All words: Jeb Gavin, Farrah Skeiky — All photos: Joy Asico
first up, some memories by Jeb: Oh sweet music festival life. That’s not me waxing poetic about the name of the Sweetlife Music and Food Festival, presented by Sweetgreen at Merriweather Post Pavilion this past Saturday. I just generally love music, and love any day I get a whole lot of it live.
These are heady days for music festival goers. In the past couple of years, everyone’s started their own music festival, and most are average to middling. That seems to happen. Gone are the days of Woodstock ’99. Now there’s always enough water, and while you can still get a crap-ton of fried food at exorbitant prices, now gourmet food trucks show up, satiating my every desire. In fact, now that I think about it, Sweetlife was a pretty solid say for me in general.
First off, most music festivals, you set some absurd schedule to see all of your favorite bands, running back and forth, missing opening and closing numbers to make it to every stage. Me, I had no agenda. I don’t think I saw a bad show, but then again, I wasn’t desperate to see any of them. I arrived in time to see Fun, a band whose name I can never seem to adequately stylize.
Their set was shockingly high energy power pop, reminding me for some reason of Barenaked Ladies shows from back in the day (probably just a thought planted in my head by a Canadian flag on the guitarist’s sweat shirt.) I decided to hang out at the pavilion stage the next show, rapper A$AP Rocky.
Aside from them being 20 minutes late, they put on a hell of a show. And an audience whose childish behavior would normally piss me off was mostly endearing. I watched the show from the pit, with a crowd of stoned, multi-ethnic teens who weren’t alive the first time I saw a live rap show. It was a blast, even if the squirrely looking kid swigging vodka from a water bottle kept staring at me like a narc (granted, I was wearing my narciest-looking fishing hat, and rocking a non-ironic fanny pack holding my rain poncho.)
Opting to stalk the food court for a bit, I took in a fried chicken sandwich from Jose Andres’ food truck Pepe. That sammich was stunning, though way too tiny, and perhaps a little more heat is needed. Next up were popsicles from Pleasant Pops. Let me tell you, those things are addictive.
There is a good chance I will camp outside their new store just south of Adams Morgan until it opens and I can stock up on Carolina Sweet Tea pops. Over the next eight hours, I managed to house pulled pork sliders, some cookies from Momofuku Milk Bar up in New York, and the Shake Shack’s latest burger creation, the Smoke Shack, which is their standard shack burger, with cherry pepper relish and bacon. There is a better than average chance it will be the death of me, and I’m OK with that.
Heading back to the pavilion to see a ripping, though largely ignored Fitz and the Tantrums set, I ran into a friend and her sorority sisters, and opted to hang with them as they rolled away the next few sets on the lawn. All agreed, Fitz pulled out all the stops, though it felt like the audience didn’t even care.
Luckily, next up was Explosions in the Sky. I don’t know that words can adequately describe the all instrumental art rock sonic explorations that went on that day. I choose to believe the people gazing up at the liquid gray sky were moved by the music, and not hitting that mid-afternoon lull that comes from an afternoon full of recreational chemicals.
All I know is, I love Explosions in the Sky, and will, from time to time, lie on the floor listening to them, and completely clear my mind.
At this point I opted to run back to the Toki Underground booth to house a pho dog. In this case, a half smoke boiled in pho broth, dressed with Sriracha and hosin, topped with a bit of slaw, sprigs of cilantro and fresh squeezed lime. Well, that didn’t last long. I ducked into the press booth to flirt with cute volunteers and get out of the rain. Or vice versa. Towards the end of the rain, Zola Jesus took to the tree house stage for a quick but intense half hour.
As things around the food truck court wound down, I took the opportunity to indulge in a massive, New Orleans sandwich known as a muffuletta. A concoction of sliced capicola and sopprasseta, topped with cheese and a chopped and marinated olive salad full of carrots and pickled cauliflower, akin to a spreadable giardiniere, layered on a big, dense wheel of bread, all compressed and magical. I’d like to think I made love to that sandwich, but truth be told, it made me its bitch.
The Kid Cudi set which followed was crazy, intense and amped up. I’d heard his music, I’ve enjoyed his music, but I never quite understood. Seeing it live, you get this sense of the point live music, which is as high a compliment as I could think of for a performing musician.
Avicii followed a few minutes later, but I was tapped out by then.
Much as I give people crap for Avicii, I tend to forget how much I enjoyed his work on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. His visuals were killer, and the crowd was completely on board to rock out, but I was exhausted by this point, and every beat simply reminded me of seeing LCD Soundsystem two years prior on the same stage.
After wandering aimlessly and loving it, abusing my dignity stomping from haute cuisine booth to haute cuisine booth, and seeing some unexpectedly awesome concerts, nothing could get to me. It was a great day, which is saying a lot for a day at a music festival.
And-more from Farrah:
Before Sweetlife, the only thing I’d seen from LP was this SXSW street performance, and it was enough to make me want to see her live. The crowd response in the video was the same on Saturday: initially, people weren’t completely sure what was happening on stage (the best description I heard was “A Bob Dylan impersonator in front of a bunch of guys in suits”), but midway through the first song, Laura Pergolizzi’s booming voice and tiny ukulele drew more and more perked ears in. The first song is definitely the strongest because it has to be when you’re still as relatively unknown as LP. As the audience at the Treehouse Stage grew, the band slowed things down with “Tokyo Sunrise,” which highlighted the perfect vocal duo of LP and the keyboard player, drifting between those harmonies and LP’s signature wailing which keeps such a subdued song alive.
During “Salvation,” I realize that it would have been very, very easy for LP’s ukulele to feel tacked on to the rest of the band (or vice versa), and the wonderful thing is that it doesn’t. Everything fits, with the exception of a guitar solo that should have been a ukulele solo. The set closes with “Into the Wild” which has a heavy ukulele emphasis and shows off LP’s awesome whistling—a strong end to a strong set. I think we’re all looking forward to seeing more of her.
People seem to either hate US Royalty or love them. There’s not much indifference or apathy involved. But the crowd that came to see them was excited to see this Sweetlife staple, a few already donning the “US Bloody Royalty, That’s Who” shirts. After hearing the Micah Vellian remix of “Equestiran,” I was curious.
Unfortunately, the energy of that dance mix didn’t come through in the live instrumentation. This seemed to be a theme for a lot of bands at Sweetlife: not lethargic, but residing close to the threshold of “festival energy” needed to bring a set to life. The songs sounded great, and those who came to see the band seemed to enjoy themselves, but it was missing the personality that makes a festival set stand out enough to be memorable. Maybe it’s the comfort of being veterans at Sweetlife that makes US Royalty sound subdued. But if you’re going to play three years in a row, you need to remind the crowd why you’re here, and why they should want you to come back next year.
At this point, the clouds are coming out and the rain has begun. Those who had already emptied their wallets in the Food Forest were slipping into food comas. So really, it was the perfect time for RAC to take the stage, and help everyone dance it off. And to no surprise, the set was great. RAC somehow managed to fit in with the dreary weather, and pull people out of their funk and into a more acceptable dance kind of funk.
Under a sea of hoods and umbrellas, people excitedly welcomed this change of pace and temporarily forgot about the rain. A Yeah Yeah Yeahs remix stood out, highlighting their upbeat, rain-rain-go-away set. And for a few minutes, the rain did stop. I’ll chalk it up to the power of good vibes and good remixes.
After reading about their recent sold out 9:30 Club show, I was expecting to thoroughly enjoy Delta Spirit’s set. Maybe it was the dreary weather, maybe it was the incoherent and sloppy audience that somehow found their way to the stage,
but Delta Spirit played a set that sounded fairly muddled and was almost energetic enough, but not quite.
I really wanted them to reach that level of energy that would make me want to dance, but it just wasn’t there. The attitude of the crowd was “we are here because we want you to play California,” and the attitude of the band was “we know you want to hear California, so we’re saving the good stuff for later.” And even during their most popular song, the anticipated sense of urgency that should come with such a vivacious song was lacking.
The most powerful presence on the Treehouse Stage all day, Zola Jesus should have been the finale. Nika Danilova, dressed in all white in contrast to her band, declares, “We are not wet, and we are not cold!” Standing before a keyboard player, violinist and drummer, She’s a wonder to watch. She exudes an enormous energy that betrays her tiny stature, and dancing in short bursts with moves precise but not at all robotic.
The macabre energy of such a beautiful set is complimented by the weather, and an initially modest crowd begins to grow as the set continues, and people realize that they are witnessing something special. There were several shining moments in this set- the performance of “Shivers” sending shivers down my spine (not the rain, I swear), and second, Nika climbing on the shoulders of a security guard and then running offstage and singing face to face with an awestruck crowd. The last song of the set ends with Nika procuring a pair of drumsticks and thrashing onto cymbals in perfect time and with intimidating force. Every first listener is impressed and surprised, and I’ve been converted.
I feel bad for Twin Shadow, because they had to follow Zola Jesus. If you’re going to be the last band performing at the Treehouse Stage and you’re following Zola Jesus, you need to blow everyone away, and Twin Shadow fell short. I had heard from friends that they’re not good live, which isn’t true; they’re just a little boring.
The rain started persisting, but so did the band. At times it seemed like they really did want to keep the energy up, but for the majority of what I saw, they were content with underperforming in this timeslot. Despite that, the crowd that showed up seemed to have a great time, dancing and singing along at a moderate pace. It’s difficult to take such a laid-back, slow-paced sound and make it work in a festival setting, and Twin Shadow definitely tried to translate it to this event but just didn’t quite do it. Perhaps the 9:32 DJ Lounge was a better space for them at Sweetlife.
and SO MANY MORE AMAZING SNAPS from Joy, the hardest working photographer that day, hands down: