It wasn’t that long ago that even a line-up as impressive as the one that sold out the 1,500-person capacity Webster Hall last week would have been crammed into one of the closet-sized DIY spaces a few miles east in Williamsburg. I’m not sure what to attribute the big crowd to, other than maybe the kids finally discovering the visceral joys of loud guitars, but it was obvious that this wasn’t just an oversized gathering of the various strains of the garage rock record-collecting tribes.
First up was The Men, the Brooklyn outfit whose two records for Sacred Bones have turned many a head on its ear. But this was not the same band who blew my socks off at last year’s Northside Festival. For one, bassist Christ Hansell has been replaced, while the band has also added an augmentary fifth member. But they also were playing mostly brand new material, with only one cut from their latest, Open Your Heart, which as we’ve discussed before is a different beast than its predecessor, Leave Home. But while on wax the band has been able to retain some of their viscosity, live they’ve turned into something else entirely. Where once they jackknifed between walls of sound and noise shrapnel, they’ve mellowed into a lumbering Dinosuar (Jr)–like creature. They indulged their most rockist inclinations and even started their set with some slide guitar. None of this would have seemed sub-standard if they hadn’t previously flipped my lid so severely. In fact, I’ve got to imagine those who came in cold must have become converts. But unfortunately, these ears could hear them blending into the periphery right before me.
The Men should take heed of the Strange Boys’ example. This bunch of Austin upstarts, who took the stage next, started out promising enough some years back, releasing a couple records of gassed-up garage gunk full of the kind of spastic energy that would have the audience going nuts later in the night. But like their recent dud of an album, last year’s Live Music, the band’s languid set failed to inspire much of any reaction. I’m sure the Strange Boys think of such developments as “progressing,” but becoming a better musician doesn’t necessarily equate to better music. As it was, their take on Pink Album bojangle did little more than provide an opportunity to hit the bar for a refill.
Tim Presley, who played on the Strange Boys’ 2010 platter, Be Brave, was lucky to get out when he did. His new band, White Fence, killed it. Of all the acts on the bill, their grand mix of Nugget pop and shoegaze-glazed atmosphere managed to fill every nook and cranny of the cavernous Webster Hall. I had very few expectations for the band’s set, but Presley and his crew transcended the rickety cadence of their records in a big way. Presley needs to somehow bottle his live sound so he can unleash it at a later date in the studio.
Ty Segall, on the other hand, has no problem translating his records to stage or vise versa. It quickly became apparent that this was his crowd, which shouldn’t be surprising given the quality of his output, not to mention his good looks and friendly charisma. But again, it wasn’t that long ago that I was watching him on Death By Audio’s homemade stage. He began playing a couple songs from Hair, his recent collaboration with White Fence, but it was his solo material that got the crowd going. With his band keeping step, Segall hit on nearly each of his records with cuts like “Girlfriend” (Melted), “Standing at the Station” (Lemons), and “You Make the Sun Fry” (Goodbye Bread). The crowd was quickly worked up into a frenzy, with bodies flying on and off the stage, but Ty’s enthusiasm was just as high. He commented that tonight’s show was the best ever, and at one point, yelled “yeah!” into the mic more than a dozen times in a row. As such, the fever pitch never relented, even when Ty and the band dipped into new material from their forthcoming record, Slaughterhouse, due out next month. When the house lights finally came up, there was no question which of the night’s performers had divided and conquered and which had merely shown up.
The Nelsonville Music Festival started in 2005 as a humble community gathering to showcase local artisans and the spirit of Southern Ohio. With the help of the Stuart’s Opera House Executive Director and Hocking College alumnus Tim Peacock, the modest community festival has blossomed into a nationwide destination every spring. Peacock’s booking history at Stuart’s gave him credit enough to land Willie Nelson as headliner in 2009. Like an indie film with one big name, this opened the door for more and bigger names to realize the legitimacy of the fest. Last year, artists like Yo La Tengo, George Jones, and the Flaming Lips signed on. This year, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Charles Bradley, Roky Erickson, and Lee Ranaldo joined scores of bands from Ohio and beyond. Peacock and crowds of volunteers worked together to execute an event as bigtime as Pitchfork, but with solid, undeniable roots in local culture and artistry.
Speaking of Pitchfork, perhaps you remember the large, multi-stage music festival rules outlined in 2008? Of course these apply here, although the editing overlords at The Agit Reader allowed us to work in tandem as writers and photographers in order to absorb as much as we could.
Unfortunately, the rules still applied. On the road at 5 o’clock on Friday means you’re not getting anywhere. Luckily, we made it to the best sounding act of the whole festival. Kurt Vile and the Violators came off like the new Neil Young and Crazy Horse—just as consistently perfect in all their flaws and in any venue imaginable. Vile wore a Spacemen 3 shirt and channeled the psych dirge of the seminal group through his nuevo-wave guitar rock. After a sweaty set as the sun went down, he was pulled for running too long. The crowd protested and he was allowed to blast through “Freak Train,” punching the tickets of the thousand in attendance for a weekend trip through the metacosmic vibes of the Southern Ohio spring. There’s really something about those hills past the Scioto that brings people together, and it’s not just all the smoke floating around that got us all communal and friendly. Nelsonville is small enough to have young touring bands like Columbus’ Time & Temperature share the stage with established professional groups like Iron & Wine, but big enough to make that collision of the famous and the struggling both joyful and daunting.
Daptone’s Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, a band we had both only experienced on record, took a few songs to settle into the groove. It was questionable at first if that unmistakable Daptone sound would translate live through the big, outdoor stage’s PA system. But after the horn section warmed up and the band smashed into the hit “The World (Is Going Up in Flames),” Bradley had the crowd wrapped around his mic stand. There was no standing still; even the VIP section rushed up to the stage, dancing together and singing with the rest of the crowd. Bradley also did a gorgeous version of “Heart of Gold,” then he did the splits.
Over on the Porch Stage, Athens, Ohio’s Makebelieves already had a swarming crowd of kids bursting the makeshift fences around the log cabins surrounding them. More than one underage youngster stage dived, a sight that is far too rare at big venue shows anymore. The Makebelieves are The Stooges fronted by the most genuine man in Athens, then fed through a distortion pedal, and finally pressurized into a keg of delicious beer.
The No-Fi Cabin, at the back of the festival grounds, hosted Debris Upon the Forest Floor, a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-like live skit on mushrooms that is a collaboration between Missoula Oblongata and Polka Dot Dot Dot, also a project of Jordan O’Jordan (of Columbus Discount Records fame). We had no idea what we were in for when we happened upon it. An elaborate set with hand-activated movable parts amounted to a live action diorama with our favorite banjo-plucking folkinista and two other players leading us through the story of the invention of the hockey mask. If at this point we weren’t sure we weren’t on any drugs, we would probably have thought we’d been dosed in a blue light mist somewhere in the grassy path between the Porch Stage and the Lo-Fi Cabin.
And then, we saw Black Bananas. Of all the questionable nuggets of post-Royal Trux material Jennifer Herrema has worked on, Black Bananas is by far the most fully realized chunk of floozy-woozy, boo-goo drumma-machine Trux-fux grist on the plate. JJ and her crew is basically RTX, but somehow wrapped around a vibe that wasn’t there before. There was cock-rock posturing and riffage galore, but none of the big stage fuckeraroundery that got in the way of the music previously. Maybe that Southern Ohio air and the enthusiastic crowd response fed them a pill of awesome that they gladly swallowed and fed back ten-fold.
Guided By Voices was added to the bill at the last minute after Bad Brains backed out. Bob and company, with a half gallon of Cuervo Gold, gave us “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Game of Pricks” and plenty more we can’t remember because we were having too much fun pretending to be at a Who concert. Afterward, we happened upon Pollard and the band and talked about the Southern Ohio air, Iron Maiden, Ron House, and Kurt Vile’s “For All the Fucked Up Children” t-shirt, stayed up way too late and lost the lens cap and the pen for taking notes.
Saturday proved to be a long and taxing foray into the hot Hocking Valley sun. Sport Fishing USA put some Byrds and Guess Who sugar in our coffee before Jessica Lee Mayfield dropped an inoffensive glob of folk cream in our tea. After that we passed out under a tree by the Kids Stage and somehow slept through someone’s Radiohead and Coldplay covers. Mucca Pazza made great use of the Kid’s Area by hosting a parade. The kids created costumes and crafts all day long in anticipation for the band’s signature pre-stage freak-march and crowd hyping. It was a fun performance, just like every other Mucca Pazza performance we’ve seen.
Dark Dark Dark played a beautiful set, but lacked the energy that would have been nice to see on the Main Stage. Nona Marie Invie’s voice melded seamlessly with the midday sun, and their signature version of soft folk was perfect for the early evening lull. R Ring’s Kelley Deal showed the off-kilter side of the Breeders, blasting screechy vocals between ultra-harmonic electric folk. It was weird, but it was beautiful.
Roky Erickson and his band competently plowed through solid garage rock, but it was evident that there would be no electric jug choogling the music along. Erickson spent more time facing his band for cues than exhuming his throaty vocals from that chasm of psych-rock that is his brain. He seemed too shy to respond to the crowd’s praise of his work, oblivious to the accolades, and almost like he enjoyed it less than the rest of the band. In contrast, Andrew Bird had no band to work as a foil, just a few whirlygiggings and whosawhatsits that swirled around from the riggings like a Dr. Seuss page onstage. Damn can that man whistle, and while he plays the violin, or the guitar, or whatever that other thing was. Whoever made those thingamajings needs a show at the MOMA.
Lee “Scratch” Perry was backed by the Subatomic Bomb Soundsystem: a DJ with a melodica, a bassist with a giant refrigerator amp, and legendary percussionist Larry McDonald on congas. Luckily, the set was completely dubbed out, rather than dub-stepped and hyper. Perry had a candle burning on his hat and incense stuck in fruit on a plate next to the MIDI controller that triggered Moog sounds and reverb clashes throughout the set. It was clear most of the crowd had no idea what he was chanting about, but when he would say an intelligible word in English like “butterfly,” the cheers would abound. He closed with a nod to Bob Marley, “Dracula,” the dub version of “Mr. Brown.” I’ll make sure not to mention the fact that it smelled suspiciously like Meigs County Gold when we met Perry. The temperature had dropped about 15 degrees and our hands were chilly, so when we shook his hand he asked if we were lizard people. The ultra voodoo magic from the dub originator lasted through the night and into the next day.
The Hooverville tent city in the parking lot was rowdy with acoustic acts all night long, but respite from the caterwauling noise came from small groups of campfire chatterers, polite egalitarian inviters and helpful lost item finders. Sunday saw the park empty quick, but M. Ward didn’t let that deter him from unabashedly shredding his guitar to close the fest. Contrary to what I’d expected, he and his full traditional rock band tore through their set with an unpretentious humility, bookending our weekend with clean jams the way Kurt Vile started it with raw, glorious rock. Thanks, Tim Peacock.
It is hard to argue with the legendary status of Paul Weller. As frontman for The Jam, he created an iconic catalog of songs that began with punk’s basic building blocks, took some cues from Weller’s mod forefathers, and branched out into a wholly original strata of its own. But since the splintering of The Jam some 30 years ago, Weller’s continually idiosyncratic output has never reached the same level of consistency. (Style Council anyone?)
That is until recently. Following on his superb, 2010 Mercury Prize–nominated Wake Up the Nation, his most recent release, Sonik Kicks is by far the best thing he’s done since The Gift. As such, there seemed to be no better time to catch Weller in the flesh, especially since his two-night stint at the Best Buy Theater—which despite its corporate nomenclature and garish facade in Times Square, is actually one of the best midsize venues in the city—was his only appearance in the States besides an invite-only performance at the John Varvatos store (in CBGB’s old space).
Weller wasted no time digging into the new material, playing the new album from beginning to end right off the bat. Aside from letting us know when we were going from side one to side two, he barely addressed the crowd, rather seeming intent on recreating the record verbatim. It helped that he had a string section in tow for tracks like “Sleep of the Serene,” as well as two percussionists amongst his five-piece backing band. But it was the songs that stood out, with the buoyant pop of “The Attic,” the dub inflections of “Study in Blue,” and the electronic overdrive of “Around the Lake” being the highlights of the night.
After a short intermission following Sonik Kicks’ conclusion, the band returned lined up at the front of the stage in acoustic formation. While songs like “Aim High” and “No Tears to Cry” (both from Nation) were rendered with the soulful delivery of Weller’s crimson voice, it was hard not to feel like the unplugged configuration was a bit of a rock cliche, the kind Weller’s younger self would have had shunned. As such, “Moonshine” broke the languor, while the stomp of “Echoes Round the Sun” (originally a Noel Gallagher collaboration from 2008’s 22 Dreams) created the kind of din that echoed (no pun intended) Weller’s heydays. Still, one couldn’t help but wish for a little In the City. It wasn’t until a second encore that Weller dipped into The Jam songbook. “Town Called Malice” was a high note to end on, sure, but it also left a feeling of disappointment, as, with the concert coming to a conclusion, it was all The Jam we’d hear. (Surprisingly, I did hear some audience members griping about the lack of Style Council material.) No doubt Weller has moved on long ago (and has 20 years of solo albums to prove it), but it’s hard not feeling that as great as this night was, it could have been better.