KURT VILE & THE VIOLATORS
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As with Grizzly Bear the previous day, I sat down for Kurt Vile’s set with his touring band The Violators after meeting up with some friends. Jammy but ambient, the band and their spaced-out frontman showered the audience with gorgeous clouds of guitar noise that occasionally gave way to tight songs. The opening “Jesus Fever,” a Tom Petty-ish cut from his breakthrough Smoke Ring From My Halo, was a highlight, as was his celebrated outsider anthem “Freak Train.” Though Vile’s music was easy to enjoy while chilling out on the grass, it was much harder not to focus on than Grizzly Bear’s, and I imagine it may have been even better had I stood up--but I had a fine time on the ground and don’t regret my decision a bit.
TROMBONE SHORTY & ORLEANS AVENUE
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I decided to stay at the stage where Kurt Vile stage--the folk-oriented Sutro stage--during a long lull between bands I wanted to see. The next act was Trombone Shorty, another name I knew chiefly from festivals and who the friends I met up with had nothing but phrase for. My friend Robin claimed he “invented his own genre of music”--which, for better or for worse, may have been true. Most of the show consisted of the youthful, charismatic Shorty showing off his trombone chops over a slightly awkward melange of New Orleans funk and hard ‘70s-styled rock; though my reaction to his music may have been founded chiefly in stylistic prejudice against “rootsy” music, Shorty’s music seemed to me to prioritize style over substance, particularly the sharply divided genres he chose to mix and his admittedly incredible trombone chops. (Also, he had the second most stoned drummer of the day--more on that later).
I left the Sutro stage briefly to see King Tuff, the L.A.-via-Vermont garage-rock hero who, according to my friend Baylor, “nobody hasn’t seen.” This was my first experience seeing Tuff live and certainly not my last if I could help it. He played in a power trio with a hip-looking bassist and an incredibly sleazy-looking drummer who were both very good; however, Tuff’s musicianship was the focus. Tuff is as good a guitarist as he is a singer--and excellent at both, sporting one of the sexiest voices in contemporary rock as well as one of the most versatile guitar styles. Fittingly, he also drew the single most attractive crowd I have ever seen in a rock show in terms of men. While my other straight friends admired the many attractive women (“they must be out of towners,” said one friend, “because I never see people this hot walking the streets”), I was busy focusing on the guys at King Tuff, who mostly appeared to be high school seniors and college freshmen already deep into indie music and at the possible peak of their attractiveness. If you were there and you’re reading this, hit me up.
There’s really no way to commence my discussion of Willie Nelson’s set without stating that he was the single best artist at the festival. While Paul McCartney’s set contained plenty of mind-blowing moments and featured maybe ten of the best rock songs ever written, Willie Nelson’s set was arguably stronger for a number of reasons. Firstly, while Paul’s set was tempered with more than a few of those cheesy Paul songs that are the reason it’s cooler to be a Lennon person, Nelson’s set was unwaveringly strong and contained not a single bad song (despite the obvious showing-off of his golden-maned guitarist son Lukas, who sports the least convincing blues voice this side of Caleb Followill). Secondly, while Paul’s entire show felt more like a spectacle featuring a legendary musician playing his greatest hits rather than just a legendary musician playing his greatest hits, Nelson’s set felt like a jam that just happened to be composed of ridiculously tight musicians fronted by a fantastic singer and guitarist--and happened to also feature some of the best songs ever written, peaking with a rousing “Georgia On My Mind” that had the drunk lady behind me screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.
The vibe was as loose and carefree as you’d expect from a group of musicians who presumably spend most of their time playing music and getting obscenely baked (probably both at once, considering how utterly gone the drummer looked). Though Nelson was unmistakable with his white beard and multitude of hats and bandannas, he always seemed more like a human being than an icon, delivering his songs with jokey sentiment. Even the guests seemed more like friendly hangers-on, with Bob Weir popping in Kramer-like to deliver a few lines and John Stamos coming out to bang on a pair of bongos and make self-conscious movie-star faces at the audience. In short, while McCartney could have been an alien or a deity with his pyrotechnics and psychedelic visuals, Nelson never seemed like anything more than an intensely likeable, frequently relatable human being.
Like Metallica last year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were great but more or less exactly what I expected. There were no surprises, no deep-cut curveballs, none of the strung-out band tension that marked their awful/brilliant Frusciante-era performances--just the sober stylings of a band coming to terms with its greatest-hits phase and performing as such (they played no material from their newest album, the poorly-received I’m With You, and I knew they would do a second encore just because they hadn't played "Give It Away" yet). But my God, did they play their songs well. They sounded as clear and tight as they did on record, usually with a bit extra noodling but never any full-on jamming. Flea’s bass dominated all, as did Flea himself--he did almost all the talking, while frontman Anthony Kiedis was content to merely sing rather than impose his personality on the audience. As with Phoenix, I think I may have enjoyed this set significantly more were it earlier in the day and were I closer to the band--I was furthest from the Chili Peppers than any other act I saw, and I could barely see the band’s intricate visuals, let alone the band itself.
I saw the second half of Dawes’ set between King Tuff and Willie Nelson; they really weren’t that great and might have registered as a Mumford & Sons ripoff had I not known they had been around for a while before the recent wave of cute, almost-non-threatening folk-pop bands.
Tied with Friday as the best day, maybe slightly better. Going to Willie Nelson was the best decision I ever made--for a minute, I wanted to see Vampire Weekend, but then I remembered I don’t like them that much.