Last year, The Maximum Ames Music Festival made its debut with a sizable number of acts, headlined by The Mountain Goats and Xiu Xiu. It was an impressive start, but the growth in its second year is truly notable.
The Mountain Goats and Xiu Xiu are solid acts, but neither were strangers to the area and both could (and have) fit comfortably in venues like Vaudeville Mews and the Maintenance Shop.
Year two is topped by Jeff Mangum and Wanda Jackson. Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Mangum spent years in seclusion before returning to performing last year. He sold out 2,000-plus capacity venues lightning-fast in larger cities and now he’s playing a 900-person venue in Ames.
Jackson, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, was a contemporary of Elvis Presley. Now 74, her career has been reinvigorated by working with Jack White on the 2011 album “The Party Ain’t Over” and “Unfinished Business,” due out next month. She’s been dubbed “The Queen of Rockabilly” and has a career almost as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself.
The birth of a festival
If you walk around Ames with Maximum Ames Music Festival co-founder Nate Logsdon, he’ll draw a road map of how the festival got to where it is.
A wave to a friend across the street downtown leads to a story about how that friend (James Finch) started the DIY venue The Practice Space on Main Street, where acts liked Devendra Banhart and Kimya Dawson played in the 2000s. And how the end of that space and the closure of the Boheme in Campustown led Logsdgon and others to open their own venue, The Space for Ames (now called the Ames Progressive).
Main Street adjacent streets are littered with spaces that will be stuffed full of music this weekend. DG’s Tap House, Alexander Recording Kompany, Vinyl Café, Deano’s and others. While over in Campustown Charlie Yokes, Zeke’s, Stomping Grounds, Arcadia Coffee and others will be venues for the festival.
Logsdon and festival co-founder Chris Lyng see two sides to Ames that rarely get a chance to interact. Campustown is teaming with life from the thousands of students who pour into Ames each year, but it’s also a fairly self-contained world and students don’t always venture out to see what else Ames has to offer. Similarly, “townies” are more prevalent on Main Street, but don’t always make the trek to events near campus.
With Maximum Ames, Logsdon and Lyng want to create a common ground for the two worlds, as well as bring music fans from around Iowa and the rest of the United States to the college town.
“We want to have a united front for the different business districts, and get people thinking about Ames as one community,” Logsdon said.
Uniting people is what Maximum Ames is all about, and not just the festival. Maximum Ames is also the name of the record label Logsdon co-founded with Chris Ford of Christopher the Conquered.
The label has released albums by Ames acts and has incorporated the Iowa City label Mission Freak and Sweat Power from Fairfield.
It released the “Sonic Harvest” compilation put together by the Jamaica, Ia. studio Sound Farm and will release the Englert Theatre’s Iowa City Song Project, featuring new material by William Elliott Whitmore, Greg Brown, David Zollo and others.
A festival begins
The seed of the Maximum Ames Festival was planted in February 2011 when The Space for Ames hosted a 14-hour concert featuring 38 bands. Having pulled that off, Logsdon and Lyng started thinking bigger. In April of 2011 they started planning the first Maximum Ames Music Festival.
The event fell together in short order, with Xiu Xiu and former Ames resident John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats. About 3,000 people attended dozens of shows featuring 115 bands around town.
For 2012 they started booking in January and aimed higher. Like Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson higher. The event’s budget ballooned from about $16,000 in 2011 to north of $70,000 this year. The event received a grant from the Ames Convention and Visitors Bureau, based on its potential to “attract new visitors to the Ames area, enhance existing visitors’ experiences and improve the quality of life for area residents” and worked hard to line up sponsors to cover the difference.
With the pumped-up lineup the duo is expecting attendance to be closer to 6,000 this year.
Looking east to Mission Creek
The Maximum Ames Music Festival follows a similar format as the Mission Creek Music Festival in Iowa City, and Logsdon and Lyng said organizers of the older festival offered insight on putting together an event of this scale. Logsdon said there’s also a friendly level of one-upmanship between the two events.
“We’re super excited when they announce, and they’re really excited when we do,” Lyng said. “Tanner (Illingworth, Mission Creek co-founder), handles our ticketing through Midwestix, and so he was one of the first we told about our lineup. When I told him about Jeff Mangum, we were on the phone talking for another hour and a half.”
Illingworth’s band, Datagun, opened for co-headliner Xiu Xiu last year, and he said Mangum is an act Mission Creek had looked at in past years, but the timing had never quite been right. He’s happy to see the reclusive artist playing an Iowa show.
“I thought they knocked it out of the park in the first year. In our first year we definitely had some household names, but certainly not to the level they did,” Illingworth said. “Looking at this year, it’s growing so fast and really exciting to see.”
Turning up Ames
Logsdon felt better logistics and coordination and earlier planning paid off in making the second year stronger. Connections made with music bookers from last year and with other bands when Logsdon and Lyng’s band, Mumford’s, has toured also helped lay groundwork. But having a successful first year they could point to helped show managers and bands that they could pull off an event of this scale.
This is the first year Maximum Ames has had shows at the Ames City Auditorium, which seats around 900 people. It’s a space that lets the festival bring in bigger acts, and one that is rarely used for music. Logsdon hopes to wake up Ames to the fact that they have a theater space that could rival The Englert in Iowa City, and to draw people into places they’ve never visited using music.
“We’re proud to be an event that brings people into Ames,” Logsdon said. “People who are coming here are coming here for the culture. They’ll leave with an association: ‘I’ve been to Ames, I saw my favorite band there!’ We’re proud to further that mission, because we love our community.”
And as the Maximum Ames Music Festival grows, Logsdon and Lyng want to keep pushing it into more spaces. In addition to touring acts, the event features acts from Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City, Fairfield and other Iowa cities. They hope that as the festival grows, the noise will be so loud everyone in the state can hear it.
“We want it to be something impossible to ignore in Iowa, and especially in Ames,” Lyng said. “We want to be in every venue in Ames. With Hilton and Stephens we could have someone like Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen play here. We want Ames to be a cultural hub.”
Nate Logsdon, 28
Bio: Co-founder of the Maximum Ames record label, vocalist/trumpeter/pianist/guitarist in Mumford’s, backup vocals/backup dancer for Little Ruckus.
Chief musical influences: Bruce Springsteen and The Poison Control Center
Dream Maximum Ames act: Bruce Springsteen.
Chris Lyng, 26
Bio: Bassist for Mumford’s.
Chief musical influences: Utopia Park, Christopher the Conquered and other Iowa acts. “I feel really lucky to be in a creative community where I can be influenced by different artists all the time.”
Dream Maximum Ames act: Willie Nelson. “We’ve always said it would be a dream to have Willie Nelson play in Bandshell Park. I think that would be really sweet.”