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You have to give the organizers of the Popped! Music Festival points for chutzpah. Despite all of the divine efforts to kill yet another attempt at bringing a big music festival to Philadelphia–torrential downpours and underwhelming ticket sales–they scrambled to salvage some semblance of what they worked undoubtedly very hard to put together. The problem is, the scrambling never stopped. Credit is due for finding a replacement venue at all mere days before the gates were set to open, but the migration from FDR Park to the Liacouras Center at Temple University screamed last resort in every possible way. The number of stages was cut from three to one by the move, resulting in all of the acts marathoning back to back into all hours of the night, many in twenty minutes or less. In addition to stages, several other Popped! perks were sacrificed. The highly anticipated Food Bazaar of gourmet food trucks (in its place, generic non-vegetarian friendly sports concessions and five dollar Miller Lite), the entire roster of comedians originally slated to perform and ?uestlove, all gone. With all of these setbacks in the crowd’s collective face before one note played, there had to be some kind of miraculous magic to make this two-day “party” redeemable. That magic did come, but mainly in fleeting moments sandwiched between others both inoffensive (Elbow) and inexcusable (Kreayshawn. Let us never speak of her again, please). That said, here are the top ten takeaways from Popped!
Most Disappointing Debut – Pains of Being Pure at Heart frontman Kip Berman proudly proclaimed that this was the band’s first arena performance. Unfortunately it showed, as the switch from an outdoor to indoor venue clearly did their sound no favors. A painfully prolonged set-up failed to keep their guitar feedback from drowning out the first half of their set. Gone were any traces of Alex Naidus’s bouncy bass or the keyboard/backing sighs of poor Peggy Wang, who might have vanished into the cacophonous wall of sound completely had it not been for her insanely loud parachute pants. Berman tried to give all the energy he had, and their problems with balance and volume did seem to finally get resolved with set closer “My Terrible Friend,” but by then it was too little, too late.
Most Pleasant Surprise – London newcomers Yuck made up for Pains’ paltry showing with a breezy exuberance not unlike how Superchunk manages to bring their albums to life on stage, or how one might wish Girls was capable of doing with their own. Songs like “Milkshake” from their self-titled debut locked into marvelously messy kraut grooves that gave hope, however brief, that things might just be okay after all.
Most Workmanlike – The Hold Steady were already facing an uphill battle when they came out to a crowd expecting to see an MIA Joy Formidable. While the jangle and spangle of their set created an amusing juxtaposition with the band’s appearance as parents who stumbled backstage after dropping off kids in the audience, they didn’t seem particularly bothered with engaging anyone beyond the front row. They only appeared interested in getting through the show. Even front man Craig Finn’s dancing felt boxed in and staged, though I can’t speak for what the sole two or three people he actually looked at during “Sequestered in Memphis” may have thought.
Band We Tried Hardest to Like But Couldn’t – Mercury Prize winning Brit rockers Elbow were the big veterans of Day One. Yet for all of their acclaim and notoriety in indie circles, they seemed terribly misbooked on a day full of the new and the now. Even with an arsenal of fresh songs at their disposal and a frontman who actually tried to include everyone, their ornately somber arrangements were met with utter indifference by the crowd, playing like white noise to people already trying to drown out the violent rainfalls outside.
Most Transcendent Trip – In a nice touch of irony, Panda Bear‘s languid pastoral psych finally managed to wake up the crowd that had gradually built up on the Liacouras floor. Flanked by Tomboy producer Pete Kemper (Sonic Boom) as his only accompaniment, the Animal Collective co-chair (aka Noah Lennox) let his reverb drenched guitar and blissed out howls envelop everyone in the room just as irridescent lights and random bursts of smoke machine enveloped him on stage. As if that image wasn’t surreal enough, he played against a large video backdrop playing everything from random screensaver swirls to piglets suckling their mother. All of the songs from the new record were well received, with mid-set centerpiece “Afterburner” starting as close to a rave-up as you can imagine at a Panda Bear show. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best was saved for last with seminal Person Pitch gems “Comfy in Nautica” and “Bros,” the latter enrapturing the crowd with one last squawk of feedback. Despite minimal stage banter, Lennox’s set felt the most intimate of Day One, and seemed to be the only one where the line was gone between people tripping out to the music and people tripping out to… other stuff.
Best Hangover Cure – Day Two started a few hours earlier with a few more band cancellations (Black Landlord, we hardy knew ye!). It ended up working in Zee Avi‘s favor, as the Malaysian folk-popper’s tropical-infused set went down like a refreshing splash of cold water for those Shin-heads who partied a little too hard the night before to catch day opener Patti Crash. To boot, she gave some of the most charming personality of the weekend when most performers were content to let their music talk. Not that her ukelele prowess and Feisty vocals were anything to sneeze at.
Best Rain Antidote – The rain may have stopped the night prior, but the air of disappointment at what could have been with better weather hung undeniably heavy over festival attendees’ heads. Leave it to New York upstarts Cults to bring a little bit of sunshine onto the stage for the crowd to bask in. Backed with a full band, Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin’s twinkling retro pop swirled and swaggered like an indoor beach party. Warmer and more adorable with each visit to Philly, Follin in particular came out with a swing in her step and revealed an increased nuance in her vocals, particularly during “Never Hear Myself” and signature song “Go Outside,” which carried a certain gallows humor to it given the circumstances. It’s a testament to both their growing live skills and their self-titled debut’s uniform quality that the latter was one of the weaker moments of their performance.
Best Local Representation – Philly’s own Sun Airway took to the stage to woo the audience with their warm and woozy brand of psych-gaze. Highlights from their better-with-age debut Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier translated well to the wide open space, even if the drums could have used a little more oomph to make vaguely danceable treats like “Put the Days Away” actually danceable. Frontman and former A-Sider Jon Barthmus proved quite the dynamic presence despite never moving out from behind his keyboards. His antsy dance moves were a keen visual representation of the fence between patience and propulsion that the whole set straddled with grace. One gripe beyond the band’s control: Despite numerous band absences on Day Two, sets remained tragically truncated and rudely rushed by stage hands who frequently moved back and forth across the stage during performances to begin set up for subsequent artists. Their refusal to respect the atmosphere of any band’s set appeared to be most egregious here.
Most Aptly Named Band – Titus Andronicus invigorated the mid-day crowds with a short but storming set that packed all of the epic grandeur that their Shakespearean namesake would indicate. Playing half of the songs from their impressive 2010 album The Monitor, they rocked and roared with reckless abandon. Frontman Eric Harm was an able anchor for the rollicking performance, but special props must be given to guitarist Amy Klein, who ignited the stage with her sensational shredding and infectious pogo dancing.
Most Passive-Aggressive Banter – Rap legend Rakim was initially one of the biggest draws of Popped! Inexplicably, he was shafted with one of the shortest sets, shrunk even more by sound issues that neutered the potency of his beats for anyone not within spitting distance. The icon made nice with attendees who ate up what little of his hits he was able to provide, but the performance was more memorable for his between song blurbs where he never missed a chance to remind everyone how badly the sound crew was hindering his ability to give them what they wanted. He even started a chant along the lines of “Come on now, man” as if his annoyance wasn’t already clear enough, to say nothing of ours. It was the only point in the festival where a performer dispensed with making lemonade and joined the crowd in throwing the lemons right back.
And there you have it. Was Popped! a total wash? Of course, not. After all, the festival at least avoided the literal washout that plagued and ultimately killed All Points West in Jersey City a few years back (RIP). At the same time, the hurried nature of much of the proceedings and performances made a lot of attendees wonder why they bothered in the first place, let alone whether it would be worth trying again next year. Hopefully the answer to the latter question ends up being yes. Philly deserves it’s own festival, especially as more and more groups opt to skip it on tours.
However, there were problems both before and after the myriad weather-related setbacks that need to be learned from if there’s any hope for a next year. For one, if you have a two-day music festival, take advantage of the weekend and don’t schedule the first day on a Friday when many people are still in work or class, particularly when you book most of your big name acts on said Friday. Secondly, try planning ahead for a better contingency venue next time that might better preserve the vibe of an outdoor festival. Susquehanna Bank Center is just across the Delaware and at least has ample grazing space indoors if not as much performing space. If you can’t fit all of your bands into said venue, maybe consider organizing a club party featuring your smaller acts after the festival proper. That way, you won’t have to worry about complaints that Rakim only got fifteen minutes while Kreayshawn got close to forty-five (Oops. There she is again).
Another suggestion may be to start a little smaller and earlier in the Summer. Popped’s last attempt at something of this scale was a one day block party on Drexel University’s campus in June of 2008. The weather was pleasant and the lineup was respectable, modest but current. Again, it was a commendably brave decision to leapfrog to this kind of setup after a two year break, but you can’t force growing up, in real life or a music festival. You try to cut corners after a dry spell, and you’re going to end up all wet.