The Secret Stages Music Discovery Festival happened this past weekend in Birmingham, it’s second in the Avondale neighborhood. It’s a great neighborhood to host the festival, because you don’t have to walk far to find great food and beer, and all five stages are within one block of each other, and they all had great sound. Also, unlike many other music festivals, hip hop is not treated as an afterthought, but was featured very prominently throughout the two days, right alongside rock and country acts, not prioritizing one over the other. Ultimately, the goal of Secret Stages is to feature lesser-known acts in the hopes of bringing in an audience that will discover some new music and give the artists involved a little push in their career. Watching people come up to the stage after sets and gushing to the artists and asking them how they can follow and support them, I have to say this festival was a success. Let’s break it down.

Friday, August 2nd

The festival got underway with Birmingham’s own Michael Kure on stage at Saturn. It was clear from the beginning of his set that he was nervous and hadn’t played in this kind of a setting before, which resulted in a few false starts. Once he got a couple songs under his belt, though, he hit his stride on the song “Cherish,” and showed the promise that got him the timeslot, with set full of thougtful and spiritual hip hop.

From Saturn it was a short walk over 41st Street Pub where another local act was playing, Suaze. Suaze is a deejay/producer/multi-instrumentalist who is usually more of a behind-the-scenes type of guy, so it was nice to see him get a chance to shine. He started his set off with a continuous mix of original beats, playing with his laptop and Roland SP.404. It was a really laid back psychedelic vibe for most of his set that had the whole room bobbing their heads. About two-thirds of the way through his set, he brought up Birmingham vocalist Love Moor. Suaze produced her entire 2017 album, Simp Girl, which led her to hop on the mic and declare that Suaze was, “The man with a plan for all my hits!” They then jumped right into one of the best crowd pleasers from that album, “Delete,” which had the whole crowd swaying and singing along with the chorus. Suaze then closed out his set by playing bass on his last song as a tribute to his father.

Suaze live at 41st Street Pub

Staying at 41st Street Pub, next up was Clear Soul Force emcee Noveliss from Detroit. Moving around on the stage like a ninja, Noveliss worked the crowd and dropped some of his dense and playful lyricism. It was his first time performing in Alabama, but he won the audience over pretty quickly as rapped about anime, basketball, and his own personal life. One of the highlights of his set was the narrative driven song, “5 AM in Shibuya,” a song based on a true story about the time that he and Mega Ran missed the last train of the evening while touring in Japan, which then meant that they had to stay up all night until the first train of the morning came at 5 a.m.

Noveliss live at 41st Street Pub

From there, it was across the street and up the stairs to Avondale Brewery for Atlanta emcee John Average. At this point it should be noted that Birmingham’s DJ Phlip, who had just been spinning for Noveliss, was now upstairs at Avondale to spin for John Average. Hardest working deejay in the Magic City, to be sure. Average was playing in Alabama for the first time, and his music isn’t necessarily upbeat, but after a few songs the audience started to come around and appreciate his lyricism and the emotional conviction with which he performed.

After John Average finished up, it was on to Saturn to end the night with the one-two punch of ELUCID and Cakes Da Killa. ELUCID began his set by saying that he was overwhelmed to be in the hometown of Sun Ra before jumping into the music. It was just ELUCID on stage, and he worked through a continuous mix of his songs without much of a pause. ELUCID’s style of hip hop is so dense that it took a minute as a listener to catch up with him, but by the end of his set it seemed like everyone was picking up what he was putting down and connecting with his keen lyrical observations and taking some of his challenges to heart.

ELUCID live at Saturn

The night ended with Cakes Da Killa, who started off a little rusty, working through some technical difficulties before the party could really get started. Once it did, though, he had the whole venue moving, sweating, and just having a good time. The majority of his set came from his 2016 LP, Hedonism, but he shook things up with some remixes, including a great new version of “New Phone (Who Dis)” that had the whole venue dancing and singing along. Things really went to the next level when Cakes Da Killa had the audience part in the middle to create a makeshift catwalk so that he could strut his stuff and back it up onto a few fans while rapping his ass off. It was a great, exhausting, and exhilarating way to end the first night of the festival.

Saturday, August 3rd

The second night of Secret Stages began at the 41st Street Pub, where Kansas City artist They Call Me Sauce. Performing with Kartez Marcel on the beats and then adding VP3 on sax for some extra flavor, Sauce opened the night with some jazzy soulful vibes. There were moments to get serious, but mostly the set was playful, most notable when he got to “Childhood Crush.” He started to introduce the song by asking the audience, “How many of y’all like ‘90s sitcoms?” He then picked up a pile of white posters with the names of sitcoms like Family Matters and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper on them, playfully making reference to them as he worked his way through some flirtatious verses.

They Call Me Sauce live at 41st Street Pub

Up after him and just right next door at The Hangar was Athens artist Wesdaruler. He brought Louie Larceny with him as a hype man and worked his way through a soulful and thoughtful set mostly built around songs from his debut album on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, Ocean Drive. The album is built around a chilled out early ‘80s synth vibe, as Wesdaruler ruminates on his everyday life as a family man and musician. The set wasn’t all laid back, though, because Linqua Franqa was also in attendance, and she came up on stage to join Wes and Louie for their single, “Fuck Trump America,” which was an absolute barn burner that had the whole audience worked up into a frenzy.

Wesdaruler joined by Louie Larceny and Linqua Franqa at The Hangar

Next up in the evening was Minneapolis artist The Lioness, who took the stage at Saturn. Looking fly in a custom Cubs jersey, she took the stage with DJ Keezy and started working the crowd with a brilliant mix of charisma, shit talking, and honest lyricism that had the audience eating it all up. When she asked for silence to kick an acapella, you could hear a pin drop as she poured her heart out on the mic. She also forged this connection in between songs as she explained how she used to be homeless and how she doesn’t take her music career for granted. It was the perfect mixture of raw honesty, emotional connection, and great skill in working the stage.

The Lioness live at Saturn

From there, it was across the street and up the stairs to Avondale Brewery, where local group K.L.U.B. Monsta was set to perform. The trio of emcees known as J-Dotta, Joshua, and Kel-Ricks went all out for the occasion, recruiting a three-piece horn section and DJ Suaze to join them on stage and take the energy to the next level. Their set mostly consisted of songs from their absolutely killer 2018 album, When Gawd Ready. These veterans of the Birmingham hip hop scene knew just when to have fun with it, but also when to take the moment for serious discussion about things happening in their city and beyond. If all this excellence on one stage wasn’t enough, they then brought up C1UB : A.M. emcee ChriStyle to take things to eleven. It was one of the most fun sets of the whole festival, and they really did their hometown proud and repped the Bham scene to the fullest.

K.L.U.B. Monsta live at Avondale Brewery Upstairs

Finally, it was time to close out the night and the festival with a performance at Saturn from Minneapolis artist Lady Midnight. With DJ Keezy back on stage and sage burning, she took the stage and introduced herself to the audience, but then took a moment to make everyone reflect on the fact that we were standing on stolen land and had everyone acknowledge the native heritage of Birmingham. She then worked her way through set that drew exclusively from her debut album, Death Before Mourning. It’s not the most uptempo album, but Lady Midnight’s vocals were so beautiful and passionate that she had the entire audience’s attention as she worked through slow burners like “Bloodsong” or “Düít f∞r Luv.” She further deepened this connection with the audience in between songs as she explained her back story and her passion and belief in healing through the music. By the end of her set, she had clearly won over a new set of fans. It was a gorgeous way to end the festival.

Lady Midnight live at Saturn