San Diego is home to the Padres, Shamu, California burritos, and the surfer culture. But for one magical weekend in late August, the town’s concrete jungle that is downtown comes alive beyond the laid back surfer caricature that dominates its culture and it stands on a pillar as a musical beacon. Sure, the 25-year-old Street Scene is no Lollapalooza or Pitchfork Music Festival when it comes to sheer popularity and hype. But what the festival does offer is a wide variety of music. Whether you’re looking for soul, reggae, pop, R&B, rock, country, jazz, funk, electronica and much, much more, the Scene has something to give music fans of any age and culture. And despite its lineup sporting so many names thanks to the run off from the nearby Outside Lands Festival, Street Scene made its own magic happen.
But more than just the music, the two-day festival, this year held August 28th and 29th, is staged and planned to be as conducive to a good time as possible. Like last year, the whole thing went down back at the East Village near the Petco Park. Spread out over several city blocks, the event featured two main stages and three smaller stages, one of which was purported to be completely solar powered. Despite being a bit culinary challenged (the two main food options were bratwurst and Chinese or Thai food; oh joy), the drinks were flowing and the throngs of people from chiseled surfers to elderly hippies were ready for a good time. This silver anniversary showed that Street Scene is the little festival that could.
Fulana: 4:20-5:20 p.m.
Kicking the day off were local boys Dirty Sweet. Despite its hometown advantage, the band drew a small crowd at first. From the first note, the first comparisons that came to mind were the Allman Brothers and Kings of Leon — something about their dirty blues and pseudo metal sound. The band’s technically proficient and that shined through as they moved to more down home jams that came off like free-form musical creations straight from some kind of hive mind. And before that got too developed, the band switched off to some acoustic lullaby that would make any rock-country heavyweight envious. Then, they finished it all off with a cover of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. It was a nice build toward new but related songs. That kind of diversity is perfect at a show like Street Scene.
Green Stage: 5:30-6:15 p.m.
If festivals are for anything, it’s discovering new, fresh talent. My only previous experience with Dungen was knowing that this band was Swedish and weren’t a black metal band; truly a first from our friends to the very north. What the audience received at the beginning of the show was a rocking musical piece, full of chirpy distortion that gave a positive spin to the art of feedback and experimentation with noises. What we got for the remainder of the set was boring pop music that sounded like it’d been taken from the mixtape of your vegan Phish loving friend. This was grade-A bad bar band music or tunes from some low-grade wedding band. And if that weren’t the death nail for me and nay hopes of loving Dungen, the melodramatic flute playing (complete with a two-minute flute outro) surely did the trick. What had been a strong crowd left slowly in hopes of more deserving musical landscapes.
Casbah: 6:10-6:50 p.m.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fear another Nathan Williams meltdown. But thankfully the mid-evening sun and massive crowd agreed with the lo-fi skate punk and he kicked off his set with a rather interesting version of “Bored”. A few fans had never experience any sort of Wavves before and his sound was re-welcomed by those of us who were aware as the cascade of distortion reverted off the face of the uninitiated. In what I thought was a nice touch, Williams refused to turn off his echo effect during crowd interactions, perpetuating the idea that there is no difference between the man and his sound. Williams was overly gracious and seemed to enjoy his set, even going so far as playing a few new songs. The first was a poppy sound that utilized the Pixies’ trademark stop and starts. The second unnamed new song was a bit less surf punk and more in the vein of the energy of the Sex Pistols, only without the yelping. Lastly, in a further nod to the Pixies, Williams squealed so good he’d make Frank Black proud. He kept his cool, shattered some bones with feedback, and left the crowd with an early favorite. Right on, Mr. Williams.
Band of Horses
Fulano: 6:40-7:40 p.m.
My first show at the main stage of Fulano… and there may have been no better way to kick it off then with Band of Horses. It was on the way to the BoH set that it dawned on me that this first day of Street Scene is going to be heavy with those bearded bands who play a style reminiscent of southern rock, country and blues. Whether it is BoH or Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band or Devendra Banhart or Deerhunter, Friday was your chance to get down with the good old boys. And no one may have been more good and genuine than BoH. While a lot of the bands worry themselves with the dark and mysterious sound of some of the ’70s rock, BoH is a group that focuses on the pop and melody of some of those Southern stadium acts. It’s rock and its got that blues jam band element to it, but it’s got fantastic hooks and super deluxe playing that fills the night sky. That focus makes them perfect for an outdoor show like this. With an early slot on the bill, the band created a precedent that was hard to beat, despite the world-class competition.
Matt & Kim
Casbah: 7:15-7:55 p.m.
There may have been no better way in my entire life to spend a sunset than with the set by Brooklyn’s finest, Matt & Kim. Whether it’s coming on to a “Lean Back” remix or playing some samba/reggaeton beat that whipped the crowd into this nerdy furry of skinny awkward kids dancing around like hipster rave kids, the show was impeccable to say the least. When you go from a band like BoH and you have massive acts like Modest Mouse and Cake to come, two weirdos on stage with a drum and keyboards should not be as appealing; but their colossal effort is. Whether it’s Kim freak dancing on stage (who needs a sunset now) or the two of them asking for and receiving a circle pit as they play some hyperkinetic blast complete with a Slayer-quality light show, the two of them can get a crowd moving like no other band, even some of the headliners. In a perfect moment, they ended the day with “Daylight” and were the epitome of gracious musicians the whole time. An easy candidate for best show of night one.
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band
Fulana: 7:45-8:30 p.m.
In one of the first instances of the festival, Oberst and his merry band of musical compadres had the luck of being a band that was not a massive headline (like a Black Eyed Peas) but was in no way a Matt & Kim or a BoH. They’re not massive but they’re not unknown to the masses. This doesn’t mean they dealt with some crowds or competition from bigger bands, but rather an opportunity not often afforded to the audience: a chance to see them go for the gusto. Their set could have offered them the chance to grow more in the minds of fans, especially ones who have fallen in love with the depressive stylings of Bright Eyes and not quite the Eric Clapton version of Mr. Oberst. It’s safe to say they went for the big time and succeeded in their own laid back style. If BoH were the pop gods of the country stylings of the day, the Oberst and company were the Eagles of the show, bringing that slick, worldly-tinged jam band work to the entire affair. And as an added bonus, Jenny Lewis joined the band for a spirited musical get together. Everyone loves Conor Oberst and he gave them a better, more varied set of reasons to do so.
Fulano: 8:35-9:35 p.m.
You go to festivals because sometimes you want a big name to blow you out of your socks. Growing up, listening to Cake, this would have been my chance to see the band I loved and paid good money for. To say I was disappointed would hardly encompass my feelings. While the band played each and every song perfectly, and with passion and technical prowess, each member’s constant complaints regarding technical difficulties — especially those that the musically inclined (i.e. the vast majority of the crowd) couldn’t hear — ruined a nearly indescribable show. Even their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Black Masses” was plagued with comments like “Can I get more of this guitar, but in a good way and not a shitty way.” Play as great as you want, but if you’re going to be buzzkills and ruin the communal feeling festivals are meant to instill, then your sound means nothing and you harm the remainder of the fest.
Fulana: 9:40-10:40 p.m.
After the bad taste that was left in my mouth from Cake, Modest Mouse (even if it meant missing the sonic orgy of Girl Talk) was well worth it. What can one say about a Modest Mouse show that so many fans and critics have already said; the band’s skill and sound are beyond comparison and their passion to putting on an enthusiastic set is unmatched. They played a wide selection of songs and were efficient and eager to play as much as possible with as few breaks or unwanted silence, as well. But what spoke to me the most is the fact that there was a story told between their set and Cake’s that ended less than five minutes earlier. If Cake are the villains, who show that being a prima donna is alive and well at fests, then the dedication of Modest Mouse would surely make them the heroes. They put their hearts and minds into each and every song. Was it their best set or the most perfect? Not even close, but at least the audience will remember it and talk about it when they get home after the show.
Cage The Elephant
Green Stage: 10:30-11:15 p.m.
Sorry kids, but I missed out on the Black Eyed Peas. It has nothing to do with elitism or a hatred for Fergie and the boys. In fact, I listened to The E.N.D. on the way up and enjoyed it for being effective in terms of a smash club hit meant to be enjoyed with your friends on a drunken Friday night. I checked out Cage The Elephant for the same reason that I had to check out Cake. But rather quickly the young punks from Kentucky distanced themselves by playing through two, count them two total mic failures. Following this, they played through their self-titled album and even threw in a few new songs. The first was a bit of a change from their southern punk style and more in the vain of a less hectic Blur. The second, entitled “Indie Kids”, was less crazed and more in the vein of some old MC5, complete with a bit of condescending lyricism, all aimed at the “so cool” hipster kids. Of course, things got really going when they played “No Rest For The Wicked”, their big hit that nearly doubled the crowd. Sadly, many of the fans left after “No Rest For The Wicked”. The band showed that it has yet to reach a new plateau and that maybe a bigger stage instead of being a big fish in a small pond could have elevated them. Even still, a great way to close night one of there ever was one.
Casbah: 4:30-5:15 p.m.
For those unaware of the Crocodiles, the twosome has boiled down the rock dynamic, featuring a singer, a guitarist, and a drum machine. This is a band whose sound is danceable and light, without being dumb downed, and is still grimy and filthy with these vastly catchy hooks. But lead singer Brandon Welchez has a stage presence that is one part punk rock epileptic and one part dance hall Mick Jagger. However, at its core, their overall appeal is the minimalism of the show and the struggle to fill the void. In what was a lightning fast set, the band kept talking to a minimal, focusing more on the songs that partly heavy with effects and noise and partly elegant tunes that are truly pop songs in their most basic sense. With a show that ended the night before with Billboard lords of Black Eyed Peas, the Crocodiles were a lesson in making the most of nearly nothing.
Ra Ra Riot
Fulano: 5:10-5:45 p.m.
Here’s a band where the live setting truly makes their songs what they’re meant to be: Gorgeous examples of pop mastery. A great deal of bands try for that classic, ambient sound, complete with strings and light, effervescent keyboards, but the guys behind Ra Ra Riot are the true masters. The band lets the driving beats and hugely overarching base rock (y’know, the stuff that holds the songs together) compliment each other. It should also be noted that the live setting lets you understand how rich and complex their sound is; little touches and tweaks or tiny additions or extra notes create a landscape that comes alive in the middle of the San Diego summer. They’re also one of the more poppy bands of the fest to allow themselves unrehearsed yet unforced musical breakdowns and extended play that many are afraid would come off as too ferocious or, heaven forbid, rock-heavy.
Zarabanda: 6:15-7:00 p.m.
In what could have been the first disaster of the festival, two things simultaneously occurred: One, Busta Rhymes, who has been around for longer than 90% of the other bands and acts that weekend, had to go on before 7 p.m. Secondly, due to technical errors, Busta didn’t get on stage until 6:45. But what occurred next is arguably one of the most profound musical experiences at a live show I have ever seen. He wasn’t mad or enraged, but antsy and ready to fight for his music, all with a smile and in an overall good mood. After all, while Busta’s ferocious, he’s also one funny, smart rapper. He took Yin Yang Twin’s “Wait” and made it his own with a creative and infective verse. He barked orders at the crowd and they ate it up, myself included. But the real treat that got the audience rocking back and forth was his medley of hits — some full verses, others just the hook and chorus — everything from “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” to “Arab Money” to “Pass The Courvoisier” and more. It was a rapid fire succession of about seven songs where he worked the crowd over with his swagger and rhymes and a genuine personality… and all in 25 minutes. That’s typically the same amount of time it took a lot of bands to get into their own swing. If any quote stuck in my head from any act this weekend, it’d be Busta when, after thanking the crowd and placing his very career on the fans, he said, “The beautiful part of growing older is you become a master at what you do.” True words, Busta, true words.
Fulana: 7:30-8:30/8:00-9:00 p.m.
Because of some issues with technical mumbo jumbo, bands started going on late right around this point. Originally scheduled for 7:30, the SIlversun Pickups didn’t take the stage until 8 p.m. For the sake of saving time, I’ll be as curt I can with the LA band. Hearing its album, it occurred to me I may not be a steadfast fan of the group. I didn’t dislike their album, but I didn’t feel it move me or get my heart moving like other beloved acts and albums had. This is apathy if there ever was any. But after this show, I realized it’s time to reevaluate my feelings about their body of work. The band has built a career around Brian Aubert’s voice. At any second, the vulnerable, injured deer that is his means of musical expression could break down and die an agonizing death. I only realized how powerful this is when I see it live. When I hear him struggle to get to notes and the anguish and disgust and uncertainty in his voice when they’re blaring it across a parking lot and I’m 100 yards from the speaker, then I see it for what it is truly worth. It wasn’t my favorite show as I still have issues with their thematic choices and their often uninspired playing, but their live show, the real bread and butter of genuine bands, made me want to reintroduce myself to their discography, sans any preconceived thoughts or friend’s suggestions. This is the power of a festival: Music cannot be denied.
The Dead Weather
Fulano: 8:35-9:35/9:00-10:00 p.m.
To make up time, Jack White and crew started almost immediately as the Silversun Pickups ended. I can easily and readily confess that thanks to The Raconteurs, Jack White has an eternal place in my heart. But my fear going into the show was that he would still be the center of attention in this, his third band. That fear was quickly thrown back in my face as laughable and uninformed. That stage belonged to Alison Mosshart from the first note. There was a moment during the second song, “Hang You Up From The Heavens”, where I was 100 yards away and she sang the line about dragging someone to the devil and you believed she’d make good on her promise. She had this rock star presence that she owned the whole city during that hour, while at the same time being this menacing succubus who was possessed. And not the clichéd rocker who throws water to piss people off but like she was genuinely touched and in need of an exorcism. But she was still sensual and raw and you hoped she’d make good and “take you by the hand and walk you to my house.” And even when White got up to sing “You Just Can’t Win”, the audience longed for Mosshart to the point she nearly hid behind the drum kit. Of course, she gave White some of her dark energy as the two made sweet gritty harmonizing on the bluesy “Will There Be Enough Water?”. The world of rock is Jack White’s domain, but Mosshart usurped that power for one night and I’m hoping she does so again and again.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
Zarabanda: 10:30-12:00 p.m.
I made the choice to avoid the headliner Thievery Corporation and try to discover new music in Bassnectar and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. As deliciously bass-heavy as he was, Bassnectar’s crowd was full of overly enthusiastic and touchy rave kids. The Sharon Jones show started late and I had to leave after an old soul intro. And when I got back to wait for M.I.A. to start, I was able to catch the last bit of Thievery Corporation. In the 10 minutes I saw, I witnessed an orgy of world music where I could’ve gotten both my soul and bass fix and much, much more if I stayed put and took in the sweat and bravado that is the Corporation. Lesson learned: Sometimes headliners are in their spot for a reason.
Fulano: 10:45-12:00/11:00-11:50 p.m.
What can be said about M.I.A. that isn’t redundant or common knowledge? This is an artist who can draw the masses, sober the stoned, and break up couples (Long story; sorry, guy in plain white t-shirt). Regardless of what she does to relationships, M.I.A. takes the essentials of techno-ish dance music and gives it new life on stage. Whether it’s the horn-infused “Bucky Done Gun” or the straight out of Bollywood rendition of “Boyz”, M.I.A. slings a verse and rhyme beyond what she often demonstrates. Not to mention, she can move and grind it like a true class act. My whole pretense about her was that she’d be a bit of a pixie on stage, but she cracked the whip and worked out songs like “Galang” like a Valkyrie. And in honor or despite her no longer playing with Beastie Boys, she busted out a couple of verses over “Intergalactic” and “Sabotage”. Take that, Tenacious D! And in a moment that was sheer excitement for a music nerd like myself, she debuted a new song entitled “Born Free”. With a minimalized backing track reminiscent of some late ’70s New York punk band, she let off one of her most organized and biting songs ever, with the line “I throw this shit in your face when I see you, cause I’ve got something to say”. I’m not sure who she’s replying to/verbally assaulting, but it’s a step in a fresh direction. Sadly, it didn’t go over as huge as one might think with the remainder of the crowd. She then ended the whole shebang with a weak version of “Paper Planes” and said adieu at 11:50 to a set that lacked a bit in some parts, but brought the flash in other places, leaving the door open for something new real soon.
Matt & Kim
Ra Ra Riot
The Dead Weather