Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The day before Thanksgiving, most people are scrambling to get home to their families and/or collect all the essentials for a magnificent Thanksgiving Dinner before the supermarkets run dry. But for indie rock heavyweights Manchester Orchestra and the music lovers of their hometown Atlanta, GA, their Thanksgiving preparations also include ringing in Turkey Day with an evening chocked full of incredible music courtesy of Manchester Orchestra’s annual music festival known as “The Stuffing.”
Since 2010, Manchester Orchestra has been taking over Atlanta’s Center Stage music venue the day before Thanksgiving to host their own indie rock extravaganza. Incorporating all three venues within Center Stage (The Vinyl, The Loft, and The Center Stage Theater), the lineup is virtually handpicked by the band, showcasing a healthy balance of big-name acts with some of the most talented up and coming indie rock and punk rock acts from the Deep South. Given past performances from the likes of Cage the Elephant, Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band, The Front Bottoms, Sleeper Agent, and Grouplove, The Stuffing has only continued to expand with each year, and this year’s fifth annual Stuffing showed no signs of slowing the momentum. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are the bands we’re thankful we got to check out at this year’s Stuffing.
Yes, this LoFi punk trio is between ages 14-16. Get over it. Hailing from Austin, TX, Residual Kid blends grungy tones with youthful punk sensibilities and slacker melodies, and the slack-jaw exuberance in frontman Deven Ivy’s voice complements their noise/punk palate perfectly. Not just stripped down sonically, Residual Kid aren’t nearly as wild as many of their contemporaries live, but there’s a cool simplicity in both their music and demeanor that sucks you in anyway. They don’t feel like they need to blow you away to get you to listen, and that confidence draws attention on its own, to say nothing of the bands’ talent. Have we mentioned they’re only ages 14-16 yet? That alone speaks volumes of how tight they are as an ensemble (it’s also pretty cool to see some punk younglings be this talented this early in their careers). So far their only recorded work is their 2012 EP Faces, but with their recent signing to Warner Bros. indie outpost Sire Records, it seems we can expect an EP or full-length in the not too distant future.
By far the rowdiest band at The Stuffing this year, Atlanta locals Concord America bear a dirty, raucous sound that packs a ferocity more in line with the gritty pop-punk of Joyce Manor and Chumped than any of their surf-punk peers (see: Wavves, Surfer Blood). Their live set proves just as manic as their music, with guitarist/singer Ben Presley and bassist Vinny Restivo frequently thrashing around the stage (and each other) in a mad frenzy while drummer John Restivo keeps their hyperactive heartbeat like a man possessed. That said, even in the midst of that unkempt energy, this trio of surf-punks still take great care to display their musicianship as well, as Restivo can truly shred his bass while occasionally howling into the mosh pit, and Presley tackles all manner of manic guitar while barking out every single lyric he has. Their frenetic take on the surf-punk sound certainly gives them an original sound, and with a live performance to match their musical grit, Concord America is clearly a band to experience.
Charlotte, NC’s Junior Astronomers are no strangers to The Stuffing, and as such, feel right at home in Atlanta’s music scene (frontman Terrence Richard has even said it’s one of his favorite cities to perform in). In fact, in pretty much their entire live persona, there is an air of insurmountable chillness, with Richard even carrying a half-finished can of PBR with him on stage to finish in between vocal breaks. There is energy in their movements, mind you, but never from a place of aggression. Rather, their stage presence simply sways along to their songs’ twists and turns, of which they sneak in quite a few. Junior Astronomers take a much more angular approach to post-punk than that of their contemporaries like Eagulls, Protomartyr, Cayetana, and fellow Charlotte natives It Looks Sad. Between abruptly shifting tempo in some songs and extending certain passages in others, as well as the intricate duality between guitarist Philip Wheeler and bassist Colin Watts (perhaps the only post-punk bassist to ever dare to wield a six-string bass), Junior Astronomers sound fresh with every new song. Given their multiple invitations to The Stuffing and their stellar 2013 debut LP Dead Nostalgia, greater recognition abroad is not far on the horizon.
The closest The Stuffing will probably ever come to having a metal band on the lineup, Atlanta’s Big Jesus’s sound is blatantly a variation on 90s legends Hum’s three-way intersection between post-hardcore, shoegaze, and alt-metal (Hell, they even covered Hum during their 2013 set at The Stuffing). Fortunately, rather than outright steal their formula, Big Jesus’s brand is much more focused on the metal portion of their sound than their predecessors, as many of the riffs crafted by C.J. Ridings and Thomas Gonzalez taking hefty cues from Deftones, Pantera, and Every Time I Die, though they never forget the shoegazy side of their sonics. Meanwhile, bassist/vocalist Spencer Ussery blends his soft, crooning voice into the dark, distorted atmosphere almost seamlessly, giving his voice an almost ghostlike quality that’s both chilling and endearing. Big Jesus’s heavier, darker take on post-hardcore has certainly helped them distinguish themselves within the Atlanta music scene as well as the many performers at The Stuffing, and such raw talent and knack for originality is highly unlikely to go unnoticed for too long. As of now, their only released material is their 2013 debut LP One, but given the amount of new songs they played at this year’s Stuffing, that will hopefully change very soon.
Having performed at every incarnation of The Stuffing so far, O’Brother was a no-brainer for the main stage, especially given their friendship with Manchester Orchestra (Andy Hull co-produced their 2011 LP Garden Window and contributed vocals to the song “Sputnik”). Make no mistake though, this Atlanta-bred quintet have more than earned their position in The Stuffing hierarchy and indie rock as a whole as one of the most intriguing post-hardcore bands out there. Frontman Tanner Merritt’s lower, moodier projects a haunting intensity without ever resorting to the gritty howl of many of his peers (the band’s affection for chamber vocals sounds like a haunted house as a result), while guitarists Johnny Dang and Jordan McGhin vacillate between sludge-based distortion and atmospheric passages with an almost psychedelic spin, which mix with the calculated restraint of bassist Anton Dang and drummer Michael Martens to give the band’s mid-tempo grooves a near-hypnotic feel. Their live demeanor is probably the most detached of all the bands, as they keep ambient noise droning in the background between every single song (yes, even when Merritt addresses the crowd), and the lack of a break in sound keeps their audience completely enraptured. Balancing moody heaviness with dark tranquility, O’Brother’s ambient, trudging post-hardcore is unlike any band at The Stuffing or beyond, and will likely continue to entrance fans for years to come.
Rounding out The Stuffing mainstays of course, are festival founders Manchester Orchestra, and barely two songs into their set it’s easy to uncover how they’ve been able to build such a massive following, particularly in their hometown of Atlanta, over the years. The voice of frontman Andy Hull is almost a trademark in and of itself, overcoming his lack of a physical presence with an emotive croon that can swell into an exasperated howl at any moment, and the subtle hints of southern twang in his voice gives his higher register a rounder feel than the nasal tone of many of his indie/emo peers (he’s basically The Deep South’s answer to The Pixies’ Black Francis). Sonically, the band relies on the jangle/fuzz hybrid perfected by the likes of Modest Mouse and Sunny Day Real Estate, but the sometimes shoegaze, sometimes alt-country tendencies of Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell, coupled with the subtle walking groove of greenhorn bassist Andy Prince prevent the band from ever sounding pedestrian. In terms of live performance, drummer Tim Very and keyboardist Chris Freeman are the stand-out characters. Freeman already bears a formidable presence in the band with his ability to augment both atmosphere and melody with his keys, but his live head-banging could make Slayer uncomfortable, and the contrast between Very’s dexterous, quirky, high-energy drumming and the rest of the band’s more reserved demeanor is equally enjoyable.
Watching Manchester Orchestra close The Stuffing, it’s clear the band takes great pains every year to make sure it’s a stellar festival, and Hull’s taking the time to thank every single band on the lineup individually for performing reflects the band’s gratitude that for five years now, their home city takes time to make what they’ve worked so hard to create part of their Thanksgiving celebrations. Despite having released their excellent new LP Cope earlier this year, they play a setlist that, while focused on songs from Cope (it’s really hard not to when there’s a giant banner behind you with “COPE” written on it), showcases the best parts of the band’s entire catalogue. Such a diverse and comprehensive set not only allows nearly every one in the crowd to get to hear them belt out their favorite song (except for my friend who kept calling for “100 Dollars” to no avail and the girl a few feet away from us repeatedly shouting that she’d hit someone if they didn’t play “Where Have You Been?” but failed to follow through on her threat), but also allows Manchester Orchestra their own time to give thanks and be thankful for all the wonderful music they have made over the years, as well as the people that continue to support their creative exploits. All Hull could bring himself to say when their set finally ended was, “Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. We’ll see you guys soon,” and really, that’s enough.
So if you find yourself in Atlanta, GA around Thanksgiving craving a night full of incredibly talented indie rock bands from the Atlanta underground and beyond, Manchester Orchestra and The Stuffing have the festival for you. Just leave the turkey at home.