Janelle Monae @ Treasure Island Music Festival 2014 Saturday, by Daniel Kielman

Photos by Daniel Kielman

Do you ever find yourself sometimes watching the people at a music festival more than the bands playing onstage?  Maybe my attention span truly has dwindled to a dangerously low level, but I found myself doing this quite a bit during the Treasure Island Music Festival.  Not because the bands/artists weren’t interesting (though some definitely weren’t) but rather because music festival crowds have developed such a distinct, sometimes cliche personality over the years that it’s hard not to notice.

This personality has only grown since the festival business has proliferated so widely and almost come to dominate the live music market.  You know the crowd – girls dressed in flower power outfits, pseudo-hippies designing their wardrobe based on vague perceptions of Woodstock; dudes sporting cheap Ray Bans and tank-tops, clustering in vociferous groups and downing $10 beers; a few rockers with Slayer patches stitched to denim jackets; the real weirdos clad in gaudy combinations of Steven Tyler scarfs and neon colors and face-paint and motley tattoo patchworks and dyed beards and/or hair.  And then the people who just came to see Outkast.  You’ve seen these people at every festival you’ve ever been to, and if this was your first, welcome to the circus.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for music nor is it particularly great.  In the words of Cormac McCarthy, “It is what it is.”  But the crowd does have a life of its own at any given festival, and they’re as vital to mention as the bands and Ferris wheel and Upper Playground tent and gourmet food trucks.  Remember, this isn’t a show, this is an experience, and that’s an important distinction to make.  As much as I’d like to point out that somewhat archaic notion that, ‘it’s all about the music,’ well, it isn’t, at least not when surrounded by thousands of people, many of whom probably don’t know half the artists on the lineup, who show up at 4 in the afternoon completely wasted and snap selfies every thirty seconds.

A music festival is not the place to go if you require intimacy, a special connection between musician and fan.  It’s for the Guns N’ Roses and Kanye Wests of the world – ear-splitting, grandiose, over-the-top acts that are just as much aesthetic spectacles as musical performances.

So with all that being said and without further pontificating, let’s see how this year’s Treasure Island Music Festival stacked up not merely as a collection of artists playing interesting music, but as an experience waiting to be shared by even the most casual listener.

Day 1

Fans of guitar solos and crunchy rock chords would be rather disappointed by the day one lineup.  People who get excited by the mere presence of a laptop onstage, as opposed to a gut-wrenching sensation, were in for a treat.  Tobacco, Zedd, XXYYXX – if you dig synthesizers and bass turned so loud it could possibly cause the Next Great Quake, this was your day.  You would have been that exuberant fan dancing in the front row instead of the chain-smoking, pseudo-journalist hanging out in the back, hoping for the unlikely resurrection of Phil Lynott to take the stage and bust out some melodic, twin-guitar driven riffs.  That didn’t happen.

Painted Palms gave me some hope, however, even if I wasn’t quite sure whether they were a dance band with rock influences or a rock band that just happened to incorporate cool, electro grooves into their music.  Either way, it got the sparse, early day crowd dancing, a crowd so glorious exactly because it excluded the late night obnoxious drunks and staggering drug-fueled amateurs wondering how to comprehend all the chemicals coursing through their blood.  Unfortunately that’s also where the rock ended and the computers took over.  Oh well, at least I’ve got White Denim and The Growlers to look forward to tomorrow.

The day, for me, was really dominated by two people.  I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not Outkast.  No Y chromosomes involved here.  Ana Tijoux and Janelle Monae, two incredibly talented women with two incredibly talented bands putting on two very different yet equally stunning performances.

I can’t rave enough about either of them, with Chile-based Tijoux especially impressive since I didn’t know much about her until her intoxicating blend of soul, funk, hip-hop, Latin pop, and about a thousand other genres hooked me in and never let me go.  Though my depressingly gringo cognitive capabilities couldn’t understand a word of her lyrics, the delivery sounded a lot like revolution, anger and empathy, pure passion sorely lacking from the digital beats that ruled much of the day.  Everything about the set – from the fire in her voice to the virtuosity of her bandmates (that drummer!) – made me remember how powerful a live show can be even without pyrotechnics or gimmicky stage theatrics.

Monae, on the other hand, thrives on theatricality, but her obvious affinity for striking visuals didn’t come off as contrived or forced.  Compare and contrast: if Tijoux was the gritty, low-budget, indie art house gem, Monae is the splashy Hollywood blockbuster, and not the bad ones like Transformers but the good ones like Guardians of the Galaxy.  Yes, Monae is showy, but none of that would matter if her band wasn’t so tight, if her voice wasn’t so magnificent, and if her music wasn’t so damn catchy (the singalong ballad “Primetime” a particular highlight).  Even when a technical malfunction silenced her microphone for the opening song she handled the situation like a pro and made sure her ravenous fans weren’t disappointed; a roar of approval erupted as soon as her voice started blasting through the speakers.

Watching Zedd live made me realize why people adore electronic music so much.  It’s loud, visually stimulating, easy enough to dance to even for the clumsiest among us, and engrossing in a superficial, almost primal sense.  It’s all feel, and I suppose it was nice to turn off my overactive brain for an hour and bask in the hypnotic glow of the Lucasfilm effects.  Synthetic, cold, predictable – all apt words to describe the music, but it hits you in the gut and it makes you move your feet whether you want to or not.  There’s some virtue in that.  But I’m not gonna buy the CD.  Actually, I don’t even know if electronic artists put out physical CDs.  Seems too 20th century for them.

And then there was Outkast to close the night.  I’ll admit that I don’t personally know much of their music.  After all, during the group’s mainstream breakthrough I was merely an angst-filled teenager still discovering and obsessing over classic rock, so hip-hop was not exactly on my radar at the time.  I should’ve really paid closer attention to the national pulse.  The duo sounded as relevant as they did ten, fifteen years ago, aging well even as rap has moved on to new sounds and styles and temporary fads.  Sporting a killer backing band and personalities as large as the island itself, the group was everything live hip-hop should be, and everything the festival could’ve hoped for in a knockout headliner.

Day 2

That’s strange.  Last night, this field was covered in a sea of cracked plastic and discarded clothing, a desolate wasteland of mistakes and hazy memories.  It’s a familiar sight to any regular music festival attendee, but one not usually mentioned in reviews and blog ruminations.  It is, however, an overlooked consequence inevitable in the pursuit of the Good Time, kind of like that hangover that is no doubt pounding your skull at this very moment.  And it is also a tragic sight, not only for the obvious ecological connotations but, I mean, someone has to clean all of that up.  So this is for you, all the groundskeepers of any major festival event: sorry.  At least we’re stimulating the local economy, right?  Right??

Alright, I’ll get off the soapbox and back to the review.

Cathedrals started things off on another gorgeous (albeit a bit foggy) Bay Area morning, enchanting the crowd with their delightful brand of electro-indie pop.  Finding that difficult-to-achieve balance between live musicianship and digital sampling, the duo gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, electronic music can be affecting on a more emotional level than I originally believed it could.

Then came the rock ‘n’ roll.  I can’t even begin to describe the sensation, the wave of endorphins flowing through my mind, as Bleached took the stage and proceeded to turn up the distortion and attitude.  Guitars!  Real, screeching guitars!  Blasting through a set of blistering pop-punk-garage rock, the band sounded gloriously raw and looked like they were having even more fun than the crowd members bopping along to the beat.

Switching gears from stripped down punk to cerebral prog, White Denim proved to be the most musically impressive outfit of the day.  Like jazz cats who casually decided one day to start a rock band, the Austin-based four-piece fascinated the audience with musicianship alone, combining shifting time signatures, slinky rhythms and some wailing guitar solos that seemed to stretch on for minutes at a time.  They sounded like an extremely precise jam band but the jams never became boring, and even the most seemingly improvised moments came across as elegantly crafted (“I Start to Run” served as the riotous showstopper).  Phil Lynott would be proud.

But it was The Growlers, who I previously thought were a pretty low-key act, that really got the crowd riled up, especially when their Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque hype man started surfing through the audience on a guitar case.  Apparently that’s possible.  While they play relatively chill surf/garage rock tunes, that didn’t stop a group of fans from forming what could only be described as the most laid back mosh pit in the history of live music.  It was more of a bounce pit, an ecstatic circle of energy, a gypsy dance of celebration, full of joy and wonder and a feverish appreciation of life.  If that sounds melodramatic, it’s only because you didn’t see it for yourself.

The Big Ones came next: The New Pornographers channeling their inner arena-rockstars; TV On The Radio sounding, in my opinion, much fuller and organic live than on their studio work; Poliça dominating with those thundering, intricate and interlocking twin drum parts.  I know, that group also features haunting melodies and the compelling voice of lead singer Channy Leaneagh, but those rhythmic chops really stole the show.  A number of bands have utilized the sound of the double drumsets in the past (Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead – sorry all my references are classic rock based), but no one else has pulled it off quite as aggressively or technically detailed as Poliça.

There inexorably comes a time at every Treasure Island Festival I attend, usually after dark when the buzz starts to wear off and the lights go on in San Francisco, illuminating that breathtaking horizon of the city in all its indescribable majesty, when I start waxing poetic.  I can’t help it – I’m a writer.  And even during the roughest times, whether it was braving the freezing nights or trying to stay hydrated during the surprisingly warm days or being worn down by sheer fatigue – that most insidious of feelings for the music fan trying to stay focused and excited for each act – I knew there wasn’t another place I’d rather be at that moment in time, even if I did have to sit through yet another electronic cacophony I would’ve rather avoided.  So as I waded through the emptying festival grounds strewn with the remains of the Good Time and the tremendous bass of Massive Attack fading into the night, I couldn’t help but feel anything less than satisfied with the show.  No, not the show.  The experience.