(San Francisco) – A band of pirates on stilts tried to take over Treasure Island yesterday, but were blasted out instead by pounding drum n bass breaks from a wall of subwoofers.
This happened, of course, at the Treasure Island Music Festival, which took place on the decommissioned naval base in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Two stages, a Ferris wheel, the silent disco, gourmet food trucks, cool merchandise and the ultimate people watching experience awaited those wise enough to attend day one of the two-day music fest.
The Coup had just started playing when I walked through the gate. Since this was the “electronic” day, hearing a big, funky, rock-heavy hip hop group from Oakland was a welcome surprise. I’m not a huge fan of DJ music–I was there to see Public Enemy–so this was a good sign. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the Coup before, but they were on the top of their game for this show. Style, swagger and porkchop side burns lifted from the 70s. The kickass riffs and drum solos reminded me of Rage Against the Machine, but the Coup had more of a soul vibe at times.
Grimes was next, and their three-girl electro-pop sound gained momentum halfway through the set. By the end it felt like I was in a Visa commercial with so much pounding synth bass and young people in ridiculous clothing jumping around. It was the best Visa commercial ever. The enthusiasm for Grimes was electric, with some of the most passionate fans at the festival dancing their neon spandex-covered asses off.
I’ve got a theory and the theory is this: No matter how early you try to arrive at the ballpark to catch the shuttle to Treasure Island, you will always get to the festival three seconds after the band you’d sell your left kidney to see takes the stage. Bridge traffic, shuttle lines and unexpected delays crop up every year. That’s a better scenario than missing your favorite band entirely, but it’s nonetheless sweat-inducing—even in the type of bone-chilling weather which this year finally decided, after three Treasure Island Music Festivals benevolently spared the San Francisco cold, to rear its oceanic head.
Yes, it was cold. And yes, two of the must-see acts of 2010, Die Antwoord and Superchunk, played at relatively early time slots, which surely was a strategic move on the festival organizers’ part, I imagine, to beef up the crowd in the early hours. Both acts could have more played a few slots up on the bill, and that’s not accounting for taste—just demand. Likewise, Deadmau5 probably should have headlined Saturday, because a gigantic sea of neon-clad pacifier-wearers with goosebumped bare midriffs bailed for the warmth of the shuttles before LCD Soundsystem.
For having been debunked as the Borat of all viral hip-hop jokes in 2010, Die Antwoord is insistently entertaining. Not too many rappers quote Cypress Hill and Ren & Stimpy in one breath while in the next, freestyling a couple lines about wiping his ass with a shirt someone threw on stage while actually wiping his ass with a shirt someone threw on stage. Juvenilia reigns, with stagediving, mooning the crowd and false appendages. Both Ninja and Yo-Landi really need to eat some food, but the fact that I still have their hooks in my head three days later tells you something about the success of their gimmick.
Nic Offer, singer of !!!, sings with his fly open! I am thrilled to finally see this band after too many missed opportunities. “You know where we played last night?” Offer offers. “Tokyo! That’s right! Friday night Tokyo, Saturday San Francisco. Three hours sleep, baby!” With LCD Soundsystem here too, the spirit of Jerry Fuchs lingers. Thanks for “Heart of Hearts” and “Must Be the Moon,” guys.
During Four Tet’s set, I finally have my brush with fame: The two guys handing out the “Thank You” stickers. Every fourth person I see has one stuck to their clothes, foreheads or breasts. Mid-dancing, they speak to me in body language which asks, “Hey man, do you want a ‘Thank You’ sticker too?” I respond with body language that says, “Yeah, here, lemme peel one off your roll there.” They both wag their fingers as if to say, “No way,” then one of them peels off a sticker and slaps it on my sweatshirt himself. They continue dancing. There is a man in a full-body green suit crowdsurfing. The sun is setting. Four Tet is a little less pastichey and more fluid than when I saw him last, four years ago, after Everything Ecstatic. This is not all that bad.
Somewhere in there between Kruder & Dorfmeister and Deadmau5, the news comes in: The Giants had beaten the Phillies in Game 1 of the NLCS. This fact is incredible to the point that stray fans shout things like “Cody Motherfucking Ross!” and random strangers jump up and high-five. Entire portions of the crowd chant “Let’s Go Giants!” The timing is good. I find a Fountaingrove Round Barn T-shirt on a hipster vintage rack in one of the clothing booths. Back near the port-a-potties I watch a gate-crasher hop the fence and sprint into anonymity. My best friend gets engaged. Okay, okay, that actually happened the night before. But still. Love is in the air.
“Deadmau5 Suck5,” my newly-engaged friend texts, but it’s not true. Deadmau5 is just there, the neo-house flavor of the year with an overboard, impressive light show owing buckets to Daft Punk. This happened two years ago, and it was called Justice. Where is Justice now? Replaced, it seems, by a DJ who hates DJs in a mouse helmet who lifts Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” I’m not on the right drugs, but for 45 minutes, Treasure Island is a solid, teeming, unified mass.
Watching Miike Snow is a nice change of pace from the phenomenon of Deadmau5. They’re shrouded in blue lights and a constant billow of fake fog (when, honestly, real San Francisco Bay fog could very nearly fill the role just fine). They’re from Sweden. This fact is helpful for copy editors when cursing their name, but doesn’t solve the whole puzzle. I suspect Miike Snow likes it that way. “Animal” sounds perfect in the dark.
To answer your question, yes, LCD Soundsystem does open their set with “Dance Yrself Clean”! Along with “Drunk Girls,” “I Can Change,” “You Wanted a Hit” and “Home,” This is Happening is well-represented. “All My Friends” is the hands-down jam. “Yeah.” Admirably, every sound on their recordings is replicated by one live instrument or another, and James Murphy can absolutely sing those falsettos live. Honestly, they could play all night, but when 10:50pm rolls around it’s time to pull the plug. “We don’t make the rules,” explains Murphy. “We’re not the cops.”
Superchunk rules Sunday. I resist the phrase “showin’ ‘em how it’s done,” but in Superchunk’s case it truly applies. No band at the festival is as punchy and energetic, but punchy and energetic are only tips of the equation: Vitally, Superchunk actually plays as if their music is important. Almost every other band playing today glosses over with that same lame rock-guy detachment that ruined the 1970s. In fact, with the rain, everything seems downright gloomy on Sunday after Supserchunk. They have every right to rest on their laurels, but instead they flail, pounce and thrash through such a damn fine set. Starting with “Kicked In”? BOLD. “Water Wings,” “Throwing Things,” “Detroit has a Skyline,” “Hyper Enough,” “Precision Auto,” it’s all in there.
It’s sad that Zooey Deschanel reminds me of Taylor Swift, but the facts are that like Swift, she’s cute and she doesn’t always sing on key. No one cared when Kurt Cobain didn’t sing on key, but Deschanel is going for an altogether different, which is to say retro, thing. She & Him’s 50s girl-group-by-way-of-Patsy-Cline schtick, female backup singers and all, relies on polish and technique, neither of which Deschanel has in spades. If it weren’t for the indie cred of M. Ward, who once made wonderfully strong, eloquent records before hopping on this confusing side project, I doubt many people would take the band seriously.
Monotonix: Bringing the DIY basement show to music festivals since 2008.
Two temper tantrums into Broken Social Scene’s set, a friend compares Kevin Drew to Axl Rose and chuckles; said friend loves Axl Rose and all his shortcomings. But I can’t digest it, not since seeing Drew and the rest of the band in much better, triumphant, E-Street-Band-like spirits just a year ago. It’s not just the weather, which is gloomy enough. Brendan Canning violently throws his guitar to the ground. Drew makes a pissy comment about how when you play as many shows as he does, you get accustomed to the sound being perfect. Wrapped in leather and shades and heroin-like detachment, he drops his own guitar mid-song to wander around the stage, invading other people’s instruments. They play “Almost Crimes” and “Anthem for a 17-Year-Old Girl” from You Forgot It in People; “7/4” and “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” from S/T; and the rest is from their new record, but they’re not feeling it, and neither is the crowd. Just an off day, I hope. The cold wind and cold vibes take their toll, and we head out.
More photos below – All photos by Elizabeth Seward.
Ah, the things you don’t get from other festivals. Hearing people on the shuttle bus talk about the night before and how much they drank. About the game of Scrabble that lasted until 2:30am and the crackhead sleeping in the hall. About how they’d love to move but their rent is low. “I’ll only move if I can buy a house, or get married,” says a woman pushing 40, “and neither is going to happen very soon.” She’s good looking. More talking. About how nice the shuttles are. “Grizzly Bear’s pretty cool,” says someone, to his girlfriend. “They’re like a mix of… of Yo La Tengo, and the Walkmen, and the Flaming Lips.” Amazing how his frame of reference encompasses today’s lineup.
I have written about the Treasure Island Festival time and time and time and time and time and time again. By now, it is a good friend and a bottle of pills: comforting, scenic and dependable, with enough variety and excitement for me to keep singing its praises. Word has obviously caught on, because this year’s festival, with a somewhat weak lineup, was the best attended yet. Both days were sold out.
Contrary to what you might overhear on the shuttle to the island, Grizzly Bear doesn’t sound anything like Yo La Tengo, the Walkmen or the Flaming Lips. Their new album, Veckatimest—the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe I was enjoying it. (I regularly root for the “rock” contingent of “indie rock,” not the increasingly visible four-part harmony infiltration of indie rock.) There’s a prodding, experimental aspect to their compositions that I can’t let go of. “Two Weeks” may have been the summer hit, but give me long, intricate songs like “Fine for Now,” whose lyrics are a bunch of vague bullshit but whose music is sheer beauty.
They opened with
the Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign” “Cheerleader,” and played a brief set heavy on Veckatimest material, replicating almost exactly the precise tone and instrumentation of the album. Singer Ed Droste attempted to have some personality between songs, and failed, but their songs gave off a polished classicism that hid their complexity. What the hell were they doing playing so early, at 4pm?
One more reason to like Grizzly Bear: their website—and Droste’s Twitter feed—mentions whenever possible the options for buying tickets to the band’s shows without a shitty service charge. Also, my friend Kerri points out that Veckatimest is an anagram for Meat Vest? Ick! Luckily, their heads didn’t explode in the middle of “Two Weeks.”
I spoke too soon when I said something about Bob Mould lulling nostalgia hounds to sleep. Assuming Mould would play songs from his recent solo albums, I headed to the bathrooms, only to be pulled back by “The Act We Act,” the first song from Sugar’s Copper Blue. In fact, Mould represented Copper Blue hardcore. “A Good Idea,” “Changes,” “Hoover Dam”—was this for real?
It was a genuine stroke of luck. Mould’s regular bassist couldn’t make the show, so at the last minute he called up David Barbe, the bassist for Sugar, and throughout the set many, many nights in 1994 came rushing back to me. Yes! It was nostalgia! But of the entirely unexpected variety. Oh, sure, Husker Du fans got “Makes No Sense at All,” “In a Free World,” “Something I Learned Today”—but who’d'a thunk Mould would rock the Sugar songs so hard? It was like Prince playing a show of all shit from Graffiti Bridge.
I’ve never gotten into their Eastern European brass tip, but Beirut makes me glad for one reason and one reason only—because of their unlikely success, the independent San Francisco distributor Revolver is able to take more chances getting good, otherwise unheard music into stores. The plight of an independent distributor is a lonely one, and Revolver over the years has seen a ton of exclusive deals with labels and artists who decide they can do better with R.E.D. or Caroline and jump ship, leaving their early supporter in the dirt. When I see “Exclusively Distributed by Revolver USA” on the back of a hugely selling album like Gulag Orkestar, I am heartened for the DiCristina Stair Builders.
The Walkmen have the East Coast written all over them; they fuckin’ rule. What was decided at their first band practice? “Look, you guys, we’re gonna get vintage instruments and play them like nobody else played them. You, Hamilton, you gotta good voice, you’re the singer. Okay? But we gotta look tough. Or bored. Somewhere between tough or bored. Then we gonna write the best songs you ever heard.”
Bows and Arrows is a bonafide gem, and at the Outside Lands festival last year, even newer songs like “The New Year” floored me. I hope that they don’t turn into the Guadalcanal Diary of their day, i.e. a band with a fresh semi-retroish take on current trends who fades into Rockin’ Road Trip obscurity. More songs like “Thinking of a Dream I Had” ought to do the trick.
I ran into Hamilton Leithauser afterward; he told me the horn players—who were tight as hell—learned their parts five minutes before going on stage. Funny thing, going on tour and having to hire pickup musicians in each town.
The greatest psychedelic guitar work recorded in 1997 (not related to Jason Pierce) belongs to Yo La Tengo and the outro to the song “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. I have listened to this particular guitar solo more times than I care to remember, and I still haven’t fully figured it out—meaning that I haven’t tried to PLAY the thing, merely to comprehend it. Is there a ghost of an angry debutante inside the guitar? Did they bring an octopus in the studio to flail upon the strings? Can you keep feedback alive on an iron lung?
During Yo La Tengo’s second song, Ira Kaplan re-creates that same mayhem five feet from my face and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I do know that what he did to his guitar didn’t constitute the accepted definition of “playing.” He sometimes put his fingers on the strings, just like he sometimes let it swing away from his body entirely to let the angry debutante do her thing. Maximized control in chaos environments. Rhythm section calm and holding. Snapped back together like elastic. Amazing.
The Flaming Lips have put out a new album, Embryonic, that reminds me of the Nobel Peace Prize—it’s getting a lot of acclaim simply for not being At War With the Mystics. If it could be chopped down to an EP, it would be perfect, but better yet is that it has shaken up the band’s live show, which though visually incredible has stayed pretty routine for about five years. I’ve seen them three times, and I swore that if Wayne Coyne smashed blood on his head and made a puppet nun sing “Happy Birthday” into a fisheye-lens camera yet again, I would scream.
As soon as the Decemberists finished, Coyne spent a good deal of time onstage helping his roadies set up their ever-more elaborate set. Then the music began. After walking atop the crowd in a plastic space bubble, shooting confetti from blaster guns, blowing fog around the stage, flinging ribbons to and fro and leading his band in “Race for the Prize,” Coyne settled into a friendly rapport with the San Francisco crowd, talking about the band’s first show at the I-Beam and how San Francisco had always felt like a second home. “Thank you for being the home of the freaks,” he said.
The band played a standard mix of “hits,” with new tracks like “Convinced of the Hex” sounding the most invigorated, but it was an obscure song called “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear” that reminded me most of the Flaming Lips’ magic. Musically settled squarely between soothing and weird, the song’s title alone could serve as the band’s mission statement, and it carried us across the Bay Bridge and back into the real world.