NORMAN — An army of ax-slingers armed with an arsenal of guitars and other instruments of mass mesmerization has invaded Main Street and will hold captive the rapt attention of an expected 50,000 fans for the duration of Norman Music Festival 4 Friday night, all day Saturday and well into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Leading the charge are such internationally known headliners as The Walkmen, Peelander-Z, Ty Segall and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, with ample support from such homegrown talents as The Non, Colourmusic, BRONCHO, OK SWEETHEART and the reunited Mimsies, just to name a few of the more than 200 acts scheduled to perform on various indoor and outdoor stages along the three blocks of Norman's Downtown Arts District.
They're even throwing in a few comedians, street performers, visual artists and a kid's stage for good measure. And it's all still as free as the Oklahoma wind that will no doubt accompany the festivities.
“Most of our funding is provided through corporate and business sponsorships, individual donations, day-of-event vending income, in-kind donation, and countless hours of volunteer service and love from the community at large,” said Robert Ruiz, festival committee
It also doesn't hurt that an estimated $3.4 million — that's “new dollars” — were spent in Norman and the surrounding metro areas by festivalgoers last year, and this year's crowd is expected to leave nearly $4 million in local tills and artists' pockets, according to an economic report compiled by NMF committee member Quentin Bomgardner.
And the public gets all kinds of musical bang for its buck, with a variety of musical styles from which to choose.
Take the New York City-based quintet The Walkmen, who grew up together in Washington, D.C., garage bands, moved to the Big Apple and turned experimental in such groups as Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys before joining forces under their current moniker to evolve the beautifully spare, sometimes delicate, reverberating-guitar-centered indie sound that distinguishes such modern alternative album classics as “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone,” “A Hundred Miles Off” and their most recent release, “Lisbon,” which charted at No. 27 on Billboard's hit list — the band's highest debut to date — and drew critical raves from The New York Times, the L.A. Times, NPR, GQ and Pitchfork.
“It's the first time we've ever headlined a festival, I think,” said Walkmen bassist, percussionist and organist Walter Martin in a phone interview from his Brooklyn home. “It's fun playing outside, especially if you're on later. To play at night outside, it's great. If we play like Lollapalooza or something like that, we play during the day, and it's not quite as thrilling. There's not that much energy out there.”
Then out of Austin, Texas, there's Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, a seven-piece outfit with a brassy, big-band R&B bent coming through loud and clear on its new sophomore album, “Scandalous,” although vocalist and lead guitarist Lewis won't be labeled that easily.
“We play some of that (R&B),” Lewis agreed as he drove a van load of bandmates across Idaho a couple of weeks ago. “That's cool, too. But I think we're more of a rock band. We're definitely influenced by a lot of soul and R&B, but essentially that is rock 'n' roll. We listen to the Stooges, the Dead Boys, the Band, like a lot of '70s punk stuff and then a lot of hip-hop ... All the blues guys, Lightning Hopkins, Elmore (James), Magic Sam. It's a wide range of stuff.”
OK SWEETHEART, on the other hand, is more into '60s-style pop, although lead vocalist and songwriter Erin Austin was a long way from being born when the Beatles and the Zombies — two of her biggest influences — were still making music together.
“I grew up with secular music being a big no-no,” Austin said of her strict religious upbringing on a Christmas tree farm in upstate New York. “I had a little boom box in my room. In the morning when I would get ready for school, I would sneak a listen to the regular radio station, and it would be like Mariah Carey or Ace of Base and stuff like that.”
Austin's musical taste didn't become fully formed until she moved to Tulsa to study classical voice and opera at Oral Roberts University. And it was there that she met her current musical partner in OK SWEETHEART, keyboardist, vocalist, arranger and producer Rob Gungor. Austin by that time had been writing songs since she was 9, and her first single, “You Let Me Down,” won the international John Lennon Songwriting Award over thousands of competitors in 2008.
OK SWEETHEART's debut album, “Home,” has just been released on the Medallion label, recorded in Denton, Texas, with a little help from members of Midlake, Elizabeth and the Catapult, the Polyphonic Spree and Via Audio. And while Austin and Gungor are now based in New York City, they still think of Oklahoma as home.
“Rob graduated high school in Tulsa, and we both went to college there, and that's where we met and kind of how the band formed and our relationship formed in Oklahoma,” Austin said. “We really like having ties to Oklahoma. All of our friends are there and a lot of the guys we play with are based out of Oklahoma.”
Casey Castille is another songbird who left her heart in the Sooner State to make music in the big time, fronting the Mimsies, who made their hard-rockin' bones as one of Oklahoma City's premier party bands in the '90s. She is now an Oakland, Calif., resident, and the Norman Music Festival is bringing her home as well, for a reunion performance with her old musical partners Jerod Vance (guitar), Ed Van Bufkirk (drums) and Brooks Emory (bass).
“There'll be plenty of sweat and spit,” Castille said of the Mimsies' return engagement. “I have no shame about that stuff. It should just be fun.”
Castille left the band, mainly for health reasons, in 2003, after recording one full-length album and an EP on the Mimsies independent label, performing on the Warped Tour and gigging regularly at L.A.'s famed Viper Room. She worked other careers outside of music — including marketing director at a law firm and as a personal trainer — before getting a Facebook message from Vance last fall to consider reforming the group. That led to a sold-out gig at Oklahoma City's Blue Note in November 2010.
“I decided I'm a musician, an artist. I miss this terribly,” Castille said. “It just seemed like the time was right, no water under the bridge. It was the thing to do.”
The only slight misgiving she has about the Norman Music Festival is the venue the Mimsies have been assigned — the Sooner Theater.
“They told me you can't dance there,” Castille said. “You can't dance in the aisles, which I may have to get myself arrested for.”
Norman Music Festival 4