Crowds were slow to return to Mardi Gras World Sunday afternoon, presumably because the festival operates with such extreme late night programming that arriving at 3 or 4pm is still considered a rather early entrance. While last year’s crowds threatened to overtake the entire riverfront campus, this year’s were far more spotty.
Arriving around 5pm, I assumed I’d be walking into a bit of Oxymoron as ScHoolboy Q took the stage. What actually played from the main stage was a masterful Gaslamp Killer, a major surprise to many but of little consequence to those who’d already checked their updated apps to find ScHoolboy Q’s set moved in time and in venue. GLK and his fans were right at home settling into their late afternoon set. My next move, however, was to head to the Ballroom for Dan Deacon.
Deacon’s afternoon performance packed in a dance contest and tons of interactivity with the electronic artist during the latter half of his set. For the final three songs, the crowd was instructed to crouch down, throw their hands up and simply dance with Deacon to an eclectic mix of hits. For a performer known for his live shows, Deacon certainly delivered. Now, if only he could release a follow up to America.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart played soon after, slowing the Ballroom’s energy to a mixture of moodiness and instrumentals. They were an odd choice for an indoor show in the middle of the daytime and though the NYC outfit is highly acclaimed throughout indie circles around the country, a surprisingly small crowd had gathered to watch them at Buku. More fans were interested in continuing their (perhaps chemically induced) high rather than “turning down,” so to speak.
If you were in need in a sonic shot of adrenaline after the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Chromeo was there to deliver. The duo started their set on a risk, eking out the opening bars to “Night by Night” before launching into their breakout first single. The move clearly paid off and within their second song, Chromeo had taken control of their audience with crowd-pleasing hit after crowd-pleasing hit. From 2007’s “Don’t Turn On the Lights” to newer fare, their set was a non-stop dance party.
Conversely, Phantogram were in an entirely different head space as they pulled out their harder tracks to kick off their set. Their sound faltered at first, with frontwoman Sarah Barthel’s vocals lost in the cacophony, but once Phantogram got their footing, they delivered a powerful set drawing heavily from their latest LP, Voices. A particular highlight was “Black Out Days,” its harmonies hitting just as hard as the clunky percussion propelling the track.
Despite starting their set with songs off The Terror, The Flaming Lips never brought up Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel for “You Lust,” nor did they offer up any special guests. They didn’t need anything extra. Two solid covers in the forms of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Gates of Steel” were more than enough lagniappe for a set that was both audibly and visually stunning. Ropes of lights glinted and rained down upon frontman Wayne Coyne, eventually falling into a pile of reflective disks, climbing up around around Coyne’s tinsel cape-covered arms as he held his now-signature baby doll while crooning the hits.
Coyne acted as master conductor for his band as well as the pyro in front of him. Each raise of an arm prompted blasts of fog to come firing up in front of him. For all that The Flaming Lips had done to entertain the eyes of their fans, their set list was spotless, as well. Choice tracks from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and the Soft Bulletin showed the sheer command the Lips still have, as they closed their set with the meandering “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton.”
Speaking to the sentiment of perpetuating momentum while delivering far more than music, Explosions in the Sky went with their heaviest material, relentlessly jamming through their set. The band was primarily backlit, making their performance all the more striking as guitarist Michael James postured and knelt between songs. As their set went on, more and more people went from dancing to swaying to simply standing rapt, caught in the type of musical catharsis rarely achieved by any artist, post rock or otherwise.
After a brief break, it was finally time for ScHoolboy Q. The most simple way to sum up his set has nothing to do with his music but with his choice in clothes. The heavily-hyped MC has apparently let his acclaim go to his head, and has taken to employing the type of excessive entourage you’d expect from a Shah or Czar rather than a rapper. Early into his set, ScHoolboy Q got a little warm, removed his jacket, and a man employed for the sole purpose of taking his shed layer immediately grabbed it and walked the garment offstage. Add to that a lackluster performance where ScHoolboy Q’s DJ probably had more energy in getting the crowd to chant “oxymoron” than the MC did to deliver his rhymes and you’ve got a surprisingly disappointing set.
Perhaps the best surprise was yet to come in the form of Beats Antique. Frontwoman and musical mastermind Zoe Jakes led the Bay Area band with an intoxicating belly dancing performance, undulating to loops of strings and drums that filled the entire Ballroom and then some. For just three people, there were enough moving components to rival a complete orchestra.
Soon it was down to one man to close the festival: Danny Brown. As with Chance the Rapper, there’s an almost indescribably energy to Brown that’s so completely genuine as to disarm you and draw you even nearer. Brown hyped the crowd as soon as he took the stage, bouncing back and forth and sticking out his tongue as fans chanted to bangers off Old and mega-hit album XXX. Buku had few missteps this year and its strengths more than made up for them. As a mosh pit thrashed and jammed to Brown late into the night, it seemed as if the festival had been a success.