all photos: Dakota Fine (1st portion of the day) and Jeff Martin (2nd portion of the day)
all wise words: Mitchell London
Sunday, May 1 might have been a great day to be an American, but it was a crappy day to have a rock festival in Columbia, MD. Most of the festival was pockmarked by a cold drizzle that drove people under the Pavillion and laid a wet blanket on dancing and outward displays of merriment. Many festivalgoers – myself included – did not anticipate the sheer crappiness of the weather and were not adequately prepared, wearing shorts, short-sleeved shirts, and sandals as some sartorial prayer for better weather. It did not pan out.
Despite the lack of meteorological cooperation, attendees turned out in droves and mostly stayed to the end. The festival was immaculately run – the turnover time between bands was amazingly short and made great use of the one-stage setup, the food was markedly better than standard festival fare, and the sound was pristine for the vast majority of the day. The only technical problem were flittering jumbotrons during the middle third of the day, but complaining about screens at a concert is a bit like complaining about the quality of a ribeye at a coffee shop. Those who braved the elements were treated to quality performances from about as diverse a group of modern artists as one could hope to pick if left blindfolded in the Pop/Rock section of a Best Buy.
Phase 1: DC Bands
Because the engine of my yellow BYT schoolbus was actually seven asthmatic hamsters, I missed Modern Man, which is a shame because I like that band. So instead, I walked into the featherriffic performance of US Royalty.
Having seen the band a couple of times around DC, I came to USR with a bit of time-honored ambivalence: On the one hand, I knew I was in for a meat-and-potatoes set of 70’s flavored quality rock tunes. On the other hand, who gives a damn about meat-and-potatoes quality rock tunes anymore? But the Royalty came to deliver, and it paid in spades. Each looking in his own way like he just finished a 72-hour coke-n-hooker binge with Lenny Kravitz (flag pants, feather shirt, lay-z-fro, timpani), the band swaggered, sang to the heavens, and were fortified by the majestic power of the festival stage.
Every note of harmony, every guitar lick, every wing-flappin feather dance was done with genuine gusto. Our humble DC band sounded for every second like they deserved to be on that big stage.
Phase 2: ?????
There are two predominant thoughts that marked the middle bit of this festival for me: 1. Now would be a good time to get food/ walk around/ see the sights. 2. I am really surprised by the popularity of this band.
Unfortunately, most of the time these two thoughts crept up because I felt that the music wasn’t good, but there were a couple of exceptions. I started to walk around immediately after USR, but as soon as I made it to the back row of festival tents, Walk the Moon had started their set. The music was uniformly energetic and unapologetically upbeat, featuring lots of 80’s synth and WhoooOOOooohhOOOOhhhh vocal harmonies. They struck the pose of a tight, hard-working band growing into its shoes on the festival circuit, which I found impressive because I had never once heard the name of the band in my life. This is not a group currently on track to make Pet Sounds (sample lyric: Do you know this house is falling apart? x4 We’re going to rattle this ghost town) maybe, but I found them to be impressively put-together and a welcome addition to the line-up. The audience, I think, agreed.
Next up was Theophilus London, who is apparently making a living sampling all of the same 70’s funk cuts that Grandmaster Flash was sampling in 1981. His approach to rap is somewhat novel in the Wiz Khalifera – it is smooth, cleanly produced, and written for radio – and his stage show effectively blends in some rock elements (electric guitar, funny bucket hat, windchimes) to an exciting effect. The show suffered, however, from what most rap shows suffer from: a “check out the size of my genitals” approach to bass, an unwanted and bizarre rap-solo (like a 3 minute drum solo BUT WITH WORDS) over Chris Brown’s latest 808 monstrosity, and a near-fetishistic approach to soliciting hand-sways from the crowd.
Following London were Ra Ra Riot and Cold War Kids, who I am told are quite good bands. I’ll let the comment section flesh out this claim a bit, as I have a somewhat different take. I found both bands to be listenable and pleasant enough, but as I dig through the rubble of my memory to identify an element of these shows that I found exciting or interesting or fun, the only nugget I’m excavating is “the cellist from RRR was pretty cute.” And she was. But the brand of white-collar indie rock that the band was selling seemed to my ears a bit played out. Any novelty or excitement to be wrested from an 8-person, strings-intensive rock band was stale back in ’08, and I feel like they are still coasting on those fumes.
Take everything I just wrote about Ra Ra Riot and apply it verbatim to Cold War Kids with the following amendments: change “cellist” to “front man” and “pretty cute” to “excessively earnest;” change “white-collar” to “blue collar;” and change “8-person, strings-intensive” to “five piece, fist-pumping.”
This is, of course, my personal take – one which will be roundly rejected in the comments section by any one of the 5000+ screaming fans who knew every word to every song from both of these bands.
Crystal Castles is big in the face-paint community, and why wouldn’t they be? They encapsulate everything there is to love about reckless youth. When the music first starts, Alice Glass is on her knees and over the course of the show, she manages to crowd surf, stand on top of everything there is to stand on top of, and writhes on the ground.
All of this she does with a broken-and-casted foot. The music is a melange of pounding drums and different permutations of synthesizer noise waves. The show was an enjoyable albiet brief spectacle, to be sure, but I was again left amazed at the number and tenacity of the fans.
I can say the following nice things about Lupe Fiasco: for a rapper, he is quite a good rock-star-showman (his head-banging skills are second to none in the rap community), he does a great Anthony Keidis circa 1993 impersonation. I can say the following nice things about Lupe Fiasco’s music: no instruments were obviously out of tune.
Phase 3: Profit
The headliners of this show are fixed commodities in the rock world. When you come to a Girl Talk or Strokes show, you know what you are going to get. Each act (in my opinion) delivered on its promise but not one cent more. For me, that was plenty.
I wrote about a Girl Talk show several months ago, and though his set for the festival had been shortened a bit it was basically exactly the same as it was then. He kept a varied tempo, built the set to dramatic climaxes, and dropped all the samples that you hoped he was going to drop (“Juicy,” “Party in the USA,” “Ante Up,” “Empire State of Mind,” etc).
The crowd responded as they always do at Girl Talk shows: they went crazy and danced around like 8-year-olds. If you have never seen Girl Talk before, invite 30 strangers to a basement apartment and put his most recent 3 CDs on shuffle. If you have seen Girl Talk before, you know exactly what was going on, except it was outdoors.
The last time I saw the Strokes was in October 2001. During that show in Birmingham, AL, Julian Casablancas wandered aimlessly around stage, the band sounded loose and unsure of themselves, and there was a certain electricity in the air.
Now, nearly 10 years later, the band is much tighter. Every guitar lick is played with razor precision; the metronymic drums and bass never lose their gallop. But the band has lost the momentum of the new, the electricity in the air.
The weakness of the new material, combined with the too-cool-to-care attitude of the band threatened at times to dampen the show, but it didn’t keep them from being a great band with great songs. For at least two thirds of the show, the band stuck to the reliable hits (they played over half of Is This It and the choicest cuts from Room on Fire), and each one was a dance-inspiring crowd-pleaser.