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Monday, October 17, 2011

Treasure Island Day Two: St. Vincent, Beach House, and Explosions in the Sky Successfully Suspend Reality

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 8:10 AM

St. Vincent - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • St. Vincent

Death Cab for Cutie, Explosions in the Sky, the Hold Steady, St. Vincent, Beach House, Friendly Fires, Wild Beasts, Warpaint, the Antlers, Weekend, Thee Oh Sees

October 16, 2011

Treasure Island Music Festival

Better than: The other typical yuppie Sunday activity -- a day at Ikea.

The great thing about Treasure Island is that you don't miss a single act. The terrible thing about Treasure Island is that you don't miss a single act. The crowd yo-yos back and forth between the two stages, and if you're not so into a band, tough shit: there's not much else to do.

Also difficult: the first day of the Treasure Island Music Festival, which felt like a shitty college party: too drunk, too crowded, and too stupid. In contrast, the second day felt like a college quad: heavily stoned, a mass of people spread out on blankets, and carrying the strong whiff of pretentiousness.

I missed the opening band Thee Oh Sees, a reliably solid local act doing the kind of increasingly popular grungy, aggressive surf rock that San Francisco has become known for. Which is too bad, because I heard later that a mosh pit broke out -- before 1 p.m.

Weekend - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Weekend

Oakland's Weekend (not to confused with R&B unit The Weeknd) does grinding, slow-burn shoegaze that can captivate in a tiny club. But in the early afternoon gloom, the trio failed to puncture through to the still-sparse crowd in front of the Tunnel stage.

We swung back over to the larger Bridge stage for the Antlers. In front of me, a couple intensely and disconcertingly made out. Two girls braided each other's hair into a crown pattern. There's no denying that the Antlers' lead singer, Peter Siberlock, can swing his high tenor up into a beautiful falsetto, and that the band, especially drummer Michael Lerner, has chops to spare. But the set, leaning heavily on songs from this year's Burst Apart, was unmoving. Considering the band makes its stock in trade in the kind of heartbreaking stuff it did so well on Hospice, this was disappointing.

The Antlers - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • The Antlers

We set up in the optimal temperate zone in between the two stages for the rest of the day. The secret is that, given a solid setup with decent group of people to hold down the fort, you can pivot between the two stages for the entire day. Those that want to get up close for a band can get up there. Those that want to get supine in the sunshine can also do so.

Warpaint - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Warpaint

Warpaint took over the stage as we spread out blankets. Women in Toms shoes ate salad out of Tupperware as the all-girl psychedelic outfit out of Los Angeles did their thing. Bubbling bass and shifting drums kept it interesting. A dude with a finely blown-out blond mullet traced the edge of the crowd, juggling three green balls in time to the music and waiting for people to notice him.

Back over on the Bridge stage, St. Vincent put on one of the best shows of the day. Annie Clark is unnaturally and unfairly beautiful, about which more than enough has been written. Her vocals have the rough-to-smooth-to-scream transitions that snap even the drowsiest listener awake. And her skill on guitar, violently stabbing about arpeggios and decending into storms of squalling feedback Lee Ranaldo would envy, is undeniable.

St. Vincent - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • St. Vincent

But it was her ability, especially on songs like "Cruel," to make sense in an outdoor festival that made her shine. Many, if not most, of the bands at Treasure Island seemed like they would be better taken in at a small club with a cheap cover. Clark, smiling into the late afternoon sunlight, seemed like she belonged nowhere else but with thousands of people gazing up at her. She commanded -- she demanded -- the large stage.

As the crowd wandered back to the Tunnel stage (reluctantly, it seemed -- the strict time limits on performers at Treasure Island can be cruel), Brit indie rockers Wild Beasts took the stage. Lead singer Hayden Thorpe has the high, quavering falsetto of Antony Johnson, while the band switched between tribalist funk and heavy-synth crunch admirably. In front of our small colony of blankets, three women in their mid-30s and wearing expensive jeans and VIP bracelets sat down and smoked a joint, giggling, before slowly drifting into silence and staring at their smartphones. The sun sunk down in the sky and the clouds cleared even further. One of the women laid her head in a friend's lap and seemed to go to sleep.

Stephen Malkmus - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Stephen Malkmus

We lost sight of the stoned women as we swiveled back around to catch Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Opening up with "Jenny and the Ess Dog" from his first solo album, the former Pavement lead singer seemed old, grey, and pissed to be there. "The Hexx?" Malkmus said to a fan who shouted a request for a Pavement song, "Fuck you. No, seriously." Malkmus vamped yawny jazz scales on top of a few reliable hits, yelped randomly, and generally seemed like the kind of bored, slightly ridiculous rock star that he would have written an arch song about 20 years ago.

As Malkmus mumbled his way off the stage, The Head and the Heart took the opposite stage. The Seattle-based group have lovely piano arrangements and warm heated choruses to spare, like a more artsy version of Fanfarlo, or a less dumb version of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. It is strummy background music meant for undergrad make-out sessions and perhaps a good montage at the end of respectable cable drama.

Beach House - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Beach House

On the one hand, Beach House was perhaps a bit of overkill on a line-up in which nearly every band could be described with the word "dreamy." On the other hand, nobody else did it better than Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, who slung out an impressive number of broody yet bop-worthy tunes during their set. Fans held up handmade signs reading "I <3 U Victoria," while Legrand seemed unfazed by the outpouring of affection, promising to return to San Francisco the same way you or I might promise to return to a roadside diner.

After a day of soporific offerings, it seemed odd to put in U.K. group Friendly Fires. The high-tempo funk group fills a slot that might have formerly been filled by !!! or Bloc Party. Lead singer Ed Macfarlane knows how to cut a move (you could hear the appreciated squeals from women in the front row) and the group, aided by Macfarlane's vibrato bass playing, raised the energy level significantly.

Explosions in the Sky - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Explosions in the Sky

Where all that energy headed was to Explosions in the Sky. I pushed up into the first few rows for the group, and ended up smashed against the right speaker stack (my right ear is still ringing). The post-rock group out of Austin has seen almost unimaginable success for a group of guys who play 10-minute songs and don't sing, thanks in part to prominent placement in Friday Night Lights. There are some obvious digs to be made against the group: almost every song sounds the same, its members rely on slow-build dyanmics and martial drumming to set the mood, and most of their best moves are cribbed from Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

That said: this set destroyed me. It accomplished that thing that live music promises and yet so rarely delivers. For a few moments, while the PA covered the crowd with huge, unending sound, I stopped thinking about student loans or updating my resume or grocery lists. There was just the roaring noise of five guys doing something about as well as anyone can set out to do it, and that was the only thing in my brain. Those few moments were worth the entire weekend.

The Hold Steady - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • The Hold Steady

After that was the Hold Steady. It's strange: Intellectually, I really like and respect Craig Finn's dense lyrics, his unselfconscious stage presence, and the group's no-frills classic rock umph. But emotionally, the band moved me as much live as seeing a dad-rock R&B group perform at a BBQ competition. Perhaps it would be different pressed into the pit.

Death Cab for Cutie - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Death Cab for Cutie

As for Death Cab for Cutie, what can be said? The band is partially a victim of its own success -- if Ben Gibbard hadn't been a part of Postal Service, or married a famous actress, or the group hadn't been namechecked on The OC, you can imagine a lot more indie snobs remaining in the Seatlle outfit's corner. On the other hand, the group had a huge and standing crowd, so who the fuck cares about indie snobs? After a long day in the sun, I stuck around for two songs and slipped away with friends to catch a shuttle back into the city, San Francisco looming up from the bus window like some impossibly high-def movie trailer.

Death Cab for Cutie - CHRISTOPHER VICTORIO
  • Christopher Victorio
  • Death Cab for Cutie

Critic's Notebook

Hands down most amazing moment of the festival: Riding in the Ferris wheel as Beach House played while the sun set behind the Presidio. As we went in circles, the sun would rise back up from behind the horizon, sink back down as the ride took us back down, and the rise back up again as we went up into the sky. We got bonus sunsets. Not too shabby for five dollars.

Overheard: "He's superdrunk, but he's offering to drive us home." She sounded really on the fence.

The dancing aliens in costumes advertising some website were cute at first, disconcerting after a while (were there children inside the smaller costumes?), and annoying by the end.

Congrats to the marketing team at Jameson, which seems to have made the Irish whisky incredibly popular among a bunch of different demos. I saw both frat dudes in US Open visors and art-punk weirdos with patches of hair missing swigging the stuff.

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