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Festival Review: Noise Pop 2016’s 10 Best Sets

A surreal week and a half of strobe lights, reverb, and bliss

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Photography by Adrian Spinelli

Watching John Darnielle on stage during the final night of the 2016 Noise Pop Festival, it was clear that he was all alone. Yes, it was in the literal sense a solo set from the man behind The Mountain Goats, but as he filled the intimate confines of the Swedish American Hall with his unique brand of introspection, the common elements of musical festivals were also absent. There were no giant banners for energy drinks hanging behind the performer, no sound bleed from the EDM DJ on a neighboring stage. It was simply music, being played the way it ought to be heard, the signature of Noise Pop and a large reason why, in the festival’s 24th year, it remains fiercely independent amid a growing tide of homogenized lineups and diminishing returns in the world of music festivals.

For 10 days each February, the Noise Pop Music Festival takes over San Francisco, bringing with it a welcome breath of musical diversity. Spread across smaller venues throughout town, Noise Pop is a carefully curated mix of known commodities like The Mountain Goats and Metric and undiscovered treasures thirsting for new ears. On any given night, there is talent from almost every genre taking the stage throughout San Francisco. If the festival has one downside, it’s that badges don’t come with a cloning device to allow you to take in everything Noise Pop has to offer — but we did our damnedest.

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There is no denying the popularity of the Outside Lands Festival or Treasure Island Music Festival, two pillars of the Bay Area music scene. However, while both of those institutions exist in a vacuum – being relegated to Golden Gate Park and Treasure Island, respectively – Noise Pop embraces the city that serves as its host. On any given night, you may be catching the early show with saxophone maestro Kamasi Washington at the Independent, then jump over to see rockers Day Wave and Harriet at the Rickshaw Stop or head to the glitzy SF Jazz Center to take in electronic jazz fusion from Kneedelus, before moving on to Swedish American Hall for a solo set from Mitski. Every night of Noise Pop serves as a de facto tour of both San Francisco and today’s promising musical landscape.

Like any good festival, Noise Pop is an exercise in hard choices, unexpected discoveries, and testing the limits of one’s endurance. On Saturday alone, there were sold-out shows from American Football, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vince Staples, and Neon Indian. Behind each of those names are the openers and supporting acts, each selected with care to highlight local talent and introduce attendees to their new favorite bands. Not every act was necessarily at home in the somewhat loose, fast-paced setting of Noise Pop, but many embraced the opportunity to deliver memorable performances.

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In addition to their onslaught of concerts, Noise Pop offered special events and a film component to round out the experience. Monday was a David Bowie tribute night, featuring lightning bolt face painting and a screening of the 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Before the week of music got underway, director Rob Hatch-Miller presented Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, a documentary on the little-known soul singer who found a second life when his music was sampled by everyone from RZA to Kanye West. From celebrating the life of one icon to learning the story of a man who could’ve been another, Noise Pop strives to bridge the ever-widening gap in tastes and knowledge among music fans in one surreal week and a half of strobe lights, reverb, and bliss.

Read on for Consequence of Sound’s coverage of the 10 best sets at Noise Pop 2016.

–Zack Ruskin
Staff Writer

10. Vince Staples at Social Hall SF

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The storyline of this sold-out Friday night show could’ve easily been Vince Staples’ surprisingly half-hearted effort on stage. It could’ve been the muffled sound within the low ceiling of the basement-like Social Hall SF that didn’t let the fine production on Staples’ excellent debut LP, Summertime ‘06, be felt from anywhere besides the front of the room. It could’ve also been the lackluster opening set from Hugo that failed to fill the room with the energy that an opener is tasked with (Berkeley rapper Caleborate, the opener for Staples’ Saturday night show at The Independent, could have accomplished this at Friday night’s show as well). But instead, the biggest takeaway from this set is that Vince Staples is the same man on stage as he is on Summertime ‘06 and as he is on Twitter.

The 22-year-old Long Beach rapper is as filterless as they come. The same guy who tweets “I’m tired of white people telling me I’m from the suburbs. Google what a suburb is little bitch,” is the same guy who’s going to poke fun at Friday’s predominantly white crowd (“Thank you my white friends. Thank you for supporting me.”) and then call out the black fans in attendance for being soft (“Y’all are from Richmond Heights!”).

Set opener “Lift Me Up” was arguably the evening’s peak, despite the venue’s acoustics making it hard for poignant stanzas like “Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari” to resonate with the same depth and gut-punching snark as on the record. To appreciate this set, one had to focus on Staples’ banter and general comportment that gave insight into a rapper operating squarely in the middle of a time in hip-hop where its fan base’s identity is nebulous and undefined. The beauty in Staples’ art is how he seemingly narrates the whirlwind of the industry and culture that he’s in, no matter what the medium. –Adrian Spinelli

09. HEARTWATCH at The Independent

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If there’s a stage big enough to hold the charisma of HEARTWATCH lead vocalist Claire George, she hasn’t found it yet. Her booming vocals made quick work of The Independent during the band’s headlining set on Wednesday night, an evening that also served as a record release party for the band’s new, self-titled album. HEARTWATCH does pop rock right, crafting danceable up-tempo melodies that span in influence from ’70s AM radio to the more modern-day shimmer of their single “Faultlines”. At the center of the proceedings is George, who boasts an infectious stage presence and a genuine delight that carries through in her vocals.

Not even a name change can slow HEARTWATCH down. The group was formally known as The Tropics until a dispute with a similarly titled English outfit inspired the band to adopt a new moniker ahead of an appearance at last year’s Outside Lands Festival. There’s something refreshing about seeing an act that seems truly in awe of the fans that gather to see them. Several times during the course of their set, George stopped to thank the crowd for coming out on a Wednesday and for sticking around despite HEARTWATCH’s headlining slot starting after 11 p.m – a common occurrence for Noise Pop’s stacked schedule.

The band’s career is still young, but already they’ve found their following. Many members of the audience could be seen mouthing the words to their favorite songs as George prowled the stage. Read any interview with HEARTWATCH, and the phrase “energy” is bound to turn up. It’s a driving source of their songwriting process and an embodiment of their live show. It’s also why soon George won’t need to be surprised when a full crowd is waiting for them to take the stage, even on a Wednesday, even after 11 p.m. –Zack Ruskin

08. Day Wave and Harriet at Rickshaw Stop

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If you didn’t know Alex Casnoff as the original keyboardist from Dawes, you’ll soon know him as the lead man of Harriet, a band four years in the making whose debut release, American Appetite, has all the makings of a breakout record. Taking the narrow confines of the Rickshaw Stop stage ahead of headliner Day Wave, Casnoff and co. channeled the mid-aughts magic of The Shins and The Killers as they worked through tracks like “Richer” and “Intervention”. The purity of Casnoff’s voice, coupled with his ear for captivating melodies, gives plenty of reason to think that Harriet is a band we’ll be hearing much more about in the months to come.

Jackson Phillips is the core of Day Wave, an Oakland-based outfit that revels in the beauty of the low-fi confessional. While Phillips studied jazz drumming at the Berklee College of Music, it appears that the output of groups like New Order and Joy Division left the most lasting impression. Beyond Day Wave’s enjoyably faithful cover of the former’s “Ceremony”, there was a hazy sadness in the band’s headlining set on Thursday night that instantly recalls the post-punk sensibilities of the group’s implied predecessors. Yes, even the name itself could be taken as a play on the new wave genre, but Day Wave is a band far more interested in serving up subtleties than spelling anything out.

While Phillips’ voice is raw and likely to find refinement as the band continues playing gigs, there are elements of the pop vocals embodied best by Beach Boy Brian Wilson being channeled as well. Much like Animal Collective has made a name blending the harmonies of Wilson with electronic backbones, Day Wave has reset the Beach Boys in 1970s Manchester. As a live performance, the band was polished, drawing on a surplus of material that exceeds the studio output of Head Case, the one EP they’ve released thus far (The Hard to Read EP is due out March 4th). Together, Harriet and Day Wave delivered an evening perfectly reflective of why Noise Pop is such an important institution for rising talent. –Zack Ruskin

07. Bill Callahan and Mitski at Swedish American Hall

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Swedish American Hall served as Noise Pop Festival’s HQ, and the converted Nordic Heritage Hall was the event’s most consistently stunning venue. On back-to-back nights, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Mitski and baritone extraordinaire Bill Callahan, fka Smog, each delivered mesmerizing performances beneath the ship-like ceiling and Edison-bulb light strings of the Hall.

Brooklyn’s Mitski played songs from her breakout LP, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, and had the room hanging on her every breath on Wednesday night. The acoustic performance was a departure from her usual setup with a backing band and gave rise to a special, exclusive feel, not uncommon throughout many Noise Pop sets. Gone were the fuzz and gazy reverb of “I Don’t Smoke”, instead replaced by acoustic precision and a heightened sense of emotion — her voice often towering above the instrument.

Mitski delivered a slew of new songs that often showcased an explosive anger, but there was rhythm in her pain and melody in her confidence. Her music was lyrically rich at every turn, rendering her relatable to millennials and nostalgic to Gen Xers. No words captured the essence of her music quite like “I’m holding my breath with a baseball bat/ I’m not gonna be what my Daddy wants me to be” on a stripped-down version of “Townie”, as the partially seated crowd watched in awe.

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Bill Callahan is a generational voice that doesn’t get enough credit for being as such. Maybe it’s because none of his five solo albums or 12 Smog albums are up on Spotify, but his velvety baritone vocals come armed with a certain suavité that sets him apart and warrants discovering (Here’s a start.)

On Thursday night, the prolific singer and guitarist delivered a stellar set of both solo material and Smog classics. Smog’s “Dress Sexy at My Funeral” was Callahan’s best moment of the night, with the crowd snickering and gushing over the deadpan quirk of its lyrics. “America”, a song that generally depends on a steady snare and kick drum for its syncopation, was masterfully held up by the stoic Callahan and his Stratocaster.

Callahan is the type of performer who doesn’t move much. There are no moments when he loses himself in a riff to shred in motion, but that suits him just fine. If you’re witnessing the longtime Drag City artist on stage, the most minute shifts in his tunnel vision-like focus — subtle shimmy steps — become immensely riveting compliments to his beautiful music. –Adrian Spinelli

06. Astronauts, etc. at The Independent

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For those unfamiliar with Astronauts, etc. frontman Anthony Ferraro, he’s most notably Toro y Moi’s touring keyboard player and highlights a steadily rising crop of Oakland bands that began to emerge shortly after Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick arrived in the East Bay six years ago. On Tuesday night, Ferraro and Astronauts, etc. coursed through their highly underrated debut LP, Mind Out Wandering, and the songs sounded tighter than they ever have before.

Wherein past performances, it felt like the band was still ironing out the kinks on the ambitious arrangements of Mind Out Wandering, this was no longer the case (and the sound booth at The Independent pitched a proverbial no-hitter in the band’s favor). Ferraro manned his usual post on the keys, with his gentle falsetto guiding lush tracks like “I Know”, “Up for Grabs”, and “Upward Swing”. Closest to Ferraro was guitarist Derek Barber, whose demeanor and delivery is akin to that hot girl you knew in school, who still hadn’t realized the powerful effect she has on those around her; it’s humble mastery.

This was a fitting first show for the heart of the festival’s big week. Couples embraced and swayed, stoners bobbed their heads, and Astronauts, etc. brought together a bi-partisan crowd. Bands like Toro y Moi have been instrumental in bridging the gap between the shifting music scenes in Oakland and San Francisco. And now, with Chaz Bundick (who was in attendance) moving to Portland next month, one can’t help but think that Ferraro and Astronauts, etc. will be the ones to help hold it all together. –Adrian Spinelli

05. Neon Indian at Mezzanine

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Following a performance for the ages from Carly Rae Jepsen at The Warfield, Neon Indian was just around the corner at The Mezzanine. And when you leave one amazing show to head to another, there’s that feeling that you’re kind of operating on house money and anything notable would be just icing on the cake. In one of the smoothest show-to-show navigations of the week, Alan Palomo and Neon Indian gave us much more than a topper; this was the maturation of the Neon Indian live sound on display.

The Mezzanine has an industrial warehouse feel to it, but at just under 1,000 capacity, it’s modest and approachable. A neon “Night School” light was on stage, presumably referencing Neon Indian’s critically acclaimed 2015 album, Vega Intl. Night School. Palomo hopped out from behind his keys and synths much more than on his Psychic Chasms and Era Extraña tours and was now a fully operational frontman. On songs like the tropically-leaning “Annie”, Neon Indian felt much less like a production project and much more like a fully engaged band.

Palomo worked the crowd with sinister smiles and deviant dance moves. Early classics like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Polish Girl” (which merits consideration for the best beat of the last five years) were major crowd-pleasers, and there was no better late Saturday night dance party in town. This was yet another unique experience handed down by the Noise Pop Festival that made this show and this fest’s combination of intimacy, accessibility, and eclecticism unlike any other. –Adrian Spinelli

04. The Mountain Goats at Swedish American Hall

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Four or five songs into John Darnielle’s solo set as The Mountain Goats on Noise Pop’s final night, a crowd member who likely doesn’t know much about Darnielle yelled out “I love you, John” during a quiet moment.

“No,” he corrected, “you like my work. You don’t know me, because if you did know me personally, we’d have to talk after the show.”

The Mountain Goats frontman has a way with words. Heck, perhaps he was the inspiration for the saying, given he’s been making poignant, introverted folk rock for 25 years. Playing songs from across his insanely deep catalog, Darnielle’s asides were as memorable as the music. Still, hearing songs like “Autoclave”, “Peacocks”, and “Young Caesar 2000” in the splendid acoustics of the Swedish American Hall was divine. Even Darnielle couldn’t help but embrace the moment. During “No Children”, he took to the crowd, acoustic guitar in hand, allowing the fans to carry on the tune as he ferociously strummed the notes.

That the show was occurring while the Oscars transpired 400 miles south of Noise Pop was clearly of little consequence to any in attendance. The event was sold out, just as Darnielle’s concert the previous night had been. The closing night of Noise Pop gave Darnielle the chance to return for not one, but two encores. The crowd responded with an insatiable appetite, audibly expressing their disappointment every time he claimed this song was really and truly the last one of the evening. With Darnielle, a raconteur jukebox of his own breadth of work, 90 minutes simply wasn’t enough. (It’s possible a whole week of shows wouldn’t have done him justice.) Eventually, the final moment did arrive, and with it came the simultaneous relief and exhaustion of parting ways with a man who will always have more to say. –-Zack Ruskin

03. Hamilton Leithauser at Cafe Du Nord

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With multi-location festivals, sometimes you never know where you’ll end up at the end of the night. On Friday, I found myself downstairs from the Swedish American Hall in Cafe Du Nord’s Viking Room to see Hamilton Leithauser and Paul Maroon (formerly of The Walkmen) play a six-song acoustic set at 12:30 a.m. for fewer than 100 people. It was the moment of the fest where you only realize how blown away you were when you wake up the next morning and it’s the only music ringing through your head.

With Leithauser on acoustic guitar and Maroon switching between a saloon-style piano and a Fender connected to a single amp, the pair evoked the magic that made The Walkmen a prolific band for over a dozen years. But on this evening, they were armed with material from Leithauser’s solo project, namely from his 2014 release, Black Hours.

The lustre of Leithauser’s voice rang through the exclusive-feeling basement ballroom and towered over the back of the room chatter. “11 O’Clock Friday Night” was a standout, as Leithauser, one leg up on a chair and the guitar resting on his knee, sang with the bravado reminiscent of The Walkmen’s best work. The set shed light on the understated brilliance of Leithauser’s solo work and was an intimate moment with one of indie rock’s most recognizable voices.

What Noise Pop Festival dubbed “After Hours” at Cafe du Nord was really a Jack Daniel’s-sponsored, under-the-radar, late-night set that only got announced via Twitter or an alert on the DoStuff app during the festival’s wee hours. Nonetheless, the room was packed. And where local stalwarts Cathedrals played a short-yet-beautiful three-song set on the same stage earlier in the week, Leithauser and Maroon churned out six cuts and closed out with the Rostam Batmanglij-produced single, “Alexandra”. It was a powerful ending to a fortuitous evening, and Leithauser showed that he hasn’t lost a step. –Adrian Spinelli

02. Carly Rae Jepsen at the Warfield

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Breaking free from a stigma is no easy challenge for an artist, especially when the stigma in question is your association with the most popular singular of 2012. Yes, Carly Rae Jepsen may never fully separate her name from “Call Me Maybe”, the song that launched a thousand viral videos and catapulted her from local acclaim to international stardom, but you’d be a fool to think her anything but one of the most promising presences in pop right now. Entering the Warfield, one could easily spot a muscular man in a black tank top with the words “Carly Slay Jepsen” emblazoned in hot pink lettering. And boy did she slay.

Jepsen’s set, which focused mainly on 2015’s Emotion, was heartfelt and high octane. Opener “Run Away with Me” got the crowd going, while “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” ignited a full-on dance party. While Jepsen told the crowd that she was fighting a cold, there wasn’t any trace of hesitation in her star-like performance. She gave and gave to her adoring fans, many of whom likely would otherwise not have attended one of the week’s many Noise Pop concerts. Universal appeal is a hollow term, but what Jepsen possesses is the ability to make everyone a part of her music, even those that may have arrived with some skepticism.

Utilizing a four-piece band and foregoing most of the stage theatrics that tend to accompany pop concerts, Jepsen opted to put the burden of proof on her voice and vivacity and delivered in equal measure. Early in the show, a rainbow of balloons floated through the crowd, and as one made its way toward Jepsen, she booted it back into the audience with pure joy. That small moment, coupled with countless others, was a blueprint for a pop show done right. Not only did Jepsen silence her critics; she converted them. Come back soon, Carly. –Zack Ruskin

01. Kamasi Washington at The Independent

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“Other people have to scour the planet to find their rhythm section. I had to go to the ice cream truck.”

On this note, Kamasi Washington, the Los Angeles-born saxophonist whose gab is nearly as impressive as his chops behind the brass, introduced his bass player and two drummers, all of whom share deep roots with Washington stretching back to their childhoods. Family was a key theme on Thursday night at the Independent, as the venue transformed into the smoky jazz clubs of yesteryear and Washington alternated between sharing stories with his words and those spoken through the transcendent notes created by the band on stage.

If you don’t recognize Washington, you may still have heard him. After all, he’s worked with luminaries ranging from Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock to Lauryn Hill. Most recently, he contributed saxophone to Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly. Last year, he released his debut solo album, The Epic, which includes “Henrietta Our Hero”, a stirring tribute to his grandmother, and “Malcolm’s Theme”, a song set to Ossie Davis’ eulogy of Malcolm X. This is music for the present and work that demands attention.

At one point, Washington announced a special guest was coming up, inviting the man who was running the merch table in the back to join him on stage. That man was Rickey Washington, Kamasi’s father and an accomplished woodwind player. The younger Washington credited his dad with teaching him everything he knows, and the emotional resonance of seeing a father and son making profound jazz together is something no one in attendance is likely soon to forget. That the moment was likely to be repeated later that night when Washington offered an encore performance for another crowd was surreal, leaving the audience to wonder how one man can manifest magic so effortlessly. –Zack Ruskin

Click ahead to see an exclusive gallery from Noise Pop 2016.

Gallery

Photographer: Adrian Spinelli

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