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Fountain Square Music Festival 2017 was a triumph of the Indiana music community

Creating a community music festival in Fountain Square is an idea that makes a lot of sense. The Fountain Square area is home to several intimate concert venues, and the point of this festival is to join them together into a single two-day event for an incredibly tight-knit musical community experience. The festival’s formative years have been full of growth and change, and this year was no different.

For its 2017 installment, FSMF announced a major addition to its setup: For the first time, there would be an outdoor main stage called the Nucleus, which was to feature some of the most energetic and large-scale performers of the weekend. This was the most densely populated stage at almost any time there was music to be heard there, but it did not sacrifice the small festival aesthetic that FSMF strived to achieve.

That said, even though there were plenty of entertaining acts at the Nucleus, those attendees who stayed at the main stage the whole time missed the real point of the festival. Within the walls of the Hi-Fi, the Pioneer, White Rabbit Cabaret and Square Cat Vinyl, a plethora of small acts made their statements to whoever happened to stumble into those venues.

Although I wasn’t able to get there until the evening on the first day, the night provided a great chance to absorb the atmosphere of the festival. The entire event was contained within a couple of blocks and closed off from the rest of traffic so that the center was marked by a stoplight that continued ticking throughout the weekend. This was one minor charm that served as a reminder that this was first and foremost a community event.

The community aspect was played up even more by the local restaurants and artists who also participated in the festival. A couple of restaurants that happened to be located within the festival grounds stayed open for business, and several food trucks also popped up near the entrances. Meanwhile, the festival marketplace provided an outlet for local painters, jewelers and craftspeople of various other walks to share their trade.

As I approached the entrance on the first night, I could hear Real Estate tearing up the Nucleus stage from a few blocks away. Being one of the bigger groups at the entire festival, they of course attracted a similarly large crowd. But luckily, FMSF managed to avoid an annoyance I’ve had at other festivals, one felt by people like me who ended up at the back of the crowd: the fields of sound and vision did not suffer.

Once Real Estate finished their set, much of the crowd flocked into the indoor venues to see some lesser-known acts. I opted for Square Cat Vinyl, a comfortable record store that features a small stage and a built-in bar that sells not only alcoholic beverages but also coffee and hot chocolate. And best of all, the store stayed open during the festival, so anyone coming to experience live music could also leave with a great new record. The local music section of the store even included several artists that played at the festival, including a couple of records by Mike Adams at His Honest Weight.

When I walked into the store, Caleb McCoach was in the middle of playing an emotional solo acoustic set. His music was understated, but his simple storytelling and soaring croon worked together to demand attention from even the most casual listeners. Though I had seen Caleb play in full band form before, Square Cat was also home to some of my favorite new discoveries of Fountain Square.

The first act I managed to catch on the second day was Master Key, another guitar-based solo act who had briefly entered my radar due to her recent opening slot for Ought in Bloomington. Perhaps the most unique new discovery for me, however, was the California experimentalist CJ Boyd. This enigma of an artist made ample creative use of electronics, but his non-traditional use of traditional instruments was truly what made him stand out. After layering his voice over itself a few times, CJ sat on the floor and crafted a new soundscape from a ukulele plugged into an effect box.

The Hi-Fi, located across the street from Square Cat, featured the most rock bands of the weekend apart from the main stage. On the first night, this small stage invited bands like Liz Cooper and the Stampede, Welshly Arms and Shiny Penny, the Kokomo superstars who shared a time slot with Friday’s headliners Dr. Dog. The second day featured Dan Luke and the Raid, The Social Animals and Okey Dokey.

The Pioneer, a bar and restaurant on the other side of Shelby Street, welcomed yet more great bands to its stage. Friday’s lineup included several great acts including Player Piano and Lily & Madeleine, but perhaps the highlight of the night was Thunder Dreamer. This dark indie rock band from Evansville, IN performed a 40-minute set that included songs from their moody new album Capture.

Early second-day sets at the Pioneer included performances from Chris Wilson and Bigfoot Yancey, and this venue also closed out the entire festival with an hour-long set from DJ Indiana Jones & Topspeed.

The White Rabbit was a bit of an odd venue. This was the only stage that was located outside the gates of the festival, about a half-block walk away from the Shelby Street entrance. Due to potential difficulty finding the White Rabbit, some festivalgoers may have unfortunately missed it entirely. However, some of the best shows of the weekend took place here, with bands as diverse as Hales Corner, Flint Eastwood, America Owns the Moon, Amy O and Public playing there.

And of course, there was the Nucleus stage. Constantly buzzing with music and people, the Nucleus was home to most of the major national acts in attendance at Fountain Square. Though the music there stopped playing relatively early in the night, most of the performances there were top-notch.

The first-night headliner at the Nucleus was Dr. Dog, a storied indie rock band who graced the stage with songs both old and new. They easily filled most of their 90-minute slot, which included favorites like “Ladada”, “Shadow People” and their soulful cover of Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races”. The light show at the Nucleus continued long after the band finished playing that night.

The next day, the show began with a set from the absolutely unforgettable Indiana hip-hop and soul group Clint Breeze & the Groove. Dream Chief, another local band, took the stage with their cut-and-dry yet energetic electropop jams soon after. The last of the locals was Hoops, a laid-back Bloomington indie rock group who played songs from various past releases as well as their breakout debut full-length album Routines.

Following Hoops was the excellent Cincinnati band WHY?, who was later shouted out by Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel as one of her favorite bands of all time. No one person in the band played a single instrument, and their variety of unusual sounds was interesting to watch. Their unique sound of hip hop-influenced indie folk music brought something very special to the festival stage.

One of the only pure hip-hop acts of the weekend, The Cool Kids, brought an hour of intense fun to Fountain Square. At one point in the middle of their set, Sir Michael Rocks used a technical difficulty as an opportunity for a short freestyle detour. Once they finished, the bouncy and energetic pop singer Bishop Briggs took the stage. Closing with her danceable hit song “River”, she did a fantastic job of building the energy for the final act.

Sadly, not long after the close of her set, the weather that had threatened the festival for most of the afternoon finally arrived, resulting in an unfortunate but unavoidable rain delay before Phantogram. The setup of the festival ended up being very fortunate, because this was a great chance for people to head into Square Cat or the Hi-Fi to catch acts they may not have heard of. Luckily, the cleanup crew was on the scene as soon as the heaviest rain stopped, and at around 10PM, Phantogram finally arrived.

Despite the delay, Phantogram drew one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, populated by some of the most enthusiastic fans. Opening with “You’re Mine” from their excellent most recent album Three, they continued on to play music from every one of their releases, including the haunting Nightlife EP. Lead singer Sarah Barthel made it clear that they would end saving a little bit of time, but played most of their planned set anyway. The only changes were the omission of “Answer” and the lack of a break before the encore.

Phantogram was a great ending the main part of a great festival. Though some of their songs deal with heavy subject matters, they managed to be just as fun as any act before them. As a bonus, Sarah brought out her tiny dog Leroy onto the stage to share in the glory after they finished playing, completing the evening in an adorable twist.

Overall, Fountain Square Music Festival was a brilliant small festival setup with no shortage of great music and community involvement. The setup allowed people to taste-test a huge number of artists by walking only a short distance between each venue, and the Nucleus stage was a wonderful central addition that made the whole thing feel much more unified as a festival.

Despite unavoidable weather conflicts, the show went on and ended up being a great time and easily worth the price tag. It’s clear that a lot of great work went into making this the best FSMF to date, and it will definitely be a joy to see how the organizers plan on making next year even better. For Indiana locals who want a taste of the music festival experience close to home, Fountain Square Music Festival is no doubt a worthwhile experience.

Images: Ryan Fine

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