Words by: Kayceman | Images by: Ryan Salm & Tom O'Neil
Wanderlust :: 07.24.09 - 07.26.09 :: Squaw Valley :: Lake Tahoe, CA
Red Rocks, The Gorge, Squaw Valley? This last might not jump into your mind as one of the premier outdoor music venues, but standing 8,000 feet in a bouquet of wild flowers on the slight slope of a valley, staring past the artists on stage to the snow-capped mountains that lead into the blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley has every bit of the natural beauty of places like Red Rocks and The Gorge.
|Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
In addition to a bar used only for late night DJs and a VIP stage at High Camp, there were three primary stages set up for the first annual Wanderlust Festival, two at the base of the mountain with the smaller of these - the Casbah Stage - surrounded by vendors and tucked into Squaw Valley Village (also referred to as Kula Village) and the Globetrotter Stage set just off the Village at the end of a bunny slope. These were both user-friendly, well set up stages, but the real glory was 15 minutes up the gondola. First off, gondolas rock. It's almost like an amusement park ride (minus the screaming kids and barfing) or a free sightseeing tour (minus the annoying elderly dude on mic). Dangling high above the now plush green ski slopes dotted with giant brown boulders, the views are breathtaking, and what's even cooler, depending on the size of your crew, you can usually get a gondola all to yourselves and then you can do whatever you want in your little private ride up the hill... and actually, even if you weren't alone everyone seemed of the same mindset and you could still do pretty much whatever you wanted.
You ride to the top, walk off the gondola and boom! There you are, 8,200 feet and standing on top of the world. The Gold Coast Stage sat at the foot of a ski hill alongside vendors, a cafe, real bathrooms, a geo-dome where they were giving away stuff including free personalized silkscreen American Apparel tees - I got two, one black, one white and they even insisted I bring one back for a friend. It was a righteous feeling to walk four minutes up the slope, cold beer in hand, and just sit down under a tree and take it all in. Not a person in earshot (nor a cop in sight all weekend), a couple thousand fans dancing under the sun, 80-90 degrees all weekend, blue skies above and a very loud, pristine sound system. Some might call it heaven, we'll just call it Squaw.
While there's plenty of music to get to there are a few more critical points to make in trying to understand this first-year event. Wanderlust truly is different than any festival I've ever been to, and never have I returned from a fest and felt rested! The general idea was to place equal focus on music, yoga and nature (and they even combined all three with a few well conceived collaborations). Not only did they bring in a stellar crop of appropriate bands, they brought in the best-of-the-best, rock star yogis. Yoga teachers like Shiva Rea, John Friend, Duncan Wong and many, many more gave classes all morning and into the afternoon, and considering the majority of these were filled to capacity, there seemed to be more folks there for the yoga component than the music (though the vast majority took advantage of both). Organizers have reported that roughly 4,000 people came to Wanderlust. Patrons could purchase tickets ranging from $25 for a single day Friday music pass up to $125 for all three days of music, $165 just for the weekend of yoga, or a combo ticket (which almost half of the 4,000 ticket buyers bought) for $170 that gave access to all the music and most of the yoga classes. There were also extravagant VIP packages for up to $650 which allowed for all kinds of nice extras, including access to VIP yoga classes, viewing areas and the ridiculously pimped out High Camp area with a swimming pool, hot tub, yoga deck, spa, wine tasting, hors d'oeuvres and more sitting at the very top of the mountain. This is where I spent my time lounging while the wife did yoga.
|Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
So half yoga/half music festival? Could this really work? Get balanced in the morning and get wasted at night? Before the event nearly everyone was skeptical, but hot damn, they really pulled it off! These are the same folks who help put on Bonnaroo and ACL, so clearly they know what's up. First, like they tell all new businesses: Location, location, location. Not only was the pristine natural environment and beauty critical to making this work, it's Northern California, ground central for conscious thought and a strong hold of the ever-growing yoga community (over 20 million in the U.S. alone practice yoga). And it wasn't just NorCal, it's Squaw Valley - the most expensive, beautiful, upper-crust resort in Tahoe. They knew their target market and they fucking nailed it.
|Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Next, they had to pick the right artists. No Disco Biscuits or Gov't Mule here, and no offense to either, it just wouldn't have worked for anyone. Instead they enlisted acts like Andrew Bird, Michael Franti - who was replaced by Common due to a burst appendix, Broken Social Scene, Jenny Lewis and Spoon. These predominantly progressive indie bands bring fans that are a bit less inclined to get super-bent, but still clearly like to let loose. The goal was to get open-minded people who could dig on yoga and rock out, even if they were really there for one or the other. You couldn't really set this up with a late night Bisco show till sunrise and then yoga a few hours later - talk about oil and water between fanbases. Can't you just see it, the twisted late night rager on the gondola with the yoga teachers who flew in from Indiana to learn from the best? Nightmare! And the organizers understood this. Instead, the music stages were done by midnight and the party scene was mellow. This wasn't about raging it; it was about relaxing.
That's not to say there wasn't plenty of really good music and an appropriate amount of partying to accompany it. Things started off slow with Friday morning and afternoon devoted solely to yoga. Come Friday night things started to heat up as folks trickled in to catch some of The Mutaytor's Cirque du Soleil on shrooms show and soul heavy Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who had to be the most charismatic performer all weekend. The beautiful, crisp mountain air and Jones' unbeatable energy were the perfect way for the party to really start coming together.
|Mutaytor :: Wanderlust 2009 by O'Neil|
Come Saturday the entire valley seemed to have a glow about it. There were blissed-out yoga heads mixing with music fans and the surroundings made it impossible not to smile. Saturday's music on the main stage (up the gondola) started with the only band to play Wanderlust twice, San Francisco's Big Light. One of the fastest rising bands on the scene, their second set of the day began and ended with the restrained liquid rhythms of super cool Fred Torphy (bandleader/guitarist/vocalist) song "Panthers" and also featured a guest appearance by violinist Cody Geil. Dedicated to Gillian Welch, who was playing at the same time on a different stage, Geil sat in for a cover of Welch's "Wrecking Ball." Having toured with Kanye West, Geil knew exactly where to lay her bow and it was a highlight of the set.
At 2:30 p.m., Rogue Wave played the main stage and it was around this time that things started to fill in a bit, more of the music folks showing up to join the yoga-heavy crowd. Led by Zach Schwartz's (aka Zach Rogue) plaintive vocals, the band's well crafted lo-fi indie rock relies just as much on songwriting and restraint as it does on solos and jams. There's a strong collective mindset to the six-piece (including heavenly pedal steel), and having not seen them since bassist Evan Farrell passed away in 2007, it was encouraging to see the band playing well and having fun. Despite some tuning issues, the set picked up speed with each passing song, and by the time they hit a cover of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" shit was working. Taking the classic pop song and bringing it to modern times with crunchy guitars, swaying rhythms and a big crescendo to wrap it up, the crowd was now not only getting bigger, but louder. Closing with a triumphant "Lake Michigan" featuring stellar vocal harmonies, this set reminded more than a few of us just how good Rogue Wave is.
|Big Light :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Kaki King was pretty funny when she ruffled some feathers talking shit about yoga, and she was definitely rocking with her band, but I'm really a sucker for watching her solo routine, where she dances all over the guitar by herself. King is one talented gal to say the least, but the set of the day on Saturday came courtesy of Jenny Lewis. Now I knew Lewis was good, I've dug her albums (solo and with Rilo Kiley) and I even remember liking her whenever it was I saw her last, but man, she and her band really won the crowd over at Wanderlust. The cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" (you know it: "Everybody's got somebody to lean on/ Put your body next to mine, and dream on") had everyone singing-along, but it was the powerful originals and smoldering performance that really impressed. Beyond writing really strong songs with a folk-rock sensibility ("I went to a cobbler to fix a whole in my shoe/ He took one look at my face and said I can fix that hole in you... I've been down to Dixie and dropped acid on my tongue/ Tripped upon the land until enough was enough"), Lewis just knows how to own the stage. Growing up a child star certainly didn't hurt Lewis' game, and now she's all Motown soul and confident rocker, plus she's got one hell of a band to support every move she makes (the drum solo and jam-meltdown at the end of the set was ridiculous). Switching from guitar to Wurlitzer and often times just inviting you in with her girl-next-door beauty as she dances across the stage, sundress floating behind her, Lewis is the complete package. If you haven't seen her live, it's highly recommended you do so.
Common, who closed down the main stage on Saturday, also proved a very strong performer, and you had to admire him at least a little for replacing Franti at the last minute. Bounding on stage all smiles and positive vibes, Common grabbed hold of the crowd fast and he didn't let go. A smooth, confident rapper/vocalist, Common was in full command, but it was his band that made the set soar. I can count the number of good live hip-hop shows I've seen on one hand, and it's not for lack of trying. Most hip-hop acts rely solely on a DJ, hence making it almost impossible to wow a live music junky. Common's band features a DJ for sure, who also adds some back-up vocals, but the sound is built on banging drums, chest-rattling bass and features a female keyboardist with an amazing voice, dropping sexy vocal turns so perfect they sounded like samples but so hot they clearly were live. His shtick with bringing a pretty girl on stage to hit on and talking about her eyes might have been a bit much for the heady yoga hardcores, but overall Common's set seemed to go over very well, and anyone even remotely into hip-hop got off on the Black Star riff "One, two, three/ It's kind of dangerous to be a emcee."
|Jenny Lewis :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Back at the base of the mountain Girl Talk took over from 10:15 'til midnight. If there was an artist that might not fit the yoga vibe, Girl Talk appeared to be the one. But nah, he was a hit! By the time we arrived, it was bedlam on stage just like every other time I've seen DJ chopper Greg Gillis. Unable to even see the computer or anyone manning it, the stage was overflowing with 16-35 year old white girls shaking it in every which direction - on beat or not. Splicing-up super hits from Wu-Tang, MGMT, Tag Team ("Whomp! There It Is") and heaps of Michael Jackson (to name a few), this was definitely the most frantic partying of the weekend. Glowsticks were flying, weirdoes on stilts were dancing, tons of neon shit everywhere, a welder across the way and lots of peeps dressed in costume. It was sorta like a PG-13 version of Burning Man. My favorite part though, was walking 50 yards away and staring at the endless stars while the beat raged on.
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|Girl Talk :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
If Saturday's lineup was a little light, Sunday made up for it with a three-in-a-row mountain top main stage run of Broken Social Scene > Andrew Bird > Spoon. Three of the best progressive indie rock bands (whatever the fuck that means), this was what brought the hardcore (read as: don't care about yoga/don't care about setting) music fans to the mountain.
|Wanderlust 2009 by O'Neil|
Prior to the big names hitting the main stage, fans were treated to William Fitzsimmons' acoustic beard folk, which given the right environment (small wood theater, everyone sitting, quiet, dark) could likely overwhelm in much the way Ray LaMontagne can, along with Amanda Palmer (who played opposite Fitzsimmons) and either Mates of State or Sonya Kitchell. Or, for those who wanted to check out more of the mountain, there was an idyllic hike from the High Camp pool to the Gold Coast main stage that offered some of the best views of the weekend.
There was also one other small act worth noting, The Honey Brothers. Best thing about this band: Vinny Chase plays drums. Okay, so his name's really Adrian Grenier, and he seems like a cool guy, his girl is wicked hot (duh), and who doesn't love Entourage? But, the worst thing about this band: they kinda suck. I dig the ukulele/banjo thing (kinda) and maybe if I had more patience, but at one point it sounded like a String Cheese cover band gone wrong and their rendition of "We Are The Champions" neared embarrassing. I think maybe Turtle should start a band. I bet Dre would be into it.
It was all fun and games until 3:45 p.m., at which point Broken Social Scene took the stage and it was time to pay attention. Starting with "Fire Eye'd Boy," they didn't let off the gas for their entire hour slot. Seven guys and one gal (who despite the rumors wasn't Feist, but sang in a similar, beautiful range and manner), they're a true indie rock collective, swapping instruments and featuring different members at different times. Bringing Brendan Canning out from behind the keyboards to play guitar, the band dropped into the über-funky, Afro-psychedelic rave up "Love Is Real." With the trombone and trumpet pushing the edges way out, this was the song of the weekend up until this point. Other highlights included the hypnotic guitar progression and cool island pulse of instrumental "Pacific Theme," as well as a huge, U2 War-era inspired "Superconnected." Before they played one of the few encores all weekend, Kevin Drew took the mic and filled the valley with his words: "We hope we infect you with this feeling. We are a forgiveness band and this is what it sounds like to forgive... Enjoy your lives." Amen brother.
|Broken Social Scene :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Andrew Bird might be the most musically gifted artist alive. I can't prove that, but I feel it somewhere deep. Most of Bird's gear never showed up on the mountain, so he pieced it together with help from Kaki King, Rogue Wave and BSS, and most of us never would have known the difference had he not pointed it out. Standing there alone on stage with his violin, which he often plays more like a mandolin, a guitar, a keyboard, that crazy-ass spinning speaker thing and surrounded by an intimidating array of foot pedals, Bird also utilizes his impeccable voice and incredible whistling. Later, we'd hear Spoon play a song called "Mathematical Mind," and after watching Bird one wonders if he was the inspiration. The manner in which Bird loops his music is something to behold. He isn't merely laying down a beat or a guitar rhythm (no offense, Keller), Bird is looping entire compositions of the most complex nature. I had the opportunity to watch Bird do his thing from the side stage area. Fixated on his pedal work I couldn't quite wrap my head around exactly how he does it. Building these sonic structures effortlessly for his classical violin to run atop, when he harmonized his voice with the violin it was just too much. "A Nervous Tic Motion of The Head To The Left" was a clear highlight as was "Natural Disaster" and the unplugged Appalachian roots number he did when the gear and speakers were acting up. But, the highlight might have been "Anonanimal," which perfectly illustrates the other part of Bird's genius, namely his wordplay and songwriting. "See a sea anemone/ The enemy/ See a sea anemone/ That'll be the end of me/ Vicious fish was caught unawares/ In the tend'rest tendrils/ Underneath her tender gills." Regardless of whether he's layering lyrics or weaving instruments, Andrew Bird is on his own special level.
|Andrew Bird :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Spoon is one of the best bands out there. You might not believe me, but it's true. They have a very clear vision of what they're trying to achieve, and for more than 15 years they've been getting after it like hungry dogs. Make that starving underdogs. And like bandleader/guitarist/vocalist Britt Daniel sang mid-set in "The Underdog," "You got no fear of the underdog/ That's why you will not survive!" Don't make the same mistake. Don't underestimate Spoon. Anyone at Wanderlust who might have sold the Austin rock quartet short was immediately slapped upside the head when they dove into their set with the funky, slick bass of "Don't You Evah." Moving across their incredible catalog (if you haven't already, you gotta spend some time with these songs) tracks like "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," new song "Is Love Forever?," a haunting, keyboard-heavy "The Ghost of You Lingers," "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," "Don't Make Me a Target" as well as a great reading of Paul Simon's "Peace Like A River," showed off Spoon's range and ability to mix disparate elements into a nasty stream of sound. They are an indie rock band for sure, coming out of the Sonic Youth and Pavement school of thought with a heavy dose of post-punk energy, but there's a funky-sexy aspect to the rhythms, real Motown muscle to the way they flex, and at times it's a dirty disco-rock scene. And good gawd they know how to finish a song, punishing endings into submission. But where it really gets interesting is with their forever sound guy Hot Pockets. He's not your normal sound guy adjusting levels, looking for the cleanest/loudest sound. He is the fifth member of this band, a true sound manipulator and absolutely the secret weapon. A serious collector of dub (as well as other unusual sonic forms), as Hot Pockets mixes the sound he drops in all sorts of psychedelic effects, vocal delays, heavy-reverb, dubbed-out echoes and metal-on-metal moments of madness. He takes Spoon's super-tight rock and blows it open with all these strange manipulations. It's what sets Spoon apart. Look no further than "My Mathematical Mind" for proof. Coming about mid-set, this was the song of the festival. Crawling through a digital haze, Daniel was soon on his knees twisting knobs sending throbbing notes over the crowd and for a minute all I could think of was Radiohead. Opening my eyes to find the sun setting over the snow-capped mountains it was a moment of pure bliss. If Spoon is somehow not on your radar it's time to recalibrate. If they are still an underdog in your world you better come correct or you will not survive!
|Britt Daniel - Spoon :: Wanderlust 2009 by Salm|
Riding back down the mountain talk quickly turned to next year. Every person I spoke with - from international folks who flew in for the yoga to musicians on the bill to dedicated music fans from the Bay Area - had a very positive and unique experience at Wanderlust. But, like all small first year fests must consider, was it enough to do it again next year? While organizers claim the roughly 4,000 tickets sold wasn't quiet enough to break even, they felt the event was still a resounding success and will be doing it again in 2010. There's even talk of opening up a few more mountaintops for additional stages. If they can continue to bridge the smaller-than-expected gap between yoga/health nuts and music fans they might truly uncover a bountiful hidden market in a very crowded festival scene. And with bar-none one of the most beautiful, magical locations on Earth, there's no limit to what we might find at Wanderlust, both outside and in.
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|Wanderlust 2009 by O'Neil|
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