Rites of Spring | 04.17 & 04.18 | Nashville

By: Wesley Hodges

Rites of Spring Music Festival :: 04.17.09 & 04.18.09 :: Alumni Lawn at Vanderbilt University :: Nashville, TN

The Flaming Lips :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
The spirit of youthful aggression and collegial camaraderie coursed through Vanderbilt's Alumni Lawn this past weekend at the annual Rites of Spring Music Festival. Since the mid-1970s, a group of students at Vanderbilt have worked all year to put on one of the best college parties in the nation to mark the commencement of spring and the end of another school year just before the campus dives into exams. In past years the festival has played host to Gov't Mule, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Morning Jacket and countless other renowned touring acts. For the 2009 edition, the committee decided to bring in purveyors of all things weird and true artisans of the theater of the absurd, The Flaming Lips, to close out the festival.

Since forming 26 years ago in Oklahoma City, The Lips have constantly pushed the envelope, both in the studio and on the stage, with their otherworldly space-pop rock that seemingly comes from a far away universe. Amongst a well-manicured sanctuary of trees, academic buildings and dormitories in the middle of Nashville, Professor Wayne Coyne brought his traveling circus and transformed a quaint little college music festival into the surface of a boozy utopia replete with dancing Teletubbies, endless amounts of confetti and the always great classics of the Lips' canon. Although many memories of college are ephemeral and thereby long forgotten, who can seriously forget seeing two Teletubbies get engaged on their campus' main lawn at a Flaming Lips show? Oh, she said yes! That's the stuff dreams are made of. Really, really twisted dreams.

Friday, April 17

Springtime means the outdoors, celebrating nature, and in the case of Vanderbilt, live music. A beautiful sun-splashed banner day ushered in arriving patrons to the festival grounds in the center of campus, as vendors and student volunteers welcomed their arrival. Asian style globular light fixtures streamed overhead to add a little ambience to the occasion and the festival began shortly after 3 p.m. As is always the case at Rites of Spring, the first acts to take the stage are the winners of the "Battle of the Bands" contest held the night before the festival. A group of students from both Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt known as We the Trufe took the stage and did some funky originals and a surprisingly stunning cover of "Killing Me Softly." Aggressive Nashville rock act Run With Bulls came on next to a smattering of arriving patrons for a short set.


K'naan :: Rites of Spring by Alex Person
It was not until the self-described "ghetto rockstar" K'naan arrived that the crowd began to fill in considerably. Arguably the best set of the weekend, Somalian K'naan summoned the spirit of both Bob Marley and Bob Dylan as his keyboard player described, "It's not American rap. It's African rap." "T.I.A." came first with an unrelenting bass groove and K'naan saying, "You don't know how hard it is here." In a moment where art truly described reality, a couple of rowdy twenty-somethings began moshing and a couple of classic college 'near fights' broke out, as K'naan sang about "feeling insane... in America." Lyrically, K'naan is inspirational, uplifting and constantly commenting on his upbringing in Somalia and the hope he has for a better tomorrow. The guy is a multilingual modern day poet and in my mind, headed for superstardom. K'naan (which fittingly translates into "traveler" in Somali) has too positive of a message and too uplifting of a story to be ignored. Conceivably on a mission ever since releasing his most successful album to date, Troubadour, a couple months ago, K'naan flew in from France the day of the show and was headed to Coachella the day after. With a super tight band and a total command of the crowd's attention, the festival really began when K'naan took the Rites stage. For more on K'naan check JamBase's recent feature/interview here.

Okkervil River

Santigold :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Next, I took in my first Okkervil River show. Wrought with intellectual lyrical themes, and musically almost there, it was a solid set but underwhelming overall. On numerous occasions it seemed as if the band was going to take off on a soaring coda and then the song would just end. Will Sheff's shaky vocals didn't fit my ear and the lyrics, albeit eloquent, were overly depressing and ominous. The whine of the lap steel melded nicely with Sheff's crepuscular warbles in many cases. In their finer, more up-beat moments, they fleetingly resembled The Band with a PhD in Creative Writing. The tune "John Allyn Smith Sails" caught my attention with its lyrical reference to "Sloop John B." By no means bad, Okkervil River just seemed to be a little out of sync with the general vibe of the festival on this day.


Santigold (formerly Santogold) took the stage just after sundown and was the surprise performance of the weekend. Hit song "L.E.S. Artistes" came early in the set, and the energy of the show never subsided. With a vibrant smile that matched her gold lamé outfit, Santi White's up-beat attitude and performance had everyone bouncing, and the artist thereby staked her claim as queen of this Rites of Spring weekend. In full command of the stage, Ms. White engaged the raucous crowd while flanked by two eerily robotic and syncopated dancers that neither broke a smile or their fluid strides throughout the set. Not since Stop Making Sense have I witnessed such an intoxicating dance ensemble. Santigold is an artist that does not deserve to be pigeonholed or categorized. Her influences draw from rock, African roots music, soul and hip-hop, and the beats came from all over the map, many with a Middle Eastern flair. Comparisons to M.I.A. are unavoidable, but Santigold creates and dominates a space all her own and I look forward to catching her David Byrne curated set at this summer's Bonnaroo. She's got the stage presence of a pop star and some rockin' material that doesn't quite fit inside the box, so be sure to check her out this summer as she burns through the festival circuit.


T.I. :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Harlem's own and A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip was next to address the progressively more surly audience, and provided a nice mix of solo and Tribe material. Hip-hop music is just so much better and more entertaining with a solid ensemble of live musicians, and this set along with N.E.R.D. the following night exemplified this excellently. It was good to see "Bonita Applebum" make it into the set as well as "Vivrant Thing" and "Jazz (We've Got)." A handful of dancing co-eds were brought onstage to join the party and I was surprised that most actually seemed to know what they were doing up there. Perhaps Vanderbilt kids do have rhythm?! A solid set and a blast from the past, it was good to take a trip back to the old school before the new "King of the South" took center stage.


Just weeks before his much publicized incarceration, rap mega star T.I. was brought in to close out night one of the festival. As is the norm at any large-scale rap show, T.I.'s set was not short on posse. Nashville's own Young Buck was invited up to join the party for a bit, and T.I. ranted against the haters and promised he would return stronger than ever after his 366 days in the pen. Swooning and pointing to the masses beyond the security barrier, T.I. ripped through older cuts such as "Bring 'Em Out," "Rubber Band Man" and "What You Know" that had the crowd as jacked as the new tunes from last year's Paper Trail. We'll just chalk this one down as a damn fun time while it lasted.

Continue reading for coverage of Saturday at Rites of Spring...

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