Denton’s massive annual music festival returned for its seventh year with even more emphasis on local artists, which was by no means a bad thing. Although 35 Denton had about 100 fewer bands than last year, there were still more than 150 acts on 10 stages in and around the town square.
The festival got off to a rough start Friday on account of the cold, rainy weather. But luckily, the first day started later and had the fewest acts scheduled to perform.
More than anything, 35 Denton gave up-and-coming acts a chance to shine on large outdoors platforms, in midsize venues, and in tiny makeshift stages in restaurants. There were plenty of acts — both local and touring — that blossomed in this setting.
One of the more interesting road shows was Austin’s Calliope Musicals, a six-piece that turns its shows into party spectacles. Dressed in colorful couture and projecting an exorbitant amount of good vibes with happy psychedelic-folk music, the sextet entranced an enthusiastic crowd in the mid-sized Patterson-Appleton Arts Center.
The first night belonged to Seattle’s Tacocat, a four-piece whose infectious energy stirred up a huge audience at the PAAC. The four-piece has a sound firmly rooted in the ’90s — a blend of punk, indie, and riot grrrl music — that is instantly catchy and was fast enough to get the crowd jumping.
By Saturday, the weather was mild for Denton’s Birds of Night to perform on the smaller main stage, which was more or less a trailer. The stoner-pop band has gone through a sonic shift recently, with its newer material sounding something akin to ’70s-era Black Sabbath.
Later, on the smaller main stage, Parlour Tricks drew a tepid response from the crowd. Despite rich three-part harmonies, the New York-based indie sextet just sounded like another bland pop act. But Purple, a three-piece garage band from Beaumont fronted by Hanna Brewer on drums and vocals, were wicked enough to eventually draw a large crowd of curious listeners. Brewer has a big voice and plenty of attitude.
Another highlight from day two was Hella Zealous, a dancy electronic duo from Dallas that showed up to Dan’s Silverleaf in tuxedos and played an up-tempo set of ’80s-inspired synth-dance music.
Denton’s Thin Skin, known for one-minute punk songs largely inspired by Bikini Kill, played a predictably wild set at J & J’s Pizza on the Square. At nearby Harvest House, another Dentonite, Claire Morales, played a near-perfect set of shimmering indie-guitar pop. As she is equally adept at torch songs and rock, Morales’ voice wailed and snarled with equal ease.
Charles Bradley easily drew the biggest crowd of the festival. His backing band was incredible and his voice is one of a few great enough to draw reasonable comparisons to James Brown. He closed his set with a tribute to his mother that made everyone weep in less than a minute and then literally inspired concertgoers to hug one another in a show of gratitude.
By Sunday afternoon, the weather was actually hot. The Demigs sweated through an inspired set of melodic rock with country edges. From Lousiville, White Reaper has strong recordings but will probably never match the intensity of its live shows. The band sprinted through its raw and reckless set of high-energy, pop-y garage-punk with red faces on the main stage.
Paul Slavens, who many know as a KXT DJ, played a memorable 30 minutes at Dan’s Silverleaf. He’s a great pianist and was backed by seasoned musicians. The tightly woven set featured songs about women Slavens has known. He used their names for titles. It was perfect bar music and also very theatrical.
AV The Great won the award for most people crammed into a small area. The carnival group packed a full-band, two DJs, backup singers, and even several dancers onto the smaller main stage. It was an incredibly intense performance with one of the wildest crowds.
Rounding out the three-day event was a trio of groups: Helen Kelter Skelter from Oklahoma played heavily psychedelic, bluesy rock with lots of swagger at J & J’s. The five-piece was followed by Acid Dad from New York, whose rowdy psych-rock set invigorated the small crowd. At nearby Harvest House, Dallas hip-hop artist Alsace Carcione delivered an in-your-face performance punctuated by his clever lyrics and verbal gymnastics. He was backed by a live band, which made the sound more dramatic.
Festival headliner Biz Markie’s set consisted mainly of a fun, masterful old-school live DJ performance. His record scratching and sampling tracks from the ’80s and ’90s made people dance to unlikely songs like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Tom’s Diner.” Inevitably, he took to the mic and sang “Just a Friend.”
The overall sound quality at 35 Denton was surprisingly great, whether you were in the basement of a pizza place or standing in front of the main stages. And it’s nice to not be stuck in one place for a festival and even have the option of enjoying some downtime at a nearby restaurant or coffee shop.