Des Moines’ GDP Fest a “reawakening”
“After two years of being very worried about the local music scene and what bands would thrive, who would come out after two years, it’s really exciting what we’ve put together,” said Jordan Mayland. “A reawakening.”
Mayland is one of the organizers of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a festival showcase of Iowa music that took place last Saturday across two blocks of the Western Gateway of downtown Des Moines, spanning from Gaslamp on Grand to Teehee’s and The Cave on Walnut St. This year’s lineup expanded the festival’s focus beyond the state capital, with half of its dozen artists hauling in from out of town. From Iowa City: Penny Peach, Good Morning Midnight, Wave Cage, and Blake Shaw. From Davenport, Keokuk and Norwalk respectively: Soultru, Finally Some Action, and Teri Underhill.
Curated by Festival Directors Mayland and Mickey Davis of the nonprofit Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC), GDP is less of a greatest hits of Iowa music than a celebration of things to come, mixing newcomers with artists who have already made their mark locally while keeping two fingers crossed behind their back for bigger future plans. It’s not a definitive picture of Iowa’s music and the DMMC like any institution shows its tastes even when it doesn’t name them. So it might be helpful to say that this year’s festival leaned towards rock, jazz, and pop in that order while shying away from roots music, dance music, electronica, and the avant-garde. Rap collective Us Vs Them was the sole representative of the state’s hip hop scene—as well as the only act that got the crowd at sit-down venue Teehee’s up on their feet.
The 2022 edition of GDP brought the festival back to the stages of Des Moines for the first time since 2019 and here are four moments from Saturday night that made me glad it did.
Allegra Hernandez gets loud
A drum set boomed through the festival for the first time when this punkish trio launched into their first song, “Use My F*&king Pronouns”, a hooky, howled anthem of gender nonconformism in the vein of early Sleater Kinney. On instrumental breaks, the musicians huddled together, grinning, propelling each other on. Led through a set of springy, compact songs by excellent drumming and Hernandez’s commanding voice, the band’s righteous fury never let up.
Jerome Gillespie II’s “Barbie Girl” drum solo
Bassist Blake Shaw and drummer Jerome Gillespie II headlined The Cave’s all-ages stage. The jazz duo had long since brought the audience to their feet when they dusted off a few crowd-pleasing covers. After a reverent, stripped-down version of “Sir Duke” they went into Aqua’s kitsch classic “Barbie Girl." The unexpected pop cover is a staple of a hip setlist, but the finale of their performance took it beyond winking eclecticism. The song was dying out when Gillespie slid into an offbeat groove. Shaw held down the funk bassline that drove their take on the song in place of the original’s bouncy synth chords as Gillespie plunged into an extended drum solo. His drumming got wilder, faster, more complex, as Shaw gleefully dared him to take the jam further and further from where it began. Some of the stylistic leaps were exhilarating, others didn’t come off, but that’s all part of the fun of watching first-rate musicians walk the tightrope of live improvisation, playing off of a lively crowd that sends waves of hoots and hollers back at them with every musical left-turn.
Good Morning Midnight’s guitar noise
The best guitar-playing of the festival came from Good Morning Midnight. This Iowa City group speaks through their guitars, their sonics fanned out with feedback and frantic open-string strums. Even their humor is expressed through their pickups—cheeky fills on “Holy Ghost” alternate between dissonant harmonics and bluegrass hammer-ons—while everything else about the band is dead serious, their arsenal of lyrics stocked with anguished religious questioning and slogans of dejection and loneliness. But swirling under, around, and on top of the glum songwriting, the joy of their guitar noise doesn’t lie.
The Warm Gospel afterparty
As venues made last calls and musicians loaded their gear into vans, the celebration of Iowa music spilled out onto the rain-drenched streets. Some stragglers hung around the neighborhood looking for an encore. An unofficial GDP afterparty hosted by Warm Gospel Tapes gave them one, the festival’s first infusion of Des Moines’ exciting musical underground. Ambient collager Skyscraper and drone rockers Cat Bones rounded out the night with anime projected on the wall behind them, indecipherably out of focus. There were no merch sales, speeches, or pleas for the importance of local music. But there were free cans of house paint for anyone who wanted them. That kind of grassroots camaraderie is what kept people writing, recording, collaborating, and listening in lockdown while everyone waited for the return of live shows. With the future of live music still uncertain, that’s a reason for hope. It was also a good reminder that, as far as local music worth seeing goes, GDP is just the tip of the iceberg.