Words By Dan Singer, Photos By Jason Bender and Clarissa Villondo
Forget FreeFest — every concert seems to be a damn festival these days. Just look at Maryland concert mecca Merriweather Post Pavilion, which played host this year to the Sweetlife Festival, Thank You Festival, Capital Jazz Fest, Vans Warped Tour, Summer Spirit Block Party and Mad Decent Block Party (and still has the Route 29 Revue and Sunday in the Country to come). Plenty of folks have already dissected at length the relationship between music festivals and our shrinking attention spans and insatiable craving for Face-Likes and Insta-Hearts on that one picture of you and your friends having a really great time (read: getting sunburnt and struggling to obtain cell service). That being said, how does the Silopanna Music Festival fit into the DMV’s ever-growing (and totally stacked) lineup of bloated choose-your-own-adventure concerts? What needs does it fulfill, and will it still be needed when the festival bubble reaches a breaking point?
Unlike many of its peers, Silopanna doesn’t seem overly concerned with capturing/co-opting coolness and the Millennial excitement that gives corporations a raging hard-on. Seventy dollars at the door (or $175 as a VIP) gets you veteran festival fare (Matt & Kim), artists who scored their biggest hits years ago (Dashboard Confessional, Hellogoodbye), a slew of local acts and a headliner whose lead singer is 53-years-old (The Flaming Lips). For some, this may be too steep a price, but keep in mind that this focus on trusty, feel-good entertainment is bad news bears for Chipotle and AT&T, not necessarily for you.
Held at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in Annapolis, Silopanna (get it?) is intent on reaching your pleasure centers, fried Oreos and all, while still maintaining your comfort. It’s in a quiet, rural area, but there’s no need to pitch a tent for the weekend. Vendors are non-intrusive as you make your way to the side stages, and corporate tastemaker Monster gives away pink lemonade energy drinks for most of the afternoon. Even in terms of people-watching, low-key suburbanites appear to outnumber obnoxious Coachella caricatures. Early on, I witness a tiny kid crowd surfing with a wide-eyed smile that belongs in a Cheerios ad.
The snark-free and judgment-free life has the potential to be a rather vanilla one, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for people like me who spend several hours each day reading the news and reading their friends’ threaded arguments about the news. This aesthetic extends to Silopanna’s musical lineup, and I give a lot of credit to festival partner WRNR-FM for fostering a climate that allows these artists to coexist on the same bill. I often tune in to RNR (at least until it bleeds to death on the Beltway) for a healthy mix of new music and not-so-guilty pleasures, and as a result, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for Fastball’s “The Way” over the past few months. Long live FM radio.
Maybe we don’t need Silopanna in the same way that we need to consume and react to the next big thing before we fall behind and miss out. Instead, the festival is a sort of homespun rebuttal to this mentality. What Silopanna lacks in cultural capital and hip branding it makes up for with a friendly, unpretentious vibe and clean porta-potties. Make no mistake, you’re still being sold an “experience,” but the Silopanna experience is unique in that it leaves concertgoers some breathing room in between delicious sips of that Monster energy drink.
Here’s a roundup of what I caught on the main stage:
The Warped Tour vets that brought Drive-Thru Records a platinum hit in 2006 have spent the last few years making some surprisingly exceptional music. Would It Kill You? (2010) delightfully bridges the gap between pop-punk fervor and sun-kissed Elephant 6 whimsy, and last year’s Everything is Debatable tackles breezy synthpop with the same level of craft. Songs from these albums made up the majority of Hellogoodbye’s Silopanna set and were easy on the ears but intriguing enough for anyone who wanted to listen more closely. In other words, this was a successful early afternoon set, satisfying eager festivalgoers and blanket-sitters alike.
Auto-tuned tracks from Hellogoodbye’s 2006 debut Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! brought me back a few years, but they were lackluster in form and execution compared to the music the band is making these days. However, “Here (In Your Arms),” the big one, was given a woozy Bon Iver-esque makeover. Those precious lyrics haven’t changed, but the guys singing them have grown up a little bit.
Sleeper Agent is at its best when it keeps the edges rough. I find myself coming back to the band’s debut album Celabrasion every so often to hear retro pop hooks embedded into raucous garage rock sensibilities. The strongest songs from that album, such as “Love Blood” and “Get It Daddy,” were delivered with infectious energy on Saturday. Sleeper Agent’s new album About Last Night unfortunately polishes those edges, relying a bit too much on safe, midtempo pop/rock conventions and shying away from the band’s ragged charm. About Last Night contains some well-written songs, like lead single “Waves,” but they don’t have that same spark in the studio or onstage. Maybe growing pains are holding it back, but Sleeper Agent truly thrives (and stands out) when it speeds things up and lets loose.
Matt & Kim
Aside from the set list, Matt & Kim haven’t changed much since I last saw them four years ago. Rap interludes, Kim’s crowd surfing/twerking, “Daylight”…it’s all still there. And seriously, how can two people smile that much? I have a pet theory that Matt & Kim are robots who were genetically engineered to make lightweight hip-hop-influenced “indie” music that appeases festival crowds and scares away your curmudgeonly friends. In a saturated market, we need reliable “festival bands” to satisfy the demand for more festivals, and as long as Matt & Kim stay smiling we will inch further toward the day when we wake up to find out that our existence has been a gigantic music festival this whole time.
Dashboard Confessional’s first show in two years received the strongest response of the day. Chris Carrabba can still hit those cathartic high notes with ease, and his songs have aged pretty well in the years since the mall-emo backlash died down and I stopped buying Hot Topic T-shirts. It was odd seeing Dashboard in the Silopanna lineup when it was announced earlier this year, but I’m curious as to how many people came solely to see the band (and if the festival would’ve been a financial bust had they not played). From the sound of it, you could’ve filmed a Lots and Lots of Dashboard Confessional Fans DVD at the fairgrounds.
I thought “Screaming Infidelities” and “The Best Deceptions” had the crowd at peak levels of swooning, but those were child’s play compared to set closer “Hands Down,” which was the loudest sing-along I’ve heard this year. Carrabba wanted to play another song but had ran over his allotted time, so when his band was packing up he came back onstage unplugged and led the crowd in the “And I knew, that you meant it…” refrain once again. If festival organizers were praying for a “Silopanna moment” to aid future marketing efforts, this was it.
The Flaming Lips
When I profiled Wayne Coyne for the Baltimore Sun last week, he told me that recent Flaming Lips shows were, in his opinion, some of the best gigs the band has ever played. The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands, but I felt the need to approach Coyne’s statement with skepticism.
I really enjoyed seeing the Lips twice in 2009, but their set at Merriweather last fall was borderline depressing. Leaning heavily on dreary songs from The Terror and turning longtime concert staples into extended dirges, the Lips came across like a band that was deliberately trying to alienate its fans. Many would argue that this has been the case offstage as well, as recent Flaming Lips output has largely consisted of gimmicky releases, and Coyne appears to spend more time tending to his Instagram account than refining his ambitious ideas.
Strangely enough, though, Coyne was right. This was the most thrilling Flaming Lips show I’ve seen. I expected to hear “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” and “Race for the Prize,” but the rest of the set, which kicked off with “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (from Clouds Taste Metallic) and a round of confetti blasts, consisted of several curveballs: Yoshimi’s “In the Morning of the Magicians,” a gorgeous rendition of The Soft Bulletin’s “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” the Lips/Chemical Brothers collaboration “The Golden Path” and an inflatable hamster ball interlude during “Vein of Stars.” It was a goofy, melodic return to form, and Coyne, wearing a muscular bodysuit, was once again the starry-eyed ringleader of dancing aliens and mushrooms. Even The Terror track “Look…The Sun Is Rising” fit in nicely by being re-contextualized as manic noise rock.
The Lips’ light show added to the otherworldly sensory overload. Thick bunches of glowing tentacles from last year’s live setup drooped down from the lighting rigs, and new set pieces, such as a giant flashing cube, became an integral part of Coyne’s theatrics. The flurries of bright light that climaxed during “The W.A.N.D.” caused someone in the crowd to have a seizure, and that brought the set to a halt as paramedics arrived. This apparently happened at another gig this summer, and if the Lips are going to continue upping the intensity of their visuals, festival-goers should receive some sort of warning.
Once they were allowed to resume, the Lips ended with “Do You Realize??” The song sounded great, but the dissonance between the flashing ambulance lights and Coyne’s lyrics about embracing death was more surreal than everything else that came before it. Seeing the Flaming Lips revive their colorful antics made me think the band still has a few good ideas left, but I do hope they take measures to warn people about what they’re in for when it comes to the live show. I think even the dancing mushrooms would agree that safety comes first.
The Flaming Lips
Matt & Kim
School of Rock
Jimmie’s Chicken Shack