Words: Ryan Mannix | Photos: Faz Chaudry
In a city-mouse, country-mouse scenario... what if Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival had a cousin that lived in St. Charles, Iowa?
That's Hinterland Music Festival.
Combining new and exciting indie groups with top alt-country artists makes for a unique energy. Hinterland is a camping fest but not a wild party with DJs blaring until 4 am. Music is wrapped up by midnight each night and there's even a little cafe area to hang out in with acoustic acts in the morning.
There's definitely an "energy", but it's restrained -- it was not uncommon to see both hipsters and families congregated together on the beautiful hill for two nights and one day of outstanding music.
I dove right into the offerings on Friday with Tash Sultana, a live looping phenomenon from Australia, who's blowing up all across the country now. Her style incorporated a roots reggae vibe at times, adding electronic elements for a totally new sound.
Following her solo set, was CHVRCHES. Their synth-pop melodies (which produce a "mainstream radio" feel on record) put me in the skeptical column to start -- and there definitely was a bit of that Lollapalooza-anthem thing going on which I'm not really a fan of. However, their songs have some solid hooks, with a smattering of 80's sounds. Think indie-rock Madonna.
Eventually, vocalist Lauren Mayberry's unique, childlike vocal delivery, the band's big stage presence and huge bass-heavy sound won me completely over.
Headlining Friday night was a personal favorite, Band of Horses. While they don't have the reputation of a great live band, but their set was one of my highlights of the weekend.
Their combination of alt-rock and reverb-soaked twang were fully on display in a 90-minute slot. The band's most recent album, Why Are You Ok?, came out in 2016, and has the band moving to a sleeker indie-rock sound while maintaining Americana roots.
They blended older material, romping through the set building to an aggressive peak on the closing number, "The Funeral". The set was full of sing-along moments, and Ben Bridwell's high pitched voice was in fine form. The whole band seemed to really be enjoying themselves and the crowd matched that sentiment.
Hinterland's layout is interesting, with the festival site positioned in a straight line along the highway, including multiple different camping areas.
One of them had a stage that would be impossible to find unless you followed the sound of music. There was an unannounced Sublime cover set which was a pretty fun and random way to wind down the night for the few hundred people that stumbled upon it.
The diversity of Friday was fine-tuned a bit for Satuday -- you had two choices: Country and R&B. The acts in Saturday's lineup stretched these genres to their limits, but the themes were definitely apparent.
Tyler Childers started off Saturday in the heat with some Appalachian-inspired Country. His gritty. Hank Williams-inspired voice was complemented by a raucous band. The day was primed to be a hot one and the set delivered, closing out with a jam including Wheeler Walker Jr. (more on him soon) and headliner Sturgill Simpson.
There was a bit more time left after the band exited the stage, which led Tyler to come back for a delicate solo acoustic encore. The contrast of the encore to the rest of the set was a real treat. It's awesome to get such a raw real Country act getting so much mainstream attention.
J. Roddy Walston and the Business were up next and basically destroyed the stage. They have a chaotic distorted early-rock sound and were the perfect afternoon energy builder. Walston's piano playing was certainly a feature of their sound with boogie influences abound.
Up next was the soulful, Anderson East. His huge band included a full horn section and backup singers. Catchy retro songs like "Girlfriend" got the crowd singing along. But it's his voice that ties the whole room together, with an ability to get gravely lows and emotional highs. The set culminated in a beautiful slow jam that built to a rousing peak.
Probably my favorite set of the weekend was Margo Price. She fronts one of the best touring bands in the country.
Her incredible and clever songwriting are bolstered with technical flourishes from her band. High energy rock solos are everywhere, but they can break it down for a thoughtful ballad back in the Country mold. She busted out a couple of new songs too, an exciting and risky play in a big festival set. Price even hopped on the drum kit and the band moved through some psychedelic funk jamming towards the end of the performance.
Blackberry Smoke was up next -- bringing out swampy Southern Rock swampy vibes. Roadworn bluesy bar music was their wheelhouse. For fans of Chris Robinson Brotherhood or Gov't Mule, Blackberry Smoke is right up your alley. They even included a little take on "Scarlet Begonias" and "Come Together".
Leaning even harder into the R&B, the Hinterland stage welcomed Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, just about as solid of a band as you could get.
Rateliff is such a charismatic band leader -- he pumps up the band's soloists while keeping the audience enthralled throughout. Their old school sound has crossed into the main stream but without compromising their American roots. With a fine bunch of tunes that you know the words to, they are a fine festival crowd pleaser.
The headlining set from a country icon form the new school, Sturgill Simpson, was maybe the most unique and unexpected of the weekend.
With their keyboardist out sick, the band was cut down to a three piece. I had never seen Sturgill live, so I'm not sure what his "normal" show is like, but this trio turned in a garage rock, almost Jack White-style set. Dirty funk grooves were shredded through time and time again, with a the first two jams easily clocking over ten minutes a piece.
Seriously, Simpson can shred with the best of them, employing a phased out fuzz tone reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix (even throwing in a short "Machine Gun" tease). There weren't really many delicate moments in the set -- they even turned some ballads into heavy rockers, including the otherwise-tender "Welcome to Earth". This video (though the image is poor and the audio barely passable) is exactly what I'm talking about; the trio stretches "Brace For Impact" into a jam that extends over 11 minutes.
It was a fun and surprising set which was a good way to end the music on the main stage.
The Saturday late-night set was outlaw country nobody Wheeler Walker Jr.. I love this pick for the "after dark" vibe.
In reality, Walker is a character played by comedian Ben Hoffman. He's a caricature of a pissed-off rebel, and has angsty back and forth banter with the crowd and band. But his songs are what makes the performance so captivating. The lyrics are crude, filthy, and hilarious, which really put the audience in a fun and goofy mood. The band was really tight and talented too, which made the joke tunes stand out way more and...you know, actually work.
It's a nice move for a festival whose attendees are clearly looking for something a bit more nuanced.
Midwest camping music festivals can be over-crowded, dirty or just plain sketchy. Hinterland busts the mold and presents as genuinely low key. It was wholly enjoyable -- guaranteeing my return as long as they keep up the thoughtful curation, booking interesting and unique artists that reinforce this theme.