How’s this for anathema: on the final night of Philadelphia’s Made in America music festival, tens of thousands of people rocked out to Jay–Z performing “Empire State of Mind” against the backdrop of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, right?
But traverse across the estimated festival earlier in the day, and against a construction zone and behind a cheese curd truck you’ll find what one performer dubbed the event's “local blood." This is Made in America’s “Skate Stage,” which is exactly as it sounds: a stage with a skate park connected (as in, the half-pipe course starts at the stage).
Here, (mostly) indie, lower-profile bands — many of them Philly-based — perform while skateboarders roll back and forth beside them. The athletes arrive at 11:30 each day to warm up, and they whiz back and forth until the stage’s music wraps up around 8. There are no screens because the crowd is spread out and it’s easy to be up front. But fear not, the music’s just as loud.
In the middle of the day on festival’s second day, 30 or so skaters, all male, hang out by the ramps. About three take the course at once while two others record and photograph them. The skaters flip their boards over the central parallel bars and over the lip of the half–pipe. They fall often, but they’re so graceful about it that it seems part of the act.
Turns out this Skate Stage was the idea of the event organizer himself, Jay–Z. Jeff Jewett in charge of California Productions (the company responsible for bringing the skate park), explained how Jay-Z’s “right-hand man” called him five years ago asking for skateboarders at the second MIA festival. Jewett reached out to Philly skater of 21 years and “friend–of–a–friend” Pat Bryan to organize the local athletes, and they’ve been collaborating on this event ever since.
“What I wanted from the beginning was to make sure we had a really good local presence, both young and upcoming guys as well as guys like K.T. here, who’s a local Philly legend,” Jewett said.
By K.T., he’s referring Kevin Taylor, a South Philly skateboarder who said he’s been at his craft for 25 years and taken it all over the world. Other skaters include Bryan’s old roommate, East Kensington’s Justin Berry. Both Taylor and Berry praised the event for bringing the local skateboard community together.
The Skate Stage also emphasizes the connection between skateboarding and music, Jewett explained, and added that the festival selects acts that complement the skating.
“I think this stage is rad,” Jewett said. “I’ve always felt that skateboarding and music go hand in hand.”
The festival seemed to nail the skateboard connection with Philadelphia’s Beach Slang, who played on Sunday. Their set was mostly grunge, with much guitar–arm windmilling, beer–chugging and hair–flipping. In addition to their own songs, Beach Slang performed some 90s covers and did not skip “Wonderwall." (unofficial crowd size: 200)
Lead singer James Alex wore a red bow tie, a navy corduroy blazer with a “nobody’s nothing" patch over a light blue floral shirt. His shoulder–length hair hung wavy and undone.
“Skateboarding’s a huge part of our internal culture,” Alex explained, before his set, in an interview with Street. He revealed that the band’s name, Beach Slang, is the term his friend gave his language filled with skater lexicon such as “rad” and “totally.”
He added that Beach Slang’s bassist skated on the course the previous day despite the rain.
Alex hails from South Philly, as does Beach Slang — and the band actually conducted its first rehearsals, shot its first music video and took its first press photos in the basement of Penn's Pi Lambda Phi (Pilam) house. Alex reminisced about the positive support he received in the house and how Pilam encouraged him to continue with his music when the band was young and not confident about its sound. He also used to work at a Philadelphia design agency under a Penn alum.
“I have good Penn sort of juju floating around me,” Alex said. “I haven’t met a jerk from Penn yet.”
“Indie folk” group Mt. Joy played the Skate Stage on Saturday afternoon in the pouring rain. Mt. Joy has Philly roots too, as the band’s founding members attended Conestoga High School right outside of the city. Now, however, Mt. Joy operates out of Los Angeles.
In the band’s interview with Street, vocalist Matt Quinn and guitarist Sam Cooper said they often visit Philly for sports, friends and family. Quinn explained how his cat allergy makes it impossible for him to stay with his parents, so he crashes with a friend (who went to Penn) in the Fairmount Park area.
“I oftentimes will run down just beyond the parkway,” Quinn said of his Philly trips. “To be here again, playing music, and just to be a part of this is really, really cool.”
Cooper attended Philadelphia’s Temple Law School, and the band name is a nod to a location in Valley Forge mountain near where he grew up.
During Mt. Joy’s rainy set, Quinn repped Philly with his Sixers’ Joel Embiid jersey. The audience (unofficial size: 200) danced in their ponchos and sang along to “Astrovan” and “Sheep.” Quinn played the ukulele and slayed a whistling solo. The group covered Broken Social Scene’s “Fire Eye’d Boy,” which Quinn said was chosen because unlike much of that band’s music, that song can be stripped back and reinterpreted.
Other Philly bands such as Queen of Jeans, (Sandy) Alex G and Japanese Breakfast graced the Skate Stage during MIA as well.
During her performance, Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner summed up the Skate Stage: “I kind of feel like I’m in high school again, playing songs while skateboarders ignore me!"