The easy way out of any music review is the relentless slam, the cynical rant against whatever perceived injustice against what is good and just, and the music industry has a unique talent for serving up easy targets. (Courtney Love authorizes a Z-Trip remix of a Nirvana track? Excellent!) The minute I saw the listing for Tempe, Arizona’s Southern Comfort Music Experience mini-festival, it seemed like another softball thrown right down the middle. A lineup selected from the Hype Machine charts? A temporary venue set up in the parking lot of a new mall? Seemingly endless corporate sponsorship? Sounds like a the easiest blog post in the world. The only problem is when the event ends up resembling an actual good idea.
I probably should have seen the problem coming a mile away. While I was navigating the PR maze in my attempt to get a press pass, I was busy preparing a line of questions revolving entirely around the venue’s mall surroundings (“So, Cold War Kids, how do you feel about the new menu items at Red Robin,” etc.). The Southern Comfort people were incredibly accommodating (even after reading my sad excuse for a writing portfolio), setting up an interview with Architecture in Helsinki and the Southern Comfort VP of the Americas, which I assume is an important job, despite the fact that I am dubious that there is another America out there somewhere. Again, this should have been a sign that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
It turns out that Campbell Brown, the VP of these alleged “Americas”, is a decent guy–or I’m just an incredible sucker for clever marketing. He’s totally open about his desire to sell some booze to twentysomethings, and to do so by making a connection to music’s aesthetic of cool, but it’s hard to argue with the method–diverse lineups at a free show, adding a few new cities each year. He’s not naïve enough to believe that Southern Comfort is going to go head-to-head with Lollapalooza or Coachella, but he does want to put on a show that promotes the brand without the audience “having to take a shower afterwards.” I mean, how do you argue with that? Aside from trying to figure out who thought the Sick Puppies should appear? (Brown admitted it was “a weird time of year” for booking acts.)
Don’t get me wrong, there were some incredibly cheesy aspects of the “Experience.” Was anyone going to get excited about a glorified beanbag toss? The event could have done without the DJ who seemingly brought his crates from his gig at the End of Summer Kappa Sig Watermelon Bash, and who announced early on he would be there all day “mixing it up on the wheels of steel.” Also, if the main stage MC actually believed that “Cold War Kids will change the way you see rock performance,” Southern Comfort (described by Lou Kummerer, bassist of local band The Loveblisters, as “the Hall and Oates of whiskeys”) is more powerful that I would ever imagine.
But here’s the thing: For all the underlying corporate ridiculousness (and the Sick Puppies), the show seems like a decent thing for everyone involved… even to the point that I almost think we should welcome the expansion of the SoCo Music Experience Brand. Outside of the largely horrible local acts (who play for free), it’s a good deal for the bands, who get a nice paycheck to go along with their Stereogum raves. The free admission, which allows people to just walk up and check the show, makes the ever-present advertising a little more palatable–after all, there was just as much (if not more) advertising at Coachella, and I seem to remember those tickets being slightly more expensive than zero dollars. Gregg Gillis from Girl Talk was up to his normal antics, with a stage full of dancers, but it worked. The music was fun (although a sorority girl in my vicinity commented that she “just didn’t get it”), and you could avoid the girls trying to hand out beads if you didn’t establish eye contact. Girl Talk hadn’t played the Phoenix area since his “Night Ripper” fame kicked in, and he kept yelling that it was Saturday night and we should have fun since the show was free and the booze was cheap.
He had a point.