All concert photos courtesy of Roxplosion (except for the last photo, which is courtesy of Magnificent Intentions).
A friend and I tried to start a mosh pit at the 9:30 Club during Bob Mould’s recent concert at the famed venue. The D.C. crowd got mad at us. Of course, that’s not necessarily the fault of the 9:30 Club; it could be (probably is) simply a reflection of the personality of the city. After Mould’s concert (he was incredible, by the way), my friend and I speculated on what must have been going through Bob Mould’s mind as he stood on stage and pondered the differences between his experiences on the 9:30 stage back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü and his experience on the 9:30 stage in 2014. I bet that he felt at least a little disrespected that not one person spit on him. But, that’s D.C. – buttoned-up, uptight, and no real sense of community, especially in regards to its DYI and indie music heritage. At least that’s what I thought until the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival at the Iota Club and Cafe.
I came to D.C.once during the 80s when I was in 8th grade. My tourist family was only interested in the D.C. of glossy postcards and scrubbed history books, and so the Dischord House didn’t make it onto our travel itinerary. But, my memory of the area is far more gritty, connected, and real than that of my current impression as a D.C. area resident. Today the “dive bars” and “bohemian” coffee shops/cafes are populated with policy wonks plotting their pathways to becoming senior advisors at the White House. On the weekends, the streets are filled with roaming gangs of interns from off of the Hill in search of more important asses to plant their lips on. Games of Frisbee abound, but beware – if your Frisbee mate spies someone more important than you on the next field over, you’ll find yourself lofting the disc through the air to the nothingness that is the Beltway’s concept of community. D.C. is a town predicated on advancement at all costs; and one of those costs is real community. However, my weekend hanging out with the bands and their fans at the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival has caused me to reevaluate my opinion of D.C. – well, at the least, I have a new layer to massage into my previous impression.
Magnificent Intentions Music Festival opened on a Friday evening, and I got there early. Sitting with my back to the bar, I watched as people began to meander into the Iota Club and Cafe. I write “meander” because the vast majority of the people weaved their way from person to person, giving and receiving hugs, and shouting joyous words of greeting. Most, if not all, of the music festivals that I’ve attended have been less festive and more disconnected hedonism among mostly strangers. That’s fine, if that’s your thing. But music is first and foremost the language of a community, and eighty thousand college students hanging out in a field creates a false community, no matter how much they gush on Facebook and Twitter. The music may be excellent, but the community is ultimately a fraud, and that chips away at the music as language. Not so at the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival. This festival was/is about music and community and shared experiences among people with shared connections. And, lest the reader make the mistake of hearkening back to their small town’s 4-H fair that highlighted the mayor’s second cousin’s Night Ranger cover band, Magnificent Intentions takes place in Washington D.C.. The nation’s capital. The bands featured at this festival are from one of the largest cities in the country, and they not only know what they’re doing, but sound like it, too. Organic community is one thing; organic community centered on awesome music is another thing altogether – in a word(s) the Magnificent Intentions Music Festival.
Throughout the three days of the festival, I took copious notes on all twenty of the acts that played. It’s regretful that I can’t detail each and every band and musician, because I enjoyed every act. That’s not to say that there weren’t highlights; there most definitely was. For me, the highlight of Magnificent Intentions was Andy Zipf and his band The Cowards Choir.
Magnificent Intentions featured both signed and unsigned acts. So, when I asked Zipf after The Coward Choir’s set if the band was signed, I was flabbergasted to hear that they’re not. I hear more than my share of indie bands and musicians, many of them quite good. But, and this isn’t writer’s hyperbole, The Cowards Choir is, with zero doubt in my mind, the best unsigned band that I’ve ever heard. In fact, their performance at Magnificent Intentions rivals most of the “big” acts that I’ve seen in concert. The musicianship of The Cowards Choir is excellent, but that’s not what separates good bands from great ones. In the moment, while watching Zipf and his band mates, I was reminded of watching Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors take over and own Bonnaroo’s That Tent. The Cowards Choir conquered the entire club. Iota has a restaurant area to the side of the concert venue, and throughout the festival people could be seen sitting and eating. Not so during The Cowards Choir set. Plates filled with delicious Iota food were left abandoned as people who had previously been eating had crammed into the back of the music venue; The Cowards Choir cleared out the entire restaurant with compelling and well-written music, and a stage presence that can’t be taught. Check this band out before Andy Zipf and The Cowards Choir become famous and too expensive to see live. If the band isn’t scheduled to play in your area, no fear – I’m fairly confident that The Cowards Choir will be featured in next year’s Magnificent Intentions Music Festival. Most people vacation in D.C. at least once during their life time; why not plan next year’s vacation around an awesome music festival?
With my apologies to the bands and musicians that I don’t mention (check out the festival’s website for a full list of the acts, and discover some really great music), I’m briefly going to write about a few of the festival’s other highlights.
On Friday night, Olivia Mancini debuted Olivia and Her Mates, and lit up the Iota Stage with a potent combination of dig-your-teeth-in roots rock and a blazing riot girlz influenced ethos. I’m not sure if the band was a one-off event by Mancini and friends for Magnificent Intentions, but, if so, the band entered and exited the larger stage of music with a triumphant flash of musical percipience. The night was closed out by the soul-filled rock and roll of Justin Jones & the B-Sides. Jones has a voice, both as singer and song-writer, that speaks to the roots of this country
The meat of the Festival’s lineup was Saturday night, and The Fire Tonight kicked off that five band period of awesomeness with their trademark piano rock. With a level of energy and showmanship that fits nicely into D.C.’s hardcore DNA, The Fire Tonight came close to unveiling the latent violence in the D.C. crowd. I bet that I could’ve successfully started a mosh pit during their set. The Fire Tonight was followed on the stage by The Jackfields, an indie rock band fronted by the talented Mike Reina. The Cowards Choir was up next, and if my previous gushing didn’t convince you to check the band out, know that there is a huge gap in my note taking. I was too busy being a newly minted fanboy. The final two acts on Saturday night were Derek Evry and His Band of Misanthropes and The Beanstalk Library. Both bands represent the best of D.C.’s music scene. Evry is an engaging frontman, and the Magnificent Intention crowd ate up Evry and his band’s set. The frontman for The Beanstalk Library, Ryan Walker, is also the brainchild behind Magnificent Intentions. Not only did Walker put together an excellent music festival, but The Beanstalk Library is a leader in the D.C. area’s burgeoning roots rock/Americana/alt-country music scene.
The closing night of the festival was clearly Margot MacDonald’s night. Although my kids would claim that Rainbow Rock, a kids-themed band that played earlier in the afternoon, was the greatest performance of the weekend. In one sense, my kids are correct – it was the only performance they saw all weekend, so, for them, it was the greatest. Plus, Rainbow Rock was fun, lively, and Kate Moran (The Rainbow Lady) had a great connection with the children in the audience. But, for those of us old enough to remember life before iPads, Sunday belonged to Margot MacDonald. MacDonald’s inventiveness as a musicologist created a transcendent and interesting set. With the use of looping pedal, MacDonald, who has a powerful voice, is her own accompaniment. A unique treat, MacDonald was an excellent example of the diversity at Magnificent Intentions. Earlier in the evening, South Rail created at least one new fan with a tight and well-formed sound that will serve the band well as they ready to embark on their first national tour.
Before wrapping up, I want to mention two singer-songwriters who exemplified not only the spirit of the festival, but are unearthed musical gems, as well. Over the years, I’ve witnessed many singer-songwriters – both male and female. It seems like the vast majority of middling-acts book a singer-songwriter as their opener. I’ve seen good and bad singer-songwriters; what I rarely see is an interesting singer-songwriter. Well, Magnificent Intentions featured two very interesting and very good singer-songwriters – Carolyn Crysdale and Jasmine Gillison. Crysdale opened the festival on Friday evening, and, to be perfectly honest, as she took the stage, I was far more interested in my beer than I was in her. That changed. Quickly. I forgot about my beer and was blown away by Crysdale’s ability to be huge within her singer-songwriter stillness and smallness. A first-rate storyteller and songstress, I will be keeping an eye out for Crysdale. On Sunday, Gillison, with a powerful and deeply engaging presence, impressed me with a bravery in her story-telling voice that leaves me to believe that Gillison’s peak as a singer-songwriter sits atop a universal range.
On Sunday night, I walked the mile back to my apartment not only excited about the many great bands and musicians that I had been exposed to, but also, and almost more importantly, excited about the strength of the indie music community in Washington D.C.. In a city this size, it’s expected that there be many great local acts; but, in D.C. of all places, the musician’s level of commitment to each other is admirable. In a transient town that places supreme value on a “what can you do for me?” mentality, Ryan Walker and friends demonstrated that music is best created within selfless community. Although this is Magnificent Intentions’ inaugural season, the Iota Club and Café hosted what may very well grow into one of the country’s premier indie music events.
John is a theatre artist and writer based out of Arlington, VA. Nowadays, though, most of his artistic output is spent on keeping his two young children amused, occupied, and off of the top of the bookshelves.