Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011


Boasting past acts like Justice, MGMT, Modest Mouse, and Vampire Weekend, the Treasure Island Music Festival returned to San Francisco this year with a whole new dose of indie jewels. Billed for the weekend? Such critically-acclaimed artists as Cut Copy, Empire of the Sun, and St. Vincent. Those in attendance? Pirates, indians, and aliens alike.

Saturday was a time for raucous play and shameless dance parties. Dizzee Rascal, Cut Copy, and Empire of the Sun led the way, attracting the weekend’s highest volume of festival-goers. Chromeo‘s performance was a scene in itself, with outbursts of lust erupting from all directions. No longer reign the days where people care about “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” — our generation instead heralds “sex, drugs, and electronica.” I wonder what the implications of this will be for us as listeners and for the future of the music scene, as Saturday was definitely the day of synths, strobes, and smoke machines. Its lineup consisted mostly of electronic bands, and their popularity — but perhaps not talent — is indisputable.

Sunday was a clear transition from the day before. When the smoke had dissipated and the San Franciscan fog had instead rolled in, the day began with mellow acts like The Antlers and Warpaint. All around, people simply lied on the grass and just listened. St. Vincent was the highlight of the entire weekend, playing a set that still sends chills up my spine. Annie Clark’s talent and imagination, as well as her presence onstage as an artist, went altogether unmatched by any other performer. Beach House followed closely, musing back and forth with the crowd, and the sound of Victoria Legrand’s voice coupled with the setting sun creates a feeling one can only possess in a dream. By evening, the lights of Treasure Island haunted the night like spectres of the moon, and eventually I had to bid farewell to this magical weekend.

– Summer Dunsmore
Contributing Writer

Saturday, October 15th

Geographer – Bridge Stage – 12:00 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Regaled as one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, Geographer’s performance was a strong beginning for the festival. Highlights included “Verona” and “Kites”, each decorated with building synths and the band’s characteristic drum kicks. “Kites” carried all of the sweeping, melodic vocals of the recorded track, while “Original Sin” was a mellow, electronic interpretation. One of the best songs of the set was a preview from their new album, and it featured a background of aural, haunting vocals speckled with strong bass drum beats. It was a tantalizing treat, making me look forward to their as-of-yet untitled forthcoming LP. With the sight of San Francisco’s crystalline bay to the west, I sat entranced during Geographer’s entire performance, anticipating what the rest of the day would bring.

Aloe Blacc – Tunnel Stage – 12:45 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Dressed in an emerald green button-down shirt, a black cravat, and a tweed newsboy cap, Aloe Blacc looked all the gentlemen. Radiating energy during the entirety of his set, Blacc served as a heady dose of soul, singing his modern brand of blues. During “Good Times”, Blacc instigated a saxophone solo from Regis Molina, which culminated into a back-and-forth session between himself and the audience. “Regis…sing something to them”, Blacc mused; Molina proceeded to play saxophone bits, which the entire audience would then sing back. Moves like this during his performance create an unshakable bond between performer and listener, an action that artists like Dizzee Rascal and Buraka Som Sistema would perfect later that day. “Femme Fatale” was the best song of the set, a classic in itself, and positively hypnotizing when performed live. Aloe Blacc and his six-piece band were a rarity of the weekend, and even of the music scene itself; they represent a true band, constructing the sound as they go, forgoing any reliance on electronics or pre-recorded mixes. It was fun and interactive, and Blacc’s natural propensity for performance was a much-valued treat.

Shabazz Palaces – Bridge Stage – 1:30 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

I truly anticipated seeing Shabazz Palaces perform; I am a fan of their recorded work, and expected that they would deliver the same standard live. However, at the end of the set, all I could wonder was: Were they drunk? From the first track, their performance was out of tune, proceeding a step too late. It could be argued that this is the Shabazz way, especially with tracks like “Blastit…” and “Swerve…The Reaping of All That is Worthwhile”, but performed live, these just didn’t click. I felt that they were trying to do too much at once, incorporating strange features like a voice modifier that made the singer sound as if he were underwater, as well as lending an overall psychedelic vibe to the tracks. Shabazz Palaces tried to give San Francisco what they thought we wanted. Instead, we were there to see what makes them a unique component of the modern music scene. Something got lost in translation.

YACHT – Tunnel Stage – 2:15 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

How does one explain the vivacity, the dynamism of YACHT’s Claire Evans? A mix of Patti Smith and Bowie, with a pixie cut and all the appropriate androgyny, her and Jona Bechtolt’s performance on Saturday was easily one of the weekend’s best. Their second song of the set, “Summer Song”, was a resplendent hybrid of funk, new wave, and electronica. This song evidences the way that YACHT uses their physical performance — waving their hands, stomping, and actively engaging with the audience — to articulate the crazed fervor of their music. They have the ability to contextualize a song, removing it from its bound, black and white position on a page, and translate it into a live presentation. They take the concepts they explore in their music, such as nihilism, nature, and love, and make them real. This is why YACHT is revolutionary, functioning as a truly integral band in today’s alternative scene. At one point, Evans asked, “Do you guys believe in extraterrestrials?” And doesn’t this describe YACHT perfectly? Their sound is strange, expansive, and fueled by their curiosity.

The Naked & Famous – Bridge Stage – 3:00 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Auckland rockers The Naked & Famous were a stable transition from YACHT’s enigmatic, and still resonant, performance. Their song “Spank” mixed the duplicity of strong percussion and loud electric guitar wails with a soothing blend of vocals from lead signer Alisa Xayalith. Just like many of the tracks from The Naked & Famous, this song builds delicately, focusing on electronics, before exploding in synth and distortion during the chorus. The only unfortunate aspect of the band’s performance was that their reliance on distortion and their shoegaze style often drowned out Xayalith’s voice; overall, the group’s sound is very masculine, what with its reliance on electric guitar and synth, and it tries to integrate femininity as a needed contrast. On their recorded work, they pull it off — but while performing live, her voice gets lost in the midst of fuzzy speakers wracked by distortion.

Battles – Tunnel Stage – 3:45 p.m.

battles4 Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011

Photo by Ted Maider

Battles produces an aggrandized notion of music. Transitioning from one crash of the kick drum to the next, with cartoonish, Dan Deacon-esque keyboard intermissions, the sound was a complement to the afternoon mood. Beers in hand, people wanted to be dazed and confused by the sun and the music. Their sound while performing live is messy, but essentially that is where their lure lies — they tempt you to turn your brain off, to let your senses simply react in response to the music. Their performance of “Africastle” was decorated in its imperfections, as the band produced a version more momentous than on Glass Drop. This song served as the set’s climax, as all around one could tell the evening was truly about to begin. People were beginning to flow in from all directions, with flasks in tow and flowers in their hair — though none of us could even remotely expect what Dizzee Rascal had in store.

Dizzee “fuckin” Rascal – Bridge Stage – 4:35 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

He started with a remix of “Bubbles”. He ended with “Bonkers”. He is infamous.

Once Dizzee pranced on stage and “let the first drop kick”, Treasure Island immediately erupted into a mass dance party. Imported from the U.K., his unique brand of indie hip hop and electronica is defying previous conceptions about the union between these genres. Integrating dubstep into his renditions of “Road Rage” and “Bounce”, festival-goers dressed like pirates, indians, and aliens danced and thrashed to Dizzee’s mixes. The highlights of the set were definitely “Dance Wiv Me” and “Holiday”, each exhibiting amazing live beats and ensuring Dizzee’s spot as one of the best performers of the weekend.

Buraka Som Sistema – Tunnel Stage – 5:25 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

The dancing mood continued with Buraka Som Sistema’s lively performance. During their cut of “Restless”, they lured women on stage, commanding them to “shake their asses”. Rest assured, a somewhat disturbing mix of crotch grabbing and grinding commenced. BSS’ performance of “Sound of Kuduro” exhibited an interesting range of tribal, Caribbean, and electronic beats. I was disappointed that their performance featured already-recorded beats, with the singers simply interjecting at times to rap and hassle the crowd. Despite this, the hassling was effective — after already six hours of festival-going, BSS infused the crowd with energy in time for Chromeo.

Chromeo – Bridge Stage – 6:15 p.m.

chromeo2 Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011

Photo by Ted Maider

Perhaps one of the most hyper-sexualized bands in the scene today, Chromeo’s performance on Saturday was the nearest I’ve come to experiencing an orgy firsthand. With women’s legs stemming from their keyboards, Dave-1 and P-Thugg gave an inspiring performance, using a simple mix of synthesizers and electric guitar to create their “porn” pop.

Starting their set with “Fancy Footwork”, they launched into their music’s main theme of exploration: sexuality. Doused in red light and his own narcissism, Dave 1 painted the spirit of Sodom & Gomorrah on stage, much to the thrill and prevail of the crowd. Chromeo proved themselves to be a talented duo, devoted to their music, and they delivered exceptional percussion and keyboard beats live. “Bonafied Lovin'”, “Needy Girl”, and “Mama’s Boy” were essentials, featuring some noticeable improvisation and ending with a combination of drums, keyboard, and guitar. “Night by Night” delivered an epic end to an epic set.

Flying Lotus – Tunnel Stage – 7:05 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Flying Lotus’ set was a spiritual one, tempting the crowd to simply sit back and vibe. He started with “I Feel Like Dying”, a remix of Lil Wayne’s single. Lotus was just rollin’ beats to the chorus of a thousand voices — to the crowd’s own human chorus. He produced an entrancing murmur of synths and bass, simulating nature, while the lights of San Francisco’s ethereal night framed the background to the Tunnel Stage. I felt like I missed some secret during Flying Lotus; like the crowd, in their inebriated state, knew something I didn’t. There was a calm, and then a buzzing, to the audience, as if Flying Lotus was tending to the beehive — but they didn’t want to be calmed. He played “Yonkers” by Tyler, the Creator, which served as a definite highlight to the set, and he ended strongly with “Massage Situation”.

Cut Copy – Bridge Stage – 7:55 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Cut Copy since they released Zonoscope earlier this year. The album was a game changer, bringing to light Cut Copy’s accessibility, as well as its devotion to a novel range of New Wave sound. The band has been on tour for the past year, with Treasure Island being one of their last stops; however, all this touring has not slowed them down. Starting their set with “Take Me Over” and “Feel the Love”, Cut Copy’s performance was better — and different — than I expected. During their charged performance of “Lights and Music”, frontman Whitford sang that there were “lights and music on my mind” — and at this moment, it was on my mind too. When I closed my eyes, the kaleidoscope of stage lights remained behind, confounding my sight, leaving me dancing blindly. The lights during a Cut Copy show are just as much a feature of the music, making any performance by them a sensory experience. “Saturdays” on Saturday was only befitting, and was one of the best songs of the entire weekend.

Death from Above 1979 – Tunnel Stage – 8:45 p.m.

dfa3 Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011

Photo by Ted Maider

Treasure Island has a band, and a sound, for everyone. DFA 1979 was opposite to bands like Cut Copy before it, forgoing sugary hooks and synths for scissoring, grating electric guitar and a dirty grunge sound. I believe they were higher on the bill Saturday because of their vivid, energetic style of performance, but other than this energy, I wasn’t charmed by their performance. In contrast to their recorded work, they sounded out of tune, like a blend of several different loud noises deemed as “music”. Their performance of “Black History Month”, which held potential to revive grunge in its truest form, simply fell short.

Empire of the Sun – Bridge Stage – 9:35 p.m.

eots3 Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011Empire of the Sun was Saturday’s strongest performance, and after St. Vincent, was the best of the weekend. Lending a vivid visual element to their set, including choreographed goblin/alien creatures and a narrated video that simulated traveling through space, EOTS is truly more than just a band. They are one of the most creative, imaginative acts performing today, and are unafraid to push boundaries. Their second song, “Breakdown”, exhibited such a hooky tune that I couldn’t help but dance ecstatically. The next song, “Half Mast”, showed  that EOTS doesn’t want to just perform — they want to tell a story with their music, to play along with the visual elements depicted all around them. Even their name, “Empire of the Sun”, indicates the fantasy world that they have constructed aurally.

This artistic endeavor to be more than just a band, but to also be a concept, brings back the glam rock of the past, refined by artists like David Bowie. This was when music was about presentation, constructing a story, becoming a character. While they played incredible tracks like “We Are the People”, you realize that the best part is that you want to indulge in the facade they have created. Luke Steele’s voice is just too tempting, too alien, to not be intrigued. Ending with “Swordfish Hotkiss Nigh” and “Walking on a Dream”, EOTS concluded a truly incredible day at Treasure Island, one filled with fantasy monsters, creatures, and dreamscapes.

Sunday, October 16th

Weekend – Tunnel Stage – 12:40 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

With no holds barred on this chilly Sunday afternoon, Weekend launched into their heavy style of music. Native to the Bay Area, Weekend was formed by Shaun Durkan, Kevin Johnson, and Abe Pedroza, and has been rising to prominence in the San Francisco scene since 2009. They’re a hybrid of New Wave mavens like The Smiths and Aha, but with a grinding, alternative edge that favors electric guitar distortion, rolling kick drums, and ambient, wailing vocal calls. They are shoegaze-New Wave for the modern generation. At Treasure Island, their songs seamlessly flowed together during their set, with live instrumentalization and improvisation being their strongpoints. “Coma Summer” bookmarked the set, serving as an example of why fans are coveting Weekend’s garage band sound.

The Antlers – Bridge Stage – 1:25 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

The Antlers have the unique ability to conduct well-orchestrated symphonies with their music. During their performance of “Putting the Dog to Sleep”, singer Peter Silberman’s voice travelled along the tops of the bay’s wind-capped peaks, setting a tone and mood that fit Sunday afternoon. Compared to Saturday, everything from the colors of the crowd had changed, with people more inclined today to wear their grays and browns, to burrow in their scarves to protect themselves against the bay wind, and to just collect for a picnic and listen to the music. Overall, The Antlers show was a rare jewel, and they played some of the most beautifully crafted music heard all weekend.

Warpaint – Tunnel Stage – 2:05 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Fresh off the release of their 2010 debut album, The Fool, and their follow-up EP, Exquisite Corpse, Warpaint already draws thousands of people to its shows, sharing the stage with acts like Death Cab for Cutie. Right as The Antlers ended their set and Warpaint started theirs, the sun decided to shed its light on the Island, embracing this band that could be considered a bit of an underdog. Do not underestimate them or their live performance, however. Playing tracks like “Warpaint” and “Undertow”, their set was strong, reminding one of bands like Mazzy Star before them. And just like St. Vincent, the next band to play on Sunday, Warpaint has the ability to craft feminine anecdotes with their music, appealing to the complexity and the delicacy of the feminine psyche.

St. Vincent – Bridge Stage – 2:50 p.m.

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The moment Annie Clark stepped onstage, I was immediately smitten. Hair dark and tousled, dressed like an indie goddess, few artists today exude such radiance and charisma without having to say a word. Opening with a breathtaking version of “Surgeon”, Clark achieved onstage what her music has perfected: expressing the duplicitous nature of a woman’s vulnerability and her strength, of the very nature of femininity. Clark had a visible integration with the music, and you could see from her expression how much she personally pours into her sound and her content. She takes care to write music that expresses exactly what she wants, while also, quite brilliantly, leaving it up for interpretation. Her music is poetry, a maze of metaphors to interpret, deconstruct, and revel in.

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Photo by Ted Maider

The second song of the set, “Cheerleader”, is my favorite off the new album, Strange Mercy. This song speaks about competing desires, a need to be taken more seriously in a society that degrades your individuality. Clark integrated and portrayed her subtleties, her reservations, with radiance. The next song, “Save Me From What I Want”, expresses a similar theme, the essence of this feminine vulnerability which is altogether charming. Each song exhibited a sense of disintegration towards its conclusion, getting lost in electric guitar distortion, representing the physical sound of a person breaking down. And yet, with “Actor Out of Work”, Clark debunks these preconceptions of her vulnerability, of her intangibility. Singing “you’re a boxer in the ring, with brass knuckles underneath”, she shows she isn’t as malleable as one would think. This is especially evident given her meteoric rise through the music world, her fearlessness, her history of experimentation; these are proof that Clark is more than willing to take risks and is, in the end, more tough than expected.

Wild Beasts – Tunnel Stage – 3:35 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Originally from England, this foursome are currently on tour in the United States. Expressing that “this is definitely one of the better things we’ve done this tour”, Wild Beasts continued the mellow mood set by bands like Weekend and Warpaint before them. Their rendition of “All the King’s Men” started with tribalistic beats at its offset, supplemented by simple bass guitar and electric guitar. Though their sound was stable and definitely unique, they did not stand out as a distinctly notable band for the weekend.

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Bridge Stage -4:20 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

“It’s like when your brain is in a steeple chase…on acid. When there was acid. There wasn’t any at Burning Man. Are we at Burning Man?” And so went Stephen Malkmus’ gesticulations at the beginning of “Brain Gallop”. You can tell that Malkmus has been in the music scene long enough to just have fun with it, to play the role of the “bad boy” of rock and roll. Before “Forever 28”, Malkmus-style banter went as follows: “Anyone 28 and lovin’ it? Single and lovin’ it? Married and kinda lovin’ it?” Lastly, their performance of “Long Hard Book” was the best of the set, a more folk-influenced track which fit the Sunday mood perfectly.

The Head and the Heart – Tunnel Stage – 5:10 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Sounding like 60’s folk pioneers before them, The Head and the Heart delivered their own brand of retro pop-folk on Sunday. Their musical influences, which range from Bob Dylan to Iron & Wine, give them a truly accessible sound, enjoyable for anyone who is not familiar with their music. The best song of their set, “Down in the Valley”, was executed by The Head and the Heart’s six-person band, which is comprised of two singers, one violinist, one guitarist, one keyboard player, and a drum player. Even given this large range of orchestration and reliance on live instruments, which would confound many other bands, their set was executed well.

Beach House – Bridge Stage – 6:00 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

When I saw Beach House’s Victoria Legrand backstage prior to their performance, she seemed visibly perplexed. And though it seemed that something was still bothering her during the set, she and Alex Scally seamlessly delivered the dream pop that their albums promise. This is what makes them the creators of their dark sound — they have a truly innate connection to their music. The way they transcribe their moods, their resentments, their happiness, and their aspirations are woven in the fabric of their music.

Early set inclusions “Gila” and “Walk in the Park” evidenced how the complexity of Beach House’s sound is actually crafted with simplicity — from only a modest mix of keyboard, tambourine, drums, and electric guitar. Set highlight “Norway” showcased Legrand’s voice, retaining all of its haunting melancholy. And later on, during “Used to Be”, Legrand was doused in red stage lights from overhead, while the audience was touched by the rays of the dying sun — the moment was dusty romanticism, magic, and more.

Friendly Fires – Tunnel Stage – 6:50 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

With every detail of the San Francisco skyline arched behind the Tunnel Stage, Friendly Fires gladly welcomed the night. One of the first songs of the set, “Skeleton Boy”, was an invigorating mix of New Wave vocals, synth, and electric guitar. Friendly Fires produced an exhilarating live performance, while at this time yesterday, Flying Lotus was dazing the crowd, luring us into a hazed stupor. Instead, Friendly Fires tempted you to dance during tracks like “Hawaiian Air”, off Fires’ new album Pala. Lead singer Ed Macfarlane delivered a passionate, energetic series of vocals, while dancing wildly to the tune of the music. Their enthusiasm and spirit onstage made Fires’ set one of Sunday’s best.

Explosions in the Sky – Bridge Stage – 7:40 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Explosions in the Sky’s set on Sunday was about standing in reverent awe of the transitions of sound and space culminating onstage. Composed of three electric guitars and a drum kit, the band is capable of weaving symphonies with their instruments, of forming narratives and creating emotions with the complexity of their delivery. Their performance Sunday featured all ranges of sound, erupting at times in a scathing series of electric guitar wails, and then transitioning back to the tender delicacy of fingerpicking. At their live shows, they are capable of using instruments to simulate the sounds of nature, of a leaf dropping, a wave crashing — making any performance by them an unforgettably transcendent one.

The Hold Steady – Tunnel Stage – 8:30 p.m.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Like Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks before them, The Hold Steady lent a more alternative sound to the festival’s lineup. “Magazines” cracked open the set, and then came bar rocker “Sequestered in Memphis”. Lyrically, The Hold Steady have trademarked tracks about moody girls and one-night stands. Some might consider that a one-way ticket to becoming obsolete. But, judging from the sea of fans gathered in front, it’s clear these Brooklyn-Minneapolis rockers have little to fret about for the future.

Death Cab for Cutie – Bridge Stage – 9:20 p.m.

deathcab7 Festival Review: CoS at Treasure Island 2011A fan of past albums such as 2003’s  Transatlanticism and 2005’s Plans, I had high expectations for the Seattle foursome. However, their live performance lacked the punch of Saturday headliners Empire of the Sun, making it an altogether disappointing set.

Starting with “I Will Possess Your Heart”, the extended jogger off their 2008 effort Narrow Stairs, I remember thinking, “This is okay.” I wanted to be blown away immediately, to feel the same effect I did from other bands that weekend. Perhaps my expectations were too high? I kept waiting for a punch, a rigor, a passion, an energy that never came.

Playing “Crooked Teeth” next, I found myself more mesmerized by the San Franscisco skyline than by Ben Gibbard & Co. The sad part is that this band does not lack talent — far from it. They have produced some of the most poignant and innovative indie rock of the past decade. However, their concert performance was indeed lacking. Even when playing more hits, such as “The New Year” and “Grapevine Fires”, I found myself unconvinced. It was an unfortunate end to the festival, but many of the other artists, as well as the series of California sunsets and the people-watching, made it a spectacular and memorable weekend for music.