Backstage on Sunday, in the late afternoon, Jack White shows up and waltzes through the cluster of bands, fans, and hangers-on. It feels a little bit like the royal family making a grand entrance, and for all the “it” bands chilling back here—Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River—White goes straight to Jason Pierce, from Spiritualized. They spend a good 10 minutes or so together, and everyone watching is wondering what in the world they’re talking about before White disappears with the rest of his band mates to the backstage tent.
Okkervil River saunters out with confidence and poise, and then immediately realizes that they’re not in tune. Whoops. A few seconds go by, the bass player lifts a total Merle Haggard & the Strangers intro, and with “Singer Songwriter,” we’re off and running. You heard that song, man? I tell you, it’s the most scathing thing since “Idiot Wind.”
The Stage Names—not into it at first. Four listens went by. Then it grew on me. I read the lyrics, and it grew on me even more. After seeing them live, I’m a dyed in the wool fan. Singer Will Sheff is a natural with the crowd, mentioning after a break on “Pop Lie” to change his guitar strap: “A lot of the sets here at this festival are very professional. We hope you appreciate the difference.”
“Lost Coastlines” is the big hit from Okkervil River’s new record The Stand Ins, and when bassist Patrick Pestorius comes in with his baritone lines, there’s an audible “Whoo!” from the crowd. Sheff ambles over and tickles Pestorius’ beard while he’s singing, then pulls the microphone from its stand and serenades the crowd up close.
“Our Life is not a Movie or Maybe” gives way to “Unless it’s Kicks”—just like on the album, bro!—and shit gets heavy. Sheff is really working the crowd: “It’s a beautiful day, we’re on an island, there’s water on all sides, there’s birds flying through the trees, and I want you to put your hands together! All the way back to the Ferris Wheel!” He ends the set by knocking the mic stand into the photo pit and leading the band in a pummeling outro. I’d say they left their mark.
There used to be this band called Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Then there was this other band called My Morning Jacket. Now there is a band called Fleet Foxes.
Warming up with Dylan’s “Sara,” Robin Pecknold jokingly chides mother nature for its interference. “I’m hearing a low rumble,” he says. “Is that the wind? Can you turn the wind down?”
“Sun Giant” starts the set, a long acapella about living life in the summer and spring and the sun and the seeds and the clouds. The four-part harmonies are perfect, just absolutely dead-on. “White Winter Hymnal” conjures snow, strawberries, the summertime. The wind keeps blowing from the bay and rumbling into the microphones. It can’t be turned down.
“The Dodos are playing today!” says Pecknold, enthusiastically. “I think they’re… uh, I could really blackmail them. But I won’t.”
Okonokos is the third greatest live album ever recorded.
The last time I saw Spiritualized, in 1997, right after Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space came out, the band was buried in fog and lights. I didn’t understand the concept of noise as bliss, nor did I see any reason to intentionally obscure what would otherwise be a great song in mountains of effects, layers of wrong notes and a shit-ton of feedback. I distinctly remember thinking that they weren’t very good.
I usually vehemently argue that musical impressions are a matter of opinion, and I always give other people a lot of leeway for personal taste. But I think in this case, it comes down to actual facts. In 1997, I was dead wrong.
There haven’t been too many chances to see Spiritualized since, and after Jason Pierce’s near-death experience from bilateral pneumonia three years ago, I’m surprised that I get to see them at all. But lo, here they are, on stage and starting their set with “Amazing Grace,” which evolves, naturally, into a shower of feedback and noise.
You know how sometimes songs can give you a brief endorphin rush of absolute happiness? There’s moments in certain songs—bridges of Operation Ivy songs, choruses of People Under The Stairs songs, solos from Charles Mingus songs—that I can always count on to do that to me for a few seconds. But when Spiritualized plays “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space,” that feeling lasts constantly, throughout the entire song, for a whole four minutes.
Afterwards, backstage, I actually run into Pierce. There’s a million things I’d love to ask him, but I keep it short. “It’s a nice little festival here,” he tells me. “I could watch San Francisco across the water from the stage. I only wish we could have played longer.” I second that emotion, but while it lasted, it was heaven. Here’s the set list:
You Lie You Cheat
Shine a Light
Soul on Fire
Walking With Jesus
Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space
Death Take Your Fiddle
Lay Back in the Sun
The Dodos are great and I missed them. Luckily, for your viewing pleasure, Liz didn’t. Here’s what they look like. Go, Dodos!
Sarah Palin, compulsive liar, on ABC with Charlie Gibson: “Let me speak specifically about a credential that I do bring to this table, Charlie, and that’s with the energy independence that I’ve been working on for these years as the governor of this state that produces nearly 20 percent of the U.S. domestic supply of energy.”
Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”: “Why would you lie about how much coal you have / Why would you lie about something dumb like that?”
The last time I saw Vampire Weekend—the very same week their record came out, to overwhelming praise—they were utterly fantastic. They were also sort of timid, and bewildered at the sudden attention thrust in their direction, and yet it didn’t seem at all like more attention would be a problem for them. I knew even then that I was watching a great young band on the cusp of stardom.
More attention arrived. And arrived. And arrived. Hype usually puts me off, but in the case of Vampire Weekend it’s well-deserved. Their album is going down in history as one of the best debuts ever, and though I don’t listen to it three times a day like I did in that first week, it keeps delivering with each intermittent listen.
On stage, Vampire Weekend are naturals, veritable veterans. The songs aren’t as stiff as they were back in January, and amazingly the band doesn’t seem bored of playing them. Poor guys have been on tour so constantly that they only play one new song, but it’s a good new song, at least.
How crazy are people about Vampire Weekend? This crazy. Crazy enough, too, to shout the loudest and most high-pitched screams at them of the whole weekend. Ezra Koenig thanks the crowd profusely, and mentions that the festival has “a very 1963 Dharma Bums kind of feel.” Boy, I hope their next album is good.
The former bass player for Tegan and Sara tells me that while he was in the band, he was instructed by their manager to play the exact same simple bass lines from the album every night. “We don’t want the girls to get confused,” he was told. “Also, don’t move around on stage. At all. Stay in one place. You can’t upstage Tegan or Sara.”
So he soldiered on for a while, staying in exactly the same place, playing the exact same precise simple boring bass lines until one day he realized, holy hell, what in the world am I doing with my life?
He quit a few months into a two-year tour. They dropped him off on the freeway. In solidarity, I want to hate Tegan and Sara, but their first few songs on Sunday night actually sound pretty great.
It doesn’t last. They start talking about The Lost Boys, and how I’ve probably never seen it, and about premature ejaculation, and The Lost Boys, and that part at the carnival with the saxophone player, and about playing in San Diego, and The Lost Boys, and how I probably don’t know what they’re talking about, and oh sweet Christ it just goes on and on. Blah, blah, blah.
Coincidentally, the songs go downhill. They play “Walking With a Ghost,” but Jack White doesn’t come out and sing like everyone hopes he will. They end their set with their current, uh, “hit,” “Back in Your Head.”
At one point, I notice the replacement bass player break the rules by sneaking a few steps forward during a song, then taking a few steps back. Busted!
I met Alison and Jamie in 2001, when they were first playing together, in a small flat in Brixton. We hung out every night downstairs with Sean and Ben, probably the funniest two guys in all of London. One day Alison and I spent hours together around London, going to museums, dinner and a movie. She was rad, but after staying in London for a week, I still didn’t know anything about the music she and Jamie were working on. Nobody did.
Seven years and three albums later, The Kills are a household name in England and a force to be reckoned with live. They take the festival hostage to a thundering, thick-as-hell version of “U.R.A Fever,” and damn, it’s like a guitar-driven cobra slithering through the tall grass of your mind, of your legs, of your guts. I can’t explain what they’re like on stage. Explosive? Unpredictable? Maybe they don’t even give a shit? Maybe who cares?
I’d heard the Kills records, but records don’t do the Kills justice at all. Go see them live. If possible, go see them after a few too many drinks. Hey Jamie, you get your passport back you lost the night before?
Until Robert Plant relents and Led Zeppelin finally embarks on a full-fledged reunion tour, The Raconteurs are the closest anyone’s going to come to seeing dirty, gnarly, lemon-down-your-leg rock ‘n roll in the world today.
In 2005, I covered a White Stripes show, stating that Jack White needed to find a band. “He’s an enigmatic character, a possessed performer and a great songwriter with an emotive voice, but even he himself has admitted that the White Stripes could run out of steam someday,” I said. “That day may be soon.”
I’ve always thought that the White Stripes peddled too much in the hipster ideal of potential greatness. By limiting himself to playing only with a drummer, and one of below-average ability, Jack White constantly held himself hostage to possibility and possibility alone. And yes, there’s a beauty in what could’ve been, but there’s a greater triumph in what actually is.
In the Raconteurs’ set on Sunday night, during “Blue Veins,” that triumph arrives. White hovers over the organ delivering a tortured, wailing plea, and the band is right on. It’s a haunting, captivating, and truly special moment, and instead of being White Strip-ily quaint, it’s almost scary in its depth.
We take the shuttle back to the city. It’s been a good weekend.
(Photos by Elizabeth Seward)
Jump to Treasure Island Music Festival – Day One.