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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Both Sides of the Trip

posted by on May 27 at 14:06 PM


Oh god I was hung over yesterday morning. I wandered around the sprawling campsites after the Cure on Sunday until dawn, drinking and accosting and being accosted by yellow shirt mongoloid rent-a-cops. When it came time for a third day of festival I needed a god damn nap in a bad way, so I staked a flat spot on the terraced part of the hill and dozed in the sun while the main stage plugged away though the morning lineup. This semi-conscious, recuperative state was how I experienced the Hives and the first half of Built to Spill. Few conclusions were drawn from the Hives set, mostly that their guitar tone sounded weak and sometimes out of tune, and that their bratty, cocky lead singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist is a lot like a Swedish version of These Arms Are Snakes’ Steve Snere. Like Eric said before, Built to Spill were unsurprisingly awesome, playing lots of their long, jammy songs but mixing them up with shorter numbers as well. “Traces” was flawless, and any time they play “Big Dipper” I get heart happy. They were thoroughly enjoyable but fairly unexciting, and by the end of their set my hangover had subsided to the point where I no longer felt like flinging myself into the canyon.

Rodrigo y Gabrielaphoto by Christopher Nelson

I’d heard good things about Rodrigo y Gabriela but didn’t get a chance to see them at Bumbershoot last year. They were without a doubt the best act I saw on the main stage this year, blowing the minds of the entire audience with lighting fast acoustic flamenco/metal. If you’ve never heard, Gabriela plays actual rhythms with her flailing outstretched hand that sound like a drum set while Rodrigo absolutely shreds up and down the fret board. When Gabriela’s guitar broke, she walked off stage leaving Rodrigo to entertain the audience by ripping through Metallica and Jimi Hendrix riffs. His solos were so intense they caused the entire audience to explode in applause every couple minutes. As he stood on stage in front of a beautiful canyon, thousands of people in awe of his skill, I could just imagine him bellowing in triumph, “I am the greatest guitarist in the WORLD!” Respect.

Following that up with Battles, who is in my opinion pretty much the best live band in the world right now, was pretty incredible. Watching total bros lose their inhibitions and start dancing like hippies during “Atlas” was like a miniature “Hands Around the World.” It might have been how high I was, but I’m pretty sure I saw two Lost Boys walk past me and disappear into the dance pit with evil grins on their faces. Drummer John Stanier looked like he was going to pop a brain vein. I actually felt sorry for him, like, “Those guitarists are working that poor drummer to death! Somebody help him!” As remarkable as he is at being a high-speed human metronome, I can’t imagine playing like that every night would be very much fun.

The headliners of the night, Mars Volta and the Flaming Lips, are opposite sides of a mushroom trip. The Flaming Lips are the sheer joy of psychedelics, their set being the rainbow confetti cumshot perfect for concluding a long, drugged-out music weekend. The visuals were great, everybody sang and had fun, and it didn’t even matter that the Lips are still basically doing the same thing they’ve been doing for years now with but with more expensive props.

The Mars Volta are the other side of the hallucinogenic spectrum, the exhilarating, frightening, self-introspective part of the trip. They didn’t start with a song but rather an explosion, five straight minutes of guitar solo, drum fill and driving bass, while singer Cedric Bixler flung himself around stage, jumped off amps, and chucked a symbol and stand and a jumbotron camera into the audience. They played tracks from their albums, but each drifted into strange, evil improv jazz sessions. There were so many intricate parts fighting for attention that a lot of it was lost through the sound system - I found myself often straining to hear what certain members were playing. Their sound was loud and abrasive, and it drove people away in streams – there were definitely more people walking away from the Mars Volta than towards them. Then shit got really weird.

Mars Voltaphoto by Christopher Nelson

During “Goliath” they went into a long, discordant saxophone solo, then a back and forth of unpleasant noises between the sax and the guitar. There is no denying each member of the Volta is an incredible musician, and the dark, avant-jazz they’ve created is fascinating, but I found myself asking throughout the set, “This is definitely original, but is it good?” On the whole, yes. The sound they are experimenting with is often unpleasant, but it is also a step in a whole new direction following neither the path of rock, jazz, or prog music. They are a band focused on being musicians and pushing limits, not on writing hit songs. The reaction to them seemed a straight mix between pure respect and utter disgust. I overheard the people sitting behind me say their friend left during the set because she got scared. “Yeah, that band was scary,” her friend replied. Walking to the parking lot at the end of the night, someone yelled, “Who loves the Mars Volta?” There were scattered yeahs, followed by equal boos, and someone saying over and over, “Not so much, not so much.”

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I was very torn about the Mars Volta. I really like their albums, but I didn't think they could play the songs live. I was somewhat right, but I still enjoyed them. My friends, not so much.

You were dead on about the dark side of tripping reference. I would not have been happy if I was on shrooms. Then again the Lips would have made my head explode with joy if I was.

Posted by wisepunk | May 27, 2008 2:26 PM

I had that exact same thought about Mars Volta.. how if I were on acid, I would have to be carted off in an ambulance, strapped to a gurney Britney-style. The sheer volume of their set turned me off completely--I could not concentrate on the musicality at all because my cochlea was screaming for mercy. None of the other bands that played this weekend were so abrasively loud, no wonder it was driving people away.

Posted by Jen | May 27, 2008 2:58 PM

I didn't make it past their second song. Seeing them try to break the live video camera, assault a photographer in the pit, and throw instruments and equipment at the crowd during their opener was enough.

Posted by josh | May 27, 2008 11:53 PM

I can't imagine how the Mars Volta's live show would translate to a festival crowd. They are definitely best experienced in a club where sound and energy can be transferred.

Posted by bunnypuncher | May 28, 2008 2:44 AM

Re: The Mars Volta. The enjoyable vs. good debate reminds me of the big prog discussion a few months ago. Musicians respect Rush, but does anyone actually like their music?

I like the Mars Volta recorded music, but watching live videos of them on YouTube kind of dissuades me from ever wanting to see them live for the exact reason you gave.

Posted by JJ Hellgate | May 28, 2008 9:24 AM

stop being such little fucking bitches. "if i was on acid, if i was on shrooms". take that shit to the campsite. im here to rock out with my big dick and drink free beers (thanks wristband). soon as i saw him throw the shit offstage, I knew i was in for the show of my life. if they had naked bitches on stage*, it would be a no brainer who stole the show.

Posted by kurt fambis | May 28, 2008 2:38 PM

Ha, coming from someone who WAS tripping hard on mushrooms for both sets, you hit the nail on the head. I decided after 5 minutes that I was going to hang on through the show, even if for dear life. My 4 other friends on acid had to leave at the same time. As horrified as I was by the volume, dissonance and darkness, I was utterly fascinated by the sexy cat-like screaming banshee of the underworld that is Cedric Bixler. The rain and thunderstorms rushing towards the gorge completed the experience. The Lips, on the other hand, immediately convinced me that I was having the best night of my life. I smoked Js with teletubbies at the front of the stage while watching beautiful naked ladies projected on two 50 foot high LCD screens on either side of a spaceship spewing confetti and rainbow balloons. Professional psychedelic silliness. I do believe that the the lump sum of the $90 that 22,000 people spent 3 days in a row went into that show, and I am glad. See you all next year.

Posted by Elise Burnett | May 28, 2008 11:29 PM

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