Words by: Kevin Schwartzbach | Images by: Kenny Dolan
Starscape Festival :: 06.06.09 :: Fort Armistead Park :: Baltimore, MD
A deep, resonating bass thump followed immediately by a crisp, high-pitched crash repeated at regular intervals. To many this entrancing sequence is simply known as untz. It's a curious thing this untz; it can make timid people let loose or turn awkward social gatherings into raging dance parties if repeated long and loud enough. Something about combining the extremities of the aural spectrum brings out the most animalistic qualities in human beings. A thicket of the stuff covered the grounds at Fort Armistead Park during the 11th Annual Starscape Music Festival, keeping attendees at their most animalistic for a monstrous 16 straight hours.
|The Disco Biscuits :: Starscape 2009|
At first glance, Starscape appeared to have a solid three-day lineup. But low and behold, they somehow managed to pack it all into one day. Though just about every band on the list maintains at least a degree of untz in their sound, the lineup was still quite eclectic. Ranging from solitary knob-twisting DJs such as Bassnectar to the String Cheese alumni EOTO to "livetronica" headliners The Disco Biscuits, this lineup really was a wide-ranging continuum of sound with something to offer most music aficionados.
An arduous mile long walk from the parking lot specked with abundant black market merchants lead us to the front gate. When I first entered the grounds the digitalized untzy madness of Telepath was emanating from the Main Stage. In the past, Starscape was a festival exclusively with DJs, but when the Biscuits first played here in 2006 the floodgates for live instrumental acts opened. In suave nightclub garb, the trio treated us to their brand of breakbeat and down-tempo with the scorching sun still high overhead. Supporting the weight of his massive afro, Curt Heiny (bass) brought us into a stunning rendition of STS9's "Peaceblaster." The cover showed the versatility of all three musicians as they took it to places that STS9 would hardly dare to even think about. The Middle Eastern infused "Jadhi" closed off their all too fleeting set, giving Michael Christie (keyboards, samples) a chance to show us the full depth of his playing.
After Telepath I made my way to the Ultraworld Dance Tent for a bit of DJ Sun. This turned out to be one of the better DJ sets at the festival, as he placed mangled horn samples on top of a pulsating four-to-the-floor bass. People danced half-heartedly while maintaining casual conversation with one another. It was clear at only four hours in, this party was just barely getting started. A hay-laden path led from Ultraworld to the Lost World, also known as the V.I.P. area. Even in this exclusive, sparsely populated fenced in area the beats were flying non-stop throughout the festival.
|Bassnectar :: Starscape 2009|
Under calm blue skies, DJ Sun's pulsations coming from Ultraworld combined in the air with the brisk beats of Cannon Boys over by the Steez Promo Bass Arena, which specialized in dubstep and drum 'n' bass. I headed down to the dockside tent, for a taste of the delectable beats. The violent rapping of MC Mecha was a surprisingly congenial compliment to the rapid-fire DnB the DJ was bumping. The Steez was raging as hard as anything I had yet to see at Starscape with a densely packed crowd of people getting down to business. Raging all day of course can take its toll on you, so I took a quick break to relax on the sprawling dock that jutted out into the Chesapeake Bay. The sunlight glistened off the lethargically bobbing water as the beautiful summer day lingered on.
Things finally kicked into high gear as Pnuma Trio took the Main Stage. Ben Hazelgrove's moonbeam synth fused with the all-encompassing drums of Lane Shaw while Alex Botwin switched between his laptop, producing chopped, untzy samples, and his chest-bumping bass. It still being daytime, a light show was impossible at the beginning of their set, but even without the cover of darkness Pnuma managed to throw down a dirty, dirty set. Seamlessly segueing from jam to jam, at no one point did any instrument seem to take full lead; rather each one became a layer in an overall thick wall of sound whose energy-level methodically fluctuated from serene quietude to erupting peaks. Their music is the perfect combination of creativity and virtuosity. All conservatory trained musicians, Pnuma Trio was quite possibly the most talented group of instrumentalists at Starscape. As the sun sank behind the shroud of the stage, lights began to sporadically flash behind the band.
With the last flickers of sunlight stubbornly dying away, I went to grab quick and disgustingly expensive snack to refuel for the oncoming night – a whopping twelve and a half hours of music still ahead. My gyro in tow, I went down to the WTMD Beach Stage, just barely catching the last minute or two of BioDiesel. Walking along the waterfront past all kinds of shops (including a body painting tent that drew a crowd of men comparable to any of the stages to watch beautiful nubile women get their bare bodies painted) I arrived back at the Steez for Dub War. A picturesque full moon hung patiently just above the water, shedding its light upon us, as Dub War pumped out their reggae dubbed dubstep. Though their set was enjoyable, it was a bit underwhelming after the sheer energy of Pnuma.
|Fernando Pulichino - 2020 Soundsystem|
I left Dub War early to catch one of my most anticipated DJ sets of the festival, Bassnectar. Obliquely ignoring the copious calls of "molly, doses, rolls" etcetera, I made my way to the Main Stage. The brainchild of Lorin Ashton, Bassnectar showed us how to truly dominate the low end of the auditory spectrum as plasmatic bass lines oozed from the massive speakers. Utterly bizarre visuals flashed in triple vision on screens behind Ashton, ranging from psychedelic bubbling colors to time-lapsed presentations of both real and imaginary images. Ashton's self-described "omni-tempo maximalism" mashes up sounds from an eclectic array of sources, utilizing many different timbres, tempos, time signatures and more. Ashton fiercely turned his many knobs while his jet black, Cousin-It-like hair shrouded his face from view. An ironic mixture of jovial blips and a demonic nectar-filled bass combined in a video game-like manner as Ashton told the crowd, "I'm gonna change this up a little bit. Hope you guys are ready to bounce," instantly throwing everyone into a frenzy. Unfortunately, I had to pry myself away from Bassnectar's set a half hour early so I could catch the better part of 2020 Soundsystem.
A quartet consisting of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist and DJ, 2020 threw down some of the most danceable music all night. Their set seemed to move from meandering jams that barely kept my interest to powerful erupting peaks that had everyone raging. DJ Ralph Lawson thrust out trancey beats while bassist Fernando Pulichino fingered funkalicious grooves, prompting one girl to bust out the sparklers.
I climbed the packed stairwell back to the Main Stage to get my very first listen of a live Chromeo set. What reached my ears however sounded nothing like the fanciful poppy goodness of Chromeo's studio work; that's because it wasn't Chromeo at all. Instead, I was treated to the Aesop Rock-like rapping and nasty beats of Hot Pink Delorean. Having never seen, or for that matter heard of Hot Pink Delorean, the happenstance was a stumbling of pure serendipity.
|Baby Anne :: Starscape 2009|
Seeing no sign of HPD's end, I ventured over to Ultraworld for the DJ stylings of Baby Anne. Another act I had previously never heard of, catching this set reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of music festivals – discovering new artists. Baby Anne turned out to be what might have been the most captivating DJ set of Starscape, as this little lady could spin as well as any DJ I've ever seen. Heavy backbeats underneath well-articulated hip-hop samples dominated my senses as my heart began to beat in sync with the music, the rest of my body soon following suit.
After a half hour delay, Chromeo finally took the Main Stage. I pushed my way into the massive crowd while simultaneously dancing to "Outta Sight." The Montreal based electro-funk duo consists of Dave 1 (born David Macklovitch) on guitar and synth and P-Thugg (born Patrick Gemayel) on keyboards, talk box and percussion. The two danced about behind their lady-leg buttressed keyboards (as seen on the cover of their album Fancy Footwork), singing about their favorite sexual topics with the help of vocoders. The crowd roared as Dave 1 announced what they call their female significant others in Montreal – "Tenderoni" - but having lived in Montreal for two years I never once heard this term outside of a Chromeo-related context. Though Chromeo's set was quite enjoyable, the tantalizing thumping bass of Jesse Miller I heard off in the distance was too hard to pass up, so I descended the stairway back down to the Beach Stage to catch Lotus.
I happened upon the ending of "Flower Sermon," one of their tightest and most spellbinding pieces. Normally a song that segues into a "Sun Rain" ending, this was the first stand alone "Flower Sermon" I've heard from these guys. I manipulated my way to the front of the crowd at the very beginning of "Jump Off." With a newly shaved head, Mike Rempel delivered one of his crisp, jazzy solos on his semi-hollow PRS. After a rather lackluster cover of the Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats," Lotus came through on "Wax." Rempel skirted through a playful chromatic melody on top of the robotic scrapings of Luke Miller (guitar, keyboards). Just as I felt like I was about to collapse from dancing so hard, the energy of set closer "Spiritualize" instantly reinvigorated me. Their unique blend of electronica, jazz, rock and world music made for one of the best highlights of the night.
|Lotus :: Starscape 2009|
Finally, at the abysmal hour of 1:30 a.m., the festival's pièce-de-résistance, The Disco Biscuits, took the Main Stage. Sans introduction, they jumped right into one of their newer tunes, "Uber Glue." Though a fun song, it was clear from this track that their newer stuff doesn't hold a candle to their erstwhile material (at least not yet). "Caves of the East," another new song featured a devilish synth line from Aron Magner that slowly evaporated into an exemplary, delay-smothered Barber guitar solo. One of the chief factors that determines whether a Bisco show is going to be good or not is whether Barber is on, and he made it very plain early on in the set that tonight would be the real deal. Spiraling cones of light engulfed the audience as the guessing game of what song this particular jam would segue into shot up all around us.
Barber's manic shredding eventually landed us in a relatively mediocre "42." Brownie's homage to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had me and a friend of mine debating whose voice was indeed worse, Brownie's or Magner's. While the Biscuits are notorious for their sub-par vocals, it's gotten to the point where the music would just seem inappropriate without their second-rate voices. "Should I forget the dream I had last night? Except that Barber woke me up to watch tennis at 9 a.m.," Brownie humorously added to the standard lyrics, with all four suits slung comfortably over his shoulder. An inverted "Abraxas" that was absolutely killer finally got the untz out before finding its way back into a second half of "42" that redeemed the first half. Given the nature of Starscape, Bisco seemed inclined towards their untz-ier songs. A "Strobelights" > "Cyclone" > "Strobelights" closed out the first set with a bang. "Strobelights & Martinis" is one of those songs that can make or break a set, and in this case it emphatically assumed the role of the former as Aucoin's drum build up to the song's outrageous peak took hold of my attention.
|Jon "The Barber" Gutwillig - Bisco|
After finding a nice patch of grass, I settled down for Noah D's set break set. Wishing I could get up and dance, I opted to save my energy for Bisco's second set, which turned what would have been merely a good show into a great one. A comparatively tame "Rockafella" had Brownie switching back and forth between his bass and his electronic gizmos to open the set before the digital steps of Magner's synth brought us into the wondrous "Caterpillar." Like the devil and angel that dwell upon Bugs Bunny's shoulder in a Looney Tunes short, Brownie and Barber traded off lines. Barber then proceeded to shred the crap out of the song's peak, and just as you thought the chorus would come back, out of nowhere came the main theme of "Voices Insane." The relatively ephemeral "Voices" soon evolved into one of Conspirator's golden trance nuggets, "Orch Theme," which then plummeted into "The Great Abyss." Quixotic teases of "Spacebirdmatingcall" soon came to fruition. When "Spacebird" reached its glorious peak, which Barber completely owned, the roof would have been blown off the place had there actually been one. In true Bisco fashion, "Spacebird" segued back into the peaked ending of "Caterpillar" thus completing the "Caterpillar" > "Voices" > "Orch Theme" > "Abyss" > "Caterpillar" sandwich.
After one final rendition of the song's chorus, the band ended what everyone assumed to be the last song but then out of nowhere came that familiar ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum of the ending section of "Hot Air Balloon" – un-fucking-believable. "HAB" triumphantly marched towards its magnificent apex taking us all along for the ride. The classical-infused piece seemed an illogical ending to a set at an electronica festival but as executed it wasn't. "GIVE-ME-ALL-YOUR-FUCKING-MONEY!" exclaimed Brownie with a crazed look in his eye. All night long he looked like he was hiding something up his sleeve, and apparently this was it. Though at times the "Basis for a Day" ending was a bit sloppy, it didn't really matter; the precipitous energy generated by "Basis" was unmatched at any other Bisco show I've ever been to. Top it all off with Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" and you have one of the greatest seamless sequences in recent Bisco history.
|Brownstein & Aucoin - Bisco|
A serene "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a" began the encore as the first rays of sunlight emerged on the horizon. There are shows where the Biscuits try to explore a bit too much or where they've had a few too many before coming on that leave the fans in the dust. And then there are those rare shows where the Biscuits decide to give their fans a fucking orgy-fest of visceral pleasure, throwing everything they've got at them. And one of the finest "Save the Robots" to close the encore resoundingly solidified this show as the latter.
Such a perfect Biscuits set would have made a venture to EOTO overkill. Besides, after 16 hours on my feet I was barely ready to brave the mile long walk back to the car. We had literally danced away all hours of the night as the sun now took back the sky. I had let out my inner party animal thanks to the gratuitous amounts of untz at Starscape and was ready to sit back in the car and listen to some folk music.
The Disco Biscuits :: 06/06/09 :: Starscape :: Baltimore, MD
Set I: Uber Glue, Caves of the East > 42 > Abraxas^ > 42, Park Avenue, Strobelights and Martinis > Cyclone > Strobelights and Martinis
Set II: Rockafella, Caterpillar > Voices Insane > Orch Theme > The Great Abyss > Spacebirdmatingcall > Caterpillar > Hot Air Balloon > Basis For A Day* > Sabre Dance
Encore: Humuhumunukunukuapua'a, Save The Robots
* completes 6/5 version
Continue reading for more pics of Starscape 2009...
|Sunrise at Starscape 2009|