The Flaming Lips (Jodi Miller photo)
Saturday at Nelsonville Music Festival was much wetter than Friday. Much better? Maybe. I had a more pleasant experience my first day here due to nice weather, punctual performances and the peaceful ComFest vibe I mentioned in yesterday's report. All of that was negated Saturday by heavy rains, The Flaming Lips showing up three hours late (forcing the Main Stage to play catch-up all day) and the usual jostling for position up front during the Lips' headlining set. But from a musical perspective Saturday packed big star power and impressive variety -- the kind of stuff I'm willing to brave mud pits and waterlogged clothing for.
•How could The Flaming Lips not be a highlight? Even if you don't care for their music -- and I think their existential crisis cartoon epics are first-rate -- you have to be at least somewhat stimulated by their over-the-top stage show. All the usual factors were in play: gigantic balloons, confetti cannons, costumed dancers plucked from the audience (dressed up like "The Wizard of Oz" characters this time), smoke, strobe lights, psychedelic videos of naked women, a fisheye camera trained on Wayne Coyne's face, Coyne rocking giant hands a la Foo Fighters' "Everlong" video, band members emerging from the video screen and Coyne gliding atop the crowd in his inflatable "space bubble." The shtick was still just as gleefully strange as the first time I experienced it nine years ago. Some of the newer material in the middle of the set dragged a bit, but it was nice to have a moment to catch my breath before the big finish of "Race For the Prize" and "Do You Realize??" Well worth the mudbath, the obnoxious crowd surfers and the headbanging dreadlocks that kept slapping me in the face.
The Nelsonville crowd anxiously anticipates The Flaming Lips (Jodi Miller photo)
•As you might expect, Yo La Tengo's live shows are as musically diffuse as their records. That means their concerts can be hit or miss. You can always count on two or three spectacular guitar freakouts by Ira Kaplan, which is reason enough to come, but the rest is a crapshoot. With such a large and diverse catalog, you're not always getting the setlist you want. This was my fifth or sixth time with the band, and it wasn't my favorite. I thought Kaplan's improv vocal take on organ ditty "Autumn Sweater" robbed the song of its mojo, and the piano- and acoustic-led tunes lacked the emotional resonance that seems to wax and wane with this band. There was more than enough noise pop to satiate my hunger, though, particularly the wall of sound anthem "We'll Walk Hand in Hand" and twin singles "Nothing To Hide" and "Sugarcube." I heard several complaints about the 10-plus-minute guitar assault that closed the set, but that's exactly why I come to Yo La Tengo shows. It's crazy how much patience I have for endless solos when they're in the context of "psych-drone" instead of "blues-funk."
•Eve Searls of Columbus indie folk bands Super Desserts/Bird and Flower played a striking set at the No-Fi Cabin backed by a pair of Super Desserts. Though her music can sometimes come off as cute, Searls sang with every ounce of emotion she could muster, each melody piercing the humid cabin air. It was beautiful and vulnerable and exactly why the No-Fi Cabin exists. Later I saw Ned Oldham, Will's less idiosyncratic brother, play a stirring set of tunes that reminded me of Califone's smoldering neon folk.
•Mucca Pazza is a "punk rock marching band," and while they sounded like pretty much every other marching band I've ever heard (i.e. not that punk), I enjoyed their goofy choreography. This band is essentially an excuse for former band geeks to feel like their extracurricular activity was secretly super hip. It wasn't, but that's OK. Mucca Pazza is still a fun novelty and a perfect act for an outdoor festival like this one.
•Misra labelmates/Ohio comrades Southeast Engine and The Black Swans each took to the Main Stage and exemplified the intelligent and quirky side of folk-rock. Undeterred by a nearly two-hour delay caused by The Flaming Lips' late arrival, The Black Swans exuded swampy folk charisma, even peppering their dirge-heavy setlist with a few romps like "I Forgot to Change the Windshield Wipers In My Mind." I found Southeast Engine's rendition of "Preparing for the Flood" to be incredibly timely as I got doused with rain, refusing to go back for my poncho until they finished their set.
It got real, real muddy on Saturday (Jodi Miller photo)
•Ancient folkie Michael Hurley impressed on the Porch Stage, particularly the trumpet/kazoo impression he performed with his mouth during the interlude to one of his songs. Some acts would play up the campy aspect of a move like that, but Hurley played it off like it ain't no thang.
•Saturday's biggest surprise was Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned, a horn-powered indie rock act that reminded me at turns of Man Man and Neutral Milk Hotel. They had the Porch Stage rollicking in a far different manner than I expected when I heard their band name.