Saturday, October 15
It was an uncharacteristically clear-skied day in the bay as hipsters and bros alike made their way to the the first day of the 2011 Treasure Island Music Festival. Warm sunshine and a cool breeze off the water competed for festival-goer’s wardrobes – some in loose fitting tank tops, many others in leather jackets or sweaters.
At first, however, it seemed the sun had won out – the crowd for Aloe Blacc was buzzing, jovial and in the mood to groove to some soul. They were almost too chatty, but still attentive enough to shower the singer with positive energy and sway with the music. In a vibrant green button down and tight black vest, he kept the set chugging merrily along the entire time, moving smoothly from track to track, including hits “You Make Me Smile” and “I Need A Dollar,” dancing like a fool as he went. When he asked the audience to set up a dance tunnel, as seen on Soul Train, they assembled quickly. If Treasure Island was a cruise, Aloe Blacc was the director – immediately establishing the carefree festival spirit.
The duo took the stage with no intro, set up behind their equipment and just went to work. The crowd, still in sunny spirits from Aloe Blacc didn’t seem to know what to make of their unique style of hip hop and occasionally choreographed gestures (not really “dancing” per se, particularly since they didn’t move from behind their stations). It was a restrained and meticulous mix of raw, gritty, and often tribal beats, with no-frills rhymes on top, the rappers completely tuned in to the music, as though determined to keep it from slipping out of their grasp, while always being on the verge of breaking loose. Ultimately, while Shabazz Palaces may have demonstrated a unique spin on the genre, it didn’t quite translate to the festival environment.
As a result, the audience flocked over to YACHT early to get their party back on. YACHT was more than happy to deliver; so raucous it seemed as though they were mocking the thought anything else was acceptable. Claire Evans paraded around the stage like a European pop star straight out of the 1960s: circular shades, white long-sleeved minidress and angular, theatrical dance moves – all of which fit with the electronic, space-pop music. Unburdened by an instrument, Evans was free to run across the stage, jump on amps, and even wrap herself up in a microphone cord. She, along with the rest of the band, fervently attacked tracks like “Summer Song” and “Watch It Burn,” yelping forcefully on “I Walk Alone,” and lighting a fire under the crowd for “The Afterlife,” “Dystopia” and “Psychic City,” that would carry them through the rest of the day.
The Naked and Famous
After a set as incendiary as YACHT, it was tough for the more straightforward, polished rock band to really grab the crowd’s attention. The Naked and Famous still charmed. Electronic flourishes danced on aggressive rock riffs, beginning with “Passive Me, Aggressive You” and the anthemic, “Punching In A Dream,” and ending with “Young Blood.”
Battles set the evening on its course. The trio started slow, building sound upon sound, until the audience was completely dialed in and the band in full swing. Each instrumental track managed to be dynamic, explosive, and always completely controlled. Battles didn’t need witty banter or acrobatics to get the audience moving, they simply did what they were good at: an offbeat yet still compelling mix of sounds and instruments.
Delicate plucking met screeching distortion, vascillating between a cacophony of noise and sparse beats. If aliens with a great sense of rhythm were exposed to pop music, the result might sound like Battles. Vocals didn’t come into play until ten minutes into the set with “Atlas.” Then, after slowing things down for a moment, they launched into “Ice Cream” and “My Machines.” The latter two featured videos of the guest artists (Matias Aguayo and Gary Numan respectively) singing the lyrics behind the band.
The first time any member even spoke was near the end, only to say that they had too much music to play to chat, before finishing out with a whimsical number propelling the crowd back to the Bridge Stage for the next act. One can only hope Shabazz Palaces learned a lesson from Battles – the pair was watching side stage for most of the set.
Dizzee Rascal made it clear from the moment he claimed the stage that he was not the performer one might expect: “I’m not one of those rappers with all the heavy chains who don’t move anywhere…we’re gonna dance!” With the conviction of a Tasmanian devil, Dizzee wasted no time making good on his word. He spanned a variety of styles, from the pounding dubstep beat under “Heavy” to “Sirens.” He dropped new lyrics over KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” and the classic “Fix Up Look Sharp,” following it with “You’ve Got The Dirtee Love,” his mashup with Florence and The Machine. The man could not be contained and everyone was along for the ride.
So began the string of bands all heavily influenced by the glamour and slick chords of decades past. In the case of Chromeo, that decade is the 1970s, with the addition of the Montreal band’s signature tongue in cheek attitude. The flashy light show made the scruffy duo, and their commitment to the sugar-coated electro-funk, even more amusing. Beginning with favorite, “Fancy Footwork,” they bounced between the album of the same name and Business Casual, covering the better part of both albums. Their energy level, however, was just not quite what it needed to be after the ferocious performances that preceded them.
It took a while for the set to pick up steam, slowed down by drawn out attempts to engage the audience with autotuned banter. The one interlude that did get a positive response was the opening guitar chords of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” as they sang “I want my Chromeo.” From there, the band moved into a more soulful direction for the remainder of the set. “Mama’s Boy” featured a groovy piano solo and ended in a funky jam session before closing out with “Night By Night.”
There is something about the primal sounds Flying Lotus melds together and the way he does it that creeps underneath the skin and sends ripples from the inside out. And clearly the Saturday night masses agreed as they swayed under his spell. FlyLo seemed to be enchanted as well, gesturing and singing along to the lyrics of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and “Ecstasy” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony as he laid down remixes of both, acting the part of Weezy himself.
Somehow, he managed to pull off what many people only do in the privacy of their cars and not lose a single cool point. Like a conductor leading his orchestra through a symphony, Flying Lotus guided his captive audience through a diverse, almost entirely instrumental set with an easy confidence. A remix of Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers” dripped with attitude. Completely tuned in to the music and the crowd at all times, his chatter was built into the flow of the music, rather than stopping it.
With only a few minutes left in the set, Flying Lotus asked the audience to choose his last song. There was some debate, largely due to the fact that every person was shouting something different – but in the end, a small group banded together, and managed to make their collective opinion heard: “Do The Astral Plane.” The second it was over, voices rose clamoring for more. FlyLo tried to convince the powers that be he needed more time, but was unsuccessful: “You’re giving me blue balls! I was just about to get off, baby!” he lamented, a goofy grin plastered on his face. He made a genuine offer that if someone wanted him to play their house party after the festival, he would do so for two hours – completely free of charge. Sadly it doesn’t appear that anyone took him up on it – but who would have been able to fit the horde of fans in tow?
A parade of jellyfish appeared, bopping to the beat as they passed through the undulating crowd, as though to signal something magical was occurring. And it was. The moment the first sparkling chords of “Take Me Over” permeated the cool air, not a single person on Treasure Island was standing still. It’s rare that a band gets an audience dancing with abandon beyond the first thirty feet, let alone people in the coffee line (which was quite long at that time).
Cut Copy are simply infectious. A dazzling combination of the best sounds from the 1970s and 1980s, every bright pop tune evokes smiles and completely unironic booty-shaking, fully sanctioned by the fact that they are doing the same up on stage. Cut Copy may be awkward, but they’re committed to every word and movement. They only addressed the audience a couple times, just enough to introduce themselves and encourage people to dance. The second time, during the peak of “Lights and Music,” resulted in the biggest party of the festival.
Death From Above 1979
It would seem that stylistically, Empire of the Sun is a logical choice to follow Cut Copy (perhaps the only time “logical” and “Empire of the Sun” will be used in the same sentence) but first…something completely different. Death From Above 1979 might be the polar opposite from Cut Copy, except for the fact that one feels compelled to jump up and down to both.
True to their reputation, DFA immediately assaulted the crowd with “Turn It Out.” It was a surprisingly small turn out for the legendary band, possibly due to the younger crowd in attendance. Nevertheless, the duo didn’t seem to mind (“Are all your parents home wondering what happened to Death From Above?” joked vocalist/drummer Sebastien Grainger). One thing that did bother Grainger: “Why didn’t anyone tell me there were so many hills in this goddamn city? I already have buns of steel!” It’s always impressive when two people can make so much noise that the air feels thick with sound. Even more impressive when actual songs can be deciphered from screeching vocals and jagged guitars.
Considering the likelihood that any precision in such raucous music can disintegrate into a blaring static (especially outdoors), the mix was vivid and potent. There was no flow between the tracks, which included “Black History Month,” “Little Girl” and “Blood on Our Hands,” among others. That said, it’s hard to imagine an arc to a DFA performance. Each song is an apocalypse in miniature. They have the ability to bring the badass out of anyone, and that in itself is a commendable feat.
Empire of the Sun
A majestic, orchestral fanfare arose as the lights dimmed and haze poured across the stage. The on-stage video screen glowed to life, and with it the fanfare faded into a pulsating beat. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the video eventually pulled us into a world of bright colors and shifting lines – when suddenly the stage erupted into action. Dancers all in silver – some with capes and others with platinum boxes for headdresses, sprang into action, and singer Luke Steele strutted dramatically to center stage, completely selling the elaborate costume he wore, to begin “Standing on the Shore.”
Grandoise guitar riffs and wild beats tore through the dark sky. If Cut Copy inspired a dance party, Empire of the Sun mobilized a dance army. Just when they had established their dominion over shiny pop rock, “We Are The People” introduced Zeppelin-style guitar riffs, and one could hear even hear a dash of Michael Jackson in “Swordfish Hot Kiss Night.” The audience did get distracted the moment the set slowed down, but as always the best remedy was a dance break and a costume change into something Wolverine might wear performing with La Cage Aux Folles.
A funky groove snuck into the music, transforming the universe onstage into a Miami club (in space, of course). In this new environment, Steele was able to engage with the audience more. “Tiger By My Side” closed out the main set, with “Walking on a Dream” as the encore. Between the haze, lights, choreography and costume changes (both by the band themselves and the backup dancers), there was always a lot going on stage. But without the foundation of solid musicianship (and addictive songs), none of it would have been as effective.
Sunday, October 16
A light cloud cover blanketed the island the second morning of the festival, though the sun emerged even brighter than the day before a few hours later. As with Saturday, there were very few logistical problems – both getting to the grounds and throughout the day. No lines at the shuttles and short lines for food and restrooms. The biggest irritation was a lack of toilet paper after 5:00pm, which was likely only an issue for the women in attendance.
The transition from The Antlers’ final song “Putting The Dog To Sleep,” into Warpaint’s “Warpaint” was so seamless, both bands might as well have been playing on the same stage rather than across the park. Warpaint is a bit of a contradiction in both sound and appearance. Fuzzy chords ascended into full-fledged jams, beguiling feminine energy with an icy edge. Four slight hipster women rocking gently back and forth, they produced harmonies both dreamy and dissonant, piercing and pleasing. Much has been said about drummer Stella Mozgawa, and all of it is true. It is her grounded energy and commanding drumbeat that anchors the group and make them more than just a whiny chick band. Bongos added a primal energy to the haunting vocals of “Burgundy.” “Undertow” and “Majesty” finished off the set on a more uptempo, melodic note.
Electricity filled the air in anticipation of arguably one of the most exciting artists at the festival. As if deliberately trying to dispel the high expectations, Annie Clark slipped on stage quietly, in big dark sunglasses like an office employee arriving at work after a night of drinking. The moment the shades came off, however, the audience was instantly captivated. From the first few lines of “Surgeon,” she blew the festival away both with her enthralling voice and tenacity on the guitar.
She played like a woman possessed, struggling with a demon inside her that was controlling her limbs, jerking her around like a puppet. There was an almost feline energy to the way she performed, a picture of delicate femininity belied an animalistic anger that could unleash at any moment. This dichotomy translated in her music, performance and appearance – a billowing white blouse with yellow beaded sleeves, and black leather shorts, black tights, and black pumps that might be used to stab and exes in the throat.
“Cruel” was the first cut that got the audience grooving (until then they were merely transfixed by her beguiling presence), befpre the reflective “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” ensued. Like the sea creeping up the shore, each song ebbed and flowed, growing in power and volume. Then the demon inside took over; distorted melodies exploded from her guitar dancing on top of fervent drum beats. “Marrow” caused another visceral response from the crowd, followed by “Your Lips Are Red” before the artist descended into madness, punching her instrument and convulsing wildly. An unearthly experience that will not soon be forgotten.
Sandwiched between indie darling St. Vincent and alt-country bards The Head and The Heart, genre-crossing “avant pop” act Wild Beasts had their work cut out for them in winning over the revved up festival crowd. Fortunately, the audience was attentive and appreciative for the UK band’s last show before heading home. “The Devil’s Crayon” sprang from sunny, pattering marimba sounds, while “All The King’s Men” bounced into the territory of Talking Heads. Jangly guitars mixed with galloping percussion. It may be hard to know what to make of this band: they bear the trappings of “traditional” melodic indie rock, but are fronted by uniquely lyrical (even theatrical) voices, so beautifully featured in tracks like “Albatross” and “Hooting and Howling.” It is those voices that resonate long after the performance is over and set Wild Beasts in a class of their own.
The Head and The Heart
If there is one thing you can count on The Head and The Heart for, it is predictability. Their music will always sound just as rustic and polished as it does on the album, and their earthy, carefree attitude on stage is reliably enjoyable to behold. They are clearly comfortable there. On the other hand however, the spontaneity and rowdiness one might expect from a live show is sadly lacking.
The scene could not have been more picture perfect – setting sun blazing behind the stage as the band began with “Cats & Dogs” into “Ghosts.” Despite hooting, jumping around, barking and meowing, there was still that special something missing from the set. The tempo of every song felt just a hair too slow, enough to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Still the crowd sang along with the warm harmonies, and the disconnect thankfully clicked into place for one of their most stirring songs, “Sounds Like Hallelujah,” before they ended the performance with the always earnest “Rivers & Roads.”
Beach House is a band best suited for bedrooms and, yes, beaches. That said, the ethereal duo still mesmerized the festival audience as they eased the sun down into the water. From “White Moon” to “Norway” to “Silver Soul,” each slow, wistful song bled into the next. Wild-haired Victoria Legrand bore striking resemblance to Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus as she gazed out over the grounds, breathy, unintelligible lyrics tumbling into the atmospheric haze. Just as a calming stupor was about to take hold of every last attendee, the band picked up the pace with a dose of tropical beats. “Zebra” elicited the largest audience response, and for good reason – its one of the few Beach House tracks with a distinguishable melody, possibly even leaning towards catchy. And then Legrand began contemplating the weirdness of the human face, and consequently the extreme weirdness of staring at a sea of them…and it was back to square one.
Thankfully, Friendly Fires brought everyone back to life with a saxophone and the most acrobatic frontman of the entire festival. Vocalist Ed Macfarlane may not have touched any of the instruments on stage (including aforementioned saxophone and two drum sets), but his high energy performance, somewhere between flailing and dancing, stole the day. Song after song, he caroused around the stage like a madman, consumed by the music.
“Lovesick” was followed by “Jump Into The Pool” and then “Blue Cassette,” which spun out of control into a wild percussion breakdown complete with cowbell (alright, so Macfarlane did play one instrument that was not his own body). “Hawaiian Air” was the most dynamic song of the set – a cacophany of sounds both synthetic and real grounded by bright tribal percussion. The crowd was transpirted to a sunny luau on the beach despite the fact that it was already Sunday night. Combined with the unbridled movement of Macfarlane and spastic light show – Friendly Fires delivered party personified.
Explosions in the Sky
“We are Explosions in the Sky and we’re from Texas,” said the band who needed no introduction, just before embarking on the most soul stirring journey of the festival. From the first chords of the first song, there was not a note that didn’t sound larger than life, that one didn’t feel there was a greater purpose to the music. It was always building to something, usually a dramatic catharsis on par with the most bombastic cinematic scores.
Rather than an eighty-five piece orchestra, the only tools used were four guitars, one bass and a drum set. The former all intertwined in a primal cacophany, at turns expansive and haunting, the latter rattling each and every audience member to the core. The second song may have began as gentle as a sunrise, but quickly swelled to stratospheric heights. Watching the way the quartet performed was equally gripping; they played very close together considering the size of the stage, heaving back and forth in synchronized motion, swept up in the ocean of the music bursting forth from their instruments. They commanded the stage with a grace that only comes with age and experience. After thanking the crowd (and again reiterating that they were Explosions in the Sky from Texas) the band ended the set with the biggest bang of all, a wall of sound that ripped the heavens to pieces.
The Hold Steady
It was a tough job to follow Explosions in the Sky, but someone had to do it. Seasoned veterans The Hold Steady were an ideal choice. There is just something honest about the way they rock. It is organic and coarse and insistent, while still melodic enough to sing along to. “Constructive Summer” opened the set, rife with robust guitar riffs and signature awkward (though committed) gestures by frontman Craig Finn as he spit lyrics at the crowd. Other noteworthy songs were “Sequestered in Memphis,” “Chips Ahoy” and “Stuck Between Stations.”
Death Cab For Cutie
A hushed tension gripped the crowd in the minutes before Death Cab For Cutie was to begin the last performance of the festival – releasing like steam from a kettle as the first few notes of “I Will Possess Your Heart” took hold of the night. “Crooked Teeth” and “Why You’d Want To Live Here” followed, Gibbard sticking closely to his microphone, but bouncing rapidly to the rhythm of each song. The first track he played off new album Codes and Keys, “Doors Unlocked And Open,” required a second start, but still caused the lights behind the band to spring to life evoking morse code patterns as they flashed.
With the preface that the next song would be dedicated to Explosions in the Sky, there was no doubt the show would take a turn toward the more profoud, and indeed it did with the melancholy, sweeping “Grapevine Fires.” It was obvious Gibbard knew he had the audience in the palm of his hand – all he had to do was open his mouth and let that melodic voice, perennially younger-sounding than his years, spill out emotion. It was a power, however, that he used for good rather than evil, demonstrated mostly in the song choices and sequence. The anthemic “This Is The New Year” riled up the crowd, and “Photobooth” mellowed them out. “Soul Meets Body” elicited the loudest singalong to that point, and again the momentum was slowed by “Cath…” as the follow up.
Finally, the band got down to serious business with “We Looked Like Giants,” bringing out a second drumset and placing it facing upstage from drummer Jason McGerr. Halfway into the song, Gibbard put down his guitar, took a seat at the second set and the two commenced in a cataclysmic percussion breakdown/drum off. Just when the noise level was about to peak, Gibbard threw his sticks into the audience, ran back to his guitar and shredded hard enough to burst eardrums. And just like that the noise stopped.
In this blissful stillness, Gibbard finished the last few lines of the song. Though it was difficult to process anything else after that, the band ended with “Marching Bands of Manhattan” before leaving and returning shortly after for the encore. The encore started pleasantly, with the bright, sweet “Stay Young, Go Dancing” to lighten the mood after the emotional last two songs. But then, as he had done for the preceding hour and a half, Gibbard went for the jugular: “Transatlanticism.” It only took a single piano chord for the audience to figure it out, and every single person gasped at once, as though someone had told them he would be performing it in their own living rooms. And despite the thousands of people in attendance, that is exactly what it felt like. The perfect ending to a fantastic festival weekend.