Rites of Spring Music Festival :: 04.17.09 & 04.18.09 :: Alumni Lawn at Vanderbilt University :: Nashville, TN
The Flaming Lips :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
The spirit of youthful aggression and collegial camaraderie coursed through Vanderbilt's Alumni Lawn this past weekend at the annual Rites of Spring Music Festival. Since the mid-1970s, a group of students at Vanderbilt have worked all year to put on one of the best college parties in the nation to mark the commencement of spring and the end of another school year just before the campus dives into exams. In past years the festival has played host to Gov't Mule, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Morning Jacket and countless other renowned touring acts. For the 2009 edition, the committee decided to bring in purveyors of all things weird and true artisans of the theater of the absurd, The Flaming Lips, to close out the festival.
Since forming 26 years ago in Oklahoma City, The Lips have constantly pushed the envelope, both in the studio and on the stage, with their otherworldly space-pop rock that seemingly comes from a far away universe. Amongst a well-manicured sanctuary of trees, academic buildings and dormitories in the middle of Nashville, Professor Wayne Coyne brought his traveling circus and transformed a quaint little college music festival into the surface of a boozy utopia replete with dancing Teletubbies, endless amounts of confetti and the always great classics of the Lips' canon. Although many memories of college are ephemeral and thereby long forgotten, who can seriously forget seeing two Teletubbies get engaged on their campus' main lawn at a Flaming Lips show? Oh, she said yes! That's the stuff dreams are made of. Really, really twisted dreams.
Friday, April 17
Springtime means the outdoors, celebrating nature, and in the case of Vanderbilt, live music. A beautiful sun-splashed banner day ushered in arriving patrons to the festival grounds in the center of campus, as vendors and student volunteers welcomed their arrival. Asian style globular light fixtures streamed overhead to add a little ambience to the occasion and the festival began shortly after 3 p.m. As is always the case at Rites of Spring, the first acts to take the stage are the winners of the "Battle of the Bands" contest held the night before the festival. A group of students from both Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt known as We the Trufe took the stage and did some funky originals and a surprisingly stunning cover of "Killing Me Softly." Aggressive Nashville rock act Run With Bulls came on next to a smattering of arriving patrons for a short set.
K'naan :: Rites of Spring by Alex Person
It was not until the self-described "ghetto rockstar" K'naan arrived that the crowd began to fill in considerably. Arguably the best set of the weekend, Somalian K'naan summoned the spirit of both Bob Marley and Bob Dylan as his keyboard player described, "It's not American rap. It's African rap." "T.I.A." came first with an unrelenting bass groove and K'naan saying, "You don't know how hard it is here." In a moment where art truly described reality, a couple of rowdy twenty-somethings began moshing and a couple of classic college 'near fights' broke out, as K'naan sang about "feeling insane... in America." Lyrically, K'naan is inspirational, uplifting and constantly commenting on his upbringing in Somalia and the hope he has for a better tomorrow. The guy is a multilingual modern day poet and in my mind, headed for superstardom. K'naan (which fittingly translates into "traveler" in Somali) has too positive of a message and too uplifting of a story to be ignored. Conceivably on a mission ever since releasing his most successful album to date, Troubadour, a couple months ago, K'naan flew in from France the day of the show and was headed to Coachella the day after. With a super tight band and a total command of the crowd's attention, the festival really began when K'naan took the Rites stage. For more on K'naan check JamBase's recent feature/interview here.
Santigold :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Next, I took in my first Okkervil River show. Wrought with intellectual lyrical themes, and musically almost there, it was a solid set but underwhelming overall. On numerous occasions it seemed as if the band was going to take off on a soaring coda and then the song would just end. Will Sheff's shaky vocals didn't fit my ear and the lyrics, albeit eloquent, were overly depressing and ominous. The whine of the lap steel melded nicely with Sheff's crepuscular warbles in many cases. In their finer, more up-beat moments, they fleetingly resembled The Band with a PhD in Creative Writing. The tune "John Allyn Smith Sails" caught my attention with its lyrical reference to "Sloop John B." By no means bad, Okkervil River just seemed to be a little out of sync with the general vibe of the festival on this day.
Santigold (formerly Santogold) took the stage just after sundown and was the surprise performance of the weekend. Hit song "L.E.S. Artistes" came early in the set, and the energy of the show never subsided. With a vibrant smile that matched her gold lamé outfit, Santi White's up-beat attitude and performance had everyone bouncing, and the artist thereby staked her claim as queen of this Rites of Spring weekend. In full command of the stage, Ms. White engaged the raucous crowd while flanked by two eerily robotic and syncopated dancers that neither broke a smile or their fluid strides throughout the set. Not since Stop Making Sense have I witnessed such an intoxicating dance ensemble. Santigold is an artist that does not deserve to be pigeonholed or categorized. Her influences draw from rock, African roots music, soul and hip-hop, and the beats came from all over the map, many with a Middle Eastern flair. Comparisons to M.I.A. are unavoidable, but Santigold creates and dominates a space all her own and I look forward to catching her David Byrne curated set at this summer's Bonnaroo. She's got the stage presence of a pop star and some rockin' material that doesn't quite fit inside the box, so be sure to check her out this summer as she burns through the festival circuit.
T.I. :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Harlem's own and A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip was next to address the progressively more surly audience, and provided a nice mix of solo and Tribe material. Hip-hop music is just so much better and more entertaining with a solid ensemble of live musicians, and this set along with N.E.R.D. the following night exemplified this excellently. It was good to see "Bonita Applebum" make it into the set as well as "Vivrant Thing" and "Jazz (We've Got)." A handful of dancing co-eds were brought onstage to join the party and I was surprised that most actually seemed to know what they were doing up there. Perhaps Vanderbilt kids do have rhythm?! A solid set and a blast from the past, it was good to take a trip back to the old school before the new "King of the South" took center stage.
Just weeks before his much publicized incarceration, rap mega star T.I. was brought in to close out night one of the festival. As is the norm at any large-scale rap show, T.I.'s set was not short on posse. Nashville's own Young Buck was invited up to join the party for a bit, and T.I. ranted against the haters and promised he would return stronger than ever after his 366 days in the pen. Swooning and pointing to the masses beyond the security barrier, T.I. ripped through older cuts such as "Bring 'Em Out," "Rubber Band Man" and "What You Know" that had the crowd as jacked as the new tunes from last year's Paper Trail. We'll just chalk this one down as a damn fun time while it lasted.
Continue reading for coverage of Saturday at Rites of Spring...
Saturday, April 18
Stardeath and White Dwarfs
"The age of the freak is in our head."
Stardeath and White Dwarfs :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Appropriately, this was one of the first lyrics I would hear on Alumni Lawn on Day Two. The Flaming Lips darker stepchild headed by Wayne Coyne's nephew Dennis Coyne, Stardeath and White Dwarfs were allowed the luxury of using the Lips' spatial half-circle video wall for their set. For an early afternoon college festival set, this one was particularly jarring to the mental cavity. Heavy on the prog-a-delic hard rock and even heavier on the smoke, many jaws were dropped at this early set as green smoke came out of Dennis' guitar and uncle Wayne rocked out side stage. An abstract cover of Madonna's "Borderline" was played to wrap the short set, but this would not be the final rendition of the tune on Day Two by a psychedelic, art rock band from Oklahoma.
There is something about bluegrass and Americana music that just seems to fit perfectly into the middle of a music festival. As a member of the temporarily defunct Nickel Creek, Watkins has been around the festival circuit countless times and felt right at home wielding her fiddle and singing to the chilled out afternoon crowd. The set was mostly ballads, but was a change of pace in the midst of a downright filthy, dank, rowdy and soon to be rainy second day of the fest.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
Black Joe Lewis :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
Nashville's Black Joe Lewis brought the rock and soul for a short while just before dusk and the Lost Highway artist exceeded expectations. Bluesy, rootsy and soulful, Mr. Lewis is a showman fit for the big stage. With a dapperly dressed band, good time lyrics and some slick guitar chops, Lewis was able to bring the restrained crowd back to their feet with "Get Yo Shit," a story about women and legal troubles. Lewis' horn section and performance style closely replicates the work of the godfather of soul himself, but if you're gonna imitate a showman why not mimic the best? Black Joe puts on a helluva a party and it'll be interesting to see this young artist grow. I'd be surprised if his new album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, doesn't get some heavy spin time at summer cookouts and college radio stations across the nation.
Grand Ole Party
California's Grand Ole Party was an interesting act, not exactly my first choice stylistically but it was unique to see pint-sized drummer Kristin Gundred take center stage and play while singing lead vocals. Grimly passionate, the lyrics were delivered with gusto but just didn't do it for me, so I retreated out of the gates to rest up for the final two acts of the festival.
Rites of Spring by Hodges
Pharrell Williams' rap rock outfit N.E.R.D. (No One Ever Really Dies) was an obvious choice for this festival. Hell-bent on creating anarchist behavior in the crowd and upsetting the powers-that-be and event security, Pharrell relentlessly stoked the fire until near pandemonium erupted in the front and center of the crowd as fans moshed their way closer to the action. He eventually got his wish as crowd surfers floated throughout the audience. "Anti Matter" opened the set and the band ran through hits "Lapdance," "Rock Star" and "Spaz" with shocking precision. The band was wound tight, although low in the mix at times, and the many layers of vocals made for a unique performance. Nevertheless, Pharrell's stage banter is what people will ultimately remember about this show.
The Flaming Lips
As extraterrestrial music blared on stage and Wayne Coyne returned from his walk around the audience in the familiar human-sized space orb hamster ball, a transcendental feeling resonated across Alumni Lawn that something truly paranormal was occurring and the band broke into The Soft Bulletin classic "Race For the Prize (Sacrifice of the New Scientists)." The multi-talented Stephen Drozd harmonized like a small child, and shit was lost, high fives had, many sang in unison and the universe somehow seemed at peace as The Flaming Lips burned brightly.
The Flaming Lips :: Rites of Spring by Hodges
The tension of anticipation released, the rest of the show was a blur of confetti, bright images and "What the F*&!" moments. Coyne, usually nauseatingly political with his banter, was reserved on this occasion and was instead incredibly gracious for the opportunity to host such a big party, only commenting on how happy he is to have Obama in the Oval Office. For the second time this day, Madonna's "Borderline" was covered and Coyne commented that this would probably be the only time in history that you would see two rock bands cover the same Madonna song in the same day at a festival. Stardeath were invited on stage for the tune and it was oddly cool how the Lips made a Madonna tune all their own. The bare bones and slowed down "Fight Test" was a disappointment and "Yoshimi" received similar treatment as the rain started to pelt fans. I found it strange that these two songs were slowed down in the midst of such a rowdy atmosphere, and perhaps they were slowed down because of concern with technical issues with the ongoing rain. "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung," "The Wand" and '90s classic "She Don't Use Jelly" were all extravagantly brilliant, and just before the show's finale one of the dancing Teletubbies unexpectedly (even to the band) proposed to his girlfriend (also a Teletubbie) and she said yes. To paraphrase the song, happiness would make the newly engaged girl cry as the band ran through "Do You Realize??," slamming the door shut on a tour of the universe and a festival that was both genre and mind-bending at times.
Like George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic before them, a Flaming Lips show is just as much about creating an atmosphere as it is about the music. Vibrant orange and yellow stage props, confetti, Teletubbie suits and a man strolling the crowd in a hamster ball are the norm in the universe of The Flaming Lips, and although variations of this same show have been performed countless times all over the globe, if its this much fun why should it matter if it's repeated? Wayne Coyne's mission in life is to create performance art for the enjoyment of the masses, and besides getting a little rain-drenched, everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy their Flaming Lips experience (many for the first time on this occasion).
After all, as Coyne so eloquently put it, "It's hard to make the good things last." But, if the good times are memorable enough they'll be hard to forget. Kudos to the Vanderbilt Music Group for throwing one helluva party.
The Flaming Lips :: 04.18.09 :: Vanderbilt University :: Nashville, TN
Race for the Prize (Sacrifice of the New Scientists), Lightning Strikes the Postman, Borderline (Madonna song with Stardeath & White Dwarfs), Fight Test (alternate version), The Process, Vein of Stars, Mountainside, "Fuck the Rain" chant, Yoshimi (part 1 only), Pompeii am Götterdämmerung, Taps, The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat), She Don't Use Jelly, On-stage marriage proposal from one Teletubbie to another, Do You Realize??
Continue reading for more pics of Rites of Spring 2009...