Review & Photography by Kail Rose

Two girls in steampunk corsets, flowing skirts and over-the-top hair and glitter climb atop a giant rusty LED-adorned Vee-Dub-esque vehicle, straight out of Mad Max. Lace parasols twirling, they pout and pose in the sparkling sunshine while the rhythms of the drum circle behind us pulse through the warm spring afternoon air. Whimsical seems the word of the day. An eclectic crowd filters through the modest festival gates. They stop for a selfie in front of oversize technicolor M3F letters, grab a Hazy IPA, and assemble tye-dyed picnic blankets, hula hoops and sequined capes in a semicircle on the grass surrounding the Kesey and Kerouac stages. It’s clearly an all-ages crowd, at least this early in the day. Families with children assemble at the craft stations, others attempt to teach older kids to hula-hoop to the opening riffs of our early afternoon bands, Jawny and Slwly. It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon in Phoenix.

Moby Rich live on the main stage at M3F Festival 2020, Friday.

I’ve arrived in time to survey the afternoon scene before heading over to the towering main stage, Kerouac, for pop duo Moby Rich. Stepping up the energy with infectious hooks and euphoric lyrics, they toss in a few cover songs before delighting the small crowd with hits Yoko Ono and Loser. New Madrid and Sure Sure follow as the crowd slowly fills in. In between sets, folk peruse the market stalls purchasing all matter of eclectic offerings; from wooden watches and loud-patterned parachute pants to heavily-sequined capes featuring T-rexes, owls and unicorns. As the sun sinks lower in the sky, our 70-degree afternoon becomes crisp and the energy amplifies. By the opening of San Holo’s larger-than life electronica-meets-rock-god opening, it’s clear that the demographic has shifted.The laid-back atmosphere had somehow condensed to a packed, predominantly college-age crowd and with that came a change in sentiment. Now it was all about dancing, jostling through the crowd, many clearly no longer sober. But all in a rush to get to the front rail. 

We manage a brief reprieve with a stunning almost-should-have-been-the-headliners set from Local Natives. An ethereal indie rock set on the towering stage, punctuated by energy and poignant lyricism. Early in the set, frontman Taylor Rice leaps the barricade and into the enormous crowd, inviting his stunned and adoring fans to sing along, face to face. 

Local Natives take crowd involvement to a whole new level as frontman Taylor Rice leaps into the crowd for a song.

As the headliners near, we find ourselves back at the Kesey stage, where the EDM bros with a date in the front row shove and trample to find their place in the crowd. It was all I could do to retreat to the 27-minute drink line (I timed it, yes…) for a mood-saving adult beverage. I hung to the far back of a now-overwhelming crowd for LANY, and then to the absolute fence line for the opening of Bon Iver. I’ll admit I made an early departure to find some real food and wine at nearby restaurant, Match. Grateful for the break from an exuberant crowd, I was finally able to use a real bathroom, rest my weary feet and wash my hands. 

The Kesey stage of M3F on Saturday draws a large crowd for Snakehips EDM set

With mixed sentiments, we headed back for day two of the festival, hopeful that a varied Saturday lineup and beautiful weather would somehow make up for the previous day’s descent into college-kid pandemonium. Once again it was fairly easy to get to the festival, right off interstate 10 at the East end of Margaret T Hance park, and an expansive parking garage quite literally at the festival gate offered easy parking for a $20 flat rate. I arrived in time for my favorite (and highly anticipated) band of the weekend, Thumpasaurus. So unique that they almost defy classification, this dance-heavy funk-jam band hailing from California immediately became a personal favorite after catching them at Firefly Music Festival last June. I was thrilled to see them again. They’ve been described as “an eclectic, homemade aesthetic unlike anything else this side of the Milky Way,” and if upbeat, joyful and quirky is your thing, we can’t recommend them enough. Within half a song, the crowd were on their feet and the pancakes were a-cookin’ (yes, there really were pancakes being made on-stage). Great start to Day Two.

We followed with Aussie act Crooked Colours, indie/new-wave duo Generationals, and EDM powerhouse Snakehips. And with that, it seems, the Bros were back. So fittingly described by fellow fest reviewer, Ed Masley of Arizona Republic; “the vibe could now be compromised by the same sort of macho behavior that ruined the Warped Tour and Lollapalooza in the ‘90s.”

Nevertheless we persist, dodging the unruly crowd for a stunningly gruff hour of garage/psych rock with The Growlers. This set certainly made up for an unruly crowd, with Brooks Nielsen’s idiosyncratic swagger, clutching cigarette-and-(what we can only assume was)-liquor in one hand while commandeering the mic with trademark ‘beach-goth’ grunge vocals on the other.

Brooks Nielsen of The Growlers puts on a perfect grunge rock set at M3F music festival 2020

In stark contrast, the next set brought us a cartoonishly upbeat jungle-themed EDM set with multi-lingual superstars Sofi Tukker on the smaller Kesey stage. Hits such as Best Friend and Drinkee elevated the crowd as much as Sophie’s guitar-goddess showmanship, flawless vocals and Tucker’s iconic commandeering of the midi-drum tech-art installation center stage; the ‘book tree.’ The evening wrapped, almost anticlimactically with Rufus Du Sol on the main Kerouac stage. Again, we didn’t stay for the entire set as a cold evening breeze rushed in and the deterring realities of this bro-heavy crowd sent us scampering for the gates. 

Sofi Tukker put on an explosive electronic set at M3F Festival 2020

Sunday, quite unfortunately, arrived even more anticlimactically than expected. With the cancellation of headliner Stick Figure, the schedule was adjusted, bumping The Funk Hunters to primo placement on an already stunted daily lineup. The crowds reflected it, too – much smaller than expected. Highlights were few and far-between. 

The towering main stage at M3F Festival 2020

While we applaud this small festival for what it is – a charitable endeavor bringing some big names to a small outdoor venue – we can’t help but make comparisons to the prior weekend’s festivities just a few miles away at Innings Festival. M3F certainly had some highlights: an eclectic crowd, a phenomenal musical lineup, a small park venue that was easy to navigate and the draw of being a non-profit generating over $2mil for a handful of deserving charitable groups. 

But the contrast between a laid-back afternoon crowd and the less-than-desirable conduct of the evening EDM-heavy scene was quite literally day-and-night. It also became painfully obvious as attending media that things were a little less than organized on many fronts. With public concerns over Coronavirus surfacing, I found measures to ensure health and hygeine severely lacking. Handwashing stations were almost nonexistent (with the exception of city park restrooms) and hand sanitizer was available in a few places, but ran out quickly. I was prohibited from entering the festival gates with my jar of Purell, so I was incredibly thankful I’d thought to also stash a pack of disinfecting hand wipes in my backpack. Almost nothing on the food/beverage vendors was being sanitized or cleaned – particularly payment stations, which were greasy and clearly touched by every single person ordering food. Call me a complete germaphobe, but I do hope that we’ve dodged a bullet on the sanitation front. 

I have mixed feelings about M3F festival, but having only attended one year, I’d be willing to give it another try in 2021. Knowing what I know now, I’d likely avoid the evening crowds unless a killer headliner made it worthwhile. The afternoon vibes on Friday and Saturday set the scene magnificently, and I did enjoy the variety and quality of the music – no faults there. While I found the overlapping schedule a bit of a deterrent, as was the bleed in sound across stages from opposite ends of the park, the overall small size of the festival was actually a great thing and maintained an intimate feel throughout the weekend. I wouldn’t classify any of the above a gross fault, but rather I’d hope they can improve upon this in future years. In retrospect of the above, M3F festival really was ultimately a success. The magnitude of these acts far surpassed the size of the festival and I applaud M3F for managing to book big artists for such a noteworthy and intimate nonprofit cause. That alone, I believe, makes M3F a shining success in 2020. 

Happy crowd dancing in the front row at M3F music Festival 2020 for Sofi Tukker

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