Twenty One Pilots performs at the Breakaway Music Festival. Photo by Andy Downing
12:45 p.m.: The inaugural Breakaway Music Festival, which local organizers Prime Social Group hope to establish as an annual event, opens under ideal weather conditions Saturday at Crew Stadium. Onstage, local rapper Freaky Franz drops assorted verses far tamer than his name would suggest. While a handful of the songs on his SoundCloud site border on pornographic (sample “Nighty Night,” for one, well after the kids go to bed), here he opts to keep things relatively PG, offering up throwback boasts like “Call me the Mailman...Karl Malone!” because, you know, he always delivers. The musical backdrop, courtesy of CJ the DJ, melds hip-hop and electro, coming on like a raucous house party set somewhere within the Matrix.
12:55 p.m.: A guy in a unicorn mask bobbing his horned head to Freaky Franz neatly sets the tone for the day. The fashions on display so far range from typical spring break fair (sunglasses and bare midriffs abound) to outfits that could have sprung forth from the imagination of the late Dr. Seuss.
1:12 p.m.: Local rockers Post Coma Network hit the stage nearly 20 minutes after its scheduled start, but appear to be in no hurry to make up for lost time. The band's beach bum attire (colored plastic sunglasses, t-shirts with rolled up sleeves, etc.) matches its laid back, vaguely island-rock sound, and songs like “Queen of the Nightlife” hit like a cooling Caribbean breeze. At times the music almost demands a touch more muscle, but it's still a pleasant soundtrack for an abnormally sunny September afternoon.
1:50 p.m.: It starts to feel a bit like a geography lesson when Toronto, Ontario, rockers Tokyo Police Club tear into the new song “Argentina.” Despite the small crowd (this will become a theme for the day) gathered for the band's early afternoon set, the quartet plays as though it were staring down a packed house. On “Wait Up,” frontman David Monks howls “You never get nervous anymore!” even as the guitars jangle and shake like a pair of knocking knees. The momentum carries through “Your English Is Good” before boiling over on a riotous “Cheer It On.” “Get me the president of the world,” Monks yelps as the guitars sound off like air raid sirens. “This is an emergency!”
2:10 p.m. Long-running Columbus soul crew Mojoflo hits its stride with “Waiting,” a gritty R&B stomper where singer Amber Knicole, tired of playing second fiddle, kicks a would-be beau to the curb, growling, “Let me go!” The seven-piece band is undeniably tight, its sound honed be years of gigging in various bars, clubs and flophouses, but there are times its appeal-to-everyone ethos blunts the music's impact (let's just say as a rapper the band's drummer makes a fine drummer). Better are those moments where the group locks into a muscular soul strut and Knicole grabs firm hold of the song — even as she pleads to be set free.
2:40 p.m.: Juicy J hits the stage with an anti anti-drug PSA of his own: “How many people get high as f---?” The former Three 6 Mafia rapper turns his performance into a celebration of all things debauched, swigging from a bottle of champagne between songs about weed, women and weed and women. At one point he asks attendees to direct him to Columbus' finest strip club (one woman's response: “My bedroom!”), and on “Still in This B----” he lashes out at anyone who would dare harsh his buzz. The crowd eats it up, bobbing along to cuts like Three 6's “Stay Fly” and “Show Out,” a glossy number J could hear again later in this evening if he follows through on his promise to visit a gentlemen's club.
3:46 p.m.: “I'm gonna give you everything that we have,” says Twenty One Pilots singer/pianist/director of general mayhem Tyler Joseph early on in the local duo's set. He isn't lying. Joseph dedicates a ukulele-fueled tune to his mother, who's somewhere in attendance (Hi mom!), sings the chorus of “Holding On To You” like he's purging deep-seeded internal demons and races back and forth on the stage as though he's in training for the 100 meter-sprint. Not to be outdone, drummer Josh Dun flaunts some acrobatic skills of his own, knocking out a textbook backflip off Joseph's white baby grand piano. The pair's music is equally chaotic, ping-ponging between hip-hop, piano balladry and even, briefly, acoustic folk (“House of Gold”). At times the crew's attention span can be a little short, and it'd be nice if the musicians let certain ideas develop more fully before drastically switching gears, but it's hard to fault a band so fully invested in its live-wire performance.
4:50 p.m.: It sounds like city-devouring monsters are doing battle somewhere in the near distance as Columbus' EOP breezes through a sharp set of earthy, jazz-flecked hip-hop tunes — a product of the sound bleeding in from Porter Robinson's DJ performance inside the stadium. The sextet doesn't appear fazed, however, and rapper Eric Rollin rarely pauses as he delivers verses about racial harmony and the power of love atop a musical backdrop suggestive of early Roots recordings. It's not all high-minded, socially conscious fair, however. The locals also knock out the day's best cover with a playful, party-minded take on Gorillaz' “Feel Good Inc.”
5:20 p.m.: Like Juicy J, Schoolboy Q spends a bulk of his time onstage championing women and weed. Unlike the Memphis rapper, however, Q's obsessions aren't simply the spoils of his excessive wealth. “I've got no money,” he barks on one tune, “But I got some weed.” Onstage, the rapper appears fueled almost wholly by nervous energy; at one point, he cinches the hood of his Ohio State sweatshirt tight (go Bucks!) and bounces up and down like a boxer ready to pounce at the sound of the bell. Even so, his vocals remain slow and sticky on songs like “Brand New Guy” and “Collard Greens,” a bass-heavy-banger featuring Kendrick Lamar that Q somewhat disappointingly performs solo here even though Lamar is likely somewhere in the building.
6 p.m.: “This is our first time in Ohio!” chirps Australia's Alpine, which seems like an odd admission coming from a band headlining what's billed as the Alive Local Stage. The group's dual-female singers occasionally hit on a hypnotic vocal harmony, but the whole thing feels a bit undercooked, and it's difficult not to wish one of Columbus' many deserving musicians had been handed this prime slot.
6:46 p.m.: After opening with a pair of bangers, including a towering “Backseat Freestyle” that recasts Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “I Had a Dream Speech” as an R-rated teenage boast, Kendrick Lamar switches on the autopilot, lying back to weave casual verses atop the relatively lightweight musical backdrop crafted by his four-piece band. The Los Angeles native drops one song that comes on like a would-be ad campaign for the California tourism board (“The Recipe” trumpets the city's “weed, women and weather”), coasts through a tossed-off ode to ladies and liquor (“P & P”) and sleepwalks his way through “Poetic Justice.” Fortunately Lamar rediscovers his swagger on “m.A.A.d. city,” and there's an agitated edge to his voice as he goes from observing atrocities (guns are discharged and bodies pile up like firewood) to committing them (“I made allegiance, then made a promise to see you bleeding”). He follows with a boozy song far more desolate than its “Swimming Pools” full of liquor would suggest, though plenty in the college-aged crowd are happy to raise a glass to the tune's repeated refrain of “drank.”
8:10 p.m.: Australia's Empire of the Sun brings a touch of Las Vegas glitz to Crew Stadium. Ok, ok, so it's way more than a touch. The band's costumes look like Cirque du Soleil's attempt to stage a show on the fall of the Roman Empire, and its synth-based sound could pass for an alternate soundtrack to a 1980s sci-fi epic. While the band records as a duo, Nick Littlemore, who functions as half the creative team, rarely tours. This responsibility instead falls to Luke Steele, who is clearly up to the challenge. It helps, of course, Steele doesn't have to do it on his own, and he's supported here by a pair of backing musicians and a quartet of neon-wrapped dancers who help pump needed life into tunes like “Walking on a Dream,” a song as ethereal and dream-like as its title suggests.
9:50 p.m.: Bassnectar samples a telling bit of dialogue from Lars von Trier's “Dancer in the Dark” early in his fest-closing set. “When I'm working in the factory ... the machines they make these rhythms,” intones Bjork's Selma Jezkova. “I just start dreaming and it all becomes music.” It's clear the DJ, born Lorin Ashton in Santa Cruz, California, ascribes to a similar mindset. His musical tastes run the gamut, and he samples everything from Ol' Dirty Bastard to Guns N' Roses in his thumping mashups. Unlike, say, Girl Talk, however, much of Asthon's source material is obscured, melted down and extruded in nearly unrecognizable form. At times, the music pouring from the speakers is polished and glossy; others it's harsh and clattering, constructed of roughhewn beats that sound wholly handmade. From a near distance, Bassnectar is a non-stop blur of whiplash hair and fast-twitch hand movements, and he only ignores his equipment for brief bursts of air drumming. It's an impressive display, and the set nicely encapsulates the range of musical styles featured throughout the inaugural Breakaway Festival. Despite obvious issues attracting fans (it's hard to imagine promoters were happy with attendance figures, and large chunks of the event took place in a near-empty soccer stadium), and a few minor hiccups with the bill (Aussies headlining the local stage?), there's every reason to hope the fest returns for another go-round in 2014.