Many people define themselves by what kind of music they listen to. So in a very real sense attending an enormous outdoor concert such as the Treasure Island Music Festival can get them in touch with who they really are.
By the time I arrived on the island, a massive show with thirteen bands was already under way. My rough guess was that there were between two and three thousand people at the festival. Ghostland Observatory was playing a song called "Sad, Sad City," which sounded like early 80's post punk with modulated drum beats and laser beam sound effects. The keyboardist, Thomas Ross Turner was wearing a cape (which I liked because capes are cool) while the singer, Aaron Behrens, ran around on stage like he'd just had his twelfth cup of coffee for the day.
Pretty much without exception everyone was there to dance. Even the too-cool-for-school kids in the VIP section were getting up out of their chairs to catch the groove. After being hassled by a white rapper that resembled Vanilla Ice, (he insisted I give him a high-five in exchange for a copy of his free "underground" demo CD), I decided to just walk around.
I wandered through the crowd and marveled at the $7 beers, the $6 cheese pizza slices, the $3.00 cups of coffee and resolved to just keep chewing on the very delicious piece of gum a friend of mine had given me. Besides which, there were little, mysterious booths everywhere so I decided to check them out while the next act, M.I.A. was setting up.
So many hipsters were out in the heat, moving in all directions -- and the festival was so huge, I really didn't know where to go. Then I saw a commotion near an ATM machine and several people seemed really excited by something.
Like frenetic honey bees buzzing around their hive, young women were crowded around several little jewelry tables. I could see lots of handmade earrings, necklaces and various trinkets made of horn, bone, coral, mother of pearl, and other seashells. Girls were trying on rings and necklaces and the guys who were behind the tables at what I think was called Coconut Jewelry, were quite busy answering a flurry of questions.
A few booths down was a tent called Medusalon. Inexplicably, about a dozen people were getting their hair cut. To me it seemed odd that they were taking time out of the concert (where tickets cost $58 for a day pass) to do their hair. Yet there was also a line of people waiting their turn. Other booths included local publisher McSweeney's, 826 Valencia, Students for a Free Tibet, Pretty Fun Jewelry, Paxton Gate, Recyclopolis, NOPAL (silk-screened t-shirts), numerous food purveyors and one large booth with a sign that said simply "Merchandise."
London based M.I.A. got on stage and was basically a woman with her D.J. backup. And like many of the bands at the festival, they would have sounded a lot better in a club. It may not matter but part of M.I.A.'s hype is that the singer's father was co-founder of a Sri Lankan Tamil militant group. The so called 'Tamil Tigers' by the way, grimly pioneered the use of suicide bombers long before Hamas, Hezbollah or any other middle eastern groups. With this grim edge she is able to claim a sort of Avant Garde credibility among certain audiences. After all, she is the daughter of a true rebel leader.
Yet the music just wasn't standing out -- instead, the simple back beats and choppy, sampled French horns on one song reminded me of a poor attempt at being funky, which is bad news. As the artist Tom Sachs once said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Which goes for music as well as any artistic endeavor. A good example of the sort of song M.I.A. was attempting would be "Brass Monkey" by the Beastie Boys (which really was dissonant and yes, funky). At one point during her set she beckoned the crowd to wave their hands in the air, calling for "all the ladies to come up and dance on stage." She then climbed up the scaffolding near the speakers and sang to the choppy beats. It was quite possible it was just a bad day for her and her D.J. Yet despite my lack of enthusiasm for the music, a number of couples started making out in the crowd around me. I couldn't tell if it was the music or some other substance, which hung in the air. But like I said, people were there to dance.
Across the field another band, West Indian Girl, was starting up. This was an indie rock group from L.A. with a kind of melodic/psychedelic guitar that hovered over the other instruments, pulling them all into some sort of wonderful vortex. Their vocal harmonies and classic rock nostalgia sound was an oasis in the festival's first day, which showcased electronica. Where M.I.A. was trying too hard, West Indian Girl seemed to be just enjoying themselves. Great singing, two keyboardists, and a solid rhythm section aided the heavily effected guitar. Fronted by Francis Ten and Robert James the band played a great set.
Next up were DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Their concept revolved around the fact that they were only going to play 45rpm records, which sounded good but probably limited their creativity. They began by laying down some generic house beats and then just made them louder. At one point "Eye of the Tiger" was put on over some beats and it was just kind of silly. Their mixes seemed more like an academic exercise and so while it was artistically interesting, it went on a little bit too long. One highlight of the hour-long set was when a large projection behind them showed an animated jukebox that used laser beams to blow up ipods.
I was especially interested in the group that came on next -- The Gotan Project. They stood out partly because they are based in Paris, and partly because they blend complex electronica with traditional Tango music. Gotan is an anagram of Tango. It's a kind of music that favors a passionate embrace between the dancers as they move. For that reason the Tango is considered one of the most romantic kinds of dancing one can do.
The musicians came out in their nice white suits while the DJ and drum machines were set up behind them. Their songs were great to dance to but also just as great if you wanted to kick back and hear great artists do their thing. They were easily the best band I heard at the show.
As it got dark Thievery Corporation played to a crowd that had grown to at least five thousand people. They played an eclectic group of songs and had everyone dancing even though it was getting cold. As they played their hit "The Richest man in Babylon" people started leaving the festival. The reggae was great exit music. It had been a long day.