The Flaming Lips and Ryan Adams highlight day one of the inaugural PromoWest Fest
The Flaming Lips (Andy Downing photo)
As the opening day of the inaugural PromoWest Fest drew to a close on Friday, a giant inflatable sun ambled across a stage erected on the south end of McFerson Commons Park, dozens of multicolored, inflatable balloons shot skyward like popcorn hitting a hot stove and Wayne Coyne pulled a long, lighted cape over his head and climbed onto the shoulders of a Wookiee to sing "The Gold In the Mountain of Our Madness."
In other words, it was just your average Flaming Lips show.
Coyne, who functioned as ringleader, cheerleader and a spiritual center for the seven-piece crew, appeared onstage in a suit constructed of stuffed caterpillars (or, alternately, severed Care Bears sewn together "Human Centipede"-style) and hoarsely crooned his way through spacy, psychedelic sing-alongs like the Technicolor "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1" and a slower, more zoned-out take on "What Is the Light?"
The music, at times, functioned as little more than a trippy soundtrack to the running onstage shenanigans. On the former, a trio of inflatable beasts flanked the band - the aforementioned sun and pair of winged, centipede-looking monsters that might have tempted "Pokemon Go" players to bum rush the stage trying for a rare capture - while the latter featured Coyne standing beneath an outsized inflated rainbow and scrawling out a dusty guitar solo that suggested a windswept Sergio Leone score.
Prior to Coyne and Co. hitting the stage, PromoWest Fest, which continues through Sunday, emanated a relatively low-key vibe, with bands alternating between a pair of stages set at either end of the Commons.
Ryan Adams, in great spirits despite his description of the material - "All these songs are about cynical self-resignation," he said - swung from ragged rock 'n' roll cuts to mournful ballads like the shattered "Come Pick Me Up," which felt like the musical equivalent of well-weathered denim. Elsewhere, the musician and his crack band, performing on a stage decked out like a '70s-era rec room (props included vintage arcade games and an old-fashioned soda vending machine), breezed through a boogieing, roadhouse version of "Shakedown on 9th Street" and waltzed beneath the moonlight on a sweet, somber "When the Stars Go Blue."
Noel Gallagher and the High Flying Birds (Andy Downing photo)
"Peaceful Valley," in contrast, appeared to incorporate every aspect of Adams' sprawling musical personality, swinging from sludgy guitar riffage to quieter moments that felt akin to a backwoods church service, the bandmates harmonizing about a desire to "find a peaceful song … to sing when everything goes wrong."
Between songs, Adams joked about the relatively tight hour-long set time ("I can't do my dance routine … or the thing where I levitate," he cracked), introduced the downcast soundtrack like an upbeat hype man ("If you like sad songs let me hear you say, 'Hell yeah!'") and poked fun at his past struggles with substance abuse. "I know that I've forgotten a lot of my life, and I paid a lot of money to do that," he explained after one fan requested a non-existent song. "But I do know I didn't write a song called 'Cotton Candy.'" Of course, the musician followed by adlibbing a metal-tinged cut with precisely that name.
Adams' set followed a spirited-if-hollow turn from high-energy soul-pop collective Fitz and the Tantrums, which strived to prevent the audience from standing around "like a wall of flowers," as frontman Michael Fitzpatrick termed it. Songs incorporated handclaps, dancing synthesizers and relentless drums that seemed to operate at peak heart rate for the entirety of the band's set, though bland, soft-edged cuts like "The Walker" and "Out of My League" felt better suited to scoring shopping trips at a big box retailer than an afternoon at an outdoor fest.
Even so, Fitz and the Tantrum's set was an improvement on an earlier turn by bombast-loving X Ambassadors, which answered the question of what Imagine Dragons' music might sound like absent any memorable hooks.
Between these beige turns, onetime Oasis singer and guitarist Noel Gallagher brought a welcome splash of paisley color fronting the High Flying Birds, a collective that tamps down the stadium-ready choruses of his previous band in favor of a more psychedelic scrum that hinted at everything from the Stone Roses to a muted Bee Gees on the shimmering, disco-informed "Ballad of the Mighty I."
Of course, Gallagher didn't ignore his past, diving headlong into Oasis' "Champagne Supernova" just one song after singing "You Know We Can't Go Back." (So I guess maybe we can?) Later in the set, the singer performed an altered version of "Wonderwall" that sounded eerily like Ryan Adams' well-received cover of the tune. Even if the resemblance wasn't purposeful, it certainly was memorable.
UPDATE: PromoWest on potential 2017 fest tweaks
In its first year, PromoWest Fest drew more than 28,000 attendees to McFerson Commons Park, according to PromoWest President and CEO Scott Stienecker.
As with any first-year event, however, the music fest endured a few growing pains, most notably social media complaints about the cashless system adopted on the grounds (vendors only accepted payment via an event-specific bracelet, which cost $2 to activate; unused funds were subject to an additional $3.50 transaction fee) and the size and placement of the VIP areas, which were situated in the center of the grounds near the front of the stage rather than off to the side as with many music fests. The prominence of the VIP section even incurred negative onstage comments from performers like Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, who likened the favor cast on a select few with the fallout of a Trump presidency.
"That was Saturday night [the Decemberists performed], because what we did for Sunday is we squeezed both the VIP areas down a bit," Stienecker said. "We had very positive feedback from the VIPs [who said] that this was the coolest VIP they've gone to at any festival, where it's right there in front."
Regardless, Stienecker said his team would take time to review attendee feedback before determining if the VIP sections would exist in the same form when the festival returns in 2017 (the cashless, bracelet-based payment system, he said, will be back).
"Any event you do, having done this for 38 years, you regroup," Stienecker said. "We'll do our post-[fest] meetings and we'll take information in from everywhere and tweak things for next year. That's how we do it."