Treasure Island Fest | 09.20 & 21 | SF

Words by: Dennis Cook & Kayceman | Images by: Dave Vann & Josh Miller

Treasure Island Music Festival :: 09.20 & 09.21 :: Treasure Island :: San Francisco, CA

Justice TI 2008 by Vann
In broad strokes, Treasure Island Music Festival was a super cool country fair for freaks, complete with a Ferris Wheel that overlooked a truly bucolic San Francisco Bay. Strong breezes tousled the hair of the psychedelic fueled masses, many of who wore stretchy DayGlo outfits, fur Mohawks and all manner of eye-grabbing oddness. T-shirts ranged from the blunt ("I (heart symbol) pussy") to the political ("Who can't get married now, bitch?" with the date same-sex marriage was legalized in California), and the general freedom lovin' vibe was deeply contagious. In addition to fourteen acts per day on two alternating stages (allowing no overlap and a smooth, immediate handoff between sets), there was a tightrope, interactive art installations, double-dutch jump rope, live painting, stilt walkers, good food and a mingling mutant tribe that looked like the offspring of H.R. Pufnstuf and a daytime hooker – vaguely sebaceous and unwholesome beings that left one to wonder if they'd just caught Herpes by hugging one of these anthropomorphic pustules. Anchored to a forward thinking lineup, this festival felt like a getaway, especially since the vast majority of us arrived via shuttles that left from the parking lot of the S.F. Giants ballpark. Taken out of our cars, forced to pause for a moment, one settled into the experience before they even walked through the gate, taken on a small journey into a really colorful, well assembled daydream.

Saturday, September 20

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Dave Vann

The Frail - Tunnel Stage – 12:30-12:50

Loquat TI 08 by Vann
Proffering a post-MDMA throb, The Frail invited us to, "Feel free to step up closer. We won't bite. We won't bite." Thankfully, they do have teeth, shiny, modern ones, too. A three-man backline of keys/laptop, bass and drums fronted by charismatic lead singer Daniel Lannon left some scratches and bite marks in their shimmying passing. "Addicted" was real hip lubricant, and proved jauntier and sexier than the few tastes of their studio work I'd heard. There's a physical presence to these S.F. boys' disco light musing that works well live. They have the smart dance pop sensibilities of say Human League or Madonna but nicely rusted with post-millennial worry. There's a lot of skill and smarts to their chick-chick-bang groovers, and they succeeded in making a strong impression in only twenty minutes.

Loquat - Bridge Stage - 12:50-1:15
Much of Loquat's set was a pleasant, morphing haze, where tintinnabulous piano moved over stuttering rhythms until widescreen guitars and heartthrob bass expanded the cloud cover, the keys falling like rain on the lush landscape conjured by the others. Being absolutely honest, there's not a lot new about their sound but they stir up a nice alternative rock mood. The second tune suggested P.J. Harvey if she smoked more weed, a roots undertow adding warmth to the slinky foreground. An up-tempo closer with bigger guitar squall broke the often mid-tempo evenness, and there's no denying the appeal of lead singer Kylee Swenson, whose interestingly curved pipes recall The Innocence Mission's Karen Peris. Nothing really to dislike but few of the songs planted in a way that stuck out from their self-professed pedigree of The Cardigans, Stereolab and Cat Power.

Chester French - Tunnel Stage – 1:15-1:40

Aesop Rock TI 08 by Vann
It's never a good sign when a band's opening number builds the chorus around a high fashion shoe brand ("She got the Jimmy Choos"). I'm all for getting one's fingers dirty in pop culture but this just felt like an audition for a TV commercial. And it didn't get any better during Chester French's set. I take no pleasure in tearing down any band but there was something actively irritating about this VERY young band built around Harvard grads Maxwell Drummey and D.A. Wallach, who recently signed to Pharrell Williams' label. Like Dr. Dre, Williams probably knows moneymaking white boys when he sees them, and there's little doubt those with less than two decades under their belts will take to Chester French like, well, rich girls to Jimmy Choo. However, their sound is a godawful derivative of '80s acts (The Fixx, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sparks, Echo and the Bunnymen) paired with lunkhead lyrics and frat boy cockiness. "Do you get hyphy, San Francisco?" inquired their lead singer before offering up such gems as "You're just a little girl who misses her dad/ and all the toys that she had" and "I like to drink with hot girls/ but I don't mess with no sluts." Besides the not so subtle misogyny, there's a dick swinging, in-your-face energy that's just exhausting. But hey, a strobe light will get your attention whether you want it to or not.

Aesop Rock - Bridge Stage – 1:45-2:25

Nortec Collective TI 08 by Vann
"Let's put those hands in the air as high as they will go. Big smiles up like this," instructed Aesop Rock as he used his fingers to lift the corners of his mouth. Before a note, he was pulling the strings of the enthusiastic crowd. With as commanding a voice as hip-hop has seen in years, Aesop, in his husky, rubber-tongued way, brought brains to the party. While fairly limited musically (just a DJ, pre-recorded bits and a hype/harmony man), he meandered pleasantly through his catalog including early great "What You Got," which he introduced, "This shit is a decade old, so that means I'm an old fucking man." The now San Francisco resident did a fine job of cold rockin' his neighbors on the Island, though one wonders how much more effective he'd be with a smokin' live band behind him instead of such limited backing.

Nortec Collective: Bostich + Fussible - Tunnel Stage – 2:25-2:55
Collective co-founders Fussible (Pepe Mogt) and Bostich (Ramon Amezcua) created a fabulous mélange that blended traditional Tejano instrumentation with laptop triggers, robot vocals, silvery trumpet and alien accordion. It's still border music but the country on the other side is somewhere other than the Mexico most of us know. They made Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass skip in fresh latex skin, playful in the end of summer winds, dancing like browner Laurie Andersons, coaxing strange noises from a computer etch-a-sketch they handed around like a hot potato. Some hybrids just work, and their mingling of South of the Border folk shapes with modernity's restless exploration was a hugely winning one.

Antibalas - Bridge Stage – 3:00-3:45

Amayo - Antibalas TI 08 by Vann
Farting baritone sax gave way to a slowed down D.C. go-go feel that later surged like the welcome heat of a fine narcotic rush. This set showed Antibalas has shed their "U.S. Afrobeat" tag, less emulators now and more smooth distillers of agit-prop grooves from James Brown to Fela to Sly Stone to Bob Marley to Art Ensemble of Chicago. They largely avoided the blunt sloganeering of their past – who likes being scolded at a concert? – though between songs we were asked, "You guys believe in democracy? Well shit, you better vote!" They welcomed us to their unifying party, stirring dancers and setting even the lethargic lawn sitters swaying.

Foals - Tunnel Stage – 3:45-4:15
What an off-kilter, funky bit o' stuff is the Foals. With a gripping oonka-choonka bottom and super fast guitar lines that suggest African High Life on meth, Foals barked and snarled in very English voices while their music pulled us like stiff taffy, finding tension and loosening but never entirely breaking it. As absorbing to watch in their bold physicality as their music was to take in, this Oxford-based group mined contemporary anxiety in palpable ways. Clearly their own band, it's not hard to imagine someone who digs the Liars or Secret Machines jumping on board this modern rock locomotive with great enthusiasm.

Hot Chip - Bridge Stage – 4:20-5:10

Hot Chip TI 08 by Vann
Kicked off with a batucada beat that was rapidly molested by squiggles, electrons crashing in the distance, and then "Shake A Fist" carried us off: "I'm ready to try this/ The centre's a sea pit/ I could be wealthy/ With nothing to stop me." The only Brazilian remnant by the end of the opener was the persistent tinkle of a thin cowbell. Again and again, Hot Chip added fantastic complications and fresh arrangements to a catalog that few acts working in a heavily electronic realm can boast. Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard are stellar songwriters, and the high level of musicianship and Taylor's thoroughly winning voice further set them apart from the pack. The set, drawn mainly from 2008's fab Made In The Dark, was exceedingly modern music that retains a great deal of human mess, mistakes and misdeeds. "Hold On" was transformed into a 21st talking blues given electric piano stomp with quite a few people chanting the chorus, "I'm only going to heaven if it feels like hell/ I'm only going to heaven if it tastes like caramel," while their hands twirled fabulously through the salty air. "Out At The Pictures" was stripped down to a mean, sexy blur and "One Pure Thought" suggested what Marc Bolan might sound like if he'd come of age today. "Thank you for having us on your island, a treasure island, if you will, and the treasure is all here," quipped Taylor. An unexpected cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" done is a very Sinead-y fashion closed their all-too-brief set, and confirmed suspicions that Hot Chip bear serious watching in the future.

Amon Tobin - Tunnel Stage – 5:10–5:50
Tobin is an engrossing turntable storyteller, abandoning all familiar audience reaction buttons for darkly hued music of his own design. That said, giving him a late afternoon set between Hot Chip and Goldfrapp was a total buzz kill and a poor fit. None of this reflects on Amon Tobin, who spun brilliantly but against a backdrop of increasingly loaded patrons anxious for quick stimulation it just didn't jive. His emotional, patient builds and sometimes outright difficult sound collages were little match for the roar of fest chatter as the sun began to dip into the San Francisco waters.

Goldfrapp - Bridge Stage – 5:55-6:45

Goldfrapp TI 08 by Vann
This set got better by and by, at first sounding like the soundtrack to some low budget '50s sci-fi movie (close your ears and you could see the bubble helmeted astronauts in their silver phallic spaceships), then a high end TV commercial or big budget Hollywood drama score but ultimately revealing Goldfrapp's easy-to-like core as today's answer to Dusty Springfield and Sandy Shaw. Alison Goldfrapp has an irresistible voice that's part chart topping chanteuse, part Kate Bush (with 50-percent less crazy!), and her music mate Will Gregory keeps finding cool new settings for her. I kept thinking I've bought body wash or maybe some electronic device that was promoted by their music but ultimately let my natural resistance to overtly commercial stuff slide because they're really damn appealing. When Goldfrapp asked a lover, "How'd you get to be happiness?" it landed on the grass with a "I'd like to teach the world to sing" effervescence. In the end, it seems silly not to let their bubbles tickle your nose.

Mike Relm - Tunnel Stage – 6:45-7:20
This S.F. DJ "master of the mashup" was the absolute opposite of Amon Tobin, relying almost completely on familiarity to achieve crowd buzz. It was what you recognized that you responded to in Relm's pop culture collisions. To my ear, it was mostly clunky and kind of obvious but maybe that's just the mashup thing. A decent crowd seemed to be diggin' the snippets of Rage Against the Machine and others but it never reached me on more than a surface level.

TV On The Radio - Bridge Stage – 7:25-8:25

TV on the Radio TI 08 by Vann
"How big is this band?" asked a friend, and even from the back of the field it was obvious the quintet had brought reinforcements, namely the horn section from Antibalas, who lent breath and wind as much as brass accents on a few selections. TV On The Radio is, by nature, thick music and they've getting even better at translating the density of their studio work to the live setting. This hour was a total immersion experience, a diving bell into human consciousness that tickled the subconscious if you really let your ears roll back in your head. A freshly shorn Tunde Adebimpe moved with animal grace, fully inhabiting his frontman/singer role, yet never taking anything away from the crushing wall of sound rippling around him. Touchstones are never easy to pinpoint in TVOTR so hearing a few blues echoes on newer songs was downright strange, but worry not because they were still hellhound chased blues, hot breath on our heels as the horns squirted and moaned. "Wolf Like Me" was played with an electric punk chop, a drill bit drive burrowing right into our frontal lobes. If you managed to tune out most of the increasing distractions of nightfall (a gorgeous S.F. cityscape in the distance, the twinkling lights on the Island coming to life, the denser crowd), these guys offered something you could really fold yourself into, an enveloping, ever-thoughtful environment too full to really parse but also not so obtuse you couldn't dance to it.

CSS - Tunnel Stage – 8:25-9:10
Unrepentantly hedonistic, CSS encouraged the gathered throng to strut, lead singer Lovefoxx punching lines like "I'm gonna jump onto the table and shake my ass off till I die." Conjuring joyful wildness in a punked-up Studio 54 vein, Cansei de ser Sexy ("Tired of being sexy," a Beyonce comment that tickled them enough to name their band after it) recalled vintage Stranglers or even Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads, in short, a well played good time that made you want to join them on that table. "Where are my bitches at? Where are my gays at?" asked Lovefoxx. "That's all we need, gays and bitches. And bitchin' gays and gay bitches." Cheeky. Drowning us in wonderful fuzz, they yelled for us to dance together. It's a simple enough cry but one seemingly out of reach for many in the largely motionless audience. It's hard to fathom how one stands still when the beat is this crucial, the band so anxious to tickle your pleasure center and the night so pretty and full of stars. What ultimately fascinates with CSS is the complexity below the party, the shiver inducing realization that a song like "Rat Is Dead" is about an abused woman and the man who will never hurt her again. CSS reconciles some strange bedfellows in their path to the dance floor, and managed to do so with great flair in this set.

Justice - Bridge Stage – 9:15-10:30

Justice TI 08 by Vann
During CSS' performance one noticed people staring back towards the main stage with mouths agape. Before they set foot onstage, Justice made an impression with their humongous, glowing center stage cross and mountain high Marshall stacks. Borrowing heavily from metal's long history of tweaking religious iconography, Justice knows how to make people stare. Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay make a massive sound for just two guys, burying us in dance noise and prickly God poking antics. It's a hell of an experience and they succeeded in making the masses roar and bounce with their fractured, dark hued groove. However, on purely musical terms, they often sounded like someone just toughened up Jean Michel Jarre, merely updating his electronic driven pomp with better gear and an inspired stage show. A buddy I trust deemed it "sick, sick, sick, evil goodness" so maybe it's just not my thing. I enjoyed the spectacle but couldn't imagine throwing on one of their albums.

Continue reading for Sunday's coverage of Treasure Island...


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