On Day One of Treasure Island Music Festival the only fog in sight came from the stage. Indian summer was in full swing and this day of dance music provided a fitting end to San Francisco's extended summer season.
Now in its sixth year, the Treasure Island Music Festival is one tight ship. They've got island time down, with fun pop-up shops, a mobile beauty parlor, DIY camp for making friendship bracelets and hanging out, food for the foodies, food for the carnival goers, and island recreation (Ferris wheel and outdoor games). Time passed without much effort, which is often a difficult task at a large festival where folks are waiting around to hear those two or three bands they came to see. With a nice mix of old school acts (Public Enemy), big Northern California talent (Dirty Ghosts, Toro Y Moi, Joanna Newsom, Tycho, Ty Segall, etc), and high quality international acts (The xx, SBTRKT, M83), the fest was designed to appeal to a fairly diverse audience. I was excited to see about half of the bands I knew and completely blown out of the water by eighty percent of the bands I didn't know.
Here are some highlights from the weekend based almost exclusively on a crowd dance-o-meter and the general satisfaction of those around me.
The dancing started at the Tunnel Stage facing the San Francisco skyline, with the Bay Bridge just out of reach. Grimes completely delivered, transforming her unique sound into surprisingly sweet, fun, and uplifting beats. Claire Boucher's project is often categorized as "dream-pop," but her roots are in experimental electronic and industrial music. These characteristics are present in Grimes' releases, but live it was as if they had been pumped full of adrenaline -- a little bit '90s, a little bit of noise pop, and lot of echoing voice. Just two songs into the set a sailboat slowly drifted behind the stage, the top quarter of its sails visible, a perfect complement to the breeziness of the music.
Matthew Dear's performance on Treasure Island's main Bridge Stage was good but a little out of place; the hard edges of Detroit techno and layered alt-rock came through loud and clear, but the music calls for a dark, cold basement, with a bit of condensation on the walls. A gorgeous outdoor venue on a lovely day just doesn't lend itself to glitch. Dear's haunting voice, and harsh synths make more sense in the dark.
The acts on the smaller Tunnel Stage, really out-shined the main Bridge Stage on Saturday. Toro y Moi cruised through their set mid-way through the lineup. Front man Chazwick Bundick's effortless vocals backed by a mix of progressive rock and electronica land him in the chill category, which was perfect for SF's Indian summer. Not a head in the crowd was left stationary.
The sun was low in the sky when AraabMuzik took the stage and remained so during his entire set, hovering behind him as if mesmerized like the rest of us. The blinding light placed Abraham Orellanz in dramatic silhouette outlining his lightning fast hands as they produced beats without stopping for anything or anyone. As another of the famous one-man bands, AraabMuzik blends Hip-hop, Dubstep and Electronic. Even though he was not the headliner, Orellanz basically stole the show, throwing down an almost impossible challenge to Girl Talk, the day's closing act.
It was pretty cool to see Public Enemy on a stage, live, and in person. This iconic political rap group just celebrated twenty-five years together with two new albums. Flava Flav announced that Public Enemy has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with that he just might retire the clock around his neck. The energy was good with Public Enemy in command, but then I must have missed something because the vibe in the crowd turned sour -- due to some comment made by Chuck D -- and never really recovered for the rest of the set.
The considerably anticipated performance (can we call it a performance?) of Girl Talk was received well by a pulsing crowd. Greg Gillis samples popular music to assemble new songs. The meticulous process is commendable, but in terms of performing, Girl Talk had some ultra hip mashed-up visuals (owls, cats, banana gifs) and a stage full of people dancing. Leaf blowers propelled streamers into the crowd. However, these spectacular gestures were incongruous with the sight of Gillis head banging behind a computer full of songs that had already been mixed. I'm not a huge fan of the mash-up, and I've never really grown to love Girl Talk as much as my friends do, but I have to say he really pulled it out for a headliner. Near the end of the set Gillis passed the mic over to a friend who proposed to his girlfriend on stage. She said, "yes." Who doesn't love a musician for that?
On Day Two, Joanna Newsom's mid-afternoon set was charming. Dressed in red gingham, she transported us to her far away land full of forests, hunters, lost loves, daddy long legs, and old-world tales of a made-up lore. Newsom's famous harp and quirky voice carried the whimsy of her long tunes out on the wind, bringing the characters weaved in her imagination to vivid life on stage. She debuted a new song at Treasure Island, performing "Look and Despair" solo on the piano.
M83 must have had a staff of people harvesting the fog over the Bay Area Sunday morning for their performance that night. The band combined a ton of the stuff and a masked wolf-man with lasers shooting out of his fingers to inspire smiles, smiles for miles from the crowd. M83 made running in place look sexy. The French band's set was calculated, vibrant, and layered. Their bubbly synths poured into the crowd, the soft waning vocals built up like an electrical storm gaining more and more power the longer each song went on. Their crescendo came a bit too soon, however. The favored M83 song "Midnight City" came a little more than halfway into the set propelling the crowd into a rush of excitement only to be followed by several lesser known tunes and a dragged out ending.
The much-anticipated moment of truth was delivered by The xx. The simultaneously subtle and elaborate stage lighting transported us off the island into a dream, much like an xx album. The group's sultry and deliberate vocals filled the sound system with a satisfaction I don't normally associate with outdoor music festivals. It felt as though their soft whispers were amplified on the illusory clouds in the stage above them. The lush light show backing them complimented the accretion of Romy Madley-Croft's hazy guitar and Oliver Sim's seductive voice. Their sound became a whole body experience that was impossible not to feel.
The Treasure Island Music Festival rocks. On the sunniest day, with the best weather, the crowds were completely manageable. There was a substantial amount of people on the island, but it never felt claustrophobic. The stages are close together, easy to maneuver between and the timing was almost never off. I asked Allyson Baker of Dirty Ghosts why she was excited to play Treasure Island and she followed with this response, "It's one of the best festivals in the country and it's incredibly well run."
What makes Treasure Island Music Festival stand out from other music festivals is its careful selection and pairing of bands per day. Rather than the "something for everyone" approach, this festival aimed for a cohesive vibe. Programmed almost like a mix tape from a lover, each act fit perfectly between the ones that came before and after, adding something to a developing musical dialogue. Overwhelming and exhausting are adjectives almost always used to describe music festivals. Treasure Island provides high quality bands within a high quality production. The island has everything any festival goer could possibly want or need and the shuttle to and from San Francisco is truly better than navigating your own vehicle -- even at the end of the night the line was always moving. These are the things that make seeing your favorite band at a festival worth it.
Photos by Emmanuel Hapsis and Amanda Roscoe Mayo.