Where Music and Art Meet Innovation
Story: Jennifer Rolf
You don’t need to tell anyone in the Midwest that music festivals come and go, especially in Missouri.
The few festivals that have cropped up in the middle of the country over the past few years (Evolution, Music at the Intersection) and the ones that have endured (Boulevardia, 80/35, Hinterland) have one thing in common: carving out a niche for local/regional bands and combining some sort of modern art—whether it be stationary or movement-based—with music… a multidisciplinary experience.
The second year of the FORMAT (FOR M[usic] + A[rt] + T[echnology]) Festival in Bentonville, Ark., is no different.
Following up their insatiable inaugural iteration in 2022, the fest moved from a remote grass airstrip outside of Bentonville to a center-of-town Uber/Lyft friendly urban festival in 2023—that is, “urban” Bentonville style. If you hadn’t attended the festival’s first year, you’d never be taken aback by the shift in location—cutting the festival map in half—yeah, we missed the cube and other interactive art installations that just couldn’t fit in the smaller footprint of the 2023 set-up.
Square footage aside, the 2023 line-up rode the path of ’90s nostalgia and indie rock, infused with 2010s artists that would most likely reference their festival lineup comrades as influences—leaving no doubt that FORMAT knows how to put together a lineup worthy of national recognition.
(Top to Bottom, L-R): James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Alex Xx. DJ set, Lil Simz, Kari Kaux, The Digables: Craig "Doodlebug" Irving, Mariana "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira, Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, and Madeline Edwards. Photos: Cory Weaver, and Kari Faux by Grant Hodgeon.
The three-day festival kicked off with the North of Oz and South of Oz stages rockin’ alt-country up and comer Madeline Edwards and the near local (Little Rock) rapper, Kari Faux. Madeline Edwards’ infusion of gospel and jazz into her alt-country sound matched the warmth of the sun-soaked stage during her stint on the biggest stage at FORMAT. At the opposite end of the festival and spectrum, Kari Faux was laying down nearly nine years of music. She’s been treading water in the rap, R&B and soul game, just waiting to break it big. She’s laid down tracks with the likes of Childish Gambino ("No Small Talk," "Zombies") and Open Mike Eagle ("Bucciarati").
As the sun descended on Day 1, the lights got bright with influential ’90s hip-hop sensation, Digable Planets groovin’ through their hour-long set with a masterclass in hip-hop in its truest form. The trio were also celebrating the 30-year anniversary of their groundbreaking album A New Refutation of Time and Space. This record, known for its lyrics, beats and vivid poetry describing life in 1990s NYC, definitely shines bright in the annals of hip-hop and rap history.
Keeping the hip-hop theme moving was Nigerian/British rap artist, Lil Simz. Most of her hour-long set was spent alone on stage accompanied by black-and-white video projections. New on our radar, she’s anything but that on the rap scene as her streams range from 19 million (“Gorilla”) and 124 million (“Venom”).
Photos (Top to Bottom): Nikki Lane (Roger Ho), The Pharcyde (Grant Hodgeon), Modest Mouse (Roger Ho) and Alanis Morissette (Ismael Quintanilla III)
From the stage called North of Oz it was a short jaunt to see Jamie XX’s set at the South of Oz, which was tucked back in the corner of the festival. A lot of the EDM folks had a blast during this portion, but I think it would have been better suited at the Drag Me to the Disco stage in the Disco Barn.
The anchor and major get for the festival was LCD Soundsystem, in our opinion. A relentless set of hit after hit made a 100-minute set feel like half of that. James Murphy and crew put together an airtight show as “Get Innocuous” and “I Can Change” started the set off—invigorating the audience as temps dropped. A bucket list must-see, LCD didn’t disappoint. They laid it all out with “Tonite,” “Someone Great,” “Losing My Edge,” “Home,” “New York I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” “Dance Yrself Clean,” ending the set with “All My Friends.” It was one of the first times I had left a concert and not said, “I wish they’d have played this or that” (even with the omission of “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”). It was a complete set with one goal: keep you dancing in complete awe. Mission accomplished.
The Drag Me to the Disco and Next Door stages, fan favorites in 2022 and seemingly again in 2023, were back this year, playing host to Poolside (DJ set), Myron Elkins, Angel White, Faux Real and The Past Lives. These two exclusive venues created for the festival are both a refuge and must-see—no matter who is playing inside.
The second day of the festival was peppered with text messages from FORMAT that alerted of sets festival-wide being moved up or shortened in preparation for severe weather. If you spent the whole day just moving between the main stages, no one would be mad at you. Outlaw country star (and personal favorite) Nikki Lane meandered through old smooth country ballads like “Highway Queen,” “Send in the Sun” and the not-so-smooth, desert-rock vibe invoking, “700,000 Rednecks,” which preceded newer rockin’ alt-country bangers from her newest album, Denim & Diamonds, like “First High” and “Black Widow.” Switching stages and gears completely, ’90s eclectic alt hip-hop outfit The Pharcyde dazzled as they’ve been doing for over 30 years. From “4 Better of 4 Worse” to “Passin’ Me By” to “Soul Flower,” one question remained: How long can you freak the funk?
Jackson Stell a.k.a., Big Wild, showcased his electronic music and vocal abilities. Much more than just an “EDM artist,” he consistently switched between multiple instruments (drum pads, synths, keyboards and live vocals). Another ’90s act still putting out album after album is Modest Mouse, who were on their first tour without drummer Jeremiah Green, a founding member of the band who succumbed to cancer on New Year’s Eve, 2022. A hard pill to swallow, they carry on in memory of him, still rocking the stalwart hits “Dashboard,” “We Are Between,” “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Dramamine” and of course, “Float On.” I still can’t believe they played “Bukowski.”
The crowd was now properly warmed for another ’90s star, Alanis Morissette. The Jagged Little Pill artist’s hit album in the mid-’90s provided many Gen Xers an anthem—toeing the line of Pop and Grunge. Her near-90-minute set was dominated by all the hits from her aforementioned acclaimed album—12 of the 13 songs from Pill were performed. Morissette has maintained her place in the spotlight through her works in film (“Dogma,” “Weeds”) and animated series (“The Great North”) and not to mention her Broadway-hit musical cleverly named, Jagged Little Pill.
Day 3 of the festival was not going to take second place to the weather-induced drama that Day 2 brought. Text messages alerted festival fans that BLOND:ISH was calling in sick and Neil Frances couldn’t make their DJ set due to flight delays. Bummer, because we caught both of them at Austin City Limits in 2022 and they did more than impress. But, the disappointment from the lineup changes did not take away any excitement, as the day still brought us two Bob Moses sets. The stupefyingly talented act filled in the DJ slot for Neil Frances and also performed a full stage set, bookending Tash Sultana’s set on the North of Oz stage. Sultana, the Australian singer/songwriter, started playing open mike nights at the age of 13 in Melbourne, and the multi-instrumentalist is now touring internationally. Suffice it to say: the time to see her is now.
The headlining artist to close out the festival would have been worth the admission price all on his own. Leon Bridges is the closest thing we have to Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo or even Brian McNight. The Texas soul singer should be a stranger to no one. His smash hit “River” is nearly nine years old, and that album, Coming Home, was nominated for best R&B album. In the past couple years he’s collaborated with fellow Texans Khruangbin on songs, “Texas Sun,” “Texas Moon” and “Chocolate Hills.” Bridges’ set toes the line of soul and rock n’ roll and features not only his groovy dance moves, but also his extravagant fashion taste. You shouldn’t need a reason to understand why he’s dubbed the “Texas King of Soul,” but if you do…perhaps it’s time to see him live.
This year’s arch entryway, “The Wheelway,” was designed by local Bentonville artist Zach Springer, owner of Gnargo Bike Co. Springer partnered with Pedal it Forward, an organization dedicated to donating bicycles to those in need. The mechanized spinning wheel entrance gate was the perfect design, as you could actually bike to this year’s festival.
JR’s Inside Out project is an interactive installation of sorts. An internationally known photo booth/art project, Inside Out is a photobooth truck that festival goers could have their portrait taken in, and then a poster-sized print would be placed on the exterior of the Momentary. Over the past decade, they’ve captured over 500,000 portraits and have reached every continent.
Marinella Senatore’s “Dance First Think Later” was a familiar piece from the festival’s first year. It’s still a cool piece and perhaps the Momentary should leave it up year round.
Esrawe + Cadena’s Los Trompos (Spinning Tops) served as a playground for all. The installation nods to the traditions and skills of the craftsmen in Mexico, specifically weavers. A dizzying experience for the young and young at heart—a refuge for the dizzy and tired.
“Evanescent” by Atelier Sisu was the centerpiece of the festival. The immersive bubble-tecture sat at the top of the hill overlooking the festival grounds and the North of Oz stage. Colorful translucence during the day and brightly colored in the evening gave the bubbles an illusion of solid form.
Photos (Top to Bottom, Clockwise): "The Wheelway" by Zach Springer (by Cory Weaver); Esrawe + Cadena’s "Los Trompos" (Roger Ho); “Evanescent” by Atelier Sisu (by Cory Weaver); JR's "Inside Out" (by Roger Ho) and Marinella Senatore’s “Dance First Think Later" (by Ismael Quintanilla III).