Made In America has always struck me as an odd festival. In these still early years for the event, it’s a somewhat small entity. Two days as opposed to others’ four or five, or others’ double weekends; four stages in somewhat close quarters on a shut-down Benjamin Franklin Parkway; a lineup of a size where, somehow, you don’t really have to worry about significant conflicts between artists you want to see. But, of course, it has a bigger pedigree — you know, Jay Z, but also the fact that it’s got big old Budweiser logos emblazoned everywhere. For a young festival, it has had some seriously major acts involved, and this year they expanded to Los Angeles. This was my first year attending Made In America, and while I imagine the powers behind it could drive it into someday being one of the big monolithic festivals, one of those that serve as a major marking point in the summer’s trajectory, for the moment it felt refreshingly local and sensible to navigate. It didn’t need to be too much of an extravaganza.
Given, that was definitely a matter of how I approached it. I don’t know if it was the fact that Made In America falls toward the end of a season’s now-endless stream of festivals and, as a result, comes off as a last gasp of summer, or the fact that it’s a holiday weekend, but Made In America’s levels of drunkenness are impressive even compared to some of the other, more legendarily drugged-up festivals I’ve attended. Unfortunately, this meant it was somewhat inevitable that starting as early as two hours into the day, you’d have groups of bros somewhat belligerently shoving their way past you, whether to get to the front or just to get past to the next stage. So they could then ask everyone in their proximity what artist they were watching. Which happens at any festival, but happens a lot at Made In America. Good job, Pennsylvania. You make me miss living there approximately not at all.
Luckily the first act I saw on the weekend was Holy Ghost!, who had their synthesizers turned up enough to drown out any residual nonsense. Actually, almost as if to defy its small confines, Made In America, in general, is an incredibly loud festival. Holy Ghost! were put on one of the smaller stages — the Freedom Stage — but attracted a packed, fervent crowd, and they played loud and emphatically enough to let everyone else know what was up, too. They were far better than the last time I saw them (which, given, could probably be partially blamed on bad acoustics at Manhattan’s Terminal 5 venue), but they still front-load the set too much. The first half of was non-stop and really impressive, the endings of “Dumb Disco Ideas” and “Do It Again” retaining their synth-pop charms but gaining enough power to tussle with the big EDM drops that would otherwise populate the Freedom stage over the weekend. The second half was too bogged down in songs that were similar in structure and didn’t have the same indelible hooks, which made it drag on a bit.
Next up was Chromeo, and they occupied a similar space. I’ve kinda been surprised by this band in recent years. They’ve been kicking around for over a decade, but I feel like it’s just these days where they seem to be really the most popular, which seems to be either due to their relative proximity to EDM — like Holy Ghost!, they seem to be assigned the loose categorization of “dance music” at these festivals when compared to rap or straight-up rock music — or their favored sound entering a certain kind of vogue. Chromeo have done an admirable job of reclaiming a million totally cheesy tones and sounds as their own, and making a damn good time out of it — not unlike, I suppose most would argue, what Daft Punk did with Random Access Memories last year. Their live set is as feel-good as you’d expect, and they worked well as a warm up for the night’s impending headliners.
These days, most of the major festivals in America are meeting in the middle — there has to be EDM, pop, rap, indie, maybe even some classic rock, etc., etc. Due to Made In America’s size and tighter lineup, you can see the delineations a little easier. EDM is always strongly represented, as is rap or pop music — rock and indie have been as well, but often by aging megastars of times past (Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam), or by lamer, younger rock bands that sound like you’re walking through a mall (this year’s AWOLNATION). At any rate, the National were one of Saturday’s headliners, and now that they’re a year or two into being bona fide rockstars they wear the part well, if still a bit quieter than some of the other artists that have filled their spot at Made In America in its first two iterations.
I’ve seen the National 11 or 12 times over the last 7 years. The last time was in Prospect Park in June, and it was maybe the worst set I’d seen from them. I don’t know if they were just bored at the end of a ton of touring, but the band seemed like they were going through the motions while Matt’s voice broke left and right. I felt for the guy — he sounded worn thin. I didn’t know what to expect from their Made In America set after that experience, but thankfully the band were back in good form. Matt’s voice was still a little shaky in parts, but overall it was a great set with all of their live tics back in force. The super-sized, dramatic endings to “Squalor Victoria” and “Slow Show” were reinvigorated; Matt’s perennial fascination with jumping into the crowd and running around during “Mr. November” went over well. The set leaned really heavily on recent material, out of which “Sea Of Love” and “Graceless” were the highlights. High Violet‘s “Afraid Of Everyone” was the best I’ve heard it in years, the Dessner brothers lacerating it with gnarled guitar solos at choice moments.
And then there was Yeezus. To be honest, the chance of seeing Kanye again this year was the primary reason I came down to Philly for Made In America. As I’ve said before: Seeing him live is simply one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had. His Saturday night set at Made In America was pretty similar to what he did at Bonnaroo a few months ago — far from the theatrical, epic Yeezus shows last year, these sets are raw, straightforward, and don’t shy away from packing in the hits. Compared to the sets and casts of the Yeezus production, for these recent shows West has been up in there in front of one giant rectangular screen, often resulting in striking imagery that happens to be minimalist and maximalist at the same time and, it comes to mind, maybe should’ve been the aesthetic of the Yeezus tour to begin with. One notable, and welcome, thing about Kanye at Made In America vs. Bonnaroo was his mood. He was as intense and complicated as usual in June, but there was also a bit of that persecuted celebrity narrative, with him referencing that whole ’08 Bonnaroo debacle, and evoking a lot of ill will from longtime Bonnaroo attendees. On Saturday, though, as he jumped between hits from all over his career, Kanye seemed like he was in a great mood, shouting out Jay Z multiple times (whereas recently there were theories they had fallen out), and making a lot more jokes. He told us he wanted to reach way back and go “a little underground” for one song, for a moment making me wonder if he’d pull out a College Dropout deep cut like he had earlier this year for the album’s tenth anniversary. Instead, “All Of The Lights” began, people reacted with the according amount of enthusiasm, and he said in mock-surprise: “You know this one?! Really?” During the encore (a second airing of “Blood On The Leaves”), he took a moment to proclaim “This is the last song. This is Made In America. I am Yeezus!” Unlike the twisted id of the Yeezus shows themselves, it didn’t feel like performative bragging. It just felt like Kanye was running the best party on the planet.
Eventually my luck had to break. Out of all the festivals I’ve attended in the last year and out of all the various weather concerns, I always managed to dodge the bullet. And while Made In America didn’t go to Hudson Project-levels of disaster storm-wise, it certainly wasn’t great, either.
I started my day with Nothing (sounding a bit more ragged than usual), Danny Brown (sounding as frenetic and excitable as usual), and Grimes (sounding as Grimes as usual, just with more drops). There was an ominous grayness hanging over much of it, periodically interrupted by a bit of sun and some suffocating humidity. Of the first half of my day, seeing Grimes again was the obvious highlight — she jumped between Visions standouts, extended instrumental passages, and new material. “Go,” the aesthetic of which has inspired some debate on sites like this one, already goes off like an old fan favorite when she plays it live. Grimes’ onstage presence sometimes comes off as frazzled. She comes to the front of the stage to sing and dance, then rushes back at the last possible moment to cue a new melody or beat, then might crouch down and take a drink from a red Solo cup. But her show is far better calibrated than that would suggest — far louder, far more encompassing than you might expect from her. All of her synth melodies became denser, fuller-bodied, and hung in the thick, threatening air. The cumulative effect was something like watching a concert on the floor of the ocean. Like being underwater.
Which, hey, is fitting, given what happened next. Two songs into Spoon’s set, a few drops of rain fell and Britt Daniel, as confused as anyone else, said: “We have to get off. They said we have to get off. Yeah, I don’t get it either.” What initially seemed like a brief rain delay turned into a full evacuation when an announcement came out over the PA just as a thunderstorm began to hit the festival grounds with its full force. Moving thousands of drunken — and, now, disgruntled — festival-goers out of a small space like Made In America is a messy, slow thing. Looking to escape the storm, I wound up ducking out of a media exit and taking shelter on some church steps, from which I could see the slow mass of people exiting the festival. From my perch on one end of the festival, I could hear what sounded like a mob way down at the festival’s main gates. People cheered uproariously at times when the rain seemed it was letting up, or just because they felt like cheering. They chanted, “Let us in! Let us in!” periodically, which was always accompanied by a ton of police whistles. Eventually, the storm subsided enough and the festival was back on. It sounded like a horde of vikings were charging down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
To the festival’s credit, they managed to extend the curfew by an hour, rearrange some set times, and proceed with their full lineup. Which means I got to see a full-ish Spoon set, which is all I really cared about. When the band returned, Daniel thanked the crowd for sticking around, and immediately rewarded us with a version of “Small Stakes” tagged with an extra intense coda. People cheered when he sang the line “We go out in stormy weather” in “The Way We Get By.” The rain returned — sans lightning — in a gentler form during the new They Want My Soul track “Inside Out.” The song, already one of the band’s more surreal and meditative, was aided by the way the raindrops got caught in the blue lights emanating from the stage, looking from a distance like suspended orbs of blue light. Things started to get crazy again during “Don’t Make Me A Target.” The rain picked up, and proceeded through those kinds of steps where you always think a downpour can’t get any stronger and then it does just to spite you. Amazingly, the intensifying of the rain matched up perfectly with the sped-up jam in the middle of “Don’t Make Me A Target,” which is one of the cooler environmental things I’ve witnessed at a show. Unfortunately this also coincided with my clothes getting totally soaked through and me seeking shelter in the media tent immediately after Spoon, lest I ruin all the electronics in my bag.
The rest of the night proceeded in different ways depending on how you look at it. After the downpour, the rain subsided for the rest of the festival, which was sort of a moot point considering how permanently soaked everyone already was. Tiesto and Pharrell were left on the bill, neither of whom do much for me as live performers, though it was pretty cool to see Pharrell incorporate “Hollaback Girl” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot” alongside “Get Lucky” and “Happy.”
The final headliner was Kings Of Leon. I have such a mixed relationship with this band. I loved their early records, and I loved seeing them live at the time — they were the epitome of the raw, sweaty rock show ideal. Their ascendance to rockstar status made me happy for them, but I can’t get around the stale theatrics of a lot of their recent music, even if they still produce a few gems per record. They certainly have enough experience to be competent festival headliners at this point, and they do still have great moments in their sets (I’d forgotten how infectious the beat to “Taper Jean Girl” is). So much of it, though, just seemed to be on autopilot. Not forced or frustrated (as some of their shows reportedly were in recent years), just sort of uninspired and uninspiring. It was hard not to stand there and think: Made In America got Pearl Jam and NIN in the past, and we’re getting not only a facsimile of giant rock bands of the bast, but a facsimile of Kings Of Leon themselves? After the heights reached by the National and Kanye the preceding night, and after fighting through a storm and a festival evacuation to see a triumphant Spoon set, the whole thing was incredibly deflating. I decided to leave during “Radioactive,” took a long sore walk down to my friend’s apartment, and found myself a diner at 1 AM. My clothes were still wet when I unpacked the next day, back home in New York.