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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music Midtown Day 1: Puttin' on the Hits

It is 4 p.m. and the first hundreds of people have started to infiltrate Piedmont Park for Music Midtown. The scene is a hodgepodge of middle-aged suburbanites, preps in designer clothes, hipster-ish college kids, and other random types, with nothing really threading them together. The staff is cranky. It’s hot.

Van Hunt is setting up, and so are Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Some people are camping out waiting for Jett, who won’t go on until 5:15, and a fairly equal number are waiting for Van Hunt, who starts at 4:30.

I already feel a little off-kilter from the lineup — following these two are the King of the South aka Atlanta rapper T.I., the Americana group the Avett Brothers, and the Foo Fighters. It’s just ... confusing. Or as Jeff Clark of the Atlanta music magazine Stomp & Stammer put it earlier over a text message, “This lineup should be considered a hate crime!”

I’m not sure if I’ll like the Foo Fighters. Their popular songs have been played so much on the radio that I don’t even hear them anymore. Each pop melody has been so run down, like a cliché, that I can’t enjoy it anymore. Will the songs resurrect themselves live?

Van Hunt is a former Atlanta-based soul artist/songwriter who released his solo debut in 2004. He plays with Ruthie Price on drums. I have to go against what my mother taught me, and say some things that aren’t nice. The set is ... odd. His pitch is way off, and his Prince-influenced vocals are creepy. But then unexpectedly, he busts out with “Seconds of Pleasure,” a soul number he sings in a falsetto that rings perfectly through the park.


Next, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts play some of their hits — “Reality Mentality” and “I Love Rock and Roll.” It’s kind of thrilling to hear these songs from the person who made them hits, and not in depressing pool halls or sticky-floor karaoke bars. Her voice is brassy and hoarse, and she still looks hot with an edge.

The crowd has become thick and a little electric when T.I. takes the stage. I smell the first whiffs of marijuana of the day. Most of the momentum falls out pretty quickly save for the people who are obviously here to see the rapper — you can tell because they’re dancing, throwing their hands up, and singing along. It seems like a lot of people can be more excited about the idea of hip-hop than the music itself. “Whatever You Like” and “Live Your Life” with Rihanna’s sampled vocals are the only two songs that the whole crowd actually seems into. Is that what Music Midtown is about ... top 40 hits?

I head over to see the Avett Brothers, not knowing much about them other than the few albums I’ve sampled. I’m taken completely by surprise, swept up in their warm, effusive humanity, galvanized by the sonic rush of banjo, standup bass, drums, guitar, and harmonica. It seems hard not to like such gorgeously executed bluegrass in 70-degree weather at dusk, and no one is holding back. “Laundry Room,” “Head Full Of Doubt / Road Full Of Promise” and “Paranoia In B-flat Major” are some of the crowd’s favorites. People slow dance, swig melodramatically from beer cans, and sing along like drunk, sentimental pirates.

When the Foo Fighters go onstage, it suddenly hits me how many people are in Piedmont Park right now. I become very confused. I haven’t listened to the radio or watched the Grammys since I graduated high school, and I didn’t realize the Foo Fighters were basically the new Rolling Stones. I do what any stranger would do in a strange land — I make friends. Quickly. Jim and April Owen are a married couple wearing Foo Fighter shirts. We hang out during the set.

“If this were 1985,” says Jim, “These guys would be huge. This is sort of the last great American rock and roll band.”

April has me stand on her chair — there are a lot of people standing on chairs — and I look out into the crowd of Foo Fighter fans. I would guess there are tens of thousands of them.

Dave Grohl asks, “Who’s never seen the Foo Fighters?”

Hands go up throughout the crowd.

“Jeez, we’ve only been a band for 18 fucking years,” he says.

They play many of those same songs I’ve heard hundreds of times in cars, stores, bars, everywhere. A few of them get to me — “The Best of You” hinting at a memory from high school. One highlight is “These Days,” which Grohl says is his favorite out of all the songs he’s ever written. Also of note are the Van Halen cover of “Everybody Wants Some” and the second-to-last song, in which Joan Jett joins the stage and they perform “Bad Reputation.” They close with ... yep, you got it. “Everlong.”

As the crowd streams down 10th Street hundreds deep, overtaking Midtown drunk and euphoric, I wonder what’s going to happen when Pearl Jam takes the stage for Day Two.

See the full photo gallery of Music Midtown Day One.

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