Charles Bradley has had a hell of a life, and the Menahan Street Band has had a hell of a ride. The 63-year old singer recently woke up at his mother’s house to find that his brother had been shot and killed by his nephew; meanwhile, the Menahan Street Band was busy being sampled by Jay-Z for “Roc Boyz.” The two came together, and the fit is smooth, even if the songs are not. I mean that in a good way: Bradley is a beast, a James Brown-inspired performer belting and crying the pain through his pores—falling to his knees, flailing the mic stand around. Never mind that he’s wearing a half-unbuttoned dirty work jumpsuit and gyrating his hips; he’s great, and the noontime crowd loves it.
The set of the weekend goes to tUnE-yArDs, and I could be biased: when her album came out I was so happily dumbfounded that I couldn’t even review it properly. But like anything fragmented and unusual, it coalesced with repeated listens, and started to make sense as a collection of straight-up palatable hits. Live, Merrill Garbus and her band tear the whole record apart again by looping each individual drum and vocal sample, layering it with bass and horns and throwing the whole crazy mess out into the air. Garbus seems happy to be home in the Bay Area, crediting the audience with “general vibe and awesomeness” when clearly, it’s she who delivers both. The high falsetto at the end of “Powa” is the frosting, but the whole set is unbelievable. We chat a little bit afterwards; she tells me “Santa Rosa isn’t piddly.” So there. It’s official.
Latyrx is playing today accompanied by the Jazz Mafia, led by Adam Theis. Though most hip-hop / jazz treatments fall flat, this one totally works. None of the songs get reworked as, like, big-band swing or anything—it’s still hip-hop, with the DJ and drummer holding it down. All the classics are here: “Say That,” “Latyrx,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” “Rankin #1,” and the song that works best with the band, especially the string section: “Storm Warning,” which is just incredible. They round it out with a little bit of “8-Point Agenda,” and they even shout out Forestville. Two thumbs way up.
There’s just buckets and buckets of sex in the air for Major Lazer. Everyone around me is dry humping. They have a hype man and an Undulating Girl™. The girl does the splits, wraps her legs behind her neck and generally increases the sex quotient. People continue dry humping. Diplo and Switch are nonstop at the decks, serving up a constant onslaught. Near the end, their hype man tells everyone to take off their shirts, which means everyone starts dry humping topless. I swear, the Bay Area teenage pregnancy rate is going to skyrocket nine months from now.
You are singing some songs to me.
I love me some hopeless trainwreck action as much as the next guy, so I wind up in the Gallagher tent. I really think Gallagher could make a Neil Hamburger-esque comeback if he plays his cards right. He’s old, he’s bitter, he’s not funny, he half-heartedly goes through the motions of his old jokes and he basically sucks. Psychologically, this could totally work in his favor—I mean, that’s why I’m interested in seeing him, after all.
Gallagher is running late, but it’s almost as much fun waiting for Gallagher as it is seeing him. Most of the people are already dressed in plastic trash bags. They chant “Gall-a-gher! / Gall-a-gher!,” then “Let’s go Giants!,” and then they all start doing the wave. Finally Gallagher, who is wearing a T-shirt of himself, staggers out clutching a Heineken and sucking on a cigarette. “I had a heartattack two months ago,” he tells the crowd. It’s going good so far.
But Gallagher quickly descends into simply being annoying. He singles out a girl in the crowd, picks up a tennis racket and some Wiffle balls, and says, “Let’s smash these plastic balls and hit this chick in the face and get her crying!” (Later, he adds, “I don’t care about pissing off the girls. I’m 65, I can’t fuck anything.”) It reminds me that reading funny things about lousy washups isn’t the same as having to suffer through same lousy washup. He makes some more jokes, but they aren’t funny. Worse, he’s taking himself seriously.
The funniest part of Gallagher’s set is that because he chose to go on late, half the audience gets up and walks out on him after 15 minutes—both Arcade Fire and Deadmau5 are playing at 8:00. Maybe a few people stuck it out to get splattered with watermelon?
It’s easy to forget just how electrifying Arcade Fire is live—and sure, the enthusiasm is undoubtedly forced on some nights. No one can mouth the words to every song for years and still be authentically as pumped as Regine appears to be. But what is popular music but a grand illusion? Arcade Fire = Succumb to the Uplift.
Win Butler seems like he’s trying to connect with San Francisco, mentioning the time they played the Great American Music Hall, how he walked around and checked out the food booths earlier, how he loves the weather and would move there if it wasn’t so expensive. (Some cried “fauxhemian” for someone as presumably well-off as Win Butler to quibble about the rent being too damn high, but I side with him. I have a full-time job and still sometimes eat out of the trash.) I suppose connecting with a crowd of one bazillion via casual between-anthem patter must be a daunting task.
There’s not much in the surprise dept.—the set is predictable, but exceedingly well-played. But as we’re walking away, before the last song, Butler sings those two key lines from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”:
You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan
And the next five years trying to be with your friends again
It makes sense. Their encore is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” one of the better songs from The Suburbs. A nice send-off.
More Photos Below.
Really, can no one out of the two dozen bands playing today loan Leo Nocentelli an amp? That’s the question on everyone’s mind when the Meters are forced to jam guitarless for 20 minutes while lots of pedal- and amp-fiddling ensues. They’ve already opened with “Fiyo on the Bayou,” though, and sprinkled throughout the fill time is “Iko Iko” and “Africa.” Finally, the amp gets fixed. Zigaboo asks if there’s anyone here celebrating something: “A new kid, maybe? A new car? Just got out of jail?” Cue anthem, “Cissy Strut,” and cue tremendous Polo Field dance party. George Porter calls their set “Senior Citizen Funk 101,” which is a little sobering especially since Art Neville walks out to the Hammond with a cane. They’re the Meters, man. They’re not supposed to get old.
Toro y Moi is way too subdued. Close your eyes and you can imagine them in a movie, 15 years from now, as the nondescript “2011 Band Who Plays Big Festival.” Maybe their second or third album will have more going on, musically, I think to myself.
But then, as I’m walking across the festival afterward, I’m mobbed by a massive influx of people from the stage where Foster the People just played. Foster the People, really? The band with that no-substance radio-lite jingle? And this many people care? I immediately reassign my mental casting—Foster the People is the 2011 Band Who Plays Big Festival. If you want to apply to be an extra in this imaginary movie, make sure to be a frat bro who’s “going wild” for the weekend by wearing a headband that shoves your conservative haircut into a follicle volcano complementing your black-and-neon Ray Bans.
Did you ever see the really unpolished performance of “Time to Pretend” on David Letterman? I sold my copy of MGMT’s album back the next day, and then watched as MGMT became the unlikeliest teen heartthrobs of the year. But today, their second song is “Time to Pretend,” and they nail it. Everything about them is tight and polished.
I heard rumors that fans had changed some signs around San Francisco to read “Goulding Gate Park,” and that’s how it felt as soon as Ellie Goulding hit the stage—like the whole place was hers. It might have had something to do with all the free yellow star-shaped glasses handed out to the crowd (her big hit: “Starry Eyed,” get it?). It might have had something to do with the loud, massive sing-alongs. Or, it could be that Ellie Goulding is full of energy, with the type of voice that’s so spot-on that it seems lip-synched (it’s not). Stars in the UK usually ride a swift rise and fall, Exhibit A being NME’s propping up of a different “Best New Band in England” every other month. But Ellie Goulding could stick around for a while.
This brings us to Big Boi, and a little segment I’ll call:
Why Big Boi’s Canceled Performance at Outside Lands Kind of Seemed Like Bullshit
At 6:30pm, ten minutes after Big Boi’s start time, all that’s on stage is a set of 1200s on a table. I’ll get used to that view, because a guy comes out and tells us up front that Big Boi is running late, and it’ll “probably be 30 more minutes.” I’ve seen enough hip-hop to know that this means “an hour and a half,” and by that time Big Boi’s time slot will be up, so I wonder how things are going to shake down. Already, people are chanting.
A DJ shows up, laptop in hand. He plugs it in. He looks concentrated, then confused, then calls for help. A guy comes over. Then two guys. Eventually, there are seven guys all crouched around the laptop. They’re pulling on wires. They’re turning it upside down. One guy, sitting at the keyboard, is on the phone. Another guy wearing a cowboy hat stands off to the side, the festival version of the CalTrans worker who gets paid to stand around and watch.
Meanwhile, the crowd is losing it. Chants of “Big Boi! Big Boi!” have given way to chants of “What the Fuck! What the Fuck!” No one on stage seems interested in placating the crowd, so the kid near me who’s grown increasingly agitated starts in: “Where’s that guy who said Big Boi would be late? Why aren’t they telling us anything? Why can he just do this?” How many hip hop shows have you been to, I ask. One, he says.
Big Boi steps out, grabs a mic and says he just wants to clarify: He’s been here for two hours, hanging out with Dave Chapelle backstage. His DJ just needs to get things together, he says. He goes to the wings, grabs Dave Chapelle and trots him out to the crowd as a consolation prize before disappearing. The crowd gets restless again after 10 minutes, watching the same seven guys try to fix the laptop. “Dave Chap-elle! Dave Chap-elle!” they chant.
Obligingly, Chapelle comes back out. He grabs the mic from the DJ stand. It’s nuts, because everybody’s figuring that he’ll stall for his friend and just do standup until Big Boi’s laptop gets fixed. Instead, he does two minutes. Mostly on how appreciative he is of the Bay Area. He kicks a beach ball into the crowd. He leaves.
Fifteen or 20 more minutes go by, and Big Boi’s manager comes out. He says sometimes things happen that are beyond their control, and that they’ve fixed the laptop but there wasn’t going to be enough time for Big Boi without cutting into Erykah Badu’s set, and that “instead of giving you guys a half-assed show, we’d rather give you no show at all.”
Okay, so despite the many PR fails—everyone there would have preferred a half-assed show, guaranteed—the whole thing was either a total embarrassment or a pre-planned cancellation. I’d like to think it was the former, but honestly, what kind of DJ, especially for one of the 20 biggest rappers in the world, doesn’t bring a backup laptop? You’d think that would be Rule #1—bring a backup. Real DJs bring backup needles and doubles of their 12”s. They bring an extra mixer. If your employer’s entire musical accompaniment is stored on a laptop, and he can’t play a show without it working, and you only bring one laptop, you are a complete fool and should be fired. Even crappy fledgling indie bands have a backup guitar, and if they don’t and something goes wrong, they can usually borrow one. Or, hell, just play without a guitar and make do.
And that’s the other thing: Erykah Badu’s entire band was backstage. At some point, if you’re Big Boi, and you truly don’t want to cancel the show, wouldn’t you start trying to put something together? Wouldn’t you hit up the drummer and bass player, and ask if they know some Outkast hits, or would be willing to improvise over new shit? Not to mention the keyboard player, or the percussionist, or the backup singers, all of whom Big Boi knows are supremely talented? That wouldn’t be a half-assed show. It’d be a one-of-a-kind show that people would talk about for years.
Or—and this could be a last resort—but come on, Amoeba Music is right at the edge of Golden Gate Park. Run someone down there to buy Stankonia, Speakerboxx/The Love Below and Sir Luscious Left Foot and just suck it up and rap over your own album. It’s not ideal, but it’s also incredibly commonplace in hip-hop. Your DJ can EQ the backing tracks to minimize the recorded vocals. People would have loved it.
Any of these solutions could have been pursued in the two hours that Big Boi was chilling backstage without a DJ. That is, if he gave a shit. Apparently he doesn’t.
Two hours have gone by and Big Audio Dynamite (read: basically just ogling Mick Jones) is a wash at this point, so running to the Best Coast stage is the Best Option. It’s exactly like listening to Best Coast on record, which is fully appropriate; it’s also fully reminiscent of the summer of 2010, which Best Coast virtually owned. Is it strange that the songs already feel nostalgic, one year later? Is nostalgia catching up to the present day at a scary rate? Will the next Best Coast album be more “mature” and lose everything fun about Crazy for You? These thoughts and more run through my head as I watch Bethany Cosentino sing bonafide jams like “Our Deal,” “I Want To” and “Boyfriend.”
Redemption is found on the Big Boi stage with the arrival of Erykah Badu. She opens with “The Healer,” a Madlib production expertly re-created by her 11-piece band. She drags out the chorus at the end: “Hip hop / It’s bigger than the government,” and then leads her band into Graham Central Station’s “Happy to See You Again” acapella. Later, they interpolate Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and Afrika Bambaata’s “Planet Rock.” There’s four backup singers, a flute player, a percussionist, the songs are all over the place, it’s nuts.
Badu herself hovers above, under, in and out of all of this, navigating the shape-shifting arrangements with ease, completely in charge. Her voice is stellar, her control unreal. I paid only mild attention to her until her last two albums, but tonight, she’s like some miracle from I don’t know where. If you get a chance to see her live, do it. A good way to end the day.