With Atlanta's midtown skyline in the background and the greenery of the city's Piedmont Park underfoot, the annual Music Midtown Festival provided one of the best environments of all the nation's summertime festivals. Not to mention a killer lineup that included Drake, Elton John, Van Halen, Run the Jewels and Sam Smith. After spending two days in the park, here are the moments that most struck us, from Run the Jewels' politically charged homecoming to Eddie Van Halen's onstage bonding with his bass-playing son.
When Run the Jewels took the stage late-Saturday afternoon, Atlanta native Killer Mike put his town on notice. "Please notify the mayor that, like General Sherman, we came to burn Atlanta to the ground," he shouted to the crowd, before he and partner El-P set fire to the title track from their 2013 debut. And the politically-minded duo didn't let up, both in song and onstage patter. "Lie, Cheat, Steal" was all unbridled energy, with Killer Mike dedicating "Early" to "everyone trying to do the right thing in Ferguson." But it was the ferocious "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" that was the most explosive, as Mike warned those in the audience to put away any prescription glasses, selfie sticks, Air Jordans and colostomy bags. "If you have new sneakers on, get the fuck out," he said, predicting things were about to get crazy. Hopefully not many left, as T.I. and Big Boi each made surprise appearances later in the set, bringing the already frothing crowd to a boil.
While many still miss seeing bassist Michael Anthony onstage with the reconstituted Van Halen — and especially hearing his unmatched harmony vocals — familial replacement Wolfgang Van Halen is undeniably a key member of the classic hard-rock party band. Not only did he expertly hold down the low end during VH's Saturday night headlining set, but he also served as his dad Eddie Van Halen's onstage foil, laughing, smiling and joking with his proud pops, and even acting as traffic cop. When frenetic frontman David Lee Roth got a little too close to Eddie during a guitar solo, distracting him with a Vaudeville scarf routine, Wolf shot him a sideways glance. No longer the wide-eyed, almost motionless teen he was when he first joined the band, the 24-year-old is now a commanding presence, striding the stage and hopping up on his uncle Alex's drum riser. Which Eddie clearly supports: following Wolf's thumping "Runnin' With the Devil" bass intro, the guitar hero gave his kid a dramatic high five.
Given the beautiful weather, the idyllic environment and the wealth of quality musical choices, it wasn't a shock that the vibe at the festival was happy. But no one's grin was quite as wide as British crooner Sam Smith's as he surveyed the mammoth audience sprawled across the field for his Saturday night closing set. His gratitude was palpable in both his committed performance and his remarks to the crowd, repeatedly thanking the audience and promising to be back with a new album next year. The smile grew even more toothsome as the crowd lifted its voice to join the platinum-selling multi-Grammy-winning artist on tunes from his breakthrough debut In the Lonely Hour, including the vulnerable-yet-buoyant hit "Lay Me Down" and covers like Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love." The soaring, gospel-inflected "Stay With Me" turned heartbreak into group catharsis, ending the festival on a feel-good high note.
Although he did manage to keep his trousers intact, Lenny Kravitz still busted out a hot set that combined his greatest hits with a few deeper cuts. The Hunger Games star, who apologized for staying away from Atlanta for so long, eased into his set with a simmering take on "Frankenstein," imploring the crowd "I need love." The chunky riffage of his cover of the Guess Who's "American Woman" followed, amping up the firepower before downshifting into the dreamy R&B grooves and feathery falsetto sighs of "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over." The soulful rocker did crank the volume back up, bringing the crowd with him for "Fly Away" and the driving "Are You Gonna Go My Way," which served as a good primer for the higher octane guitar pyrotechnics of Van Halen to follow.
The jubilant Swedish duo of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo were in disco heaven during their late afternoon Saturday set, bouncing around the stage with huge grins and aerobic energy. They spurred the equally excited crowd to bust a move to tunes like "The First Time" — giddily chanting about the joy of "The first time we got high! The first time we got drunk! The first time we fell in love!" — and an exuberant cover of Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven." But it was a full crowd singalong of their breathless shouter "I Love It" that perfectly captured the joys of the last gasps of summer.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Hall and Oates brought some Philly soul to Atlanta, and proved that while the flute may have no place in rock, it can fit in comfortably in R&B: the solo in "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" from longtime H&O instrumentalist Charles "Mr. Casual" DeChant elicited a roar from the crowd. But it was the duo's opening song "Maneater" that packed the most instant gratification, and signaled that Daryl Hall and John Oates weren't shy about playing the hits. Especially with "She's Gone" quick to follow. While some of the set suffered from overly long vamps — it's possible that "Sara Smile" is still being played somewhere in Piedmont Park — the show was the perfect way to chill out in the hot afternoon sun.
Sir Elton has had a home in Atlanta for years and the locals clearly love him as he drew an enormous crowd to his Friday-night headlining set. The sequin-suited and bespectacled John and his tight band of veterans sent that love right back to them in a tw0-hour, hit-packed performance that served as a reminder as to why his career could fill more than one jukebox. "Rocket Man," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and more all came in quick succession with John leaning into the tunes with a youthful fervor, buoyed by the crowd singing back to him. He also dug deeper for the rollicking "Hey Ahab," from his collaboration with Leon Russell, the epic "Burn Down the Mission" and a tender version of "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word."
If there was any question that the Canadian rapper was one of the biggest draws of Music Midtown, one only had to check the crowd, which stretched as far as the eye could see for his bumping Friday night headlining set. In a tidy 85 minutes the emcee did a little bit of everything, with verses and choruses from the new album and just about every hit he has ever had, including "O to 100," "We Made It," "The Motto" and a truly blistering take of "6 Man." He also did snippets of a few of his best cameos: Nicki Minaj's "Truffle Butter" and ILoveMakonnen's "Tuesday," just for good measure. After pledging his undying love to a city he once called home, Drake departed the stage to a barrage of colorful fireworks, closing out the night in explosive style.
By far, the biggest surprise of the weekend was the vitality of Billy Idol. The Eighties-rock punk, still sneering like he's 20, bounded across the main stage for a 10-song set that was heavy on attitude. A cover of the Doors' "L.A. Woman" was especially rowdy, while 1984's Top 5 ballad "Eyes Without a Face" was delivered with more than a few leers, much to the crowd's giddy satisfaction. Backed up by longtime — and criminally under-recognized — guitar hero Steve Stevens, who turned out pure-rawk solos with aplomb, Idol performed as if he stepped out of a time machine, with little trace of irony. At 59, he was fit (by show's end, he went shirtless) and in excellent voice, belting out radio staples like "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding." Idol's show was all defiance, a big "F you" to the passing of time — it should be required viewing for any and all aspiring punks.
It's hard to believe it's been nine years since William DuVall stepped in for the late Layne Staley in Nineties grunge powerhouse Alice in Chains, but that tenure is exactly why the group's Friday-night performance was so dynamic. Clearly, DuVall has the chops to sing the group's biggest hits — "Man in the Box" and "Would" were standouts at Music Midtown — but he also has the stage presence to match, connecting with the crowd via his own open-armed mannerisms and a gregarious nature that sometimes can seem at odds with the dark material. In the end, though, it works, and the revitalized band excels when the frontman shares the spotlight with guitar ace Jerry Cantrell, harmonizing and playing off one another in a way that defines Alice 2.0. As such, the show-closing "Rooster" was unforgettable.
Led by Ryan "Van" McCann, Welsh rock outfit Catfish and the Bottlemen — which sounds like a name straight out of the Americana scene — deliver ringing BritPop in the spirit of Oasis, topped off with a dose of American garage rock. Their Saturday set on the Cotton Club Stage was revelatory, especially in how many in the all-ages crowd knew the band's debut album, last January's The Balcony. With a vibe that recalled the Arctic Monkeys, the on-the-rise quartet provided a youthful counterpoint to some of Music Midtown's legacy acts. Their final song, "Tyrants," which also closes out the LP, was dazzling, propelled by machine-gun drums and McCann's tortured wail.
Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy captivated with songs from his U.S. debut, the moving Dream Your Life Away. But he also trotted out the best cover of the weekend: a bluesy, impassioned take on Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." The affable Joy fretted aloud that he hoped he'd do the song justice. He needn't have worried — his performance was spellbinding, and he delivered the song faithfully to hoots from the crowd, many of whom weren't born when the Mac's 1977 hit was released. "The Chain" also served to reinforce the classic-rock undercurrent of the festival, which, with Elton John and Van Halen headlining the main stage, was hard to miss.