Sacramento’s TBD Festival may be unknown in much of the country, considering its name changed from Launch Fest and moved to the bridge district of Sacramento (hence the name TBD), but this year was an attempt to step out from the shadows, gain some national recognition, and become the “other” major state capitol festival of the weekend. In terms of booking and execution, the festival did its part. Saturday night sold out, with music fans storming the venue to check out Empire of the Sun, Explosions in the Sky, and a fantastic MS MR, who have really taken a mediocre debut album to a high level with their live presentation.
The other nights weren’t too shabby, either. Headliners Moby, Justice, and Blondie, atop a strong undercard, focused on keeping the family atmosphere alive on stage with hopes that it would spread to the crowd. Sunday saw five Captured Tracks bands on the bill, Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs were both given similar time slots on Saturday and Sunday, and DIIV’s No. 1 fan Sky Ferreira was given the chance to hang with her idol Debbie Harry. Sure, the fest had its drawbacks (dust, dust, so much damn dust), but it had a pretty neat local vibe, what with the Sacramento river, local musicians (highlighted by Sister Crayon), and notable eats, drinks, and vapor smokes.
Sure, TBD has a long way to go to compete with ACL. But, with Live Nation’s impending acquisition of C3, maybe TBD has its independence as a key card in its deck for maintaining identity. With ticket sales a clear success, its likely that TBD will be back next year even bigger, and October in Northern California sounds better to me than October in Texas. Just sayin’.
With Julian Casablancas’ solo album pleasing only some of the Strokes’ faithful, Mainland appears like a gift from god, fulfilling, at least sonically, the needs of those disappointed by that album. Lead singer Jordan Topf rasps and sneers like a young Jules, and though the band appears less fully-formed and ready to take on the world as the Stokes did more than a decade ago, Mainland seems to just lack the attention needed to deliver the attitude-to-spare sets their music complements.
Last week, The Drums released their third album, Encyclopedia, but the band was wise enough not to overwhelm the fest’s early Friday arrivals with tracks off the record. Playing in a lovely sunset time slot, The Drums stuck mostly to the still excellent debut LP and offered a few Portamento standouts like “Money”. Still, the strongest songs from the set were the dark, slow-burning openers from their new effort, “Bell Laboratories” and “Let Me”, which allowed the band to disappear for a short time, unaffected by their status as the fest’s first event performance. By closer “Down by the River”, the band knew what was expected of them, and even if their new material veers away from the more anthemic sound, they appear more than happy to be crowd-pleasers.
Friday night was EDM heavy, with the marquee acts —Moby, Dillion Francis, and Com Truise— all appealing to the same sub-set, but none impressed as much as Gramatik. Featuring dualing DJs with live bass, the visual presentation (outer space meets geometric shapes) was engulfing, allowing the act to veer with ease between the expected dub-step drops with more 70’s-inspired funk party-starters. Standing out when it’s so easy for electronic music to stick with the conventional is rather difficult, but the large crowd that had gathered by the end of their set was a clear stamp of approval from the Sacramento audience.
The War on Drugs
The War on Drugs played a few nights before TBD Fest in Pomona and were excellent. Their album is excellent, and from all accounts, they are almost always excellent. All that said, their sunset main stage set in Sacramento was about as much of a disaster as possible.
Not all the issues were the band’s fault. The performance was delayed nearly 30 minutes as they couldn’t get any sound in the monitors. Throughout the mishap, frontman Adam Granduciel noodled on his guitar quite beautifully, making the situation as pleasing as possible. Still, the audience grew restless as the sun set, with one fan yelling out “play a song.” Then, things got worse, as Granduciel showed his frustration and responded to the fan by saying, “We’re trying to play a song, relax.” This led to some booing, which was temporarily alleviated when opener “Under the Pressure” was delivered with fire and immediacy, speaking directly to the perceivable mood of the band.
This turn for the better was short lived, when four songs in, during “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, the front of the house sound noticeably started having issues, with cable cracking and popping ruining any enjoyment of the song. At its conclusion, Granduciel couldn’t hide his disappointment, apologizing for everything “being fucked up,” announcing that the next song, “Red Eyes”, would be their last. In the end, the band played just five songs, only a few of which were listenable, serving as a cautionary tale for how not to handle technical difficulties, and how even typically fantastic acts can have shit hit the fan.
Explosions in the Sky
The best set of the weekend, maybe the best set I’ve seen at a festival all year, appropriately summed up by the final two minutes of closer “The Only Moment We Were Alone”, with all five of the members going apeshit as the song combusts. During the song, the group’s spokesman Munaf Rayani threw his guitar to the ground and leapt on top of it in time with the band’s forceful exclamation mark on the set. TBD Fest mostly played like an argument against guitar rock, with the most well-attended sets being of the dance variety. Yet, Explosions in the Sky served as evidence that the two can coexist harmoniously, and the Empire of the Sun crowd was quite enthralled.
Empire of the Sun
TBD managed a sellout on Saturday night, much to the joy of festival organizers. It’s easy to pinpoint the act most responsible: Empire of the Sun. The costumed electro-pop outfit is as much spectacle and musical experience, with their expected dancers, pseudo-musicians, and light and color show more memorable than the music. But, their fans would likely beg to differ, as dozens in the audience sported their own Empire of the Sun headgear, possibly alluding to the eventual end-game for this group: a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque audience participatory immersive experience. Or, maybe they’ll just continue to be the KISS of the dance world.
If you ask Metz, they likely thought they were adored by the masses, as the tail-end of their songs was always met with an eruption of applause. However, the big cheers were actually for the San Francisco Giants, whose game against the Washington Nationals was broadcast in the beer tent, where a larger crowd gathered and opted to miss the Toronto rockers. Still, Metz provided a suitable back noise to the climax of the game, and the band welcomed the jovial sports fans who made their way over when the Giants victory was secured.
While Instagram undoubtably will remember TBD as the moment that Sky Ferreira was able to take a photo with Blondie, DIIV continued to distance themselves from their past. As the months go on, it becomes harder to associate the band with the social media meltdowns and legal troubles of a couple years back, and that’s a good thing, as beyond all the bullshit, DIIV is a pretty great band. Frontman Cole Smith was sure to remind everyone passing by who his band was after every single song, a quirk that played like a joke, but also serves as a pretty savvy instruction for any young band playing a festival. Tell people who you are. You’d be surprised how many people leave sets wondering who they just saw.
Kurt Vile and the Violators
Many of the bands booked for TBD Fest noted that it was the first time they had ever played Sacramento. But not Kurt Vile. “I played a pretty rad house show here in 2009,” Vile noted a few songs into his set. And though he had monitor issues much like his Philly-mates The War on Drugs, Vile shrugged them off and played anyway, a testament to how finely tuned his live performance has become over the past few years touring. Battling a blistering mid-afternoon sun, he might have drawn a bigger crowd at his house show, but it was all in a day’s work for Vile, who could be seen late in the evening, drinking beers and enjoying Blondie from backstage. Success hasn’t gone to Kurt Vile’s head in the least.
Photographer: Philip Cosores