Treasure Island Festival ’09: Day Two
October 25, 2009 · Print This Article
One major plus about the first day of this festival was the weather; yesterday was clear and warm, with a spectacular sunset and almost no need for long sleeves. All of those things tend to be a rarity in San Francisco this time of year.
Things are looking much more ominous as I get off the bus Sunday, with threatening cumulonimbus brewing out over the Golden Gate while Sleepy Sun kick off their set for a small but stalwart crowd.
The weather may not be as good, but the audience today is certainly mellower, and also more diverse, covering a much larger age bracket. Surely there are a few Pavement and Bob Mould geeks amongst this bunch.
The festival organizers have smartly decided to bookend the day with psychedelic rock acts. I’m a sucker for the genre, and therefore groove to the heavy, lumbering jams of Sleepy Sun, who frankly are neither of the things their moniker promises. Given the current conditions, though, that is entirely appropriate. Cool set from a promising local band.
The opening act at Tunnel Stage is Tommy Guerrero, a former pro skater turned guitarist. The instrumental, downtempo music is well-performed if not particularly inspired, and not really the kind of music for this festival; perhaps a bit too middle-of-the-road for a crowd weaned on tortured angst.
Interestingly, beloved producer Money Mark (Beastie Boys, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez) is guesting on keyboards. How the heck did that collaboration happen?
Thao with The Get Down Stay Down are the first real “indie rock” band of the day. Having associated with Decemberists producer Tucker Martine for their first record, and having toured as an opener for Rilo Kiley, one would assume they are similarly songwriter-oriented, and that turns out to be exactly the case. Lead vocalist/lyricist (and San Francisco resident) Thao Nguyen offers some of the swagger of Alison Mosshart, tempered with the confessional tendencies of Jenny Lewis and the hotness of Ziyi Zhang.
I’d like to name this the “bestival”, Nguyen remarks at one point,”because it’s the best festival we’ve ever played, and yes, we’ve played others.”
Spiral Stairs is the longstanding nickname of Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg. Though the much-ballyhooed Pavement reunion has already been announced for 2010, Kannberg has found time to release a solo album under the Spiral Stairs handle, and it sounds a lot like um, Pavement.
Kannberg and his ace backing band throw in a couple of actual Pavement tunes toward the end of the set, and Kannberg remarks, “I’d love to play that one again.” To which a band member dryly quips: “Hmm, do you think that will happen?”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes establish their tweeness right away by plucking the first few notes of their set on a ukulele, then punctuating the notes with sickeningly cute boop-a-doop vocalizations.
Frontman Alex Ebert earns points, however, for going largely shirtless in defiance of the biting cold. Also, he is by far the most willing performer of the day to get close to the audience, crawling down several times to serenade girls at the front rail.
For the first time in the festival’s short history, we have genuinely lousy weather, with overcast skies, blustery winds, and even a smattering of raindrops.
Local act Vetiver, however, typifies the mellower-than-mellow, dreamier-than-dreamy vibe the afternoon is taking, and their set seems to pacify the storm Gods; mercifully, the weather conditions grow no worse.
Ahh, NOW we get to the good stuff. With their litany of distorted musical instruments and harmonized vocals in full bloom, formidable Brooklynites Grizzly Bear take the Bridge Stage and proceed to amaze for a not-long-enough 45 minutes.
I saw the band play for almost nobody in a small tent at Coachella in 2007; since then, they’ve opened for Radiohead, released one of 2009′s most critically-acclaimed records (the brilliant Veckatimest), and improbably landed in the Top Ten of the Billboard charts. Not surprisingly, the band now inhabiting the stage is far more confident than the one I saw 2 ½ years ago.
The more diverse Veckatimest tracks set opener “Cheerleader,” “Southern Point” – mesh surprisingly well with great older tracks like “Lullaby” and “On a Neck, on a Spit.” Midway through the set, the sun finally breaks out from behind the clouds and lights the island up. This causes the briefest of smiles to break out on the face of founding member Ed Droste, who earlier claims this is their windiest gig ever a fitting follow-up to Austin City Limits, their rainiest gig ever.
Wind or no, the set is a wonderful warm-up for all the great stuff that will hit the stages in short order.
Bob Mould is a legend amongst Gen Xers for his work in Husker Du and Sugar, not to mention “Dog on Fire,” better known as the theme song for The Daily Show. He’s also had a longstanding solo career, releasing nine studio records over the last 20 years, the latest of which is the critically-admired Life and Times.
After so many low-key acts, Mould’s full-throttle set is a welcome and jolting burst of energy. He seems invigorated, and holds little back while jamming out power chords with an effortless zeal only someone of his stature could display.
During the set, he mentions the crazy week that led up to the performance, including the birth of his bassist’s child, the replacement of that bassist with Sugar bassist David Barbe, and his own recent move to San Francisco.”You’ll be seeing a lot of me, so this is sort of my first hometown gig,” he says, to huge cheers.
Looking around, there are a lot of graying temples, the most gray hair of the weekend, in fact but it really doesn’t matter. This is a great set from a great performer working at a level that matches or even bests his earlier days. Certainly one of the highlights of the weekend for me.
Over at Bridge Stage we have a return to the “pale and folksy” vibe with Santa Fe-based Beirut. The brainchild of Zach Condon – who picked up on Balkan folk music during his travels in Europe – this band has the cachet of having associated closely with Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet during the recording of their 2007 album The Flying Club Cup.
Their set can’t help but be a bit of a comedown after the high-flying guitar rock goodness of Bob Mould, but I can understand why so many are beguiled by them. Certainly, their eclecticism does not feel forced or gimmicky, and Condon’s vocals and trumpet work are suitably cozy and inviting.
The hot streak continues on Tunnel Stage with one of my very favorite bands, The Walkmen.Â A band that has spent many years perfecting their own brand of dreamy, jangly pop noise, they are still touring in support of their latest, You and Me, one of the best albums of 2008.
Opening with that album’s haunting, Morricone-tinged “On the Water,” the band sounds typically excellent. Lead vocalist Hamilton Leithauser, his hair chopped short, seems uncharacteristically jovial as the set slowburns its way through a collection of the band’s best material, with a couple of new tunes thrown in for good measure.Â Iâ€™m loath to leave before the last note is played, but as the band tears into its biggest hit, “The Rat,” I’m forced to turn away and secure pit space for The Decemberists.
Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists tend to be a polarizing presence in alternative rock circles; some worship them, others are roundly turned off by their lengthy song cycles and emphasis on verbose lyrical wordplay.
Me? I love them. I dig their braininess, their ambition, and their deceptively dark sense of humor. All of those traits are abundantly present on the band’s latest record, rock opera The Hazards of Love, a contender for 2009′s album of the year. The band has spent the better part of the year touring a full performance of the record, and tonight’s show will be one of the last performances of it in the US.
Lead singer Colin Meloy looks pallid and moody as he steps out onto the stage and strums the first few chords. I figure it’s just the harsh stage lighting, but I later find out via his Twitter that he’s also suffering from a case of the Flu. To his immense credit, the illness does not show in his performance, and the rest of the band is in fine form as well, displaying well-honed tightness on album highlights like “The Rake’s Song,” “Annan Water” and “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”
As a bonus, the band includes a hallucinogenic “visualizer” on the stage’s video screen, which accompanies the various tunes with animation of plants expelling toxic-looking potions, mushrooms exploding in close-up, etc. This visualizer, a joint effort by four filmmakers, was originally scheduled to be debuted at a show the following night in Southern California.
Suck it, LA.
I stay back to watch all of The Decemberists, which means sacrificing my photo spot for veteran shoegaze and noise rock legends Yo La Tengo, but that’s okay, it’s been a long weekend and this is a volunteer gig, so I’ve earned a break.
Yo La Tengo has just about done it all at this point, from critically-adored albums with great titles (I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass) to acoustic records to movie soundtracks (Junebug, Shortbus).Â Few bands could boast as much hipster cred covering so long a span of time. In fact, about the only thing they haven’t done so far is get me to see them live and after a fine fifty-minute set, that modest task is accomplished.
Back at Bridge Stage, weird things are happening. The stage is bathed in harsh orange backlight, making it look like a huge dish of sherbet ice cream. Clacking noises abound as taped-up, ramshackle pieces of gear are laid out. At the center of it all, milling about in his trademark grey suit, is rock’s reigning mad scientist, Wayne Coyne, relaying instructions and checking microphones with a crew of techies clad in orange jumpsuits. Coyne switches on a bullhorn and turns it toward the audience: â€œAlmost ready guys, almost ready. Then he shoots a couple rounds of silly string into the front rows.
The Flaming Lips have arrived.
Though I’m a fan of Oklahoma’s favorite sons, I’ve never seen them live. My first opportunity was Coachella in ’04, when Coyne introduced his now-famous audience-surfing hamster ball. I missed that performance because I was busy watching The Crystal Method drop breakbeats. (I’m from California. Sue me.) Now, five years later, I’ve caught up with the Lips again at last.
If tonight’s performance is any indication, the release of their latest album – the highly experimental, Can-esque Embryonic does not mean the retirement of the hamster ball, which some have lambasted as a stale gag. I’m rather amused at the way it is being used, these days, though. For their grand entrance, the members of band pass through a partition in the stage’s giant LED screen, which projects an image of a woman with her legs spread such that she is essentially”giving birth” to the band. Then there’s Coyne in his plastic bubble, which quickly inflates into a sort of metaphorical placenta before being rolled out onto the audience. There are strobes, and confetti cannons, and the band bursts into the soaring strains of “Race for the Prize,” off of 1999′s much-adored The Soft Bulletin.
It’s all pretty awesome, and perhaps overwhelming, someone on the front rail has gone into an epileptic seizure! While I’m trying to snap pictures, about a half-dozen security guards are swarming the pit, trying to fish the audience member out. With the pounding of the band and the shouting of the guards, the screams of the audience and the clicking of dozens of camera shutters all blurring together, it feels a bit like a brush with insanity. I escape with a couple of shots intact.
Fortunately, the audience member is okay and the show goes on. Coyne mentions that San Francisco is one of the first cities that originally embraced the Lips, and for tonight anyway, the show should be considered something of a homecoming. Most of the favorites are played”Fight Test” and “Yoshimi vs. The Pink Robots Pt. 1″ get stripped-down, singalong readings– and the new album is represented by excellent cuts “Convinced of the Hex” and “Silver Trembling Hands.” Lovers of rarities get “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Existential Fear,” which Coyne claims the band had sworn to retire after performing it at the Pitchfork Music Fest earlier this Summer.
Suck it, Pitchfork Fest.
As I run for the busses, I’m tired but very pleased with the weekend. Festivals are an endurance test under the best of circumstances, but Treasure Island is certainly a fine example of what can be great about them. Alongside Coachella, it reigns tall as California’s best musical event.
-Words and Photographs by Luke Pimentel, Editor
For more information on Treasure Island Music Festival, please visit http://treasureislandfestival.com.