Treasure Island Festival – Day One
September 29, 2008 · Print This Article
Words and Photographs By Luke Pimentel, Editor
September 29, 2008
Alfred Hitchcock used to call San Francisco the “Paris of the United States”. He said it with good reason; if you’ve ever been to S.F., you’ll know it’s often more difficult to find a bad view than a good one. From the headlands at the foot of the Golden Gate to the top of Lombard Street to the beaches of Sunset, the city is a virtual Candyland of urban visual delights.
Until quite recently, though, one of its very best views was one of its least-known.
Treasure Island has sat, rather unobtrusively, across from the city for over seventy years. A man-made adjunct between the two spans of the Bay Bridge, the island is perhaps most famous for hosting World’s Fair expositions in 1939 and 1940. Following the Fair, the island served as a naval facility during World War II. In recent decades, it had been used for little other than occasional film and television productions. Then, in 2007, local promoters Noise Pop and Another Planet Entertainment tapped it as the hosting ground for its fledgling music festival, which was to focus primarily on electronica and alternative rock.
In the short time it has existed, the festival has boasted stellar lineups, relatively intimate crowds, and unmatched views of the Bay that other festivals would simply kill for. Befitting the name of its location, it is a real jewel, and a terrific addition to the San Francisco music scene.
One of the festival’s proud traditions – and one my own favorite features – is its goal of streamlining the number of attractions to where no act overlaps another during the course of the day. Any attendee is capable of seeing every name on the lineup, if their feet and spirits are willing. (“Hear Every Note of Every Act!”, as the official website trumpets.) I love this because it eliminates the frustrating, Sophie’s Choice-esque dilemmas that torture attendees at larger events when their favorite bands inevitably end up scheduled opposite each other on the bill.
As a challenge – or, perhaps, a world-class act of self-indulgent madness – I decided that I would attempt to see and photograph every single act on the bill for this year’s event, 28 bands in total.
I likely lost a few pounds and more than a few hairs along the way, but in the end, I met the challenge.
Here, then, is my journal for Day One.
I’m not even on the island yet, but already the festival promoters are demonstrating their intelligence in coordinating the event. Attendees park at nearby AT&T Park, and are shuttled over on cushy buses to the venue; the shuttle includes a scenic ride across the Bay Bridge. The buses are even equipped with self-produced videos of irreverent sketch comedy designed specifically for sardonic hipsters like myself. (Sample dialogue: ”Why am I a woman? Because I’m holding yogurt, the official food of women!”)
Normally, festival staffing is surly and apathetic at best, but I should note that every staffer I meet at Treasure Island, from the Information booth to the folks running the photo pits, is courteous, professional and helpful.
Bridge Stage, as seen from Tunnel Stage.
12:30 PM -
On the island now, with credentials safely secured. The morning clouds are wearing off. Unfortunately, there is a big chain-link fence blocking the spectacular view of the city across the way, but there is also a Ferris Wheel for folks who want to take the high road.
The first act of the weekend is on the smaller Tunnel Stage: dance band The Frail, a local favorite on S.F.’s alternative station Live 105. They are not sounding frail at all, and lead singer Daniel Lannon is by no means shy as he pushes through a pack of photographers to get closer to the crowd while the band pushes through an energetic twenty-minute set. The festival has granted the two opening slots both days to local acts, and this one gets the event off to a solid start.
Daniel Lannon of The Frail.
12:50 PM -
Now I know what I’m in for; hoofing it from one stage to the other, over and over for the next ten hours. They’re close together, but not that close.
The other local band, Loquat, reminds me a lot of a great Dutch band called The Gathering… if The Gathering were led by Aimee Mann. A little guitar trouble early on – the heavy winds will create some very minor technical glitches here and there – but Kylee Swenson’s vocals are gorgeous, and the sanguine guitar work by Earl Otsuka impresses me enough to want to look them up again down the trail.
Kylee Swenson of Loquat.
Back to Tunnel Stage for a bit of Chester French - a group perhaps best known for guitarist Maxwell Drummey’s marriage to Peaches Geldof, daughter of Bob Geldof – before almost immediately pivoting back to Bridge Stage again (zig-zag, zig-zag) for Aesop Rock at 1:45. (I’ll be much happier when these sets get longer. Sheesh.)
Maxwell Drummey of Chester French.
Aesop Rock’s name betrays the fact that he’s the lone hip-hop act on the bill. Bay Area rappers Zion-I filled that role in ’07 and did a fine job of it; New York-based A.R. is equally impressive, rocking it – erm, hopping it – pretty well in spite of a still meagerly-populated audience.
Aesop Rock demonstrates proper smiling technique.
Rock (ne Ian Bavitz) and partner Rob Sonic put together the raps while D.J. Big Wiz lays down the beats on what looks like an EX pedal and two Technics 1200 turntables. After attempting some old-school break-dancing with marginal success, Rock chuckles and says, “Ain’t as easy as it used to be.” Amen, brutha.
Rob Sonic and D.J. Big Wiz.
Fusion electronica artists (and cowboy hat enthusiasts) Nortec Collective are spinning their unique brand of Tijuana mash-up on Tunnel Stage, laying claim to a spontaneously self-created award: Best Central American-ized Gotan Project of the Weekend.
Boy, I crack myself up.
Nortec Collective admire their fancy gear.
Back to Bridge Stage for more Brooklyn goodness with Antibalas, the first truly eye-opening act of the festival. With a massive Afro-soul-funk eclecticism that could only come from the East Coast, they feel a bit incongruous on a largely electronica-themed day, but they’re so much fun you really don’t care. They get the ball rolling on crowd interaction, dividing everyone into two sections (“patience” and “persistence,” heh) before instructing each side to either growl or let out a rhythmic series of “Tchk! Tchk! Tchk” noises. (Hey, it’s far more interesting than yet another tribal drum circle.)
Members of Antibalas get ethno-funky.
Vocalist/conga-ist Amayo struts the stage like James Brown via Geronimo, while saxophonist/bandleader Martin Perna delights in the fact that (finally!) left-leaning musical groups have some political figures to decry other than Bush. “You believe in democracy, right? We’re dedicating this one to John McCain and his good friend Sarah Palin,” Perna shouts sarcastically to loud cheers, before leading the crowd in a long, free-form diss-off: “Condoleeza Rice indictment! Dick Cheney indictment! Bill O’Reilly indictment!”
New award for Antibalas: “Best Republican-Bashing of the Weekend.”
Amayo of Antibalas.
The wind is really picking up, and it won’t dissipate for the rest of the night. Some sound trouble for British rockers Foals on the solar-powered Tunnel Stage – probably the longest glitch of the weekend – a silence which they use to thrash loudly on every single drum they have available in their arsenal. Decent set with a surprisingly large crowd.
Yannis Philippakis (vocals) and Walter Gervers (bass) of Foals.
Hot Chip are, arguably, the first heavy-hitting name on the lineup, and they’re excellent, spinning infectious dance-pop at what would prove to be a peak time for audience energy; the folks I talk to on the bus ride home say that this is their favorite set of the day.
Joe Goddard of Hot Chip.
As I take off for Tunnel Stage, I hear the final tune of their set: an awesome cover of “Nothing Compares 2U” that, somehow, manages to be even more melancholy than the Sinead O’Connor version. That little piece of ingenuity earns them the coveted “Best Cover of the Weekend” award.
Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip.
The bass stacks at the front of Tunnel Stage nearly rattle my teeth out of my head while I’m trying to take shots of Amon Tobin, the Canadian D.J. specializing in NIN-esque ambient beats. While Tobin sits museum-piece still at his laptop, the little pools of industrialized samples and urban noise tumble out and quickly balloon into full-on essays of rumble and clatter before my eyes.
As a guy who listens to Fripp and Eno while going to sleep, I am thoroughly entranced by this display of awesomeness.
Place is getting crowded now; bathroom lines are already a mile long. Beer and wine move through the crowd in copious volumes. Stilt artists dressed in kinky pirate garb dance their way across the field like something out a Hunter S. Thompson drug trip. Glib T-shirts are popping up everywhere, emblazoned with slogans like “Do Epic Sh–” and “Rock ‘n Roll, Motherf—-er.”
World’s largest Aerosmith logo?
The light begins to fade, and Goldfrapp, ne Alison Goldfrapp – a vision in white with electric pink and orange strips flowing off her dress like Bjork comets – brings her ethereal sustains to the Bridge Stage, while guys in rubber alien suits create a wild dance pit at the center of the audience.
Although the wind blows her tangled curls straight back into her face – making her look a bit alien herself – Alison’s voice sounds all the more lovely when carried across the festival grounds by the same wind. Her set – punctuated by the muscular thump of “Strict Machine” – is a festival highlight.
Extra credit for the bizarre/amusing stage props, including – I kid you not – a pair of giant elk antlers decorating Ged Lynch’s drum kit. I’m not sure whether to call that “pastoral” or just plain brawny.
Charlie Jones of Goldfrapp.
A lady standing on a rocky outcropping next to the Bay - just outside the fence boundary – is enjoying a free show and happily hula-hooping to Goldfrapp while, behind her, the sun sets against the Bay Bridge. A lovely San Fran moment.
As I lightly bounce on my tired feet to Bay Area native Mike Relm’s self-proclaimed “fun house D.J. party set”, I hear a mash-up of Danny Elfman’s music from Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure and the Charlie Brown theme. Inspired. Reminds me of my hometown a few miles North, which was home to Charles Schulz for fifty years… but anyway.
D.J. Mike Relm.
Back to Bridge, where the New Yorkers are invading again, this time in the form of T.V. on the Radio. A collective who take seemingly chaotic electronic soundscapes and splash them against ingeniously arranged rock structures, they have that ephemeral quality of being able to walk the treacherous chasm between pop and avant-garde with Wallenda finesse. (Only Radiohead rivals them in this department.)
Tunde Adebimpe of T.V. on the Radio.
Their live sound is a bit more conventional than on crazy-brilliant studio albums like Return to Cookie Mountain, but what they lack in experimentation they make up for in sheer sonic power. Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals tower over the dusk, while Kyp Malone – spotted earlier in the day mingling with random members of the audience – flashes a big smile. The brass musicians from Antibalas make a welcome return appearance to the stage, giving the band a formidable rhythm section of trumpets and saxophones to accentuate its already mammoth sound. Another highlight on a day filled with highlights.
Kyp Malone of T.V. on the Radio.
Although it’s wonderful to be inundated with so much great music in such a compressed period of time, I have to say that the practice of dashing from stage to stage to line up at the photo pits also makes it really difficult to give each band the amount of attention and focus I’d like. I’m glad I got my T.V. on the Radio fix, but I can’t wait to see them roll around again for a solo performance sometime in the near future.
Members of Antibalas cameo during T.V. on the Radio’s set.
Biggest battle of the night for photo pit space? That would be for C.S.S. (or “Cansei de Ser Sexy”), the Brazilian band whose music apparently shows up Stateside in a lot of T.V. commercials. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know a thing about ‘em, to be honest, but they’re really popular; the Tunnel stage is crammed in as tight as I’ll see it all weekend.
C.S.S.’s Carolina Parra.
The set is fast-paced and filled with Fischerspooner-style excess. Lead singer Lovefoxxx is as flamboyant as her name, dressed in some kind of feather outfit that makes her look like a deranged peacock on mushrooms. I just barely escape with my life.
Toughest act of the weekend to shoot? That would be Parisian D.J. duo Justice and their strobe-littered collection of fake Marshall amp towers.
I had a chance to see these guys’ very first live appearance ever, at Coachella 2007. However – having worn myself out dancing to Arcade Fire just minutes before – I decided to call it a night and left before seeing them. Silly me.
Now, barely a year-and-a-half later, Gaspard Auge and Xavier de Rosnay are headlining festivals and generally making Daft Punk look dull by comparison. My, how quickly things change.
Blinded by the light – Justice.
A thundering fanfare booms out of the P.A. – the house sound has been largely spectacular – and the gigantic cross at the front of the stage facade lights up a blinding white. Two tiny heads can be seen bouncing frantically behind it as the massive breakbeat of “Genesis” kicks in.
The crowd eats it up; a great and exciting set from a couple of admittedly great showmen. As I trudge out of the photo pit, I am amazed at how much rave power everyone still has after hours of dancing, drinking, and partying.
I really am getting old.
Gaspard Auge of Justice.
The night ends a little after 10:00 with the terrific hit single “D.A.N.C.E.,” a thoroughly appropriate show closer. I am tired as Hell, but happy.
It’s been quite a day, but the best is still yet to come.
For more information on Treasure Island Music Festival, please visit www.treasureislandfestival.com.