Mo Pop returned to West Riverfront Park for its seventh year this July, this time bringing two of music’s most acclaimed acts to headline: Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala. This year’s edition also brought some of the industry’s fastest-rising stars to Detroit, with singers and bands like Yellow Days, Goth Babe, Roy Blair and Tiny Moving Parts taking the stage.
Vampire Weekend headlined Saturday night, putting on a mindblowing, passion-filled performance. Their seven-member suite played more instruments than I could count — I lost track when the bongos came out. The crowd bobbed to the groove of “Sunflower,” and the dancing stretched from the front row back to the tech booth as “This Life” captured the summertime vibe of Mo Pop. Ezra Koenig made for a more dramatic and impressive live singer than I ever could have imagined in the studio version of “Harmony Hall.” His ethereal vocals enchanted the festival after the sun went down and the stars began shining, both literally in the sky and metaphorically as Vampire Weekend rocked out onstage.
Hearing old hits like “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk” reminded me that the band is really from before my time. I was especially reminded of it when Koenig gave a shout out to everyone in the crowd who came to their first Michigan performance in Ann Arbor in 2007. A group of festival-goers beside me from the University all turned to each other and smiled in mutual understanding — we were doing multiplication tables and watching Spongebob when Vampire Weekend first came to our current home.
Closing out the festival Sunday night was Tame Impala, who drew the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen, stretching from the stage across half the length of the festival grounds. Kevin Parker and his team of live performers took the stage in grandeur, launching confetti into the sky over the audience as they whirled and reeled to a harmonious clatter of instruments. Just as the performance was teeming with trippy imagery, Parker himself sounded like he was tripping: “Great, this is good, I feel good,” he said between laughs. “There’s a bug in my drink … it’s a Detroit bug … it’s good for you.” Between songs, a fan in the crowd screamed, “SEND ME, KEVIN!” and Kevin answered his call by playing “Let It Happen.” Let it happen we did.
Tame Impala live is an experience worlds apart from the studio version. While the main beats of each song remained, all of the tracks were stretched and warped, making for a hazy, dream-like rendition of Parker’s peerless production. Arms waving, hips swinging and heads bobbing, the crowd was spasmodic from start to finish. Motor City and all its visitors may have never been mesmerized so.
The headliners took the stage at night, but smaller acts made waves while the sun was still up. Alec Benjamin paid homage to Detroit’s own Eminem, singing a rendition of “Stan” infused with Benjamin’s sadboy energy. J.I.D. honored his forebears, playing A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” as a lead into “EdEddnEddy.” The Story So Far had a nonstop moshpit and more crowdsurfers than security could keep up with. And Wallows rocked the river stage, although the “scrawny motherfucker(s) with the cool hairstyle(s)” had only mediocre hairstyles at best.
Country music also graced Mo Pop. Chicago band Whitney rocked their set for a fervid crowd, impressive for a last-minute addon, taking Noname’s place. Caamp brought the rawest of folk energy, beginning their set with only guitar, bass, and banjo. At one point, a man walked on stage and lead singer Taylor Meier said, “This is my friend Joe. He’s gonna play piano.” Sure enough, Meier’s friend Joe played piano.
Among all the acts, it was clear who really ran Mo Pop: the women. Queer icons like King Princess, Siena Liggins and Lindsey Jordan (of Snail Mail fame) were the greatest stars and brought powerful performances. Kali Uchis and Ella Mai, R&B’s reigning queens, took listeners through soulful journeys of heartbreak and love. Their supporting bands brought a new intensity to their music, revealing emotion and spirit that could only be felt live. There was no doubt that this year, women were the ones running shit.
To that end, It was Lizzo who took the crown at Mo Pop 2019. There was nothing she couldn’t do: Singing, dancing, butt shaking and flute playing, she performed with all her heart before pouring it out to the audience, talking about visiting her family during her return to her hometown of Detroit. As she described the feeling of seeing her face on a billboard overlooking the city, she came to the verge of tears, and so did many listeners around me (myself included). In her “special discount,” Lizzo declared everybody in the audience, no matter their shape or size, was blessed to be a thick bitch for the duration of her performance. Between all the body positivity and embracing who you are, Lizzo made Mo Pop a celebration of self love.
Mo Pop 2019 made for a hot girl summer to remember. The festival is unique in that all performers go back-to-back on alternating stages, so festival-goers don’t have to miss a single set. It exposes listeners to music they may never have listened to before — I saw many of the same people getting down to hip hop before singing along to country, grooving to R&B as hard as they moshed to pop punk. There wasn’t just something for everybody; everything was for everybody. But Mo Pop was for the ladies, most of all.