A word many people use to describe the Treasure Island Music Festival is "manageable," which is very appropriate and much more inviting than it might sound. Featuring two stages (Bridge and Tunnel) within close proximity, great overall sound and no overlapping set times, the fest makes it possible for you to enjoy all the acts without trekking a far distance. You could strategically place a blanket between the stages (or sit in the "covered wagon," on the inflatable stars or near the trapeze performance sculpture) and stay there for the duration of the day and night. The music can be heard from most areas of the festival site, for those times you need to use the loo, grab food or drinks or stretch your legs. Though Saturday got kinda hairy in terms of the crowd – in the festival's three years of existence, it was the first time the event sold out in advance – there were comfortable places to be found. The capacity of the site is about 12,000, which makes for a welcome reprieve from other excellent but often overwhelming late season fests that San Francisco has to offer: namely Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which attract several hundred thousand people, as well as Power to the Peaceful, which draws around 50,000 fans, and the upcoming West Fest, which is expected to do the same.
Another distinction: Treasure Island Music Festival is not held in Golden Gate Park but on a human-made island (and former Navy base) located a short distance from the San Francisco mainland. It's an ideal festival site, albeit one that's very rarely used for events like this, which provides incredible views of the SF skyline that us San Franciscans don't often get to see (driving or riding west on the Bay Bridge doesn't count). In part because it's on one end of the island and faces the bay, the location doesn't seem to elicit the same amount of neighbor pushback regarding sound and crowds as OSL and HSB. Sure there's no parking on the island for the majority of patrons, but the organizers did their best to keep the comfy, clean shuttles moving as quickly as they could… and by the looks of it, most festival-goers should not have been driving anyway.
As for the music – the Treasure Island tradition is to break out the two-day fest into electronic/hip-hop day and indie rock day, which makes for two very different experiences within the same festival vibe. You can either go on the day of your choice or immerse yourself in a varied array of music throughout the weekend. The weather was even more disparate: Saturday was positively warm and beautiful, whereas Sunday was cold, overcast and uber windy. (Moving the fest from September to October, as the organizers did this year, doesn't matter; it's San Francisco, where even the summer months can be chilly.) Though I personally had a much more fantastic time on Saturday than Sunday, in general I enjoyed the music more on Sunday.
On Saturday, I arrived in time to catch the last few songs from Crown City Rockers, an Oakland hip-hop group I've been wanting to check out for a while. They've got a new album coming out, and sounded good and upbeat as they got the crowd stirring for the big day ahead. (I missed the first act Limousines, an electronica-pop duo from the Bay Area who, I hear, has a catchy tune or two; give it up for the local bands kicking off the festival.) Murs from L.A. followed. With a DJ and cameras projecting his actions and the audience on the giant screen backdrop, Murs gave a very high-energy performance that was at turns personal, political and silly. "The sun's too high in the sky for drugs," he said between songs, though he admitted that the green might be an exception. Needless to say, the audience was already well on their way despite the semi-early hour. Murs was loving the crowd. Alluding to his most recent release, he said as he exited the stage, "I want to be the president of hip-hop when I grow up."
Federico Aubele was next. The Argentine native and Thievery Corporation affiliate emitted smooth global sounds from the Tunnel Stage, though at that point I found it an opportune moment to grab a bite and relax on the picnic benches. Passion Pit then played the Bridge Stage. The Boston-based electro-pop five-piece seemed to get the crowd excited. After a while I kinda lost steam with them. It's not that they were bad, but the songs sounded kinda the same after a while. As a friend said, the band has a somewhat limited palette. Maybe I should give their studio songs a listen, or check them out in a smaller club setting…
This was followed by Dan Deacon doing his uniquely weird music/performance thing. I did dig the electronica that emanated from the stage at the beginning of his set. I left for a few minutes, and when I got back he was leading some kind of audience participation gesture, telling the crowd, "This is what we'll all be doing in four years when martial law sets in and we're all in internment camps." Yikes! Perhaps it was tough act to follow, but The Streets, try as he might, didn't quite get the crowd as riled up. The Birmingham, UK rapper had a solid back-up vocalist and band, injected a few different styles into his set, and managed to jump on top of a speaker while inciting some NorCal city rivalry: "It's a lot better than Sacramento." But in the end the set didn't win me over all that much.
However the next two DJ sets on the Tunnel Stage were some of my favorite of the whole day: DJ Krush and LTJ Bukem (the latter with MC Conrad). I've seen Krush once before, and this time he was again a joy to listen to and watch, not really talking to or directly interacting with the audience, yet totally engaging. I had not previously seen LTJ Bukem, whom my friend calls the "godfather of ambient drum 'n' bass." His set was very absorbing, he and the MC complementing each other well, which makes sense as Conrad is on his label and they've been performing together for quite a while.
Between these two acts, Brazilian Girls performed on the Bridge Stage. This was another set that didn't really flip my skirt, despite frontwoman Sabina Sciubba's sweet heart outfit and early-on purrings about "pussy," "marijuana" and "sexy asshole." As a truly magnificent sunset set in all around Treasure Island, Brazilian Girls played an extended song/jam with intermittent vocals from Sabina. That was a high point, and my favorite part of their set. I think it was here that I realized that, from some angles, the Bridge Stage looks a lot like the side of a ship. Neat. Then the band ended with the inevitable "Pussy Pussy Pussy Marijuana" song. Meh.
Fast forward to MSTRKRFT, who took the stage after LTJ Bukem (it was one of the few times where the sets overlapped, not due to production snafus but because LTJ Bukem and Conrad wanted to keep their party going). I realize it's a festival, but in the end I think I get more out of MSTRKRFT in an enclosed setting. They had the crowd pumped though, with crazy lights and video lights and "agro electronica" (as a friend called it). It was cool. I was having a good time, though maybe not as much as the kids in the crowd who were very lit, and very young. The kids also really got into Girl Talk, the second-to-last act of the evening. It was a big booty-party on stage, with lots of girls/women shakin' their stuff and shooting streamers and such into the crowd. But that was about it. Here's a guy who gets written up in papers all over the country, and gets featured on NPR, and I honestly don't get it. I know, he mixes/mashes unusual songs, but still…
When the highly anticipated headlining act, MGMT, took the stage, kids were literally running toward the stage, many with their hands in the air. Such enthusiasm! Contrary to what I'd heard, MGMT did a pretty good job of bringing their songs to life - not a thorough re-creation of their studio sound, but it was better than I expected. (Maybe the key is to go in with low/no expectations and emerge pleasantly surprised.) At the start of the set, MGMT mentioned that this is the last time they'd be playing live for a while and that they would play their album straight through. Despite the earlier adoration, about a third of the way through their set, the audience began to leave in droves. Not because of the quality of the show - most likely people were trying to beat the crowds to catch the shuttle ride home. Good luck. One drawback to having the event in a remote location; many people leave during the last act, which is a bummer for the headlining artists.
O Sunday we tried to make it to the festival as early as possible, and made it just in time for the third act of the day, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down. (SF psych-rock band Sleepy Sun kicked off Sunday's TIMF - I've seen the band and they're good, definitely worth checking out - followed by Tommy Guerrero, whose instrumental music has a souly upbeat vibe.) Young vocalist Thao Nguyen, whose delivery and plucky songs elicit some comparisons to Feist, was clearly excited to be there. Once again, the band was not bad, but perhaps it was because of the muddled sound – due to the strong winds? – that I couldn't totally engage with the music.
I had similar feelings about two other new bands on the scene, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Beirut. The only similarities between these two groups, besides their being characterized as must-see acts by quite a few people I talked to, is that they're sizable ensembles built around the vision of a bandleader/frontman and featuring atypical pop/rock instrumentation. A 10-piece LA folk-rock group, The Magnetic Zeros really emphasize the "show" aspect of their live show, including a hippie messiah persona evoked by frontman Alex Ebert. I dig a band that puts on a production, though sometimes you gotta wonder if the theatrics are detracting from the music, or perhaps over-compensating for music which isn't all that to begin with. The band did have good moments, and the vocals by Alex/Edward and Jade Castrinos work well together. On another end of the spectrum, Beirut brought an Eastern European flavor to the fest. The band's sound is a combo of styles absorbed by bandleader Zach Condon on his world travels. Kudos for not sounding like every other new band out there. The group played well and are obviously much-loved by their fans. I'm not head-over-heels for either these bands but, as with Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, I would check them out again.
That second-time experience can be the catalyst for embracing a new favorite band; such is the case with Vetiver and me. The only other time I caught this SF folk outfit was at a hometown CD release show where they were practically outshone by one of the opening acts. At Treasure Island, however, they played a lovely set that brought out the alluring qualities of bandleader Andy Cabic's songwriting, and brought a sense of warmth to an otherwise unbearably cold afternoon.
Grizzly Bear followed suit, bringing an often ethereal quality to their performance. Their recordings translate well onstage; not every band can make male harmonies work, as these guys can. I have to admit, I'm not 100% sold on Grizzly Bear, but seeing them live was inspiration for me to re-visit their studio recordings. The Walkmen are another band that sounds true to their studio sound – raw, often dark, with plaintive, dramatic vocals and elements of Americana woven in. They apologized for brining the bad weather (not your fault Walkmen!) but compensated by delivering a solid set, complete with a horn section that joined the band on a few songs.
Several old-school rockers also made a great impression at Treasure Island. Spiral Stairs, otherwise know as Pavement co-founder Scott Kannberg, played a rockin' guitar-driven early afternoon set with his band. Bob Mould, recent birthday boy and new SF transplant, led a tight set with his band – a power trio with chops. Good to know that we'll now be seeing/hearing Bob Mould around town more often. Yo La Tengo, the final act on the Tunnel Stage, gave a very inspired performance that made you appreciate their longevity and "indie cult" status, and made me wonder why they were billed fifth on the line-up.
My biggest surprise was The Decemberists. It's not that I strongly disliked them; in retrospect, I guess I had never really listened to their music, despite the fact that they're much loved by friends whose musical tastes I respect and trust. The Decemberists performed their current release The Hazards of Love straight through, with a full-on production – lights, video projections, etc. - that dramatically and effectively complemented the rock-opera qualities of this concept album. Often old-worldly and other-worldly, their set from start to finish was polished, beautiful and captivating. I was a cynic, and they won me over. Very impressive.
I wish I could say the same for The Flaming Lips. I do love and appreciate this band; behind the theatrics are definitely quality songs and players. But guys, I don't see you for two years and you come back with the same schtick? Sure, there are a few new props and a few songs from the new album Embryonic. And they did bring down the tempo for two songs from the wonderful Yoshimi album (truth be told, I don't think this worked too well). If a band has the stamina and creativity to stay fresh and relevant for 25 years, then they can come up with a new stage production. San Francisco does love you, Wayne Coyne, we'll always welcome you back and I'm glad you guys feel at home here. Next time, though, try to mix it up a bit. OK?
At the end of the weekend, I realized that two days is a great amount of time for a music festival. It makes for a fulfilling, not too exhausting and incredibly memorable time.
Other plusses: nice craft vending with many cool handmade items from Bay Area artists and vendors; a "drawing lab" that brought the interactive element to the vending zone; captivating trapeze performers (those women were strong and graceful); the lady in the "postcard booth" who cracked me up when I needed a good chuckle; the ability to bring your own empty water bottle and fill it with filtered water for $1; plentiful on-site recycling, compost and trash bins; and of course the Ferris Wheel.
Room for improvement: understandable that you would keep the gen pop portopotties in one area close to the entrance/exit, but don't set it up so that both rows dead-end – it's disastrous and dangerous. (The handwashing stations ran out of water by early evening, so you were effed if you didn't happen to bring hand sanitizer.) Also, is it possible to find a beer sponsor/provider that's not Heineken? Is there a Bay Area or NorCal brewer(s) who could provide good beer at decent prices?
Room for improvement for the audience: pick up after yourselves. Seriously. It's not as if the organizers made it difficult for you to discard your trash and beer cups (all fest cups were compostable, to boot). Despite this and the numerous friendly reminders throughout the day and evening from emcee Nigel, the crowd on Saturday left the site absolutely trashed. Oh and stay the hell out of the trees. Not only did we have to worry about wasted hipsters falling onto our heads, at one point a bunch of idiots broke a huge branch that came crashing down in a crowded area near the main stage.
On a positive note, thanks to all of you who came in costume and further added to the revelry. Especially dalmation guy, smoking cigarettes in full headdress with the Storm Trooper, and bunny-man who crowd-surfed during The Flaming Lips' set. Good times indeed.All photos by Dave Vann