The Maha Music Festival is not, as you may suspect, named after its hometown of Omaha. Apparently it’s a word that means, variously, “wandering nation” (in Anglicized Native American), “great” (in Sanskrit), “beautiful but shy” (in Arabic) and “moon” (in Urdu).
It’s an over-dramatic name for such a relatively modest, volunteer-run affair that takes place in a suburban park outside of a retail-condo complex in Omaha. But at Saturday’s third annual installment, the killer lineup, friendly staff, cheap food/drinks and otherwise spotless presentation justified the festival’s moniker, leaving an impression of both professionalism and grassroots cohesion.
Organizers of the nonprofit event stocked the two-stage lineup with a few alt- and indie-rock legends, such as Dayton, Ohio’s Guided by Voices (on the third-to-last show of their “classic” lineup reunion tour), J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and shit-kickin’ rockabilly elders the Reverend Horton Heat. But they also threw in Jewish reggae rapper and summer fest favorite Matisyahu, hometown heroes Cursive, Iowa’s the Envy Corps and worthy local acts such as Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship, the So-So Sailors, the Machete Archive and the Big Deep.
Gates opened at noon, with a handful of food carts and nonprofit arts booths lining the paved drive around the manicured park at Aksarben Village. (Get it? Aksarben is Nebraska backwards). The spacious lawn, ample free parking and all-ages entry lent it a family feel, especially as the playground near the back of the park filled with kids and their beer-swilling parents.
Couples in camping chairs bobbed their heads to a typically fiery set from the honorable Reverend Horton Heat, the massive drums echoing off the retail complex just behind the park. The band wrapped it up with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which drew the loudest response from the three dozen or so people gathered near the front of the main stage. Locals So-So Sailors followed with an agreeably percussive pop-rock set that recalled a less guitar-happy Ra Ra Riot. And while the occasional wind gust caused some phasing issues, the seven-piece’s trio of keyboards — and a nicely textured soundboard mix — overcame any real issues.
J Mascis did without with his trademark semi-circle of Marshall amps for a mostly acoustic set that bridged his recent Sub Pop solo album, “Many Shades of Why,” with some of Dinosaur Jr.’s best-known and most raucous material. Employing a looping pedal and a beat-up acoustic-electric guitar (and a phalanx of distorted fuzz pedals, naturally) he tore into tracks such as “Get Me,” which sounded oddly jammy with its twisting, contorted solo, and a ripping take on the “You’re Living All Over Me” classic “Little Fury Things.”
There was something surreal in watching the gray-haired stoner icon lay down blistering licks while middle-aged couples and shirtless bros in lawn chairs guzzled Miller Lite out of Kum and Go koozies, or kids blew bubbles that glinted in the sunlight as they flew past the stage. Of course, this was Omaha — home of Conor Obsert’s Bright Eyes and Saddle Creek Records — so the hipsters and ironic fanny packs weren’t completely out of character, either. (Can we all agree that ironic fanny packs need to die a swift, painful death?)
Locals Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship proved a perfect follower for Mascis. Their ’90s sound combined Mascis’ own languid vocal style and occasionally strained falsetto with propulsive, Sonic Youth-style freakouts and heavy guitar. Omaha mayor Jim Suttle, giddy and upbeat in the waning sunlight, enthusiastically introduced Cursive just after that. The hometown indie band drew the biggest pit crowd of the day so far (thought still relatively modest in size), while front man Tim Kasher praised “beautiful motherfucker” Clint Schnase for coming back to play drums for the band.
Generic jamtronica from Somasphere followed, but the real highlight was next at the main stage. Though billed as the headliners, Guided by Voices played just before Matisyahu — apparently due to his religious issues with performing before sundown on the Jewish sabbath. The band delivered a typically loud and breathless set, even if leader Robert Pollard seemed a bit removed from his usual hilarious stage banter and prodigious alcohol consumption.
I theorized they may have been pissed about being moved back in the lineup, but my wife later pointed out that they’d just flown in from Norway the day before. (Touché). Either way, the dozen or so GBV-shirt-wearing superfans in the crowd seemed thrilled with the selection of songs — mostly from mid-’90s classics “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes” — that included “Echoes Myron,” “Motor Away” and a rocking “No. 2 in the Model Home Series.” By this time the crowd had swelled to several hundred people pressed against the stage — out of an overall 2,000 or so in the park — and the deafening singalongs during songs like “Game of Pricks” and “Tractor Rape Chain” proved that the majority of folks there were indeed GBV fans.
We split before Matisyahu, mostly because there was a rumor that GBV were going to hit a local pub called O’Leaver’s after their set (I didn’t wear my Marion’s Pizza T-shirt for nothing, you know). But unless the volunteers began randomly lobbing Molotov cocktails at the attendees, the Maha Music Festival seemed to be a rocking and entirely volunteer-run, hometown success.
John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles and band names @beardsandgum.