If Birmingham really is going through a cultural renaissance right now – this newspaper is one voice in the community supporting that notion – then City Stages, Birmingham’s summer music festival from 1989 to 2009, was probably the most visible relic of Birmingham’s Middle Ages. While the festival could bring in acts like the Flaming Lips, OutKast and Jason Isbell, it eventually floundered due to mismanagement, bloat and untimely competition with a burgeoning festival in small-town Tennessee called Bonnaroo.
City Stages’ summer successor in this apparent new era of Birmingham history, Secret Stages, couldn’t be more different. Begun in 2011 as a word-of-mouth phenomenon relying heavily on social media – hence the name – Secret Stages is lean, focused and centralized to venues in Birmingham’s rejuvenated midtown. Instead of the sprawl of City Stages, Secret Stages carefully curates acts on the rise throughout a variety of genres, united, more than anything else, by a prevailing sense of good taste.
Unfortunately, that also means that the average listener – or even the seasoned listener, to be honest – won’t have heard of most of the acts that will be playing when Secret Stages returns on Friday, Aug. 1, and Saturday, Aug. 2. Thankfully, Weld is here to break down the highlights of the festival, from local acts expanding our expectations for Birmingham music, to emerging regional stars, to charismatic visitors from across the country.
Whether you’re looking for soulful synthpop, traditional roots music, cerebral hip-hop or old-fashioned rock ‘n roll, there’s something for you at Secret Stages. Below, Weld Online Editor Walt Lewellyn and music contributors Andy Harris, Blake Ells, Anthony Vacca and Andrew Holderfield share their festival picks to help you plan out your weekend.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 1
Armand Margjeka (Miller Light Stage – Friday, 7:30 p.m.) – Growing up in Albania, Armand Margjeka absorbed Western culture through MTV and a cassette full of pioneering rock ‘n roll stalwarts like Little Richard and Elvis Presley, and that combination of irreverent experimentation with a classicist sensibility is a defining element of his music. While never as arch in his approach as Dan Sartain, Margjeka’s willingness to appropriate and subtly subvert the tropes of folk-rock is what makes him one of the more interesting artists working in Birmingham today. (Walt Lewellyn)
Bent Denim (Das Haus – Friday, 7:45 p.m.) – Unlike most synthpop bands, Bent Denim’s songs are as dense with impressionistic storytelling as they are with airy textures. Despite the relaxed pace of most of their songs, the duo’s work is emotionally intense, wrestling with themes like adulthood, ennui and love in refreshingly nuanced ways. The studio versions of the music are a delight to hear, and there’s such a strong scaffolding of witty, heartfelt songwriting to lean on that there’s good reason to believe they’ll hold up live. (Walt Lewellyn)
Ex-Cult (Das Haus – Friday, 8:45 p.m.) – There are times when Ex-Cult sound like they could have opened for the Stooges at an Ann Arbor dive bar. There are times when they sound like they could have opened for Joy Division at a Manchester nightclub. Whichever mode they’re in, the Memphis quintet formerly known as Sex Cult combine hardcore aggression with post-punk jitters, avoiding pastiche by playing directly from what Homer Simpson would call the Impulse Zone. (Walt Lewellyn)
The Green Seed (Miller Light Stage – Friday, 9:30 p.m.) – There are a lot of great hip-hop acts going in Birmingham right now, and the Green Seed are making a strong claim to being the best in town. Read a review of their new album Drapetomania, released on prolific Woodlawn label Communicating Vessels, here. (Walt Lewellyn)
Gross Ghost (Das Haus – Friday, 10:45 p.m.) – With its cozy Continental environs and vaguely surreal Alpine scenery, Das Haus might be the most Twin Peaks venue in Birmingham. If Holy Youth’s performance at last year’s Secret Stages is any indication, it’s also a great place to hear uptempo indie rock. Chapel Hill four-piece Gross Ghost make some of the most beach party-friendly music in the indie world at the moment – inviting some obligatory Superchunk comparisons in the process – so they should feel right at home. (Walt Lewellyn)
Doc Dailey (Pale Eddie’s – Friday, 11 p.m.) – Doc Dailey and Magnolia Devil have established themselves as a force in Southern indie music. With just two records –Victims, Enemies and Old Friends and Catch the Presidents – Dailey has already penned songs with connotation like “Alabama Daydream.” His twang lends itself to country, but his style and persona fit more with rock ‘n roll peers like the Pollies and the Bear. Dailey’s live shows have been harder to catch in recent years, and having an opportunity to catch the band back on the road is a treat. (Blake Ells)
KYLE (Harold & MOD – Friday, 11:30 p.m.) – After making their debut splash across North Alabama under the name Great Pyrenees just two years ago, the guys in KYLE have relocated to the Magic City, and they brought their dreamy pop sensibilities with them. Imagine a world where Mac DeMarco and Weezer all joined Deerhunter. KYLE are the ambassadors to that world, a complex and spaced-out euphoria that is equal parts sedatives and math. (Andrew Holderfield)
All Them Witches (M-Lounge – Friday, 1 a.m.) – All Them Witches hail from Nashville, where in a span of less than two years the band has released two LPs, an EP and a soon-to-be-released live album. Since their debut, Our Mother Electricity, All Them Witches have worked to improve upon their own brand of moody yet throttling Southern rock. No matter the song, the clear defining characteristic of the band is their love of the raw blues rock riff, which has led to a heap of praises for the power of their stage performances. (Anthony Vacca)
SATURDAY, AUGUST 2
CYNE (Miller Light Stage – Saturday, 4 p.m.) – If you’re into Gainesville hip-hop groups that sample Van Halen, look no further than CYNE. They’re working off the old adage, “One man’s intro is another man’s hook.” When you borrow from a band like VH, you’re aiming high. The super duper digital Florida trio sounds pretty good in your headphones, and their track record over the last decade proves they can pull it off live, too. (Andy Harris)
Adia Victoria (Miller Light Stage – Saturday, 6:15 p.m.) – Unless you frequent open mic nights in Nashville, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Adia Victoria, since the bluesy singer-songwriter’s first out-of-town show will be at Secret Stages. Even with her limited output, though, she’s clearly someone worth keeping an eye on. Her voice is the audio equivalent of drinking finely aged scotch; raspy and smooth all at once, with lingering notes of smoke. Another mark in Victoria’s favor: she’s drawn the attention and praise of one of Those Darlins, one of the South’s best acts. (Walt Lewellyn)
path Working (Miller Light Stage – Saturday, 7:15 p.m.) – path Working, a four-piece operating out of Birmingham, delivers a unique and polished approach to pop rock. Reminiscent of the progressive rock bands of the 1970s, path Working may at first strike some as an oddity, with their almost classicist adherence to jazzy transitions and progressions. But whether they are burning through a broody groove or building up a powerful flourish of harmonic rock, the sheen of discipline on display cannot be ignored. path Working are showmen who deliver full-blooded harmonies and memorable choruses meant to lift an audience within a swell of pleasing sound. (Anthony Vacca)
Passing Parade (Harold & MOD – Saturday, 8 p.m.) – One part really good and one part don’t give a damn, Passing Parade will parade their buzz-fi sound all over Harold & MOD come Saturday night. The trio from Jackson, Miss. have been shuffling the lineup and honing their sound over the past year. A careful viewing of live videos will show marked progress. If their recent recording of “The Librarian” is any clue, the band is getting pretty tight. They’re poised for an explosive gig here pretty soon – will Saturday be the day? (Andy Harris)
Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy (Miller Light Stage – Saturday, 8:15 p.m.) – While Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy call Athens, Georgia home, the lead singer’s roots are in Muscle Shoals, where she met Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell and joined Drive-By Truckers, the exemplars of Southern indie rock, in 2003. For nearly a decade, Tucker served as the band’s bassist before taking some time off and creating this latest project. The band’s debut, A Tell All, was released in 2013, and her first efforts on her own recall Dolly Parton playing rock and roll. While she had proven herself an immensely talented bassist with Drive-By Truckers, she’s also demonstrated that she’s a gifted songwriter with a beautiful voice that wasn’t heard often enough in her previous work. The most accomplished among her Secret Stages Muscle Shoals peers – and, arguably, among the weekend’s slate of music – her set this weekend is not to be missed. (Blake Ells)
While the Ship Sinks (Harold & MOD – Saturday, 9 p.m.) – While the Ship Sinks is part of the newest, freshest crop of talent that washed ashore from the Singin’ River. The instrumental sextet is most easily defined as “newgrass,” but the variation on bluegrass music defined by Sam Bush isn’t wholly appropriate. The band’s artist page describes their sound as “French Café/Spaghetti Western/Surf Polka,” so let’s go with that. It’s not what you’re accustomed to hearing from an area that has reestablished and reinvented itself with amazing songwriting, but it works. The band has already shared the stage with other Shoals natives like Belle Adair and Redmouth, and they’re eager to make their Birmingham debut at Secret Stages. (Blake Ells)
Pujol (Miller Light Stage – Saturday, 9:15 p.m.) – Along with Shonna Tucker and Pigeon John, garage rocker Daniel Pujol is one of a handful of acts you could reasonably call a festival headliner for Secret Stages. He makes pizza-and-Pabst music with more than enough ambition to handle the demands of a proper festival stage, and his work features some of the most unexpectedly clever lyricism at the festival. Blissfully removed from any pretension or agitprop, Pujol is everything summertime rock ‘n roll is supposed to be: liberating, catchy and fun. (Walt Lewellyn)
The Debauchees (Pale Eddie’s – Saturday, 9:30 p.m.) – “I’d rather not go out dancin’, there’s too many people watching me,” Louisville’s Debauchees sing on “Rancid Dancin’”. Why worry about dancing when you are the music? They haven’t even started playing yet, and it’s already getting weird. Sporting three band members and the truth, the Debauchees slam as much music as they can into a couple of minutes and then move on to the next one. Don’t get caught not dancin’ – or even worse, not bein’ there at all. (Andy Harris)
Mad Nomad (Harold & MOD – Saturday, 10 p.m.) – If Drive-By Truckers had decided to stick with punk instead of embracing the Southern rock of their high school parking lots, they might have ended up sounding like Mad Nomad, a guitar-driven act out of Little Rock. With their impassioned, soaring vocals and metallic riffs, Mad Nomad make some of the most purely cathartic music in the Secret Stages lineup, recalling mint condition Hüsker Dü when they’re at their very finest. (Walt Lewellyn)
Morgan Pennington and the Echo (M-Lounge – Saturday, 10:15 p.m.) – There’s a temptation to say that the en vogue synthpop of contemporary indie music is a passing fad, but I’ll tell you what: Morgan Pennington and the Echo’s music would be as apt a soundtrack for a lonesome driver passing under streetlights and starlight in modern-day L.A. as it would for doomed lovers on a misty, haunted moor in a period piece. It’s gorgeous, cinematic stuff, full of undulating beats, shimmering synths and Pennington’s own lovelorn vocals. (Walt Lewellyn)
Keeps (Das Haus – Saturday, 10:45 p.m.) – Of the many alluring clichés in music criticism, comparing shoegaze music to water is one of the hardest to resist. That said, Nashville psychedelic pop act Keeps evoke nothing so much as a lazy river, with yearning vocals floating along atop a gentle but insistent tide of echoing guitar textures and rhythms. I’ve honestly got no idea how the self-contained atmospheres of their records will translate live, but the sound is lovely enough to take a gamble. (Walt Lewellyn)
Feral Child (Harold & MOD – Saturday, 11 p.m.) – There are four songs on Feral Child’s debut demo, Boon Chow. Three titles are “Hypochondriac”, “Sleep or Awake” and “Midnight BBQ”. The ultimate track, “Lovely”, doesn’t stray far from the theme. Whatever the song choice, you won’t get any sleep at their Saturday performance at Harold & MOD. The ringing and thrashing and pounding is enough to keep you up all night. The alarm clock keyboard reverb ices your dreamy cake. (Andy Harris)
Tanya Morgan (Matthew’s – Saturday, 11:15 p.m.) – It’s probably important to note that Tanya Morgan are a two-man hip-hop group, not some lady sangin’ about trucks and/or mud in the summer. TM are more likely to embrace changing times than proclaim hick identity couched as ignorant, stubborn integrity. The duo have been on the rise since 2006 and have received praise from ?uestlove and The A.V. Club, to name a few. (Andy Harris)
SEA FIX (Pale Eddie’s – Saturday, 11:30 p.m.) – As its music scene continues to grow, Birmingham is drawing lofty comparisons, rightly or wrongly, to Seattle and Minneapolis in the ‘80s. For Avondale act SEA FIX, a more apt comparison would be the Elephant Six groups of mid-‘90s Athens, Georgia, since their particular brand of poppy psychedelia is right out of the playbook of the Gerbils and Apples in Stereo. Each song is a little slice of pop magic, replete with soaring melodies and shiny hooks thriving in an ecosystem of fuzz. (Walt Lewellyn)
Spacewolf (Das Haus – Saturday, 11:45 p.m.) – Pop radio is often a place where youngsters peak too soon. Reality is a place where we all have the opportunity to get better with age. Smash cut to Spacewolf, three kickass veterans from Jackson, Miss. After leaving other local bands, Drew McKercher (guitar, vocals), Don Hawkins (bass) and Murph Caciedo (drums) joined forces in 2011, and it quite simply worked. Two full albums later and they’re still picking up steam. (Andy Harris)
Pigeon John (Matthew’s – Saturday, 12:15 p.m.) – I don’t know how many rappers have name-checked Depeche Mode, but Pigeon John is a member of that august assembly, and it’s just one of many hints at the MC’s superlative pop sensibility. Too funny and too prone to writing earworm songs to fall into the dour backpack rapper stereotype, Pigeon John should be a lot more famous in a world where Pharrell is lurking in every nook and cranny of Top 40 radio. (Walt Lewellyn)
Secret Stages will take place in Birmingham’s loft district on the night of Friday, Aug. 1 and the afternoon and evening of Saturday, Aug. 2. Advanced weekend passes are $25 and may be purchased at – or, if ordered online, picked up at – Vulcan Vape in Homewood. For more information about the festival, visit secretstages.net.