droppingly talented men, every DP show is infectious. Though there are those who scoff at the name, the band emits unparalleled charisma. It’s obvious why they’ve skyrocketed to renown. DP’s appeal comes from a combination of from-the-heart lyrics of angst and confusion, delivered in a fury of guitar solos and gang vocal-ready shouts. In a bit they call “Anyone Can Be a Punk,” frontman Jordan Smith selected an unassuming kid in the crowd to join them onstage in a one-minute improvisation. Smith asked the bemused individual to just shout about whatever angers him the most. Before you could snap open a beer the band and the crowd helped him vent about his hatred of door slammers (if you don’t know what that is, you must be one). In yet another example of their charm, DP welcomed dudes from Left & Right, who had played earlier in the day, to take over bass and drum duties for “Ghost With A Boner,” from the 2011 Aloha EP. It wasn’t just an example of bands-hanging-with-bands; Andrew and Zak from L&R were clearly also big DP fans—Zak can be seen at most of their shows in DC and Virginia and Andrew had been sporting a DP fan-designed shirt all day.

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Though the closed with “Ghost,” it’s really “Kids,” from 2013’s I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, that sums up their balance of silly and sentimental, that magic equation with which pop punk bands so often struggle. Slow and crescendo-ing, “Kids” declares every Macrocker’s anxieties: “Can we carry so much weight? / We’re just kids.”  The answer, it turns out, is yes. Macrock’s goal is simple– put on an awesome weekend of music– and they pulled it off. The DIY drive these Harrisonburg kids embody is truly addictive. If a group of volunteers can put on an awesome festival featuring Piss and Diarrhea, there’s no question what the rest of us are capable of accomplishing.

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