photo by Steve Craft

The Music Man

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: March 2016
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McDowell Mountain Music Festival founder and construction biz whiz John Largay hopes that if you build a culture scene, Phoenicians will come.

It started with a flying pig. Every year, Hammy the Hog Float bobbed above John Largay’s backyard as his employees jammed to a live band. The bash began in 1995 when Largay’s company, Wespac Construction, surpassed $10 million in revenue. As he grew older, the nearly lifelong Phoenician felt the need to give back not just to his staff but to the community that supported him. So he turned the “Pig Hunt” party into the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Now celebrating its 13th anniversary, the nonprofit event has raised more than $1 million for charities including Phoenix Children’s Hospital and UMOM New Day Centers, the Valley’s largest homeless shelter for families. Somewhat improbably, MMMF has also become Arizona’s premier music festival, with the most consistently impressive lineups and fan experience. Last year, more than 13,000 music lovers flooded Hance Park in Phoenix. This March 11-13, indie-rock legend Beck headlines a roster that will attract even more, Largay hopes. But he’s not trying to win any national music fest popularity contests.

“If we wanted to make more money, we’d invite Madonna,” he says. “Our mission from a music standpoint is to be eclectic – to bring in some reggae, some rock, some blues, to show people what they haven’t seen before. We’re not Bonnaroo or Coachella, but hey, we’re local, we’re grassroots, and we’re a charity.”

Largay also wants to draw an eclectic demographic. “Music is multi-generational,” he says. “You or I could dance with a 20-year-old or a 70-year-old and feel just as comfortable. We want families to feel like they can bring their children. I’ve raised my children on [the festival].”

Largay – whose two sons book the music and do festival PR – doesn’t fit the flashy stereotype of a music-biz impresario. As unassuming as his hidden-away Wespac headquarters, the builder seems almost horizontally laid-back. Expect him to wax rhapsodic about funkalicious new bands? Nope. Here’s how he describes his entree into construction: “I realized I had an analytical, technical brain and that the management side of my education led very well to the mathematical side of contracting.”

But his mental hardware isn’t just filled with numbers. A music fan partial to jam bands, Largay felt a desire for a more dynamic cultural scene in Phoenix. “Why there are 4 million people here and we are still a bypass market [for bands] going from Denver to L.A., I don’t understand,” he says. “There’s more music coming through on a Monday/Tuesday than a Friday/Saturday, mainly because we’re not a money-making market for the artists.”

So when he started looking to redirect some of his energy back to the community, he chose to contribute not just charity dollars but rock, reggae, funk and blues. And as it turns out, his construction company’s skills harmonize perfectly with festival organization. “Logistically, it’s the same as a job site,” he says.

The inaugural year kicked off with David Crosby crooning on a WestWorld polo field, backdropped by the festival’s namesake mountains. After six years, dwindling sponsorship forced Largay to slide the event to his new Compound Grill in north Phoenix. The restaurant and live music venue was meant to serve mini doses of the MMMF year-round. But it wasn’t an instant classic. Despite the 2012 festival’s respectable attendance, a few weeks later the Compound went out of business with a bang: a Metal Elvis and the Monsters of Rock concert. Hence the move, in 2013, to Hance.

Largay doesn’t regret the costly learning experience and sees plusses in switching to a more central stage. “The reason we went down to Hance Park is to create more vibrancy Downtown. We hope more people follow suit because that’s really going to create an urban vibrancy, which is essential for a successful city.”

Phoenix’s scene is improving, Largay says, thanks to a new wave of music-mongers including Crescent Ballroom, Valley Bar and Last Exit Live. But he’d like to see it gain even more momentum. “We’d love to see 10 festivals down there. We’d love to see something happen every weekend.”

So would we, and hopefully before pigs fly.

McDowell Mountain Music Festival
March 11-13, Hance Park in Phoenix,
Three-day general admission package: $160 + fees
One-day pass: $70 + fees

Here’s a sampling of this year’s lineup:

photo courtesy Peter HapakBeck
A “Loser” no more, Beck (pictured) recently won three Grammys and, from the sound of it, a measure of peace with his latest album, Morning Phase. The sublime songs surf between sunshine and melancholy.

St. Lucia
Nothing short of a straitjacket could stop you from dancing to this South African-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s energetic synth-pop.

The Senators
Valley of the Sun sons Jesse and Adam Teer evoke wide-open Western spaces with their melodic, twangy hipster-hymns.

Animal Collective
If experimental, psychedelic pop turns you on, you’ll love the sonic mad-science of this group’s newest album, Centipede Hz. If not, you’ll think a more fitting name would be It Hz.

The Avett Brothers
Blending bluegrass roots, smooth banjo strums and lemonade-sweet piano strains, this North Carolina band’s Grammy-nominated folk-rock goes down like Southern Comfort.

Harper & the Moths
Featuring dapper duds, flashy lights and catchy pop, this Phoenix quintet’s live gigs are guaranteed to get fans dancing.