Review: Mo Pop Festival 2017, Detroit

words by Alex Freeman | photos courtesy of Mo Pop Festival | Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

In a place that faced arguably the worst U.S. economic downturn of the past 50 years, Detroit is the last city you would expect to host a music festival. The Mo Pop Festival, now in its fifth year, returned July 29th and 30th to the recently rehabbed West Riverfront Park, nestled between the heavily trafficked Joe Lewis Hockey Arena, the breezy Detroit River, and what looked like a superfund train yard site.

A scrappy young festival featuring local food and beverage along with B-list indie rockers, pop divas, and a little hip-hop, Mo Pop Fest is less of a destination festival than a place for Detroit’s newest residents, mostly young and anglo, to lay on blankets, drink Faygo, and dance in the late summer Michigan weather.

Music wasn’t the only thing on tap at Mo Pop Fest. The park was bisected with one side for most of the music and the other side for other things such as a Nerf gun combat course, an old-school video game arcade, a craft bazaar, and a series of food trucks and watering holes that had long lines all day. The only real shade to be had was a stand of trees in the middle of the park that supported slumping bodies on a row of hammocks.

The lack of VIP anything and the prominence of a permanent impaired viewing platform was commendable, as it’s hard to remember festivals before VIP became the norm. Additionally, there was no sound bleed as the Grande Stage and Captain Pabst Stage were perpendicular to each other creating one very large GA viewing area for both.

Day one got to a lazy start as mostly teenagers made the trek out to the grounds before 3 p.m. The dreamy pop of multi-instrumentalist Jay Som from Oakland welcomed early comers to the Grande Stage, as she performed for the first time in Detroit. Later in the day another female-fronted pop act, PVRIS rocked the crowd with darker electronic vibes helping to bring up the energy. The clear stand out of the day was Wavves’ early evening set that turnt up the dusty field of revelers. Filled with lots of crowd surfing and mosh pit action, spectators lost their shit to “Green Eyes” from 2013’s King of the Beach and “Nine is God” from the Grand Theft Auto album from the same year.

Filling the top three slots were two acts that have made a reputation of playing practically every festival in the U.S., Phantogram and Run the Jewels, and a closer that hasn’t had a hit album in six years, Foster the People. No doubt, hands were raised in the air and shimmying was happening on blankets, but in relation to other festivals, the day two headliners were just recognizable names rather than major concert draws.

Dustier than Pig Pen at a Charlie Brown Christmas party, West Riverfront Park was about as tore up on Sunday as the adults who drank too much PBR and Deep Eddy vodkas the night before. Bandana face masks reigned as people gathered for the Australian indie folk crooner Vance Joy. Canadian indie rockers Arkells, known for their Juno-winning album Michigan Left, came up next playing in the shadow of the U.S./Canada Ambassador Bridge — nodding to their Michigan connections throughout their bouncy afternoon set.

Conspicuously absent in much of Mo Pop Fest’s line-up were people of color, especially for a festival that riffs on the city’s Motown roots. Fortunately, magic hour of day two helped to remedy that shortcoming with noteworthy performances by two rising hip-hop and R&B acts: Tyler the Creator and Solange, respectively. Tyler is coming off an international tour for U.S. dates in support of his critically acclaimed album Flower Boy released only a couple weeks prior to the festival. Though turning the corner with a more mature sound, Tyler is still bratty on stage, instructing the crowd to “shut the fuck up, put your phones away, I don’t give a shit about yo Snapchat” after his first song “Where the Flower Blooms” from his latest release.

Little sister of Beyonce, and burgeoning diva in her own right, Solange eased the fest into twilight, summoning a large flock of concertgoers and seagulls for her soothing R&B. Joined by Houston dancers and a Louisiana brass section, her set was choreographed beautifully and showcased a unique gulf coast flavor that she’ll bring back to Texas for her next date at the Austin City Limits Festival in October.

English indie rockers Alt-J closed out the fest with a seizure-inducing light show featuring drippy LED screens reminiscent of icicle holiday lights but on steroids. Performing the fourth date on their US tour, Alt-J worked to regain their relevance in support of their latest album 2017’s Relaxer with new tunes “In Cold Blood” and “Deadcrush” bringing dankness to the Detroit crowd. Their old material blended nicely with their new stuff and was a unexpected punctuation to the fest. Alt-J fans can catch them as they take an early evening slot on the Grant Park stage at Lollapalooza on Saturday, August 5th.