Mo Pop fest returns with upgrades, impressive lineup

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

The most important improvement at this year’s Mo Pop music festival will be unseen – namely, fixing the drainage issues that temporarily turned last year’s event into a giant puddle, says organizer Dan McGowan.

The festival’s first year at Detroit’s West Riverfront Park proved somewhat trying for organizers as a storm rolled in on opening day, delaying performances and flooding the spectator area.

“We didn’t sleep that night,” says McGowan, the event’s co-producer. “We did a lot of problem solving. We brought in pumps. We brought in hay.”

When Mo Pop returns to West Riverfront Park on Saturday and Sunday, the flooding issues will be a thing of the past. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, which owns the park, has re-regraded the site to address drainage issues, and the organizers are otherwise thrilled with the new festival site.

“The festival feels like it’s found the home that we always wanted for it,” says co-producer Jason Rogalewski. The festival began at Freedom Hill Amphitheater in 2013.

Organizers will make more robust use of the site this year, adding more bathrooms, bars, and technology and crafts vendors. The festival’s footprint will also expand to the west to include an air-conditioned arcade tent filled with vintage video games provided by the pop-up gaming group, Offworld Arcade.

McGowan says he and Rogalewski program the festival by simply trying to put as many of their “favorite things” as possible in the same place at the same time. That extends to the impressive music lineup, which ranges from rapper G-Eazy to French electronic band M83. The lineup includes many acts the co-producers have previously presented in smaller shows at venues like the Crofoot complex and the Masonic Temple.

“That’s always a really cool thing to see, to have G-Eazy play our Pike Room and then, less than five years later, to have him headlining a festival like this,” McGowan says.

The Head and the Heart is excited to grow its fan base when they play Sunday night.

The Head and the Heart

Another such band is Seattle indie-folk outfit, the Head and the Heart. The band played the Crofoot Ballroom in 2012 and will play Mo Pop’s second-to-last set Sunday night. The group had considerable commercial success with its 2013 album “Let’s Be Still,” which debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. But after the rush of recording and touring “Let’s Be Still,” the band’s members decided to take some advice from their own album’s title.

Before getting to work on the forthcoming release “Signs of Light,” the Head and the Heart vocalist Charity Rose Thielen says the band decided to take a break from touring for the first time since forming in 2009.

“This was kind of the first album that we came into feeling really refreshed,” Thielen says. “I think that really influenced the overall mood of the album. It feels like a much sunnier record.”

Having signed with Warner Bros., the band also worked with a producer for the first time, instead of self-producing. Thielen describes that experience as “challenging,” but also a natural extension of the six-piece band’s already democratic creative process. The band delves deeper into pop sensibilities on “Signs of Light,” which Thielen also describes as a natural move.

“I think that we’ve always been a band that writes pop songs, but how we started out was in the open-mic or small-bar circuit, writing in our living rooms with just acoustic instruments and pretty scaled-back instrumentation,” she says.

Thielen says the band is excited at the prospect of growing its fan base yet again, and that she and her band mates particularly enjoy the festival atmosphere of an event like Mo Pop.

“Not everyone is there to see you,” she says. “It’s kind of a happy and beautiful challenge to try and win people over who maybe haven’t seen you before or haven’t heard of you.”

Singer Tunde Olaniran of Flint, performs at The Loving Touch in Ferndale during the Secret Friends Festival Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. Gary Malerba/Special To The Detroit News

Tunde Olaniran

Mo Pop will mark a particularly special milestone for multitalented Flint R&B innovator Tunde Olaniran, who will open the festival on Saturday. The festival marks his first performance as a full-time artist; Olaniran recently quit his day job as outreach manager for Planned Parenthood of Michigan.

“I’m so excited,” Olaniran says. “I’m going to take out a lot of my energy at the Mo Pop set for sure.”

Olaniran describes his career shift as a carefully considered decision prompted by the national success of his 2015 debut album “Transgressor” and increasing demand for him to produce other events.

“I’m actually the kind of person who needs things to end,” he says. “I don’t want to do the same thing every month or every quarter or every year. I think it was slowly coming to realize that and making myself not feel guilty about it and not feel like I was abandoning something. I’m actually going to do better things and be happier.”

Olaniran and Grand Haven-bred artist Børns are the only two local talents on the Mo Pop schedule, joining a lineup that includes national indie-rock luminaries like Haim and Mac DeMarco. But Olaniran’s focus isn’t on the stars he’ll be sharing the stage with.

“In a festival setting, it’s not like we’re all sitting down for a family dinner, like, ‘Okay, now I’m going to go and perform! See you later!’ ” he laughs. “It’s very segmented, so you don’t get to meet a bunch of (fellow performers). I’m actually more interested in the audience and just meeting new people and introducing new folks to our music.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Mo Pop

Noon-11 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

West Riverfront Park

1801 W. Jefferson, Detroit

Single day tickets: $89.50; weekend passes: $125




12:45 p.m. Tunde Olaniran

1:30 p.m. Quilt

2:15 p.m. Coast Modern

2:50 p.m. Panama Wedding

3:25 p.m. Alex G

4:05 p.m. Bishop Briggs

4:45 p.m. Twin Peaks

5:25 p.m. FIDLAR

6:15 p.m. Børns

7:10 p.m. Glass Animals

8:20 p.m. Haim

9:30 p.m. G-Eazy


12:45 p.m. The Greeting Committee

1:30 p.m. Lewis Del Mar

2:15 p.m. Raury

2:50 p.m. Banners

3:25 p.m. Kaleo

4 p.m. Nothing But Thieves

4:35 p.m. Shakey Graves

5:25 p.m. Mac DeMarco

6:20 p.m. Father John Misty

7:20 p.m. Matt and Kim

8:20 p.m. The Head and the Heart

9:45 p.m. M83

Nerf warfare

Mo Pop’s video arcade tent won’t be the only way for attendees to relive youthful pastimes this weekend.

The Detroit Dart Club will also offer the opportunity to participate in gently refereed Nerf gun battles – all within the confines of a mesh-enclosed space (lest stray foam darts hit any innocent passersby).

The attraction will be a smaller-scale version of the Detroit Dart Club’s permanent location in the Russell Industrial Center. Ferndale resident Connor McCaffey opened the 2,000-square-foot Nerf “arena,” stocked with barricades, targets and more than 60 Nerf guns, in 2015. McCaffey enjoyed playing with the toy guns in his youth, but his passion for them was rekindled by chance while shopping for Christmas lights at Target a few years ago.

“They had a sale on Nerf guns and I just bought a ton of them and brought them back to the house,” McCaffey says. “Obviously it really escalated from there.”

McCaffey built a Nerf battle zone in his backyard, and he says he and his friends developed a “weekly Nerf war obsession” that inspired him to turn his pastime into a business. Business was good for his first year, and it’s “really snowballed” this year. The Detroit Dart Club is now a full-time job for McCaffey, who welcomes about 45 groups a month to the Russell location.

The club attracts a lot of business from kids, who McCaffey says have a “crazy culture” organized around keeping tabs on the latest Nerf weaponry. But an equal proportion of his business is 20- and 30-somethings, who come both for work outings and casual fun with friends.

“It’s somewhat of a nostalgic thing because we grew up with Nerf guns,” McCaffey says. “It’s just kind of a goofy way to let loose.”