Noise Pop Festival, the closest thing the music industry has to a warm-up to Austin’s South By Southwest Festival, cut a large swath through most of the important clubs in San Francisco in the last week of February. From Sean Lennon pointlessly wailing on a guitar for more than an hour to protesters of John Vanderslice (of all people), it was a nice stopgap for the City to enjoy random important people visiting between the all-decreasingly important MacWorld and the all-too-banal Game Developers Conference. Because of the vast scope of this festival (and because there was only one reporter on this), we decided to do a highlight reel of some of the better (and worse) elements of the Festival. Allons-y!
• On The Ono-Lennon Personality Cult and Its Consequences:
Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon were the press darlings of the festival. The unfortunate problem with that is many artists, even local heroes like The Dodos and legends The Magnetic Fields, were shunted by the press in what was essentially a personality cult (or its remnants). Lennon played in his mother’s band, and then the next night in his “indie rock” project, The Ghost of A Saber Toothed Tiger. If it was “indie,” it may be in the pretentious vein that existed in the post-grunge era (with the likes of Tortoise).
Regardless of the style Lennon was employing at the moment, you don’t need Krushchev to remind you: Personality cults are bad, and can only cripple the very people being idolized.
• The Scott Brown Award:
While SXSW has some flexibility in regards to scheduling bands on certain times, Noise Pop maintains the tried and true tradition of putting on the headliners (and thus, what is supposed to be the most important act) last. So it is incredibly significant that a supporting band at the Café du Nord show on Wednesday owned it. Openers Young Prisms had a lot going against them for just being an opener: A small, uninterested crowd, careless and rushed engineering (the vocals were drowned out), and a few misfires with crowd interaction. It’s hard to judge them and their psych-rock in such a case. First supporting act Sandwitches, on the other hand, can be judged, and it’s not for the best. While their mellow girl-rock sounded pleasing at first, the music dragged and felt out of place. One could have dozed off in the middle of the nearly full crowd at this point.
So who gets the award for upsetting the tradition, named after clever bastard, Cosmo model, and newly-minted Senator Brown from Massachusetts? Main supporting act Best Coast, whose opening song could have easily waken up those snoozing after Sandwitches. Their energetic pace, satisfyingly-trashy vocals from frontwoman Bethany Constantinos, and compelling lucidity could get anyone and everyone going. With this completely packed crowd, the band punched out numbers that kept the crowd on fire, So much so that they were the only band to receive encore calls that night, which they responded with an additional song. The band had so profound an impact, a quarter to a third of the crowd left the show after the set, before the headliner (more on them later). Expect Best Coast to break out at SXSW.
• Fog (Machine) City:
The Rickshaw Stop in the Hayes Valley neighborhood has a fog machine integrated into its ventilation system, and seems to turn on at random. It’s fun for dance parties and bashes, which the venue is known for. Its Thursday and Saturday shows had mostly the opposite of that, so it felt incredibly weird watching the fog drop (literally) on folk and country acts like Tiny Television and Leslie and the Badgers, as well as local bluegrass acts Trainwreck Riders and Billy & Dolly. The only act where the fog machine seemed appropriate was Malay chanteuse Zee Avi, headliner for Thursday.
On Thursday, the fog machine must have had laughing gas too, since much of the action seem centered on stage actions between the songs. The one memorable thing of Tiny Television were a few decent jokes during the between-song banter. Leslie and The Badgers, as their name suggested, offered hijinks in varying degrees, but also some decent (though incredibly “country”) music. The Hot Toddies, the result of what would happen if you gave either The Pipettes or The Go-Gos excessive amounts of whiskey and beer, seemed to make the most fun out of it. Their music, an amusingly twisted throwback to ’60s surf rock, matched their good humor as well. Zee Avi, her act a little more subdued (but laden with decently improvised covers of half of Brooklyn’s music scene), still managed to raise the crowd with some arena-rock style shout-outs, which was cute. At the very least, her original works were particularly potent and earnest, perhaps more so live than in their recorded versions.
• A Separate Show All Together:
Friday night was probably the only option for electronica fans to get their groove on. While local stars Wallpaper covered much ground that evening with two sets (one at the Rickshaw, the other at Bottom of the Hill), the main show to be at was the Independent. It did not feel that way initially, however. The opening acts of NewVillager and Rainbow Arabia felt like a completely separate show for the acts they were supporting, and not a good one. It was hard to tell what the hell NewVillager were trying to be, though whatever it was, it was mediocre at best. It was painful hearing their vocals, attempting to sound like blue-eyed soul when it was at best lounge-y, and their attempts at multi-layering were awkward (perhaps due to a broken laptop). It was little wonder that most of the front of the audience were looking through their pamphlets by the end of the set. Rainbow Arabia also had trouble trying to figure out what it was, though you could sense the bad (or badly played) elements of The Knife/Fever Ray (awkward voicing, instrumental chaos), Gang Gang Dance (tribal vocal effects and rhythms to the point of annoyance), and Brazilian Girls (bad transitions, a lead singer who likes to cover her face and gyrate on the floor for no reason). At the very least though, the last two songs showed signs of hope, with lead singer Tiffany Preston showing a subtle complexity in her voice that could prove very powerful. Now, if only they could exploit that, rather than rip off their peers, they would be far more potent and haunting.
• The Dvd Awrd for Ruthless Efficiency:
After the aforementioned two acts at the Independent, Nathan Fake very quickly set up his gear. Or rather he set up both his and headliner Four Tet’s gear, all placed on a single long table that was placed atop cement blocks found outside. All was ready for Nathan 10-15 minutes after Rainbow Arabia left the stage, and he got going superbly with his house grooves, maintaining momentum throughout while pulling out all the stops, including fan favorites “You Are Here” and “The Sky Was Pink.” After Fake stepped off, it took Four Tet (pictured) three minutes to set up, and he was going before the house engineer remembered to turn on the PA music. What followed was a diverse run that was fun to dance to. He eschewed typical electronic tricks (though the occasional drop of an old sample or two was heard) for robust improvisation, and it paid off. It made people forget the first two acts, and gave them some actual electronic music in a vast sea of noise and experimental (amongst other things) acts.
• Get It Together, People:
Two acts stand out on the opposite end of the efficiency scale. The one that shone the brightest, sadly, are Harlem, of Austin, from Wednesday’s Café du Nord show. While the fact that they were utterly upstaged by supporting act Best Coast weakened their chances of doing well, they could have ridden their predecessor’s momentum. Instead, they proved they’re still figuring out what they’re doing on stage. It was hard to say whether or not it was some form of laziness or sloppy showmanship, because both appeared at different times. But whereas fellow Austinites …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead’s chaos on stage could be forgiven or even praised due to a killer song repertoire, most of Harlem’s set was weak. Aside from solid numbers “Psychedelic Tits” and “Friendly Ghost,” their set felt flat, hollow. It’s a wonder an act this shoddy got signed to a label as influential as Matador.
Saturday’s opening act at the Rickshaw Stop, Birds Fled From Me, also deserve a dubious mention, though for different reasons. Frontwoman Rachel Williams seemed visually uncomfortable being on stage, and had a hard time communicating with the crowd. Further, her rapport with the house engineer seemed confusing at best. It put quite a damper on her set, which, while modest, showed a potential in her eloquent lyrics and voice. There is definitely something strong in Williams’s work, but she really needs to spend more time on stage to project it.
• The Eureka! Award:
Saturday night at the Rickshaw Stop marked the debut of Portland’s Black Prairie, which combines Decemberists instrumentalists Chris Funk, Nate Query, and Jenny Conlee with PDX regulars Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld. It was a nice change of pace, a beautiful combination of French folk and bluegrass. The added touches of Tornfelt’s superb violin playing and singing and Neufeld’s electric counter to Funk’s dobro felt satisfying. All of this was done without any percussion, no mean feat. Granted, all the players have been “in” music for at least a decade (on different scales), so they have had plenty of time to hone their craft. But it was still a great wonder to see how put-together this act was, as well as how great they sounded right off the bat. The night was topped by Bay Area-native Cass McCombs, who joined them for a song. A new album is in the pipeline, so it will be great to see more of Black Prairie.
• The Most Promising Act, The Most Generic Act, and the Biggest Letdown:
The “closing” show of Noise Pop, taking place Sunday at Bimbo’s 365 Club, felt like it was in the right place. The club, built in the 1950s, is a complete throwback to the gangster-run nightclubs of the era (it was even erected and owned by an Italian, and is located in the Italian-dominant North Beach neighborhood), with a wooden dancefloor, elegant dinner tables, and a classy bar. It has a theatrical feel to it, and what better time to be theatrical than the end of Noise Pop?
Opening act The Northern Key deserve credit for being the Most Promising Act. Their folkish dream-pop was utterly simplistic, something that is a rare find in that field. The simplicity allowed the lead singer free reign over what to deploy on the audience to lull them, either through his charming vocals, or through the whimsical guitar-playing. Give them a year or two, and they could start gaining ground in Fleet Foxes’ neck of the woods. On the other hand, the Most Generic Act would go to AB & The Seas. The band sounded exactly like the type of group you hire for a wedding. Given the venue, the place indeed felt like a postnuptial reception for 45 minutes.
While The Watson Twins had both odd and generic vibes about them, they played decently. If one could get past the Indigo Girls vibe they seemed to be putting out, they would possibly see some quality rock being played. So it is not they who were the Biggest Letdown. That dubious honor is given to headliner Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. It would be wrong to argue their music doesn’t have a certain nostalgic potency to it. However, the music lacked any and all sincerity. The whole performance felt incredibly fake and gimmicky. Even the stage banter sounded like a badly written script. Whereas the Polyphonic Spree, a band of similar nostalgic pull, have at least a sense of earnestness around them, The Magnetic Zeros were overly routine. One could not help but feel disenchanted at the closing performance.