Despite being Iowa’s first capital, Iowa City has a chip on its shoulders, a complex that comes with not being quite central. With its university and history, the city—perhaps understandably—does not like to imagine itself as a satellite of Des Moines. This is reflected annually in Mission Creek planning and programming. The resilience of the local music community to continue to build, grow and make art during the pandemic was on full display this past weekend in Iowa City.
Friday afternoon in front of a crowd of bobbleheads at the Mission Creek Festival, Ahzia got to her hook that might sum up the real ethos behind Mission Creek. “Tell them where you’re from,” he repeated. “Tell them where you’re from.”
That’s the trick of Iowa City and maybe any community trying to do something about it. He is thrilled to elevate his people and allow them to have a place alongside a big name. Bring them into the conversation. To ask questions. Draw connections. And reveal the connective tissue that helps us tell them where we came from.
During what felt like a three day long festival, Iowa City’s Anthony Worden and I ran around trying to soak up as many different acts as possible. Maybe the speed of it all was easy for a more athletic participant. But for us, it was definitely difficult to keep up. If anything kept us on track, it was the artists we kept finding. Whether it was an energetic performer or an uplifting sound – some had both – there was something to plug into, something that kept us going. We were lucky to be there.
Here are eight acts I couldn’t get enough of and places to start if you’re looking to dig.
Starting the weekend on the biggest stage is a tough position to fill, but not one that Iowa artist Alyx Rush had no problem with. It’s energetic, heartfelt R&B that highlights her tight vocal work.
Of course, if you’re looking for some music to start with, I’d heartily recommend his latest release “Body Rock” (2021). It has the kind of cool, sweet sex appeal of a Frank Ocean track. It’s a good starting point.
But don’t sleep watching Rush live. He plays with bassist Blake Shaw and guitarist Dan Padley, a real Iowa City Wrecking Crew. If you see the band on a lineup, be sure to get away with it. Hint: Rush is playing 80/35 this summer in Des Moines.
The most mesmerizing performance of the weekend was Ohmme’s at Trumpet Blossom. Chicago-based vocalist-guitarists Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham layer powerful harmonies over fuzzy, sometimes gassy guitar. This back and forth could have taken the performance another hour.
The A-side of their 2020 single “Mine” shows this interaction between the singers and is a great start. If you like it, browse their 2020 album “Fantasize Your Ghost” to the song “The Limit”. You will not regret it.
The stairwell backcountry at Gabe’s was made for the muffled sounds of sneaky syth-pop. Inside on Friday night, Tempers’ Jasmine Golestaneh and Eddie Cooper danced onstage to vocals dripping with reverb, driven by drum machines.
Yet another night proving one of Iowa City’s unchanging rules that Thursdays are for dancing.
I can’t say that I knew this band before seeing them live. But I’m stuck on their “New Meaning” album. It’s full of dark wave sounds a la Cocteau Twins and will be my prep soundtrack for the weeks to come.
Making room for Iowa City musical excellence like Good Morning Midnight is sure to be expected at Mission Creek. It is also particularly appreciated by me.
The band’s lead singer, Charlie Cacciatore, has been the bandleader for this act since 2016, and during that time the band has leaned toward a kind of Midwestern edge. They bring a distressed lyrical seriousness; they present issues that songs want to sit with, such as in “Birds Fly” mentioned above.
For those looking to dive into the music of Good Morning Midnight, Caccitore suggested starting with “Holy Ghost” from their latest album Songs of Violence (2021).
There is nothing I can write about Trè Burt that is prettier or more accessible than his music. He’s funny when he wants to be. He will ruin you when you are not ready.
While his 2022 single “Know Your Demons” – perhaps a good starting point for you if you’re new to his music – comes with an R&B chorus and some fuzzy Rock and Roll bass on the record, but he kept things simple on stage. Just wrapped him around a little guitar.
Onstage at the newly opened Riverside Theater, he performed his 2020 song “Under the Devil’s Knee.” Reminiscent of the writing of documentary songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, it chronicles the lives and murders of George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police.
Not too long ago, the 2020 racial justice protests filled the pedestrian street. If you look for it around town, you’ll still spot some of the spray paint, although much of it has been power washed off. The room was silent, listening to Burt sing.
Check out her song “Tell Mary”. So listen to the whole album.
RAMONA AND THE SOMETIMES
Des Moines-based Ramona and The Sometimes, led by Ramona Muse Lambert, came to the Riverside stage with fabric flowers blooming on their shoulders and sides. Whether she’s dancing on the front of the stage or from her chair, Lambert’s good humor and seriousness are contagious. His lyricism drifts towards a desire to live intimacy despite sometimes dark realities.
Take 2022’s single “Station Wagon.” Lambert presents images of everyday life: folded laundry or cereal boxes or groping in the back of a car – images of us that make us forget the climate catastrophe. “As if the world wasn’t burning, but it was burning.”
We don’t talk enough about the nods of live music. Airy bops or thrash shakes: it’s a dance, something specific to the music and the body.
On Thursday night, Fennesz’s set vibrated with cinematic and gripping synth landscapes. And all around the stage, heads bowed familiarly, locked – though perhaps uncertain of the time signature.
Hearing something difficult could be alienating. But falling in a flurry of nods, he makes the strange familiar.
It’s the music of a breakup. Or maybe a crush. Pop, even pop-punk, deals with establishing links between the specific. Experiences of pain, love and growth become recognizable, understandable, even shared.
That’s the fiery energy that Beach Bunny brought to Englert on Friday night. Although they were the band’s guitarist, singer Lili Trifilio was undeterred: “You probably can’t do a lot because it’s a sit-down venue, but we’ll try to have fun.”
As the first song began, young crowd members rushed into the aisles to shout and jump along with Trifilo, who led a series on pain and self-esteem.
While Hurt is specific, the music abstracts it. Music makes dancing understandable, shared, and damn fun.
“Fire Escapes” is a song that I haven’t been able to remove from my daily playlist since its release this year. But the band’s 2018 EP “Prom Queen” is a delight.