By: Dennis Cook
Download Festival :: 07.19.08 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA
The cacophony of commerce hit you before you walked through the gates of Shoreline Amphitheatre last Saturday. Sexy new VW convertibles sat outside the box office offering eco-friendly cool in an attractive range of colors. Just inside, the high tech shilling continued with a blaring PlayStation 3 karaoke stage with aging hipsters and teens with braces garbling the hits of yesterday. Usually you wouldn't find me within a country mile of such shenanigans but if you navigated through the maze of sponsors, free gum and myriad LED driven lifestyle accessories, a bunch of terrific music awaited one at the Download Festival 2008. Everything about this annual one-day gathering screams THE FUTURE! From the digital catchphrase of a name to the ear-to-the-ground programming, it all speaks of folks fixated on what's next, though always cautious to keep a toe or two dangling in the past - proto alternative rock giants The Jesus & Mary Chain and Gang of Four were added after the initial lineup failed to stir up ticket sales.
Limited to half hour sets, one came away with a solid impression of each act, good or bad, and audio blue balls with the best acts, who often seemed to just be hitting their stride when they had to say farewell. With fifteen bands on the main stage and another nine on the side stage there was a lot to choose from and plenty of leg room to enjoy it – the event was half full at peak hours and often far less attended in the early hours. At best, one hopes to walk out with a handful of new passions, their lid lightly flipped by something new or cool or just plain satisfying. Download 2008 certainly achieved that, sending me home to dig up more on Brand New, Alberta Cross and De Novo Dahl, and confirming suspicions that The Parlor Mob, Louis XIV and Yeasayer knock it hard live.
First order of business was settling down for The Duke Spirit's hazy, early afternoon conjuring on the main stage. In concert, they are sensually dynamic, enfolding liquidity that wraps around one like a salt sea, leaving you happily afloat with a mineral crawl over your skin. A few minutes around them and you want to shed clothing. You find your hips and your neck loosens and rolls dreamily. Phenomenally compelling singer Liela Moss cruises above the slippery, garagey rock chug of the boys. All of them decked out in sharp black threads, The Duke Spirit was full of fuzz AND melody, shards of seemingly haphazard guitar that gathered into articulate storms. Before "The Step and The Walk," Moss said, "It's a bright time of day but we're going to add some sinfulness." Indeed. If one's pulse doesn't rise a bit during "Step" I'd be concerned. Afterwards, holding a broken tambourine savaged during the performance, Moss quipped, "See, I can smash up my equipment for you guys." These folks are bloody sexy but it wouldn't mean a thing if the music didn't back it up, which it does in a big way.
The main stage was set on a revolving circle with a black curtain bisecting it, so while one act performed the next one's gear was getting set up backstage. This made for minimal downtime between sets, and made me think that other festivals should consider such enhancements to keep the crowd energy and attention level high at all times. Nothing drags one out of their groove like soundcheck snafus and pissed off stagehands wrestling gear with everyone breathing down their necks. However, the huckster storm continued during the breaks as the video screens – never used to bring focus on the bands in action – showed commercials. Looking around at the ocean of empty seats and sparsely inhabited lawn, I thought, "Hmm, maybe the free market does work once in a while."
Unfortunately, a small musical drought ensued after The Duke Spirit. Tapes 'N Tapes, Datarock and Flosstradamus (only the second dumbest name on the bill, beaten out by Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, who I refuse to listen to on principle) weren't so much outright bad as just a mush of indistinct pilfering from the past 30 years of popular music. My MP3 player has a lot of different shit on it, too, but I don't expect people to pay me money when I hit shuffle.
Tapes 'N Tapes began with a nice lil' chug full of one-finger keyboard stabs and hissy drones that descended into a tiny amount of Song Remains The Same cock rock before emerging into the kind of pop The Jam were doing, probably before some of the band were born. They proceeded to bounce around in a mix tape way, never really settling on anything that differentiated them from the pack. Thin vocals, all breath and whimper, and limp lyrics just increased the desire to wander away as the band capered and leapt around the stage, a physical manifestation of the unsettled nature of their sound.
Flosstradamus' DJ set was kind of sad to watch. They tried, oh Lord how they tried, to incite the crowd but the copacetic suburbanites were not having it. Most were settled in front of the stage awaiting the bigger names down the lineup and mostly chatted and sent text messages a few feet away from the gesticulating dudes behind their decks. Insisting folks get buckwild rarely works, but they kept it up for a lot longer than most would. Dropping House of Pain's "Jump Around" between screechy house noise and "where's your head at" idiocy probably didn't help their case, and ultimately left one with the impression that they'd just been subjected to two extra loud wedding disc jockeys.
Rocking red Adidas track suits, Datarock were more fitness class than music. "We're gonna take you back to 1984," they yelped, and I just wondered why. Often their instruments lay dormant, except for a tight Disco Biscuits-y trap drummer. Mostly they cavorted and exhorted and flirted over prerecorded backing tracks. They got a decent portion of the crowd doing calisthenics but their machine bomp frequently dipped into Depeche Mode/Young MC territory, and their disaffected sneer of a lead singer truly rubbed me wrong. Fine presence but I'll take originality over creative grave robbing.
Thank the sweet Lord for The Parlor Mob, who arrived to remind me of the good things about young men taking up instruments and trying to blow a hole in the world. Often compared to Led Zeppelin, one picks up the same blues-based ancestors but there's a venom and hard punk slice to them that clearly make them a post Sex Pistols entity. "We're speaking our minds and nobody cares/ Some people got it so good it ain't fair," growled unbelievably great singer Mark Melicia, lamenting the "hard times in the hearts of grown men." Not remotely fashionable but possessed of a classic conviction, The Parlor Mob made me scream, "Fuck yeah!" by the end of their first tune, which they began sort of huddled together onstage, a sign of their "us against the world" feel. They burrowed into the gallows mindset that fueled every white boy with the blues bug in the '70s, down to a few bursts of howling harmonica over the endlessly simmering, slashing electric guitars. But when Melicia moans, "Pray to god forgive me for all I've done," you buy his pathos and the music backs it up with a black ferocity. His pipes are graceful and sharp, a perfect instrument like the crow's beak painted on Samuel Bey's kick drum. Informing us with authority that "the kids ain't alright," the Mob has boogie, hump, motherfuckin' sway without sacrificing any heaviness. You can dance to their stuff, and like The Black Crowes, that may be what breaks up the usual hard rock sausage fest. Combine that salacious groove with slow numbers caught somewhere between pillow talk and prayer, and it was no surprise to see how many ladies were diggin' in with both hands. At one point, the drums dropped to a whisper, Melicia just breathing near the mic as the bass purred and guitars scratched at the back door, and then all hell broke loose. The dynamics of this band keep you hanging on every move, forcing you to rush forward and retreat like some well organized tide. In 30 minutes they made a fan of me for life. Yeah, they're that good.
De Novo Dahl followed them on the side stage. Dressed in what looked like orange and red 1920s style bathing costumes, they rocked harder than one expected at first glance. Riding power chords and feedback into the land of Cali surf punk and early Blondie organ shake, De Novo Dahl sang us songs about the end of the world and made it seem like a party. But, pleasant and ass shakin' as they were, I'm powerless to miss The Whigs, whose Athens proud sound crackled to life in the distance. Quick like a bunny, I found a spot to bang my head and parked it in their amps' hot zone. This trio belongs on big stages, free to expand under blue skies as huge stacks pummel the audience. Unafraid to play large in this tiny-minded time, The Whigs, especially on stadium sized glories like "Right Hand On My Heart" and "Need You Need You," offered a most pleasant reminder of the power of well crafted rock played with total conviction, traveling from, "Like a vibration, my reputation is hanging around my neck/ It's hanging out in bars with my perception" to "Could we just have some fun?/ Could we just make some love, like a vibration?" With shaking enthusiasm on both sides of the stage, they continue to be a sure thing live.
The day hit the sweet spot and remained there as Yeasayer showed what a fine daytime, sunshine act they are. With the dedication of slightly mad monks, they poked and stroked their equipment to create music that chipped at our walls, breaking down our mortar so gently, so unconsciously, that when they got inside you they felt welcome, a spot already marked out in your heart for their bell tones and modern pagan hum. Maybe not for everyone, Yeasayer benefited from patient ears and lovers of texture. Coming off like an ethnomusicological dance hall run by escapees from Logan's Run, they piled on reverb and single string strikes to build and build and build. When release arrived in a well turned lyric or a fantastically rubbery bass sojourn you felt it in your bones. If the Bee Gees had eaten mushrooms with the Holy Modal Rounders and Damo Suzuki they might have churned out something like Yeasayer, but even that convoluted record geek equation doesn't really capture their number. They're slippery as they come, and I dig it!
The bit of Blitzen Trapper I caught was pleasant but didn't stick much – sweet, nicely structured songs sung by what seem like sweet guys. The title cut from their forthcoming new album (Furr due out in September) talked about hearing angels at seventeen and obedience to God, but came off as bittersweet more than preachy. There were less noisy, discombobulated outbursts than found on their albums but that wild hair was missed. Instead, they seemed more mature, which isn't always a boon. The last selection sounded like Rush covering Wilco, which I still don't know what to make of.
Back at the main stage, New Orleans' Mute Math announced they'd be doing an "old school club show," and then proceeded to play like a tough yet convivial U2 in said "club." There's no denying The Edge's guitar grind in their mix but that blade cuts clean and rarely fails to hold one's ear, one of the more underrated uber-sounds of the past 25 years. Slathered in creamy reverb and soft delay, even during the between song talk, Mute Math alternated between solid rockers and neato dubby instrumentals that showed off their chops and hinted that they're on their way to finding their own voice instead of being a creepy musical ventriloquist like a fair number of acts on the program. They pour jazz and psychedelic flavors into a primarily '80s shell, and it was in the cracks and seepages that all the sticky good stuff lie. Their vocals have an appealing warble and they're dandy showmen all, so there's not much not to like with Mute Math.
JamBase's "New Favorite Artist" for this past May's Newsletter, New York's Alberta Cross come off as fabulously English, the welcome step-children of Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown and other long haired '70s rockers. Led by Petter Ericson Stakee and Terry Wolfers, whose childhoods in London's East End explain the accents and pub-y charm, they were heavy sweetness; melodies full of muscle delivered by a singer with the otherworldly spark of Jim James and powered by two guitars, electric piano and organ and a thick, resilient rhythm section. With the sun just dropping out of sight, Alberta Cross brought on a little nighttime menace, funky white strut with brass knuckles swinging.
For as much new music as I come across there's always going to be a few really amazing things I simply miss altogether. Hence, my floored reaction to Brand New's main stage tour de force. This will sound like hype but I seriously feel like I may have seen the next Nirvana, and I wasn't alone in my grinning stupefaction. Far and away the most vibrant, enthusiastic crowd participation of the fest, they kept people engaged for the duration, moving us around like a cheap carnival attraction with their stumbling, raucous stage presence which belied their focused, serious musicianship. Singer-guitarist-bandleader Jesse Lacey rages with the perfect anger and smoothness of Kurt Cobain, sharing the fallen icon's gift for remaining coherent even when screaming his throat raw. Their songs are full of violent discontent, the objects of their rage and passion dealt with under hot, white lights, left to crawl off into the dry ice smoke at the end of each number. Their music, both serrating and quite appealing, exposed the fractures in the social system but in a way that doesn't feel agit-prop or sermony. At the moment this thought occurred to me and I took a step back, wondering if I was reading too much into what I was hearing, Lacey barked, "This is the price you pay for the loss of control." Impression confirmed, I let them slap me around some more, enjoying perhaps the best hardcore craftsmen since Bad Religion. While a touch dubious at how this transfers to the studio, I walked out happily shaken and ready to dig around in their leavings at the earliest opportunity.
A hop, skip and a jump back to the side stage for Louis XIV proved almost ridiculously rewarding. Alternately caveman simple and twee Brit sophisticated, each tune charmed and lured one a little closer. If you started at the edge of lawn and stuck around, you found yourself needing to sidle up as close to these U.K. stomp rockers as you could manage. Already chuffed on them from 2005's The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, the new material from this year's Slick Dogs and Ponies proved equally head-bobbing fine. Louis XIV are slightly naughty boys I wish played every night at a bar down the road from me. It's all so basic yet so well put together that you're hard pressed to keep your fist from pumping the air or stifle a lusty roar from bellowing forth, rising from your hot center and out your smiling mouth. Cocky in the best ways, Louis XIV talked about taking pictures of themselves with the Pope while more than hinting at oral pleasures, both giving and receiving (their mums raised them right!), in the same song. I wonder how many "Our Fathers" they'd get at confession for that? The last band on this stage, they got the first encore of the day, and proceeded to meld The Kinks with Oasis and their own brand of cheek in the disarmingly chipper tale of suicidal Dominique with a bold imagination. Super charged by singer-guitarists Brian Karscig and Jason Hill, Louis XIV are great fun, and you should never look that gift horse in the mouth, especially when they might bite you if you looked at 'em sideways.
It's always a treat to see Gang of Four, one of the foundational bands of the modern era, weaving punk's sharp tongue and active rebellion with something slinkier. Often downright funky, they also wear their socialist ideals and civic pessimism hanging out for everyone to see. Still incredibly taut and full of juicy danger, it was hard to believe this original lineup, which reformed in 2004 after an almost 20 year hiatus, still hits their marks so decisively, pummeling and caressing with each stanza, a seduction that splits your head open with such ease that you don't realize their fucking with your mind until they've already jumped off and lit a cigarette. Their reverberations in modern bands are countless, yet all the Bloc Parties in the world haven't been able to measure up to the abject strangeness of alterna-nation's Tom Jones, lead singer Jon King, or the flesh peeling force of guitarist Andy Gill. Birthed from dub and disco and punk and art rock, Gang of Four testified to their continued relevance by making us dance towards the revolution. Bang up stuff.
Chilled to the bone in my summer shorts and hungry for something that didn't come with mayonnaise packets that had been cooking under the sun all day, I departed before The Jesus & Mary Chain came on. Never a massive fan, I had spent the whole day trying to remember a single song by them. "Lips Like Sugar"? No, that was Echo and the Bunnymen. "Black Metallic?" Nah, that was the Catherine Wheel. Stumped by own brain, I promised to flagellate myself with the new issue of The Big Takeover and dig out my copy of Psychocandy soon to reeducate my faculties. The oceanic wash of guitars in the distance told me they were playing some absorbing stuff but once one's system hits saturation you have to fold no matter how much you want to stay. Shuffling out of the ghost town promenade, I said goodnight to the weary staff, who seemed unusually cheery. They too may have enjoyed the looser, less harried crowds than this venue is used to, and whether Download returns next year or not due to financial concerns, there was no doubting one got a lot of bang for their musical buck ($10-20 per ticket depending on when or where you bought them) at this very well run festival. Couldn't think of a nicer way to spend a bucolic July day in California.
JamBase | Mountain View
Go See Live Music!