Off the Beaten Path: A Metro Music Fest Venture and Review

Via the Verge melts faces at TapWerks Ale House (photo courtesy of the band)

It would have been easy to sit at the AT&T Main Stage or Sonic Water Stage during Friday’s ACM@UCO Metro Music Fest and just let the good performances roll. You can’t go wrong with local staples like Bowlsey, Tallows, and Colourmusic or the event’s national level headliners, Parker Millsap, Wild Child, and Dan Deacon. With 11 stages, though, I was compelled to explore the smaller pockets of sound spread across Bricktown to catch a handful of bands I hadn’t seen before*. This turned out to be a good decision, to say the least.

My night started on a high note with Zoot Suit at the TapWerks Ale House Outdoor Stage. Playing under the indie rock banner but drawing heavily from rougher styles like punk and grunge, the four-piece band gave a loud, energetic performance that tripled its initial audience over the course of its set. Undoubtedly, the star of the show was the group’s red-faced frontman, who poured every ounce of himself into his beautifully brash, graveled voice. His vocal ability is so fine-tuned and versatile that he could ride the current trend of falsetto pop singers if he were so inclined, but I’m confident his personality would have none of it. He kept the crowd engaged in loads of profane, unapologetic banter, sometimes even during songs while still keeping time with his on-point bandmates. Zoot Suit, despite being only a few years old, recently placed second in the Gazette’s Best Rock act category, and it’s easy to see why. These guys are definitely one to watch.

From there, I headed to the Lower Bricktown Fountain Stage, where Saige Cross showcased his recently revamped sound. His debut full-length from last year was full of sweet acoustic pop tunes, but it appears he may be dissatisfied with that image. With a new electric lineup on stage, he tapped into another side of many existing songs while playing some new ones written for the meatier style. Coming down from a band like Zoot Suit, it took me a bit to get into the mid-tempo flow of Saige Cross, but he grew on me the way his album did with nice melodies and solid musicianship. Intrinsically, he is still a singer-songwriting act, so the performance to me felt more like a different coat of paint than a restructuring. As far as structures go, though, his songs were sturdy as ever.

Next was a fast ‘n dirty garage rock set from Wifi Boiz at the ACM@UCO Patio, an outdoor jut of balcony that found the two-piece rockers giving nearby Chelino’s Mexican diners an unexpected shower of lo-fi drums and guitar. The band’s music played wilder than its performances, but its fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to rock came through clearly. It was nice to see an act not take itself too seriously to play along with drunk interferences or apologize to passersby for the racket. Honestly, though, Wifi Boiz has more cooking than its humble facade would have you believe. The band’s EP from a couple of months ago is pretty great, and their live show–with occasional knob-turning, pitch-bending experimentation–was a treat.

I then caught Akiba at the ACM@UCO Performance Lab, one of the few indoor venues this year. This is a band that has generated a fair amount of buzz around me, but this was the first time I managed to see them live. Perhaps a second show attendance is in order, as there seemed to be some sound problems before and during the set, a situation the bassist made a visible fuss over. Regardless, the band’s musical taste came through just fine. Electronic, synthy backing tracks pumped through the speakers (and the drummer’s headphones) with which the guitarist and bassist jammed along. The lead vocalist’s modest singing and presentation held a calm center to the proceeding, with exception to a cover song where she did diverge into slivers of spunk and personality. Akiba definitely enjoy big chords and danceable beats, which probably explains the aforementioned buzz, and no level of sound troubles could downplay that.

I swung by the Fountain Stage again to hear Nomad‘s set before making my way back to TapWerks. The alternative rock act showed some punk leanings and were appropriately a little rough around the edges, putting on a great cover of Adele’s “Rumour Has It” and boasting some fun riffs in its original work. The drummer and guitarist occasionally traded off vocals, too, which is always welcome. Enjoyable as it was, though, Nomad seemed to be short on material, considering the set length and the amount of time the duo spent plugging online music and social media. The band’s online presence suggests a four-piece setup, but this performance was a two-piece affair, so it’s possible that I missed something regarding the shrunken lineup. Fortunately, there are a handful of dates on the horizon for Nomad should a fuller performance be in order.

Afterward, on my way to the TapWerks Ale House Indoor Stage, I caught the closing number from The Argots at the Outdoor Stage. The latin trio had extended their lineup to accommodate a whopping eight players that had a joyous, full live band chemistry. Everything from accordion sounds to cowbell melded in an exceptional groove that left me wanting much more. How sad I was, then, when I discovered that this was The Argots’ last show. If only I had known.

I powered on to the Indoor Stage to catch Via the Verge, a band that classifies itself as progressive rock/metal probably to encompass as much of the genre spectrum as it can. Indeed, this fiery, angsty gang of five traversed many variations of hard-edged rock music in a seamless and flawless way. This aspect was most prominent in the vocalist’s shapeshifting run from screams to growls to boisterous singing, often within small periods and always spotless in tone. The band gave energetic performances on all cylinders that made the stage seem even smaller than it was, especially as crowd members thrashed in front with limbs flailing uncontrollably. For music of this caliber, it can be easy to devolve into noise and confusion, but Via the Verge displayed masterful control and balance without losing any intensity, which is no small feat in a crowded and noisy pub environment. It doesn’t seem to have gone to anyone’s head, though, as the frontman frequently thanked the audience for attending and related to them on a personal level when possible. Even in a music festival setting where meaningful interaction tends to take a back seat to streamlined exposure, Via the Verge didn’t lose sight of the important role live music plays in the community.

At this point, I succumbed to the Main Stage tractor beam that was Dan Deacon. Having seen him perform before, I knew more or less what to expect. There would be a dance contest. There would be a giant, transmogrifying human tunnel. He would make off-the-cuff banter with elements of weirdness and satire. I also knew that all of these things play out differently from show to show, so, of course, I had to see it for myself. That said, this probably wasn’t the best way to experience Dan Deacon, if only because a towering orange streetlight diminished the draw of the stage show. Deacon himself also seemed to be a bit weary, as his voice was somewhat throaty, and he had some minor sound and sight difficulties. None of it interfered with the spectacle of, say, the Wall of Life and his big single “Feel the Lightning,” though, and his sarcastic humor was on-point as ever.

Most stages had wrapped by this time, but the ACM@UCO Songwriting Room Stage was still going, so I decided to see the end of The Ivy‘s set. The Tulsa-based electronic/dreampop act played to an enthusiastic audience, championing indie music’s popular wave of retro synth music with guitar, keyboard, and backing tracks. Sweet, soft atmospheres permeated the small room until the band’s final sustain, which left the crowd pleading for an encore.

The encore didn’t come, as this was a music festival, so the stage changed over to Garrett the Fifth, the last of the Songwriting Room’s lineup. Almost the entire crowd departed, leaving myself and three other concertgoers to enjoy the saxophonist’s unique take on electronic dance music. He, too, had backing tracks, but they were played at a slightly quieter level than could allow me to fully appreciate the work he had put into them. I did pick out a sample of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, at least, the use of which was a stroke of genius. He played with headphones on, rarely acknowledging that he was playing to an audience at all, so it’s possible he wasn’t aware that his tenor sax meanderings and pitch bends were clouding the lyrics that were on some of his tracks. In fact, he was so enveloped in his music that when it bordered on 1 AM and he was asked to stop playing, he seemed a bit surprised that he had run out of time.

As a whole, my venture was largely rewarding. I found some fresh up-and-comers to follow, but more surprisingly, I discovered some new local favorites. With a scene as fertile as Oklahoma City’s and a program as robust as ACM@UCO’s, though, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.

*except for Dan Deacon, of course

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aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.

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