The first installment of SoundTown Music Festival in Somerset, WI, had a lot riding on the shoulders of 2,500 attendees. The new management of the former Float-Rite Park Amphitheater tried to revamp the arena’s image after years of Ozzfest-induced damage to the grounds and its reputation in the town of Somerset. And what better way to do it than to bring in beloved local bands with a Flaming Lips cherry on top? Granted, it’s not quite the same when a 40,000-person amphitheater is about five percent full, but who notices when you’re in the front row reaching for Wayne Coyne?
Only 30 miles from the Twin Cities, SoundTown presents a feasible music festival option for Midwesterners who are expensive plane tickets away from live music hotbeds like Oregon, California, Austin, TX (which is practically a state), and New York. Though attendance was so sparse the ticket-sellers slashed prices from $50 per day to $25 in the week before the event and at times I felt ashamed of my Minneapolis brethren for not coming (only 30 miles? For 25 dollars?) to see The New Pornographers and Okkervil River, I kind of enjoyed feeling like an intrepid festival tastemaker.
They’re already planning the lineup for SoundTown 2012. I’m hopeful but skeptical that listeners will suddenly realize that SoundTown is a bargain. As Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit said, “We’re halfway between Minneapolis and Madison, two of our best rock and roll audiences on earth.” If the bands are already halfway there, surely Midwest music fans can do the same, especially when you can still tube down the Apple River and eat Foxy Falafel all in the same day!
Friday, August 19th
Rustpocket – Summit Stage – 2:00 p.m.
Rustpocket was one of two bands to win Metromix Twin Cities’ SoundTown Showdown, and even though I arrived late to a tent with almost no one in it, I was impressed. “We’re the first band ever to play SoundTown!” they proudly proclaimed before advertising “free CDs for sale.” I can’t say I see Rustpocket breaking into the tight-knit Minneapolis music scene, but with their expertly executed shredding and anthemic choruses, I have no doubt they’ll succeed.
Charlie Parr – Metromix Stage – 2:30 p.m.
For a 12-string guitarist who plays with as much technical ability as guitar greats Leo Kottke and John Fahey, Charlie Parr had a remarkably diminutive stage presence. His between-song banter included a story about him and his son playing mini-golf after getting lost driving to SoundTown. He captivated the lawn-sitters and riled up the line dancers with old favorites like “Where You Gonna Be (When the Good Lord Calls You Home)”.
Zoo Animal – Summit Stage – 3:00 p.m.
One of several logistical problems at SoundTown was that the Metromix and Summit stages were far too close together. In order for a musician on one stage to be heard, the artist on the other stage had to end their set early. After Parr finished, everyone headed over to see Zoo Animal. Terse, irreverent singer and guitarist Holly Newson introduced the band with “We’re getting a little antsy, so we’re going to start with new material,” which they did for the majority of their short set. The band eschews religious labels even though Newsom writes many, if not all, her songs about her relationship with God. As always, Newsom transfixed with her stage fervor, thrashing and tossing her hair, and abruptly ran offstage after their last song.
Farewell Milwaukee – Metromix Stage – 3:45 p.m.
Once the thunderous applause for Zoo Animal died down, everyone trooped back over to the Metromix Stage to see six-piece Americana band Farewell Milwaukee (a seemingly popular local band name, with others like Farewell Continental and the Farewell Circuit). Their brand of country light, with low harmonies and plenty of acoustic guitar, didn’t particularly stand out from the other local acts; nonetheless, they played skillfully and the band’s set was perfect for a sunny afternoon on the grass before the rest of the action-packed day took off.
Apollo Cobra – Summit Stage – 4:15 p.m.
When I noticed that guy wearing the “I Fucking Love Kittens” t-shirt, I should have known he would be the frontman of ’80s hair metal dance band Apollo Cobra. Their outlandishly sexy set—which definitely sampled some riffs from “Heart of Glass”—sounded slightly out of place with the sun still up, but it entertained with funky bass lines and lyrics like “dance like a motherfucker.” And as the bassist sings, if “there’s a beat I like and a girl I like, let’s dance to this!” So I did.
Jeff Ray and the Stakes – 5:00 p.m.
“I know these assholes, and they’re really good.” That’s how Minneapolis folk/blues/country band Jeff Ray and the Stakes were introduced. With a harmonica, an acoustic steel slide guitar, what looked like a bongo, not to mention more traditional guitar and bass, they were truly “really good.” If there’s one thing Minnesota does well—some might say surprisingly well—it’s old-school blues. Unfortunately, I saw hardly any of their set because I wanted to make it over to Cory Chisel on the Main Stage.
Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons – Main Stage – 5:00 p.m.
I didn’t have high hopes for alt-country golden boy Cory Chisel after seeing his latest album, Death Won’t Send a Letter, in the discard bin at my radio station. But the native Wisconsinite, who cited Charlie Parr as an influence and grew up in North Minneapolis, charmed me. The stage’s security guard must have felt the same, because he brought Chisel a beer during new song “Guiding Star”. Even before Chisel dedicated the song to the burly, trucker-moustachioed man, his husky voice and the Wandering Sons’ dexterous playing would have been enough (for the many vocal female fans surrounding me, it was). The five-piece sounded much more soulful live than recorded, especially their song “Born Again”. The audience persuaded Chisel to perform the acoustic, gospel-like “These Four Walls”, a pitch-perfect end to SoundTown’s first main act.
More Than Lights – Summit Stage – 6:00 p.m.
More Than Lights is another band I initially had (still do, really) a difficult time getting my ears around, even though their orchestral, spoken-word hip-hop is beloved in the Twin Cities. On their first song, the band sang, not sampled, the choruses of Sublime’s “What I Got” and “Best of My Love” by The Emotions. Though they were sung with heart, I didn’t buy it. Local guest vocalist Alicia Steele stole the show with her throaty warbling and sassy dance moves. While other Summit and Metromix artists curtailed their sets to give their neighboring stage a chance to be heard, More Than Lights played until the end, which meant I had to miss local folk collective Roe Family Singers to catch Delta Spirit.
Delta Spirit – Main Stage – 6:45 p.m.
“Yeah! Somerset, Wisconsin!” Matt Vasquez yelled as he took the stage, good-naturedly mocking the sparse but enthusiastic audience. Without much further ado, Delta Spirit ripped through “Bushwick Blues” before Vasquez continued, “To be honest with you, I smoked pot today! It was great! God bless America!” The caliber of the performance and the band’s onstage banter reminded me why I’ve been wanting to see them for so long. Delta Spirit played a tight, raucous set, screaming and shredding like there was no tomorrow. Vasquez threw his guitar into the air after “Ransom Man”, letting it hit the stage on the third time; and guitarist Will (I know that because Vasquez coerced, and tuned, the audience into singing “Happy Birthday” to him) played a tambourine attached to a trash can lid for “Trashcan”. Delta Spirit played a new song, “Tear It Up”, and encored by covering country standard “Doin’ My Time” after singing the opening “Na, na na na na” salvo to classic football fight songs.
Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers – Metromix Stage – 7:45 p.m.
I only caught a hot minute of Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers’ set before leaving to see Sims at the adjacent Summit Stage (which turned out to be moot, because he was 20 minutes late. I’m guessing it’s because he wanted to give the Cat Swingers a chance to be heard.) The local, mostly ragtime, occasionally baroque blues-folk group incorporate a washboard and ukelele for an old-timey listening experience.
Sims – Summit Stage – 8:00 p.m.
I was looking forward to seeing Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree member Andrew Sims, aka Sims, as a solo act, since he released his latest record, Bad Time Zoo, to critical acclaim this past spring. Usually, he performs with the rest of the Doomtree crew, but this SoundTown performance served as a preview for his Good Time Zoo tour later this fall. With DJ and beatmaker Lazerbeak as his accompaniment, Sims started his set seemingly nervous, taking a while getting started and showing off his “dance moves.” He gained momentum as the set continued, playing newer songs “Bad Time Zoo” and “The Veldt” interspersed with older material. Unsurprisingly, the politically-minded rapper took a dig at Michele Bachmann, earning a unanimous roar of approval from the audience.
Ghostland Observatory – Main Stage – 8:45 p.m.
Ghostland Observatory was pretty much everything I thought it would be: earth-quaking bass and the best laser show I’ve ever seen (well, except for The Flaming Lips’ light show extravaganza, but we’ll get to that tomorrow). All their songs blended together into one long DJ set by Thomas Ross Turner, who donned a Count Dracula-like Chilean flag as a cape; but you could discern songs like “No Place for Me”, “Miracles”, and “Codename Rondo”. The lasers really peaked on the last song, starting and stopping, trance-like, with the spoken melody and the chorus’s repeated command to “listen.” Subtleties like the softer, funky ‘80s synth lines and Aaron Behrens’ vibrating falsetto were lost in migraine and/or seizure-inducing sonic and visual effects. Physically and mentally, I was forced to take a break before their set ended.
Roma di Luna – Summit Stage – 10:00 p.m.
Right before local darlings Roma di Luna took the stage, I found out that this show would be the group’s last performance. As soon as lead vocalist Channy Casselle took the stage without her husband, Alex, with whom she fronted the band, it slowly dawned on me why they were breaking up. Roma di Luna was understandably melancholy, eschewing their new, more upbeat material for old songs like “Plenty” off their debut, Find Your Way Home. Even though they are disbanding, Roma di Luna did debut a new song they’re “working on” called “Too Real”. Before the New Pornographers’ opening song drowned out Roma di Luna—I felt slightly guilty leaving for the Main Stage after Casselle said, “Now you won’t be able to hear us anymore”—her arrestingly creamy, round voice reminded rapt Minneapolitans how much we’ll miss her. That is, until we hear her recently announced new project, Polica.
The New Pornographers – Main Stage – 10:30 p.m.
A.C. Newman’s curmudgeonly stage banter and a noticeably absent Neko Case detracted from the New Pornographers’ usually effervescent pop. Don’t get me wrong. Songs like “The Laws Have Changed” and “Your Hands Together” still put a grin on my face (including Case substitute Kathryn Calder’s whistling, which I later realized may have been lip-synching), and the songs still sounded practically giddy live. It just felt like the New Pornographers were simply going through the motions. Granted, it’s not like the audience made things easy. After being pelted with glow sticks, Newman asked the audience how much they cost and said, “Let’s consume. Consume and prosper!” And then he brought up Minnesota versus Wisconsin, which I’m willing to bet contributed to the early mass exodus. Too bad everyone missed “The Bleeding Heart Show”, a highlight not even wayward glow sticks or age-old rivalries could diminish.
Saturday, August 20th
New Century Masters – Summit Stage – 12:45 p.m.
The New Century Masters’ jangly, guitar-and-keyboard-driven surf-pop was a great way to salvage an initially frustrating day that began stuck behind a lift bridge somewhere between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Despite the terrifically sunburned keyboardist not feeling well, New Century Masters played their first set with gusto anyway and ended by covering Syd Barret because, as the band said, “Who doesn’t love covers?”
Ghostmouth – Metromix Stage – 1:00 p.m.
Ghostmouth’s extensive sound check began even before New Century Masters went on, beginning each stage’s attempt to drown the other out. The other band that won the Metromix SoundTown Showdown, Ghostmouth adorned their stage with jack-o’-lanterns and their songs with fat bass lines and quick-fingered builds. Despite the band’s impressive technical ability, they didn’t play with as much enthusiasm as Rustpocket, who were clearly stoked to be one of the bands picked to play at SoundTown.
Phantom Tails – Summit Stage – 1:30 p.m.
One of my favorite local bands, Phantom Tails plays self-proclaimed “Deep Space Doom Funk,” which consists of hard, gritty synthesizers and drum machine beats backing vocalist Orion Treon’s jagged voice. They performed a few songs off their upcoming album but mostly stuck to their debut, Sounds of the Hunchback Whale. When they played dance-y headbanger “Oven of Romance”, the audience whooped its approval, to Treon’s pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, the technician pulled the plug on Phantom Tails to give The Ericksons a chance to be heard.
The Ericksons – Metromix Stage – 2:00 p.m.
Even though both Summit and Metromix amped their sound in the tacit war between bands wanting to be heard, there was no way the soft, folk-y Ericksons would have been heard with another band playing in the background. Backed by a drummer, two sisters harmonized symbiotically and played electric and acoustic guitars. Though they cite the Pretenders as one of their influences, The Ericksons’ music hews closer to what it would sound like if Gillian Welch fronted Mountain Man.
Arms Akimbo – Summit Stage – 2:30 p.m.
The Arms Akimbo underwent a sonic rebirth after band member Nick Shaser returned from London and brought back an obsession with Britpop standards. Besides the uncanny Oneders resemblance on “You Want To”, you could hear a Clash-like brusqueness on “The Kids Still Love Us” and, obviously, when they covered The Beatles.
Solid Gold – Main Stage – 3:00 p.m.
Solid Gold remain one of those bands who have managed to successfully ride the coattails of their first full-length for several years—Bodies of Water, in addition to side projects like Gayngs and The Jah-hawks, a Jayhawks dub cover band—and they never fail to deliver live. Even playing during broad daylight, they coolly—with the exception of Zach Coulter rocking out on the guitar and his daughter, Birdie, who made an appearance grinning from ear to ear during the last song—grooved to signature, electronic, bedroom dance tracks like “Get Over It” and “Neon Rose”. In addition, they opened with the second Beatles cover of the day, “Norwegian Wood” (which also appears on Minnesota Beatles Project Volume 2). They also debuted some new songs like “Eat Your Young” from their forthcoming as-yet-untitled sophomore effort.
Joey Ryan and the Inks – Metromix Stage – 3:30 p.m.
I was surprised to see that Inks namesake Joey Ryan is also, apparently, the bassist for New Century Masters (although that’s how the Great Minnesota Music Collective works, I suppose). Even more surprising was that his wedding ring was conspicuously absent now that he was the center of attention as the lead vocalist. The band played mostly new material off Dennis Lane and closed with Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, owning the song’s high harmonies that fit in naturally with the Inks’ signature sound.
White Light Riot – Summit Stage – 4:15 p.m.
Despite their drummer suffering technical difficulties, White Light Riot surged through their soaring, epic rock and roll. Their minor chord-driven walls of noise sounded like Kings of Leon mixed with Colplay, which made for a compelling set even if all their songs sounded similar. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough staying power to keep me from Slick Rick (to be fair, not much could keep me from “La Di Da Di” and Doug E. Fresh).
Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh – Main Stage – 4:30 p.m.
A DJ began Slick Rick’s set with “Okay, this is hip-hop. Let’s go,” before “going back to hip-hop 101” with a mashup of the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey”, “Be Faithful” by Brassman Scoop, and Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”. Slick Rick’s extensive backing band took the stage before he arrived and did, in fact, perform “La Di Da Di”, “Mona Lisa”, and other classic samples to amp the audience. Before he began, Slick Rick admitted, “Sometimes I like the new school better than the old school.” Doug E. Fresh canceled at the last minute, so Slick Rick extended his set before quietly disappearing from the stage and leaving a rendition of Talib Kweli’s “Get By” in the hands of a guest rapper and his capable backup singers. In Doug E. Fresh’s stead, an as-yet-unnamed but supposedly 19-year-old preternaturally talented beatboxer—“I’d like to see him go up against Heatbox,” I overheard someone say after his uncanny imitation of Ginuwine’s “Pony”—performed between Slick Rick’s set and Okkervil River.
Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers – Metromix Stage – 5:00 p.m.
To prepare for Okkervil River, I headed back over to the other side of the festival grounds to listen to roots-y local band Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers. Maher, whose quietly commanding stage presence and voice resembled Bonnie Raitt, played slight, reverberating country tunes. “Aw, thank you,” she said repeatedly to an audience trickling in from the Main Stage, who lay supine on the sunny lawn before rousing themselves for barroom rockers White Iron Band on the Summit Stage.
White Iron Band – Summit Stage – 5:45 p.m.
With songs like “Whiskey River” and “Minnesota Song”, White Iron Band is from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota and proud of it, rocking out in cowboy hats and Carhartt overalls. “On the way down here, we stopped by the bar and drank some beers at 10:30, took some shots at noon, and now here we are.” The band’s brawling, boot-stompin’ drinking songs catered to an audience that already seemed to know all the words.
Pert’ Near Sandstone – Metromix Stage – 6:30 p.m.
With White Iron Band still creating a line-dancing mosh pit at the Summit Stage, lightning-fast, ragtime fiddlers Pert’ Near Sandstone had to wait until it was over to begin their set. Since they started at the same time as Okkervil River, I only had time to see their tap dancer practice his clogging moves before heading over to the Main Stage.
Okkervil River – Main Stage – 6:30 p.m.
“It’s an honor to be sharing a stage with Slick Rick,” singer Will Sheff said after Okkervil River’s opening waltz, “Wake and Be Fine”, off their spring release, I Am Very Far. With one reverb-heavy microphone and one regular one, Sheff faithfully rendered his tortured tenor in songs like “For Real”. The rest of the band, including world-class shredder, lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo, played an energetic but somewhat scattered set. The lack of focus made sense when Sheff removed his sunglasses and bassist Zach Thomas admitted he was a little high. Nonetheless, Okkervil River lived up to their proclamation of “Let’s fuck it up!” by riffing emphatically on “Rider” and “Black”. Before closing with “Lost Coastlines”, they covered the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B”, which sounded even more sea shanty-like than the original.
Pink Mink – Summit Stage – 7:45 p.m.
After winning Minneapolis weekly City Pages’ coveted, critic-bestowed Picked 2 Click award last summer, grungy, female-fronted, punk rock quartet Pink Mink had gotten even better since the last time I saw them. With fast and furious time signatures and lyrics like “heavy metal cupcake / I’ll slap your handshake,” they more than held their own in hot-pink tights and sequined shift dresses. As I left the stage to catch DeVotchKa, Pink Mink finished with a Replacements cover, sending the already headbanging audience into a frenzy behind me.
DeVotchKa – Main Stage – 8:15 p.m.
In my humble opinion, DeVotchKa was the best act at SoundTown. Despite fearing a contact high from people lighting up all around me before The Flaming Lips, I continued to be amazed by Nick Urata’s pliant vibrato and whistling skills. The band’s deep understanding and creative interpretation of klezmer, Flamenco, and gypsy folk captivated this hardened journalist, who also definitely teared up during the opening bars of “How It Ends”. And then, DeVotchKa nailed an ominous, psychedelic “Venus in Furs”, which, like Okkervil River’s “Sloop John B”, seriously rivaled its original. By the time Urata threw his bottle of red wine up in the air and it splashed all over the stage, I could have gone home happy.
Heiruspecs – Summit Stage – 9:30 p.m.
Like Pink Mink, Saint Paul hip-hop group Heiruspecs were much better at this time of night than when I saw them during a daytime showcase in the spring. They, too, incorporated human beat box Muad’dib into a set that eschewed samples in favor of vocalist Felix’s old-school lyrics and flow. They roused Summit Stage’s biggest audience with tracks like “Get Up” and “I Know”, even though Twinkie Jiggles and his upright bass have been replaced with another electric bassist. Despite the band’s dynamic performance and the tent’s dedicated response, everyone emptied out during the last song to get ready for The Flaming Lips.
The Flaming Lips – Main Stage – 10:15 p.m.
Even 24 hours later, I still don’t know where to begin. The Flaming Lips‘ Wayne Coyne emerged with the rest of his band from a screen that flashed, at different points, a glowing, naked lady smashing a high-hat; eyeballs; animal mouths; and a live feed of Coyne himself. He climbed into his giant, inflatable bubble and rolled around on top of the audience. Smoke, confetti, and dust rained down on everyone; there were giant, inflatable aliens and butterflies and about 50 Dorothy look-alikes throwing their bodies around onstage. That’s in addition to a 10-minute laser show and a giant gong that lit up when Coyne struck it. As some other esteemed music publications have said, you really should see The Flaming Lips before you die.
They did not play The Soft Bulletin, opting instead for opening with grungy psych-rocker “Worm Mountain” off Embryonic, followed by arguably their first hit “She Don’t Use Jelly”. After more songs from Embryonic including “See the Leaves” and “The Ego’s Last Stand”, Coyne led the audience in an acoustic sing-along of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1”. And, yes, since this was the sixth live show the band has played, The Flaming Lips indulged the audience with some Dark Side of the Moon.
I must say, while I respect Wayne Coyne as a musician, genius, and semi-deity, I don’t appreciate his attitude. My enjoyment of The Flaming Lips experience was seriously curtailed by Coyne’s incessant hyping. “Come on, you fuckers! Comeoncomeoncomeon! It’s Saturday night! We have a giant, inflatable alien onstage. Isn’t that enough for you? We came all the way out here to play for you! Come on, motherfuckers!” punctuated his stage banter and even interrupted what would otherwise have been a stirring rendition of “Do You Realize?”. I left the show satiated but disgruntled. (That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to see The Flaming Lips again.)