About 20 years ago, some people decided it was a good idea to boost concert-going in San Francisco and, possibly taking a cue from the International Pop Underground Convention some time prior, focus primarily on lesser-known styles of music. The subsequently-named Noise Pop Festival has since survived mayors with awful hair, too many suicides, too many good clubs being closed down for one reason or another, and this band essentially playing every year until they broke up. Which is to say 10 times. Now, they serve as the lead-in for tours that usually involve Austin, Texas in the middle of March.
This year had a couple of different things going for the festival. For one, it was incredibly warm (in comparison to last year’s freezing temperatures). For another, the lineup was incredibly strong, with many veterans and up-and-comers put together in a frothy mixture that Mr. Santorum would certainly enjoy (though Big Freedia cancelled his appearance at the last minute).
To enliven things a little, I had my colleagues at TMT decide for me where I should go, barring one night (for reasons you will see in a future feature). So if you have reason to hate where I went, blame them.
Day 1: Cinnamon Rolls, Motherfuckers
“Social media makes you hate your friends.” –Craig Finn
Let it not be said that yours truly did not attempt to at least get into the Flaming Lips show at Bimbo’s 365 Club. However, by the time the destination was reached, there had been a cutoff on all badgeholders, including press. The loss was significant, given the night being an essential “Don’t Look Back” of The Soft Bulletin, but not damning: After all, this is not the first time we’ve spoken of these folk.
Another hour would pass of feet sauntering over to an odd spot in the city, which is to say Bottom of the Hill, and enter the only other show of the night. Upon arrival, Mount Moriah were finishing their set. The only thing that can be said is that they wore plaid. Following up was some band from Albuquerque named Sad Baby Wolf, a band that screamed “last-minute replacement” from the get-go. Their formulaic use of 1990s grunge sounded so boring and banal one could take a nap through their set, and yet wake up feeling catatonic. The only highlight came from a drunk fan, who came up with today’s title in a rant.
Perhaps it was relief from the previous joke, but Craig Finn sounded a lot better than expected. Granted, this writer thought prior to the show that he was simply attempting to imitate Dan Bejar in the art of drunken singing with The Hold Steady, but he proved to be far more complex than that. Pulling numbers from his solo debut Clear Heart Full Eyes, Mr. Finn conducted himself in a manner split between a startling amount of earnestness and self-awareness and taking every opportunity to chew the scenery like a half-pound cheeseburger. This extends to his banter and song explanations, from wanting a band theme song, to discussing (indirectly) his breakup with Angie Bentfield with the song “Rented Room.” It comes across as silly, but that’s what storytellers sometimes have to be, and he gets his message across very well as a result.
Day 2: Synths in Snow Shovels
“Did I just break your hand?” –Claire Boucher, aka Grimes
The Rickshaw Stop is a fun venue. A lot of the bands they book here have a modicum of electronic influence to them, but it never feels like you’re in a club. The space lends itself to either rocking out or dancing, but never to clubbing. Plus, the engineers know what they are doing. Tonight’s engie was no Sam Cole, but he was still good enough to know how to handle synths and (to a lesser extent) visualization.
Which brings us to the opener, Yalls. Local Berkeley boy Dan Casey punched a solid beat to start the night off. While admittedly sticking to two laptops (one for sound, one for the smattering of visuals in the background), Yalls kept things trippy yet danceable. It’s possible to really connect with his work, but you can also get away with dancing to it, and still reap the same satisfaction for it. If he puts out a full LP this year, expect it to be tops.
Montréal click-thumpers (is that even a thing? Sounds better than bleepy-bloop) Born Gold were the surprise crowd-pleasers of the night. Their attempt at noise pop takes Fuck Buttons’ percussion revelry to an extreme, letting the rhythm overwhelm the melody. In addition, their presence was impeccable: Leader Cecil Frena turned himself into a light show extraordinaire using his hands and arms, while his cohorts joined the crowd for some fun antics. The crowning moment occurred when one member entered the crowd on stilts, rocking out on a sampler attached to a snow shovel.
Co-headliner oOoOO (technically pronounced “oh,” though everyone probably pronounces it as though they were making tUnE-yArDs siren noises) were a sludgefest, with his genre, apparently called “drag,” making P4K’s witch-house look good. A good try for the folks who danced to it, but it’s understandable that few did. While there were a few bright moments, such as strangling a modern hip-hop number into some shoegazy weirdness, it mostly felt like a funeral dirge for some uninvented electronic genre.
Headliner Grimes had quite a bit to lose tonight. Rumors (and TMT reviews) had indicated her live act was only slightly above a certain Mr. Pink’s early days in quality. However, in all fairness, Ms. Boucher is someone who only began her music career in earnest two years ago, and was thrust into the continental touring circuit just recently. She appears to be making an effort to improve her situation. There were moments in her relatively short set wherein she lost the momentum on simple error (forgetting a patch, for example), but she made an effort to get the crowd going, and drawing out her songs as long as possible. It helped that Born Gold joined her for most of the set, playing out some of the things she simply could not with just vocals and keys. There will be tough days ahead for her, especially if she enters the summer festival circuit alone. But she won the crowd tonight.
Day 3: Two Bananas in the Surf
“One minute left! Aaaah…” –Member of FIDLAR
At Café Du Nord outside the Castro, a detour was taken. Granted, it seemed the local Twittersphere went agog over other bands on this night, but I had no interest in seeing either Built To Spill (saw them a couple years ago) or Sleigh Bells. So another option availed in the form of a Surf night, given that every band had some strain of surf-rock in them. Even though I missed all but one song of opener Surf City, one can safely presume this includes them. Appropriately, two bananas were brought, though their purpose was more utilitarian than thematic.
Surfer/skater punk band FIDLAR drew in the most raucous of crowds, with a mosh pit starting about three songs in and lasting to the end of the set. The average age seemed to hover around 20, with many left-handed X’s floating around. I began theorizing that perhaps, in the end, one simply outgrows the frenetic energy associated with punk and hardcore, even if they do not abandon the music itself.
My theory slowly began to take shape as the other bands came along. With local favorites Shannon & The Clams, the age of the audience went up to around 22, and while the crowd danced along, there was no moshing. The music was not moshable, given that Shannon Shaw and her cohorts hearken back to the mid-1960s. With strains of girl-group that recall Ms. Shaw’s other band, Hunx & His Punx, meshed in with garage-rock rawness, there was something danceable amiss, but not enough to cause a ruckus.
The aging accelerated after Shannon and her Clams left, and by the time headliner The Soft Pack got on stage, the crowd consisted of late-twentysomethings holding slightly higher quality beer. And the theory seemed to prove itself: While the San Diego outfit played more rocking numbers than their neighbors Wavves, the crowd just simply swayed around in that stereotypical yuppie, “I’m too white/middle class to dance” posture. It’s not really the band’s fault in this case, for they played as effectively as they could. It was as though the only effective way to get this crowd moving was the Dogbert way: With a carbine assault rifle.
Day 4: I Can’t Hear You Talk
“I just learned the Pictionary charades of a towel” –Ida No, Glass Candy
If the Rickshaw Stop represents the ideal spot to perform electronic music in SF, the Mezzanine represents the diametric opposite. It is essentially a giant club, with speakers more suited for arenas than small venues. To make matters worse, whomever was helming the board had no idea how to properly mix vocals in a live setting. While each performer felt this problem, it was most acute with official opening act Soft Metals. While their electro was ostensibly great, one could not decipher and understand Patricia Hall’s singing by dint of the very poor mix.
The rest of the night went to members of Johnny Jewel’s Portland Italo Disco Club. First up were Chromatics, led by the vintage Ruth Radelet. With the giant screen projecting a distinct 1970s-style soft focus of the stage action, the band gave off the presence of what would happen if Dido started her career before disco died (a better time period for that sort of voice). Not a bad thing, as the crowd ate it up, but it’s still noteworthy.
Headliner Glass Candy are a group whose music you hear in passing everywhere, but never identify until you ask about it. In this case, Ida No and Mr. Jewel probably represent the current face of Italo Disco in Ms. Shapiro’s absence, with some choice cuts in movies. The Soft Pack wish they had this crowd. Ida No could win the World’s Sexiest Banshee Queen contest if they held it, deviating between a childish manner of singing and shrieking while gyrating intensely. Her talk of third eyes and spirituality makes one wonder if she’s thought of getting a shaman recommendation from Lizzi Bougatsos.
Day 5: Breakdown #29
“I am seriously having a psychedelic tripping experience into the past here. Let me have it!” –Bradford Cox
Sorry, Frank Broyles (who is not Frankie Boyle, so no biggie). Apologies, Electric Flower. No real apologies to Carnivores, since they did nothing memorable, but still some sympathies. And a big apology to Seventeen Evergreen and their dancers with morph suits designed by Brian Chippendale. I’m not going to talk about you.
I’m going to talk about Bradford Cox, performing as Atlas Sound, and his nervous breakdown on stage.
The trouble began most of the way through Bradford’s set, when he broke a string on his acoustic guitar (which he said is the first time it’s ever happened to him). After finishing the song, he switched to his Jazzmaster, dedicating the broken string to the audience and playing a song while Broyles restrung the guitar.
Things started going downhill one song after getting the guitar back. After a banter interlude that included a joke from one his friends, someone in the crowd shouted out a request for “He Would Have Laughed,” a song off Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest. Cox misheard it as “We want to live,” and responded with, “But I won’t hurt you!” Then he strummed a few lines from “I Won’t Hurt You” by West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (which everyone in the crowd knew because local heroes Thee Oh Sees covered it last year on Castlemania). He did a “name that artist” bit, and when a kid in front answered the original band correctly, he offered him the “prize” of joining him on stage. That’s when it supposedly hit him: The 13-year-old kid, named Matt, essentially resembled Bradford Cox when he was 13.
For the next 15 minutes or so, Mr. Cox started raving about this kid in this tripped-out manner, getting his manager to acknowledge the kid looked like him then (and supposedly, said manager knew him then because they met during a Stereolab show back when the latter managed the band), praising him for being an American (“God Damn right, you are!”), among many other things. He would go off on other tangents as well, mentioning the current news story gripping his hometown of Athens, Georgia (the new Wal-Mart in downtown), and how this kid has not missed much from being born in 1998 (“Nirvana? Hah”). He started wondering if he was really reliving the past, and looked exasperated.
The peak of this madness occurred when he spent five minutes giving Matt advice, including “Avoid heterosexual people. Unless you’re heterosexual, in which case avoid gay people,” and “Don’t use DMT more than once.” The crowd was ostensibly anguished over the matter, and wanted Cox to play again, to which at one point he responded, “When you face your 13-year-old doppelgänger and have a nervous breakdown, then you can tell me to sing a song.” By the time he finally finished up and went back to singing, he was only able to play one song, “Terra Incognita” off Parallax, which he dedicated to Trish Keenan, before Bimbo’s cut him off for the night. To Matt’s credit, he not only played along on that song on maracas, but also got backstage access afterward.
The whole situation registered as one of the strangest moments in the entire festival. And probably its finest.
Finale: General Minimal and the Gimmick Brigade
“I was standing up? I apologize for sitting down!” –Dana Valatka, AU
To close out the festival, Noise Pop made some safe bets: Great American Music Hall with local heroes The Dodos. They probably did not predict some unfortunate circumstances. But more on that later.
The opening half of the show was made up of collaborative Baroque efforts Here Here and Cannons and Clouds. Both betrayed Baroque elements that, either because of the mix or because of the way it was set up, felt more gimmicky than anything else. Which is kind of sad, especially in the case of the latter band: There were strong songs being played, and the harp (their “gimmick”) seemed like it should have been far more obvious to the crowd than it was projected.
Following the first half came the first band to really grab the crowd, Portland’s AU. With a very brand new member in tow (this was only her second show), the trio burst forth with a certain degree of beautiful cacophony that made you wonder if they just don’t care much for actual structure. It felt bouncy and frenzied without losing complete control of the situation. If they had better first acts, the crowd might have riled up and danced like lunatics.
Meric Long and Logan Kroeber entered Great American Music Hall on a very somber note. Their fellow band member Christopher Reimer (also of Women) had died in his sleep on the first day of the festival. They were once again a duo without his help. Addressing his death publicly in their first gig since then, The Dodos honored him by covering Lower Dens’ “Tea Lights,” rewriting a lyric from the song to reflect something Reimer always said. They did that song (and him) justice. From there, they bounced through their set with the ferocity that many had expected of the Dodos, and got the crowd going as much as they could. After clearing the encore, there was a brief moment where people thought a second encore would take place, and the crowd kept at it, encouraging a return. It was clear that this would not be the case, but perhaps they were asking for something more. Twenty festivals in, they have a right to.
[Photos: Flaming Lips: Charlie Homo; Grimes: Paige K Parsons; rest: Ze Pequeno]