August 3, 2009

Wanderlust Festival Recap | Squaw Valley USA | Lake Tahoe, CA | July 24-26, 2009

For about 150 miles of low-lying desert yellow, Northern California – that stretch of asphalt, traffic, oil drums and traffic from Vallejo to Sacramento – is total wasteland. And then all of a sudden, it’s not. Lush forests spring from pavement; earth rises as if with phobia to sea level. Perhaps it’s only right, then, that the inaugural Wanderlust Festival chose the elevated shores of Lake Tahoe (Squaw Valley to be exact) to host its weekend of music and – are you ready for this one? – yoga. No kidding.

It came out of nowhere – a three-day smorgasbord of holistic healers and punk kids the likes of which, with all due respect to George Harrison, go together like Coke (the still-to-be-invented organic kind) and Pop Rocks. So, as with many first-goes experimental in nature, Wanderlust unfolded a throw-it-against-the-wall exercise in see-what-sticks: a classic showcase of The Good, The Bad and The Pretty Boy – did you know the real life Vinnie Chase has his own band? You’re learning all kinds of new things. Scroll down for Adrian Grenier jokes.

Or stay here for a highlight/lowlight-specific recap of three stages, two and a half nights. And let’s just assume Spoon nailed their late Sunday slot. They usually do. Atlanta native Kaki King is a pretty sure thing, too. Taking the main, reachable-by-gondola-only Globetrotter Stage early Saturday, Kaki made it quite clear from the acoustic exploits of her intro that she wanted to tap that… her guitar, obviously. She tapped, plucked, twiddled and strummed aching folk tunes with the kind of freakish dexterity usually reserved for Donkey Kong champions and competitive seamstresses. Plugging in, she lost none of her fluidity or what-just-happened? appeal, transitioning effortlessly into the methodical craftsmanship of multi-layered post-rock. “Mexican Teenagers” psyched the rather sparse hilltop crowd with minimalist guitar ‘n drums intricacy fleshed out with blips and beeps from some voice box from the future, but the climactic “These Are the Armies of the Tyrannized” topped even the dried up ski runs above. Strained from the same space goo that gave rise to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the amorphous jam found direction with a back end loaded with brainy riffing and, per usual, dumbfounding finger play.

Jenny Lewis doesn’t have any tricks, just that petite little frame and an air siren of a voice. That she also plays acoustic guitar is purely audio icing – she could have mesmerized Wanderlust backed by kazoo and tuna fish can. Charging opener “See Fernando” and the skuzzy, back porch throwdown “Carpetbaggers” mercifully upped the festival’s rock quotient, stirring enough waving arms to make the ubiquitous beachball volley worthwhile. But the devoted cut the games for the show-stopping “Next Messiah.” How could they not? For the set’s (the entire festival’s?) undisputed peak, Lewis and guitarist Farmer Dave traded sensual come-ons as setup for harmonic eruption: the tiny indie princess takes the reins for herself, belting out the climactic title lyric in a manic flurry of devil-chasin’ noise.

From a pinnacle, the only direction to go is down, and when you happen to be up a freakin’ mountain, down is a long way to fall. Fittingly, The Mutaytor not only played the bottom stage, they did so with the kind of unhinged, what-is-this-world-coming-to? bravado that permanently lowers your expectations for the entire human race. Part awkward white-boy funk, part strip-tease, part circus, all hell, this collective of musicians and Barnum & Bailey castoffs engaged the too-drunk-to-say-no crowd in a shameless rave orgy starring, in one corner, Greasy Cialis Users, and in the other, Females As Objects. The actual sound component – a blurred mix of wakka-wakka guitar, Family Stone-ish bass, tribal polyrhythm – never had a chance against the likes of the belly dancer, the, um, stripper, the braless spectators-turned-stage-dancers lifted (literally, over the barrier) from the more zealous pockets of audience, and the assortment of fire jugglers, one of whom hit the sax player’s mic stand and almost took out the horn section. Guesses are this isn’t supposed to happen. Neither is it Performer’s place to wield a critical skewer. On the other hand, if I see you heading for a steaming heap of dog shit, it’s my moral obligation to see that you don’t ruin your shoes. Watch your step. (a laudatory note: Bless you Gregg Gillis for wiping clean this horrible slate with a typically cathartic set of Girl Talk mash-ups, and for showing all Mutaytor survivors how a real party looks and sounds – oddly, not unlike an energy bomb of a DJ seamlessly fusing “Say It Ain’t So” to R&B and “Thunderstruck” to hip-hop. It’s the stuff of beat-box deification and maniacal crowd-surfing. Totally wild.)

We’re almost to Grenier, but a few loose ends need first be tied up. For instance, Common, of American Gangster fame (and of gigantic rap star fame), saved Saturday night by filling in for the stricken-by-appendicitis festival headliner Michael Franti. At first, the pairing seemed an odd fit – Common, on loan for a few hours, was now the sole hip-hop act performing, not to mention at the top of the bill in the weekend’s biggest slot. Yet after just one song – the raucous “Sex 4 Sugar” – the coolest dude in attendance converted all the skeptics by mentioning he could “smell the love.” On cue, a billowing cloud wafted from the front lines. Yessir, we have a match, and it’s made in a stoners’ heaven. Common proceeded to serenade a young lady on stage after, tastefully, checking to see if she was of age. I love this guy. So did Wanderlust.

Mates of State love each other. Actually, they’re married, and with that rare, sappy devotion that every so often unfurls as quirky, guy-girl power pop. Just synthesized organ and thump thump drums, the perky duo, with four hands and two ethereal voices, powered Sunday into its final stretch (Broken Social Scene and Spoon followed). The pair came on like a trimmed down New Pornographers, melting hearts with perky new wave, vows of steel, even sturdier melodies. All their songs rank somewhere on the catchy scale, especially the disco rockers, but “My Only Offer” deserves a different label. “Infectious” you ask? Like swine flu.

Thankfully Adrian Grenier does not have swine flu (send transition sentence ideas to LastParagraph@I’ He does, though, know how to man a drum kit, anchoring his band The Honey Brothers with perfectly competent, meat ‘n potatoes time keeping. Turtle’s sidekick isn’t the punchline some expect. In fact, Grenier probably gets the first panicked call from Strokes reps should Fabrizio Moretti ever “pull a Franti.” As for the rest of the Brothers Honey, they excelled at tight, Percocet-happy sing-alongs, Jack Johnson-like soft rock and, of course, impressing swooning sorority sisters and socialites in training.

They also turned cynics into toe-tapping, head-bobbing believers. Same goes for Wanderlust as a whole. At one point, Kaki King objected to yoga chanting on the grounds of “worldview” conflict. In the same breath, she said she might make an exception – cheering, tie-dyed crowds evidently have eye-opening effects. Then again, it could have been something else. At 8,500 feet with copious amounts of potent bud, we were all on lookout for higher calling.
-Robbie Hilson


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