Woodsist Festival: Real Estate, Woods, Fresh & Onlys, White Fence, Michael Hurley, and more
Sunday, Sept. 22-Monday, Sept. 23, 2013
Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur
Better than: A camping trip without drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The dogs are running. The flies are buzzing. A baby is tottering. Most people are either sitting or laying down on the lawn, reading or napping or drinking or smoking. The afternoon sun has set the canopy of redwoods above our heads aglow, bathing them in that magical post-4 p.m. orange. There is a stage at the end of the lawn with people on it, and those people are making wispy, confounding, glacial noises with guitars. They do not seem to warrant urgent attention. The dogs run more, the flies get swatted, and the people wake up from their naps or take new ones, and the redwoods stay magical as the sun creeps down toward the horizon. Somewhere on this earth, something wild is happening. But not here.
This is the Woodsist Festival, a tiny, two-day gathering at the Henry Miller Memorial Library that pairs rock bands of the type you'd normally see at the Chapel or the Independent with a few notably weirder artists, and presents them on an outdoor stage in the temple of natural wonder that is Big Sur. This is one subculture's idea of paradise, and at least this year, that paradise involved a lot of music better suited to soundtracking your daydreams than firmly holding your attention.
But then Woodsist Festival is more like a group hangout than a proper music festival: there's one stage and room for only a couple hundred people on the lawn, max. The lineup gets announced in the spring, and the whole thing sells out in about 10 minutes. There is no cell phone service and very spotty wireless Internet. There are two porta-potties and one bathroom inside the library. This year, there was no food offered, though you were allowed to bring in your own. Beer and wine is for sale, although no one checks your bag at the entrance, so a lot of people bring theirs in. The smell of marijuana floats constantly in the air. Almost everyone is extremely chilled-out, which is of course the idea.
The music follows suit. Save for a couple louder acts, like the Fresh & Onlys, White Fence, Woods, and Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, much of this year's lineup is extremely mellow, and often very quiet. Yet, perhaps due to the smallness of the venue and the crowd, Woodsist inspires a level of audience respect that is extremely rare these days. Early Saturday, S.F. folkie Jessica Pratt plays a subtle set of acoustic songs, and the crowd stays basically silent the whole time. Same thing with the other performers. There's no cacophony of yelling drunk people like you'd get in a club, though it's not like the Woodsist crowd is sober. It's nice to know that this still happens.
That said, Woodsist is not for everyone. Sitting on a blanket, staring at the sky while the duo MV & EE fiddles atmospherically with its guitars and banjos may not be your idea of entertainment, and that is okay. As journalists with a duty to keep our attention on the performances, we were particularly sensitive to the not-totally-riveting nature of the proceedings throughout much of the weekend. Meanwhile, our friends read sizeable sections of books or dozed or chatted quietly. But it is nice to have a music festival as a beautiful hangout session in a natural park, where weird sounds waft through the air and sometimes you go stand up by the stage and rock out to loud music. Here are a few highlights from this year's festival.
Michael Hurley: This 71-year-old folk hero, who's been making spare, quirky blues records for nearly 50 years, could have been a wizened Haight Street busker, and maybe was once. We'll credit Hurley with delivering the most memorable lines of Saturday in tones resembling the creak of an old tree branch, accompanied only by dry plunks of his hollowbody guitar. He began by quoting Henry Miller -- "'If the bread is lousy, the life is lousy'; I'm down with that" -- then proceeded to howl one song about his sister, two songs about getting into heaven (Hurley mused that he didn't make it to church that day, but that "everybody has to pray sometime"), and one song about Monsanto, the agribusiness behemoth. "I can't even find the junk food that you did not destroy," he quipped, while the crowd giggled. Old, wrinkled, alone with a guitar, Hurley was easy to relate to: "Oh I see the dishes over there/ How they fill me with despair."
White Fence: Tim Presley, lauded loner of the L.A. garage-psych scene, likes to confound listeners with his records, which sound like two worn-out tapes of the Kinks and The Velvet Underground and Nico playing over each other at different speeds, spiraling off into space. But live, a full band and forceful rhythm section fill out White Fence's sound, bringing it back to Earth just enough to get your head around. After the stage lights went away and came back on, the opening arcs of "To The Boy I jumped in Hemlock Alley" sounded less like arty scrapes than actual melodies, giving the song and sense of arc and power that it doesn't have otherwise.
The Fresh & Onlys: Someone must've flipped a switch on this S.F. band. The Fresh & Onlys have long been making good records, but their live shows have usually conveyed a sense of indifference. This was not the case on Sunday, when the Fresh & Onlys played the best set of the festival. Showing off a few songs from their new Soothsayer EP, including the power-poppy "Drugs," the Fresh & Onlys then tore through highlights of their large catalog, serving up insanely great versions of "Waterfall" and "Foolish Person," among many others. Singer Tim Cohen perfectly inhabited his role as the arch frontman: He began by introducing the band as "Real Estate" (who was playing next). He broke a string on his main guitar, found a replacement axe unsuitable, and then asked, "Does anyone have a guitar, or any heroin?" He told everyone to stand up and watch the show, then, after a few songs, told everyone to sit down. He stared up at the redwoods while the band played in the darkness, with only minimal stage lighting. It was riveting. Whatever happened to this band, they're playing better shows now than ever.
Little Wings: Sunday afternoon belonged to Kyle Field, a Central-Coast folk-rocker who took the stage in cutoff shorts and shaggy hair, backed by a number of friends including Martin Courtney, the frontman of Real Estate. At first Field seemed like the Woodsist version of Jack Johnson, but then he started to get goofy: dancing around, miming the actions in his lyrics, lying down onstage. He woke up the afternoon dozers with a cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," followed immediately by a spirited take on the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey." ("WOODSISTSTOCK," we scribbled in our notebook.) Field's encore came much later, when he ran up onstage after the end of Real Estate's closing set and led a beer-loosened group rendition of his "Look at What the Light Did Now," which became semi-famous with the help of Feist. It was a chaotic, imperfect, charming end to this year's Woodsist Festival, and it definitely held our attention.