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  Secret Stages 2015  



Birmingham, AL


Dead Ballons, Gold-bears, Twin Leg, Waking Astronomer, Landlady

Reviewed by:
  Tracers and PostLibyan  
Photographs by:



So after a few years off, Tracers and i headed out to a music festival again. Only instead of the marathon Spring Break Party that SxSW has become, we went to something lower key and closer: Secret Stages in Birmingham, AL.

Birmingham is only about two and a half hours from Atlanta, but i have only been there once or twice. I was curious to go back and see the town, and it looked like there were several good bands to see.

We stayed at The Tutwiler, a pretty swank hotel.

The festival started at Rogue Tavern, which it turns out is not related to the brewpubs that Rogue Brewing owns in Oregon. Oh well...

It was a nice little place. Spacious. Well air-conditioned (necessary in the 90+ heat of an Alabama summer). However, they didn't seem to understand the concept of "vegetarian". The baked potato had bacon in it. I guess i could have been a jerk and sent it back, but i was able to pick it out. But for the love of god, if you are going to meat up a vegetable, SAY SO on the menu. Ugh.

Anyway, the beers were nice. I tried several different Alabama beers over the course of the weekend, and was generally pleased.

As i sat there picking unnecessary bacon out of a twice-baked potato and sipping beer, a band set up on the stage near the front window. There were four members. The lead-singer / guitarist walked with a cane. The keyboardist had a lot of stage presence, goofing it up and acting silly, much to the delight of the dinner crowd. They did not actually start to play until just before 8 local time. This was a Birmingham band called Dead Balloons, and they started as a three-piece, without the keyboards. The lineup difference was a little disappointing, but that guy with the cane can really play guitar!

Dead Balloons make a kind of twangy guitar pop. At times they would get into some deep, almost VU-like drones, the guitar noodling while the rhythm built a deep groove. The band would be jamming out and the crowd was kind of getting in to it... but then the vocalist would sing in a bland, reedy voice, ruining the deep groove in favor of country-ish pop.

  Dead Balloons were mildly interesting.  I think some of the disconnect came about because the keyboardist (who apparently isn’t an actual member of the band) had so much charisma and silliness that it seemed like Dead Balloons were going to be lots of fun.  Instead they were quite musically competent and interesting, but as PostLibyan mentions, the vocals left a bit to be desired.  

For the last 10 minutes of their set, that keyboardist actually took the stage. The keyboard kind of helped round out the songs, and the backing vocals helped with the voice some.

Overall though i can say that i have seen as much of this band as i want to. Maybe if they had a different vocalist...

Or maybe my negative take on the band is due to a personal issue. You see, in the middle of their set the red "battery dying" light began to flash on my camera. This was the very first set of the festival, and i realized i had not charged the battery in the camera. An oversight on my part, but made worse by the revelation that i left the other battery on the charger at the hotel room.

One band into the festival, and i really needed that other battery. So in the 15 minutes after the Dead Balloons set and before the next band i speed walked back to the hotel, upstairs to the room, grabbed the battery, and walked back. About 1.2 miles in 15 minutes, or 4.8 miles per hour, which is a pretty good clip.

I was sweaty when i got back, but i walked in just in time to see the first notes of Gold-bears, who are a band from Atlanta. I saw them open for Mac back in May, and at that show i picked up their latest record, album Dalliance. That album has been on almost constant rotation since then, and i was really looking forward to seeing them again.

And Gold-bears did not disappoint. I cannot tell you all of the songs they played because i have not yet memorized the titles of the tracks from Dalliance. However, it was catchy stuff. They played off of the new record, including the meandering I Hope They're Right, a noisy noodling song that almost lost the crowd. That was an odd choice to play live, but the rest of their set was catchy, happy pop.

For the most part people were getting in to it -- there was even an older couple swing dancing to the indie rock, which looked odd but they seemed to be laughing and having a hell of a time. Gold-bears, however, did their "socially awkward boys" thing, which means they stared at their pedals. The lead singer stood COMPLETELY STILL except for occasionally hitting a pedal, and he never once looked up. The guitarist in the cardigan thrashed his guitar some, but did not look at the crowd. The tattooed and pierced bassist was the only one who seemed un-embarrassed to be doing their thing in front of a crowd. I wonder if they actually suffer from social anxiety or if this is something that all Slumberland bands take a class in...


Gold-bears were pretty durn awesome.  Yeah, I know we’ve seen them before, but seeing a band outside of their natural habitat is always interesting.  Sure they did keep up the “I’m not playing post-rock, but I’ll still stand here like a post” routine, but the music remained lively and fun.  And it seemed like the crowd were really into them as well, which I’m sure didn’t hurt matters.


Awkward posing aside Gold-bears were great. They are a lot of fun live, and their music is catchy and interesting.

After that set we headed next door to Das Haus to see a band from Louisville that i really liked the sample track from, a band called Twin Limb.

But before i get into how awesome Twin Limb are, i have to talk about Das Haus. It is, as you might have guessed, a German-themed bar. But it is so much more than that. Das Haus was founded by the Freunde Deutscher Sprache und Kultur, which mean "Friends of German Speaking and Culture". So this is a bar that serves German beer, and German food, has The Alps painted on the wall, and half of the interior space done up like an Oktoberfest tent (pine fences define a seating area next to a dance floor). Oh, and a movie screen hung on one wall, so i guess they show German movies as well. The whole place kind of reeked of bratwurst, but they had Weihenstephaner on tap, which is pretty cool.

  Oh…the bratwurst.  I’m not sure what the Das Haus folks were cooking with, but whatever it was, my eyes burned throughout the set…  

So, we were in this really weird space seeing a band that i had heard two songs from and thought "they kinda remind me of Beach House" so we went to see them.

Twin Limb a three piece who set up on the stage a little differently.

On stage left was a girl who had a string of sleighbells tied around her right ankle, so when she tapped her foot they jingled. 

She also had an accordion.  Yes, really, and i had to wonder if that is why they were scheduled at Das Haus. I mean, it's a stereotype that everyone with an accordion plays oompah music...

Anyway, across from the accordionist, on stage right, was a smallish, thin woman in front of a drum kit. Both she and the accordionist had vocal mics.

Behind the two of them was a guy with a floor tom and a guitar leading into a pedal board.  He only had the one drum, but many pedals.

Like i said, kind of a strange set up.


It was indeed a strange set up, and it really seemed to puzzle Ye Olde Soundguy.  As we waited in the semi-stifling heat, the soundguy kept checking and rechecking the mix.  I suspect it’s because he had never dealt with accordion pop before, but either way the set up took longer than I would have expected.


But when they started to play it was glorious. The two women harmonized really well, with lush voices. 

The accordionist's voice almost reminded me of Shilpa Ray, that kind of powerful earthy tone.  The accordion was used to create a drone, a base layer reverbing under the voices. 

Because you need pedals on an accordian!

The drums were sparse, keeping a bare beat. And then there is the guitarist, who really channels Robin Guthrie, and i do not issue such praise lightly. 

His guitar was a swirling mess, all over the place alongside the vocal harmonies and that deep accordion drone.

I was entranced for their 30 minute set, staring at them as they created these awesome sounds.  It was one of the best things i have seen live in quite a while.  Sadly, their set was cut short because Das Haus was running behind.  Dammit, i hate that, but it happens at festivals.  Why did Twin Limb have to get cut?  I could have listened to another hour of that! Oh well.

They did a complex, lush type of really pretty music, and they did it well.  I would jump at the chance to see them play again.  I hope they come to Atlanta soon.

  Twin Limb were pretty much totally awesome.  The music was fairly sparse at times, even with the guitar and accordion droning and reverbing accordingly.  The entire tone was lilting and soaring, despite the empty spaces occasionally within the set.  And everyone around me liked it, as they leaned closer, trying to become part of the show’s intimacy, as if they were being let inside a musical cloister.  

Thus fortified with two sets of great music, we walked towards the other end of the block and Pale Eddie's Pour House to see Waking Astronomer, which i want to keep calling Walking Astronomer because i apparently have extra Ls that i need to use...

We got to this small, narrow bar in time to watch Waking Astronomer set up.  They are a three piece electronic band, with vocals and occasional flute.  Setting up consisted of filling a table with gear and plugging things in.

The dude with the electronics is Deku, who we saw years ago, back before he had long hair.  Now, his long straight hair was putting mine to shame.  (Damn him...) 

Look at him, just taunting me with his long straight blond hair
that doesn't frizz up in the Alabama humidity!

There is also a young-looking woman named Alexa Lima who played piano, as well as vocalist / flautist Afua Richardson. It seems like a pretty simple lineup, but they do a lot with it.

Lima works the piano.

Afua in Action.

Deku crafts the beats that drive the songs, kind of glitchy, very head-nodding.  Around those beats Lima and Richardson play a kind of soul music.  Richardson's voice soars and the keyboard dances over those beats. 

Afua in glowing mask.

It was mesmerizing, and they wowed the hell out of the twenty or so people who were able to fit into the bar to see them


Waking Astronomer were another awesome act.  PostLibyan has been interested in them for a rather long time, but we’ve never managed to hunt down this Atlanta act.  But they were well worth it.  The soul-influenced vocals over the glitchy beats and almost classical keyboards are a combination which may seem strange or unwieldy on the surface.  Yet, in practice, and with accomplished musicians behind everything, it came together as an eclectic fusion that worked on multiple levels.



This night was looking really great after the third excellent set, and we decided to see if we could make it four in a row, so we headed back to Rogue for Landlady, a band from Brooklyn that i had heard of before. We both listened to the sample tracks earlier in the day and decided that this kind of indie pop would be fun in concert.

As they were setting up, they jammed along with the soundsystem, just whatever incidental music was playing.  I love that kind of adventurousness, and think it a good omen....

But when they started to play, it all went wrong.  They had a lead singer with a Farfisa organ, and everyone seemed to know what they were doing, but it never came together.  In fact, it seemed like they were trying too hard.  Every song had odd rhythmic changes, quirky extra percussion, and affected vocals. 

It was like they are trying very hard to be a Brooklyn party band.  Granted, they are based in Brooklyn, so maybe this business model gets them gigs.


I really had a hard time with Landlady; you could tell everyone was a really solid musicians but all of the songs seemed positively precious. 

They weren’t twee exactly, but things were so hip and trying to be funny that it reminded me a bit of Seinfeld. I never understood that TV show and I can attest that I neither liked nor enjoyed Landlady.  Clearly, your mileage may vary.


I found myself comparing them to that time at SxSW we saw The Spinto Band, and how even though i could appreciate, even admire, what everyone was doing it just never formed a whole for me.  However, the lead singer did win points by mocking the very drunk chicks in the crown.  "You've reached quota," as a way of telling them they were cut off.  Witty and bitchy.  I like it.  But after about 20 minutes of non-cohesive songs, we decided to walk back to the hotel and get some sleep.  It was a long day, but it had some really great moments.

      Continue to the Day 2 review.  
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