Drunk History (photo: SarahJayn Kemp)
Words by Tim Draut and Dariush Azmoudeh
Last weekend, Clusterfest took over Civic Center Plaza for three days in its third annual year. Although I was focusing on the musical end of things, I didn’t miss out on the laughs. With the main stage inside Bill Graham Civic Auditorium mainly dedicated to stand-up comics or podcast stars, and the outdoor Colossal Stage primarily devoted to music, there was still plenty of crossover in between. From bands and DJs feeling obligated to tell more jokes than usual to comedians showcasing their impressive (or impressively bad) skills at singing, dancing, and playing instruments, this year’s Clusterfest really tried to embrace the marriage between music and comedy to an often surprising, always amusing effect. — Tim Draut
DJ Dials welcomed Friday’s early birds with an easygoing DJ set, warming up the stage for Big Freedia with safe classics and remixes of songs old and new. Occasionally working the mic to help loosen up the crowd with ad libs like “Make some noise for weed!” (Yes, the fest was very much 420-friendly) and “I’ve got a wicked hangover but I’m having a great time,” Dials got the crowd moving with Bay Area favorites like Mac Dre and E-40 while mashing up hip-hop tracks and jock-rock hits. “I played a bunch of wacky stuff,” he said, passing the baton to Big Freedia’s tie-dyed DJ.
After a warm-up from Big Freedia’s pair of talented dancers, Clusterfest was ready to bounce. Freedia finally made her big entrance, popping things off with “N.O. Bounce” to rep New Orleans. After “Rock Around the Clock,” Big Freedia enlisted help from the hyped-up crowd on “Gin in my System,” for the callback “somebody’s gonna be my victim!” When everyone was feeling loose and inspired by the onstage twerking extravaganza, it was time for the audience participation portion of “Ass Everywhere” — a diverse range of amateur “bootydancers” flocked to the stage, impressing Big Freedia and the rest of the crowd with some unexpectedly ambitious moves.
Fred Armisen’s shortened “Comedy for Musicians” special was up next, so I decided to stay put. He opened by cycling through snippets on a small keyboard, riffing on obscure music genres such as “classical music celebrating folkloric music.” He changed instruments for some guitar cord jokes, serving up polished takes on various guitar player tropes. While playing, he would transition into spoken word monologues without skipping a beat. One of the guitar clichés that used to annoy him is when lead guitarists sing along to their own solos, a practice which he has recently warmed up to. Although Armisen offered his best impression, this joke didn’t truly pay off until later in the night when the Roots’ guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas employed the very same technique during his own lengthy solo.
After a Phil Collins tease, Armisen played a drum set to showcase the “History of Punk,” a highlight of the entire festival. He also shared musical epiphanies about Kansas’ “Carry on My Wayward Son” having too many parts, and being able to sing Joe Walsh’s “my Maserati goes 185” line in any key. It was hilarious stuff and a perfect fit for the festival’s target audience, fans of both music and comedy.
Next, on the Colossal Stage, sampling wizard Jeremy Ellis warmed up the crowd and was eventually joined by Black Thought, Questlove, and the rest of The Roots band. Opening with Things Fall Apart classics like “The Next Movement” and “Dynamite!” and moving on to celebrate hip-hop culture with a medley of iconic covers, the Roots delivered a jubilant and inspiring sunset show. Each of the band’s key members was featured during the set, including Douglas’ lengthy, show-stealing guitar solo. The Roots even had some impressive choreography, with Douglas performing 360-degree jumps with the tuba and bass players without missing a beat. Questlove tossed his drumsticks into the crowd after the set and a frenzy ensued. Later that night, the Roots vocalist Black Thought hosted his own curated comedy special inside Larkin Comedy Club.
First thing’s first, I went to check out the sitcom sets before lines got too long. The Seinfeld apartment looked spot-on. The the Office office was a bit underwhelming — I was expecting it to look exactly like Dunder Mifflin, but it was condensed to the front desk, Dwight’s and Jim’s desks, and Michael’s office. In person it looked a bit off, but looked better in photo.
Fred Armisen on the Colossal Stage on Friday performed a fun set of what he called “comedy for musicians.” He started out playing music off of a tablet and riffed on the styles of music. He got on guitar, and later a drum set, for other type of routines. Most notable for me was his History of Punk on the drums, ranging from styles that sounded like the Clash to Fugazi to Green Day, while throwing is some imitations of a band or two’s singing style.
I stopped by the Drunk History Pub to check out the New Unseen Stories from Drunk History, but it was a letdown. It appeared on the event schedule several times, as if it was something special. I thought it was going to be someone telling stories live, but it was just an airing of an episode on the bar’s TV.
The live script reading of Clueless was fun and had a great cast, most notably Illana Glazer of Broad City and Kumail Nanjiani of Silicon Valley and his latest movie Stuber. It was a nice retelling of a movie I don’t remember much of, since the one time I saw it was in the sixth grade. The actors were accompanied by the Red Room Orchestra, who played songs from the movie…and were later joined by Jill Sobule to sing “Supermodel.”
Peter Buck at “R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: Me?”
DJ Dials warmed up the Colossal Stage once again on Saturday with the opening line: “I’m DJ Dials and I’m not funny.” Party DJ and hype man Cipha Sounds hit the stage next, constantly repeating shit like “I’m very famous in New York!” (which became funny around the seventh time) and “I play feel-good music!” Choice one-liners included “Whether you know this song, or you don’t, you can feel the energy.” He called out a group doing a “horrible” attempt at the “Cha-Cha Slide” during his remix, as dancing folks clapped back with “We want the original!” Cipha obliged.
I headed inside to the Bill Graham main stage to check out Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman’s “R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: Me,” a show dedicated to discussing all things R.E.M. R.E.M. cover band Dead Letter Office was on stage with the two comedians during the live podcast, opening the show with a faithful rendition of “Radio Free Europe.” After a round of “stump the band,” the hosts announced the first special guest. It turned out to be none other than R.E.M. co-founder and guitarist Peter Buck, who came out for an impromptu jam session with Dead Letter Office. The cover band was awed by Buck’s surprise appearance, honored to have an opportunity to perform with their biggest idol.
Meanwhile, outside, shades-sporting duo Soul Clap was dishing out a smooth and slippery set of electro-funk, neo-disco, and tropical house jams alongside colorful, psychedelic visuals on-screen. “Thanks for getting funky with us!” they said while wrapping up their stoner-friendly groove session.
Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious were up next, another pinnacle of musical comedy. First, Cipha Sounds came back out to hype up the crowd. He’s very famous in New York! Actor-comedian Craig Robinson was joined by his large band of drummers, guitarists, saxophone, keyboard, and trumpet players. Robinson had his own keyboard, leading the band through seamless, expertly-timed transitions between great music and gut-busting comedy. A running gag was formed between Robinson and audience member Bob, who was eventually called on stage but failed to seize the moment when given the mic for Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” The Nasty Delicious channeled the power of “Eye of the Tiger,” leading singalongs of “Sweet Dreams” and “I Will Survive.”
The only musical mishap I caught during the festival was between bands, when the music failed to play during an accompanying video clip for Jonathan Van Ness‘ appearance, forcing the headlining television personality to improvise.
The Colossal Stage sound issues were solved in time for Courtney Barnett’s show, with the Australian rocker delivering one of my favorite performances of the entire weekend. Barnett’s unassuming banter (“What a lovely…festival.”) was undercut by tremendous guitar shredding and vocal prowess as she powered through 12 of her most impactful songs. Everyone was on their feet for the nighttime rock set, with fans screaming in excitement. From “Avant Gardener” through closer “Pedestrian at Best,” Barnett and her band ripped through all the hits. Barnett showed off her instrumental skills with multiple guitar changes throughout the set, often raising them above her head. Showcasing material from Tell Me How You Really Feel, her new single “Everybody Here Hates You” was also received exceptionally well.
Day Two closed out with a midnight dance party courtesy of Girl Talk, strangely the only career musician to headline the festival’s indoor stage. Ushers opened the front of the seated area for people to dance in front of the stage, as well as up on stage alongside the DJ. Large, inflatable, cartoon hand and feet props decorated Clusterfest’s main stage, with a huge LED screen and lighting rig blasting animated visuals that were synced up to the music.
Known for popularizing mash-up albums and headlining DJ sets, Girl Talk performed his hip-hop meets party-rock shtick, alternating between two laptops that were stationed between a pair of audio monitors. All the typical Girl Talk props kept the crowd amused: toilet paper launchers, confetti, regular-sized balloons, and of course, huge confetti-filled balloons that each popped with a startling, messy explosion in a harrowing game of beach ball hot potato. At some point amidst all the distractions, the DJ’s t-shirt had flown off. Standing shirtless after climbing up the table, Girl Talk yelled “Have a GOOD…FUCKING…NIGHT!” to end Saturday’s shenanigans.
Crowds, lines, and a poorly-organized reservation system made day two unpleasant. As the line outside Bill Graham grew over the course of the evening, it became obvious that the main events for Saturday — Chelsea Peretti at 6:45 and John Mulaney at 8:15 and 10:15 — were oversold. It was impossible to get a seat for the earlier shows unless you got there super-early. I wanted to check out Chelsea Peretti, and showed up towards the end Anthony Jeselnik’s set to catch her. There were no open seats — people were either standing around or sitting in the aisles and stairs. There was no one outside saying they were at capacity. After the Jeselnik set, barely anyone left their seat, meaning still no room for Peretti.
It was just a mess. I’m not sure if things would have been better if they rearranged the seating by having the VIPs in the center balconies and removing the chairs on the floor, concert-style. I know it’s not traditional a traditional setup for comedy, but it may have solved the issue.
Knowing there was no way to see Peretti, I didn’t even try to go see Mulaney. Checking out the Clusterfest hashtag on Twitter after I left the event for the day, I saw the frustration of many other people who had had the same issue — “Clusterfyre” and “Clusterfuck” were two alternate names being thrown around. I chose to go to some random show on the side venues, Polk and Larkin, but the long standby line was made even more annoying by the reservation line, which always went ahead of the other line.
Reservations had been an issue throughout the festival. The smaller “clubs” and the sitcom set recreations required them, but the only way to make them was to download the festival app. If you’re like me and just flat-out refuse to download any unnecessary one-time use apps, there was no other way, and I heard stories of reservations being filled through the app almost immediately. It sucked to stand a non-moving line waiting to get in while people in the other line just zipped right past. I hated the idea at Disneyland, I hate this idea here. Just have one regular line, first come, first serve. If reservations are used at all, they should be for the bigger acts at Bill Graham. Either way, It’s clear that something will have to be done different next year.
But for me that was OK — what I was most excited to see at this festival was Courtney Barnett at the Colossal stage. Her and her band sure did deliver with a great performance of a great range of songs that included her softer “Depreston” to her heavier “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” Her guitar playing sounds great just listening, but seeing it live was amazing, especially during the guitar solo of “Small Poppies.”
In the time between, I spent my time at the Drunk History pub where they were preparing for trivia with host Derek Waters and filming for possibly a future episode. Trivia was cool to be around, but I didn’t participate. I only stayed for one round out of the four while keeping an eye out for the current act on the Colossal Stage to end so I could get a good spot for Barnett. I got a spot right at center rail.
Earlier in the day, Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious was fun at the Colossal Stage…but the DJ that warmed up the crowd was quite the opposite. He kept reiterating that he’s big in New York — which made sense, because his performance came off as a lame New Yorker’s take on San Francisco. Needless to say, he was not big in the Bay.
Sunday was a little more mellow and spread out, with shorter lines and less commotion in general. Colossal Stage was hit with a mid-afternoon “yacht rock explosion” from cover band Mustache Harbor. “We have mustaches and we like to party with y’all!” they said, covering Toto and Hall & Oates. With sparkly outfits and names like Danny Orlando and Pretty Ricky Dallas, the mustache boys were pretty much exactly what you’d expect.
Dan Finnerty is best known as the foul-mouthed wedding singer in movies like Old School and The Hangover. Aided by two middle-aged singing and dancing male backup performers, he’s known for his blue-collar covers of songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Genie In A Bottle,” and “Candy Shop,” the latter of which had to be cut in place of a song that Finnerty made up on the spot. He abruptly paused the song when his jaw dropped as he pushed a gate open, realizing he had been set loose upon the unsuspecting crowd.
After roasting a married man and a little boy, the novelty singer made his way over to my section to avoid cursing in front of the child during the lengthy improv bit. I found myself paralyzed with anxiety as the funnyman proceeded to rhythmically interrogate the couple sitting right in front of me, as well as the person directly across from me. I didn’t get to plug The Bay Bridged on-mic, but I’m probably in somebody’s photos.
After that terrifying and admittedly hilarious experience, I was more than ready to unwind with a lovely and exuberant set from Japanese Breakfast. Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Michelle Zauner, who was joined onstage by a full band. After ethereal opener “Diving Woman,” Zauner said she was “scared of talking” because she’s “not a comedian.” She was very funny though, with unexpected quips like “this song is about being cuckolded” to introduce “Boyish.” “Don’t laugh, it’s our biggest nightmare! This is a serious fucking band,” she joked, alternating between electric guitar and solo vocals between songs.
Mostly playing material off Soft Sounds From Another Planet including “Road Head,” “Machinist,” and “The Body Is A Blade,” other Japanese Breakfast highlights included new single “Essentially,” a cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” and closer “Everybody Wants To Love You.” “If you SF podcasters really wanna turn up, now’s the time!” she said before the finale. The set was a perfect conclusion to the musical side of the comedy festival unless you count Tig Notaro’s hilarious amateur piano-and-vocals cover of Adele’s “Hello” on the Bill Graham stage later that evening.
Overall, it was a great time for me, generally avoiding most of the clustering around big-name comedians in favor of catching expected personal highlights like Big Freedia, Courtney Barnett, Japanese Breakfast, Craig Robinson, and The Roots. Music played a big part of this year’s Clusterfest beyond the headlining musicians, with dance-friendly areas like the Drunk History Pub, full bands supporting some of the podcasts and live reads, and surprisingly funny musical bits from stand-up comics.
Sunday was the polar opposite of Saturday. While Saturday was crowded, with a lot going on and no room to get into any of it, on Sunday there was plenty of room but not much going on. Japanese Breakfast played a good set despite a nearly empty crowd at the Colossal Stage compared to the same time the day before. After seeing Japanese Breakfast, I found myself in a lull on the with nothing starting for another 45 minutes and not wanting to join in on something halfway through. So I walked around with an iced mocha, checked out the still-packed crowd at Bill Graham, ended just chilling on the lawn and hearing the karaoke from the Drunk History Pub.
Instead of trying to find a seat at Bill Graham for a podcast I don’t listen to, I opted for Asian AF on the Colossal stage. I didn’t really know anyone performing other than Fred Armisen, which would be my third time seeing him this weekend, but I saw some new comedians that I ended up enjoying. Andrew Orolfo and Sheng Wang were the ones that stood out to me — their delivery was on point and their topics were easy to relate to. In a way, that’s what comedy festival should be — discovering new comedians.
To cap off the night and entire event, I headed to Bill Graham to see Patton Oswalt. This time it wasn’t completely packed — probably because it was around 9pm on a Sunday. The openers, Fortune Feimster, Matteo Lane, and Irene Tu, were great and really warmed up the crowd by the time Oswalt came on. Being one of the top comedians, he delivered the type of performance you’d expect and brought the ideal close to the festival.