Firecracker 500 Festival to host concerts at The Mill, Blue Moose

BY STEFAN JURAN | JULY 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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Many Fourth of July celebrations are known for their food, fun in the sunlight, and, of course, fireworks. In Iowa City, however, the focus will once again be on the celebration of music.

Not only will the widely popular Iowa City Jazz Festival be held this weekend, but the appropriately named Firecracker 500 Festival will take place at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., and the Blue Moose, 211 Iowa Ave., starting tonight.

Event coordinator Joe Derderian said he believes the festival will be a great opportunity for community members and visitors to get a head start on their Fourth of July music fix.

“This festival will offer an alternative to a lot of stuff being played regularly in Iowa City,” Derderian said. “I hope it allows the audiences to discover new music they dig even if they aren’t familiar with the genres of music being played.”

The Firecracker 500 Festival will start tonight and continue through Saturday. The shows will offer something of interest for everyone, Derderian said, but they will focus largely on garage rock.

Since being brought back to the community three years ago after a nearly a 15-year hiatus, the festival has grown, and this year, it features bands from as far away as New York and Oregon. The beauty of the festival, Derderian said, is how it is able to host bands, small or large, in a centrally located location such as Iowa City.

“It is not a coincidence that these bands from the Midwest are eager to play in Iowa City,” he said. “Even the bigger bands that took a little more effort to book still love coming here, because they know playing in Iowa City helped them get their start.”

Derderian started playing with the idea of resurrecting the festival around 2005; in 2011, he put together the first Firecracker 500 Festival since 1999. The feel of the earlier festival shows was something he hadn’t experienced for a long time in Iowa City, he said, and he brought that garage, punk, and psychedelic rock crowd back to town.

Derderian said the introduction of new music of some not as popular music styles is easier to do in a very receptive crowd of music listeners. The aspect of finding atypical music entertainment made reaching his main goal of this festival more obtainable.

“Education is what it boils down to,” he said. “There are a lot of music and show ideas that don’t get explored, so when I decided to reboot this thing, I had no clue what to expect, but I was hoping that the least I could do was educate the audiences.” 

With this being his third year as the main festival coordinator, Derderian said, he hoped that his idea to “bring rock back to Iowa City” is something that will continue to grow in the coming years with the Firecracker 500 Festival.

“It does your heart good when you can educate people musically and install the passion of music that spoke to me over the years into them through the sounds of these artists,” he said.

Spotlight: The Fleshtones

Probably one of the best-known bands at the Firecracker 500 Festival, the Fleshtones will play at Blue Moose on Friday night. The Fleshtones started in 1976, and it has mixed the sounds of punk, surf, R&B, and garage into its overall “super rock” sound. The band has fit into the New York East Coast punk and New Wave scenes during the ’70s and ’80s and has played all around the world with such groups as the Storkes, Iggy Pop, and James Brown. The group is one of the few true garage bands still touring for more than 35 years, which has landed it the name of “America’s Garage Band,” as coined in a book written about the band by Joe Bonomo. The Fleshtones very rarely plays in festivals like this one in the United States, but Keith Streng, the guitarist of the group, notes how refreshing it can be playing in places such as the Midwest.

“Big cities have that certain attitude like, ‘We’ve been there, done that,’ when you play at them sometimes,” Streng said. “You don’t see that in places like Iowa City, because everyone is open to new ideas and willing to learn about good music.”

Spotlight: White Mystery

Finishing up the Mill’s stint of the Firecracker 500 Festival will be the Chicago brother/sister duo White Mystery. Siblings Miss Alex White (guitar) and Francis Scott Key White (drums) started White Mystery in 2008. Since then, the two have put out three full-length albums that include their most recent release, Telepathic.

Fresh off a 120-show world tour, this redheaded duet — which has a vintage garage-rock sound — said they are ready to get back to an Iowa City crowd that has welcomed them nearly 10 times before. Alex White remembers how welcoming the Iowa City music scene has been to their sound over the years.

“We have played for huge crowds of 15,000 people, but we love coming back to small Iowa City shows, because everyone likes to party and listen to your stuff, no matter what type of music it might be,” she said.

Spotlight: Verma

One of the “headliners” that will wrap up the first night of the Firecracker 500 Festival is Verma. The group is from Chicago, but a majority of the members have come from such places as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. Since the group’s formation three years ago, the band has put out numerous self-released EPs and a new album, Chrome, on HoZac Records.

The band members describe themselves as an “apocalyptic, heavy-psych band” but note that their sound seems to change, if not from song to song, then definitely from album to album.

In addition to making full-length albums and playing live shows, Verma has had the chance to make the music for the documentary Vice Guide to Congo. Although the music styles of Verma may differ from a majority of bands playing at Firecracker 500, band member Johnny Caluya said he is excited to play at a festival such as Firecracker 500.

“You get a chance to hear bands that you normally wouldn’t see, and we get a chance to play for people that wouldn’t normally hear us,” Caluya said. “It is really a win for everyone involved.”

Spotlight: JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound

Wrapping up the festival on Saturday at the Blue Moose will be the Chicago band JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. Unlike most of the bands playing the Firecracker 500, this band has a more vintage soul and funk sound as opposed to garage rock. The band has done nothing but grow since its formation in 2007, releasing three albums of material and playing cross the country at such festivals as Austin City Limits and Summerfest in Milwaukee. Brook’s voice compares with many Motown singers during the ’60s, while the band offers a groovy upbeat punk sound. Bassist Ben Taylor said he is excited to come back to play in a city that helped the band get its start.

“We love playing here,” he said. “People in Iowa City are so welcoming to new styles of music, and playing at shows where a couple hundred people are packed into a sweaty basement of a bar to see you play is a great feeling.”

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