The Mo Pop Festival moved into its new home in Hart Plaza on Saturday, filling downtown Detroit with an eclectic array of riverside sound.
British band Glass Animals – much bigger now than when they first appeared on Mo Pop in 2016 – closed Saturday’s bill with an exuberant 75-minute, 13-song set drawing heavily on the hit album “Dreamlands”.
The long-awaited performance from Dave Bayley and company was only spoiled by a remarkably understated sound mix, soft enough to make it easy to hear the conversations of fans from several feet away. The crowd sings “Ride it!” and “louder, louder!” rang out between songs, though they didn’t seem to fit into the band itself.
A Mo Pop spokesperson later told the Free Press that the audio issues were at least caused by “technical hiccups”.
About 15,000 people descended on Hart Plaza for the return of Mo Pop, according to a festival official.
The boutique indie-rock and hip-hop fest was back from a three-year pandemic hiatus as it migrated a mile east of West Riverfront Park, where it had been held since 2015. This site is in being transformed into a multi-use park, and Mo Pop’s planned move to historic Fort Wayne has been canceled due to new preservation efforts there.
So Hart Plaza – a familiar home to iconic traditions such as electronic music festival Movement and the African World Festival – became Mo Pop’s new haunt, part of a nationwide stable of AEG events including Coachella, Stagecoach and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
This was Mo Pop’s third location, launched in 2013 at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights.
On a glorious summer day when chill vibes ruled the venue, the festival featured two stages named after Detroit’s classic rock theaters – the Great and Eastown – and a staggered schedule so there were no of overlapping decorations.
La Grande, the larger of the two, was located in the main plaza adjacent to the main bowl, with the Eastown positioned along the park lobby parallel to Jefferson Avenue.
Many of the festival’s long-standing side attractions made the trip to Hart Plaza: the food trucks, the arcade with retro video games and pinball machines, even the large “MO POP” sign along the river.
Mo Pop has made a name for itself over the years introducing big Detroit crowds to booming acts, and there were plenty on Saturday’s lineup, including several — Wet Leg, Horsegirl, Dayglow — that were making their Motor City premieres.
A whiff of 90s nostalgia was in the air in the early afternoon, thanks to the distant alternative rock of young trio Horsegirl from Chicago or the saturated sound Breeders from England Wet Leg, who took the stage for a “Lord of the Rings” theme.
A pair of Detroit acts kicked off the day: Charity, playing the first festival of her career, delighted the arriving crowd with warm neo-soul and an off-the-beaten-track cover of Stevie Wonder (“Jesus Children of America ”). Singer-rapper Whu Else, who emerged during the pandemic, made his stage debut, delivering a stunning set that amounted to a musical collage.
With his colorful keyboards, stomping beats and sing-song lines, Detroit newcomer has sometimes stood out as hip-hop Andrew WK
Many of the day’s guest artists traveled to Detroit in the heart of touring season. Beach Bunny’s Lili Trifilio apologized in advance for the state of her voice – she had been “shouting and singing” a lot in recent days, she told the crowd. The warning was warranted, though her ragged vocals didn’t entirely detract from the band’s sunny brooding, including the viral hit “Prom Queen.”
The afternoon program went smoothly beyond an apparent technological lag for Ernest Greene and his band Washed Out, who ended up playing just half an hour of their lush, bubbly chillwave.
The day featured three artists who had traveled to Detroit after their Friday sets at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival. They included Norwegian singer-songwriter Girl in Red (Marie Ulven), whose high-speed, choppy-haired performance galvanized the crowd with songs such as “We Fell in Love in October” and “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”.
Urging the crowd to bounce back, she said she observed that “the post-pandemic crowd is a bit tense, and we need to change that.”
Dayglow, the project led by Texas artist Sloan Struble, was bright and earnest in its embrace of old-school pop sounds, serving up its house hits (“Can I Call You Tonight?”), mixing “Medicine” with Lipps Inc. “Funkytown” and seal the 80s immersion with a cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears.
In some ways, Hart Plaza has created a more compact and manageable experience. Being in the concrete heart of downtown Detroit deepened Mo Pop’s urban vibe, and it was nice to lose the audio slapback that plagued West Riverfront, where sound bounced off the large postal facility nearby.
But it also led to congestion problems, especially at the Eastown stage.
Mo Pop will continue on Sunday with a full day of music, including a festival-closing performance from Big Sean, as the rapper plays his first gig in his hometown in more than five years.
Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]