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Deluna Fest Day 1 review: Weezer, Matt and Kim, Trombone Shorty light up Pensacola Beach

15

October

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In front of the main stage at the 2011 DeLuna Fest is a chasm of a pit filled with VIPs and media, separating the band from most of the audience by a good 30 feet.

It took Rivers Cuomo all of two songs to bridge the divide.

The Weezer frontman hopped from the stage early in his band’s headlining set on Day 1 of the DeLuna music festival in Pensacola Beach, then climbed not one but two barricades, high-fiving fans all the way, and clambered to the top of a sandy dune to give many fans the best view they’d had all day.

And why not? The opening day of DeLuna Fest was blessed with good vibes all day – easygoing crowds, relaxed and accessible performers and spectacularly cloudless weather on the Gulf of Mexico’s northern rim. If you were bummed about the last-minute loss of Sunday headliner Linkin Park, Friday’s festivities likely went a long way toward easing your pain.

The DeLuna Fest layout couldn’t be simpler – or more crowd-friendly (that is, if you can somehow manage to find a parking spot). There are two stages directly on Pensacola Beach and three more, plus an array of food stands and vendor tents, in a chain of waterfront hotel parking lots. Part of you wonders, “Well, gee, why couldn’t we do this on OUR corner of the Gulf of Mexico? Then you realize all the string-pulling that must have gone on behind the scenes to get all the hotels to agree to cooperate and coordinate on this one event, and you realize what a miracle it is that this event is happening ANYWHERE in America, much less on prime Florida waterfront real estate.

Outdoor events are always a gamble anywhere in Florida, but it’s tough to imagine better weather for an event like this than what we got on Friday. Fans throughout the festival grounds were dressed in beach attire, and there was plenty of room for all.

“What a beautiful day,” Ra Ra Riot singer Wes Miles said from the stage early in the day. “It’s one of those days that you don’t anticipate being so special.”

Friday’s lineup was loaded with alternative and indie rock favorites (Cold War Kids, Cake, AWOLNATION), with some funk and party music (Girl Talk, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, A-Trak) thrown in to mix it up. Among the early highlights: Brooklyn indie-rock duo Matt and Kim, who beamed ear to ear while tossing dozens of multicolored balloons into the frenzied crowd; and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, fresh off their opening-night headlining slot at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, who proved they’re the best funk, soul and hip-hop collective since the Roots. (More on both of them in a minute.)

Though crowds were slow to arrive early in the day, they all showed up for the biggest name on the bill: Weezer.

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Less than a week after the death of former bassist Mikey Welsh, Weezer performed as a five-piece, with drummer Patrick Wilson joining Brian Bell guitar and alt-rock drummer extraordinaire Josh Freese on the skins.

And then there’s Rivers, who’s an adorable hobbit of a man, with those Peggy Sue specs and largely expressionless face. But his sojourn up the beach and through the crowd (I can now cross “high-five Rivers Cuomo during a Weezer concert” off my bucket list) during the appropriately named Troublemaker revealed his fun side, too. When he returned, he was wearing some fan’s sombrero, and he revealed he’d somehow suffered a cut pinkie.

Did this mean a cancellation? Nope. Cuomo jumps straight into Undone (The Sweater Song), explains his predicament during the intro, then has a roadie race onstage to bandage him up during the bridge. To borrow a lyric from El Scorcho: How cool is that?

Cool is not a label normally ascribed to Weezer, a band built on a foundation of music for nerdy outcasts, by nerdy outcasts. And Rivers didn’t do himself any favors when he later traded his new sombrero for a black 10-gallon cowboy hat (shades of the Red Album cover … yeesh). But plenty of Weezer’s best songs – including a few of their newer ones – have retained all the bite of the Blue Album and Pinkerton. Blue’s My Name Is Jonas is as explosive as ever, while Raditude’s (If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To and Hurley’s Memories are testaments to the band’s gift for Cheap Trick-style arena power pop.

The band played two covers, and both were awesome, yet still a little awkward. During Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks, Cuomo lugged around a lyric sheet onstage; apparently karaoke technology is just beyond his grasp. Then again, Cuomo could have used a lyric sheet during Radiohead’s Paranoid Android; just before the electric breakdown, he came in a few bars too early … with the wrong verse. Oh well.

But glitches like that only serve to endear Weezer fanboys to their bespectacled Jesus – and when he deigned to bring the house down with Say It Ain’t So or the night-capping Buddy Holly, the beach turned into a massive orgy of catharsis. Yeah, all the cool kids are out at the beach, listening to rock music! Who looks like Mary Tyler Moore NOW?

Ooh-wee-ooh, we all do, too. Only now, we also have a suntan.

***

There was so much phenomenal music on the opening day of DeLuna Fest 2011, we almost don’t know where to begin. So let’s start with our second-favorite set of the day (behind Weezer): Matt and Kim.

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Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino are normally all about having a POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE, but we agreed with Schifino’s one complaint about the festival setup: It’s really, really, really hard to race from one stage to the next when you’re speed-walking on powder-fine sand. No one looks good doing this. Brooklyn Decker would not look good doing this. End of story.

Aside from that, Matt and Kim were their usual ebullient selves, singing, dancing and bouncing all over the stage with grins tattooed from ear to ear. They told the audience they were just in Pensacola, on this very beach, just a few weeks ago, during a day off from a tour, and they were stung by jellyfish. BUT THAT’S OKAY! EVERYTHING’S OKAY WHEN YOU’RE MATT AND/OR KIM! EVERYTHING’S AMAZING!

The duo spliced snippets of classic high-energy party songs into their set: Apache, The Final Countdown, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Just A Friend, and the Dr. Dre and Ed Lover dance song, which I did not know until this very moment is called The 900 Number, by The 45 King.

Matt and Kim were so furiously into the music they kept shaking the stage – SHAKING THE STAGE, PEOPLE – and stagehands had to keep running out to fix their mic stands and drum kit. All the while, Matt and Kim were asking the audience to play along in their reindeer games. First Kim threw dozens of flaccid balloons into the crowd and asked the crowd to blow them up and bat them around, which they did.

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Then she wanted them to take off their shirts and whip them around like Willow Smith’s hair, and they did that too. Then she wanted to walk on the crowd, so she hopped down and started surfing on fans’ hands. If Matt and Kim started a cult, I’m not saying I’d join, but I’d certainly leaf through a pamphlet.

As the sun set behind them, and balloons and beach balls flew in front of them, the band launched into their biggest hit, Daylight, and all, it seemed, was right with the world.

Matt and Kim should tour with Andrew W.K. This would almost certainly solve all the world’s problems.

***

“We need to put some funk on y’all right now!” hollered Troy Andrews, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, before launching into On Your Way Down.

If funk is what’s called for, there are few men better equipped to deliver it than Trombone Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue.

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A night after kicking off the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Trombone Shorty brought his soulful voice and Stevie Ray Vaughan-like prowess on the trombone and trumpet to Pensacola, showing all the indie hipsters in the crowd that sometimes it gets no better than simple Gulf Coast funk.

But there’s not much that’s simple about Trombone Shorty’s music, not with the man’s circular breathing that enables hip to maintain Gatling gun-like trills for minutes at a time. They also played the nastiest, funkiest cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom that you’ve ever heard.

We’ve said before that Trombone Shorty is one of the great frontmen in all of music. Now we’ll say this: Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue are the new Roots, a genre-defying soul/jazz/hip-hop collective capable of blowing your mind with just about anything they do.

***

Cold War Kids came on second to last on the mainstage, right before Weezer.

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Nathan Willett has a come-to-Jesus wail in the mold of Jack White that still sounds as good as it did on Robbers & Cowards (which, now that we think about it, sounds like it could be the name of a Jack White record). Hang Me Out To Dry and Hospital Beds are splendid bursts of gravelly rock, gospelly vocals and off-kilter rhythms. They also busted out a cover of Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is – it was only the second time they’d played it, following the previous night in Atlanta.

Cold War Kids feel like they should be America’s answer to something. Had a few things broken differently here or there, Cold War Kids could have been Kings of Leon. But they’re not. Too bad.

***

Girl Talk should probably be booked in advance to close every festival from here on out.

The DJ and mashup artist also known as Gregg Gillis is a regular at Bonnaroo, and he feasts on the energy of sweaty, shirtless dudes and dudettes at the end of a long, rockin’ day. Sure, we saw him at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg in May, but Girl Talk at a festival is like Girl Talk on Heisenberg-grade crystal: Unpredictable and impossible to contain.

Surrounded by a stage full of headdress-wearing, TP-shooting hipsters, Gillis did his usual jazzercise-class-leader routine, hopping from side to side, to the east, to the west, to the north, to the south. Fans devoured a few of Girl Talk’s unkillable party-starters (like the Black Sabbath/Ludacris crusher Oh No and the Miley Cyrus/M.O.P. joint That’s Right), and also a few I wasn’t familiar with (oh, look, it’s that Modest Mouse/Busta Rhymes mashup I've been praying for).

It’s ironic that a nontraditional DJ like Girl Talk was playing the massive Wind Creek stage on the beach, while one of the most traditional DJs around, A-Trak, was playing the much smaller Grooveshark stage. A-Track is a world-class turntablist and hip-hop DJ, yet he spliced in plenty of hipster-approved dance music (Daft Punk’s Robot Rock, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Heads Will Roll), all with his signature cuts and scratches. Girl Talk may be catnip to the festival masses, but A-Trak doesn’t need to worry about losing club gigs to the kid from Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, as all this was going on, Rehab performed on the faraway Gulf Winds Jazz and Heritage Stage. A group of mostly chunky, mostly white Southern-rock rappers in the vein of Bubba Sparxxx, they’re actually much better than that terrible description, and they deserved a bigger crowd than they got. Shoot, they’re the first rap group I’ve ever seen who had their own sign-language interpreter. Now THAT’S a guy I want on my charades team.

***

A-Trak and Girl Talk wasn’t the only conflict involving the Grooveshark and Wind Creek stages. Those two were the closest of any of DeLuna’s five stages, and with one being so much larger than the other, noise spillovers were inevitable.

Early in the afternoon, as AWOLNATION was reigning noise down on the Wind Creek stage, Kentucky’s Sleeper Agent found themselves nearly drowned out between songs.

“Is that Limp Bizkit?” mused singer-guitarist Tony Smith, glancing. “Hollywood Undead?”

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Sleeper Agent (who are performing at 97X Next Big Thing in December) made up for it, though, with a furious finale to their mid-afternoon set. Smith and Karen O-like co-lead singer Alex Kandel ventured into the crowd during their final song. Keyboardist Scott Gardner did them one better, taking a full-on header off the stage and into a railing. It looked for a second like he might be down for the count, but he hopped up and started tambourining like a madman. Ah, youth.

Not failing as well with the Grooveshark curse were Stars, a Montreal indie pop collective playing a rare show in Florida during the same hour that Cake was on the other stage. (Though I give bassist Evan Cranley credit for the line of the night: “Can I get a little more Cake in my monitor, please?”)

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Though I love Stars’ albums, and admired their elaborate rose-covered stage, I struggled with this set. I think it had mostly to do with the vocal mix – singers Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, who both sing in breathy whispers, were at times nearly inaudible on their mics. The brooding Campbell and casually dreamy Millan cooed to one another like we weren’t even in the room. In a club, this would be an issue; at a huge festival like DeLuna, it’s a disaster. The dreamy ballad Your Ex-Lover Is Dead was so soft, so delicate, that Cake was clearly audible to all in the crowd.

“We should play Florida more,” said Millan. “Maybe we’d get on the big fancy stage if we did.” I hope so, and I hope they crank the volume accordingly.

That said, once Stars found their raison d’etre, it was worth all the hassle. Ageless Beauty and Fixed pulsed with energy, and the fantastic Elevator Love Letter exceeded fans’ expectations. One might say it went straight to the top floor! (But one won’t.)

Also of note: Amy Millan wins for Best Shoes of the Day.

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***

Best Shoes runner-up: Aaron Bruno of the aforementioned AWOLNATION.

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Best known for their blues/pop/dubstep/metal/all-around weirdball hit Sail, AWOLNATION (another Next Big Thing band) is doing their best to turn fans’ expectations on their heads. Frontman/mastermind Bruno said he “sounded like James Hetfield” when he greeted the crowd, though if the Metallica frontman has ever worn crimson moccasins, we’ve yet to see the proof.

Bruno’s ragged punk vocals on tracks like Burn It Down and Not Your Fault, not to mention his half-time beats and proggish synths and keyboards, belied those songs’ inherent pop sensibilities. But on other songs, he’d pull back the beat for a second, then let it drop like a superstar dubstep DJ. The man has a sense of what it takes to be a successful electronic artist, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, AWOLNATION didn’t close with Sail. Not only that, but Bruno didn’t even stay onstage during the entire song – he left during the instrumental solos to chill and have a drink offstage. Odd. But maybe he was building up energy for the closer, when he hopped on the drums and banged out his own percussive outro.

Now that’s DIY – Drumming It Yourself.

***

Syracuse, N.Y.’s Ra Ra Riot was another one of my must-sees on this year’s bill.

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Last year’s The Orchard is arguably a one-note record – that note being “easy-listening Arcade Fire” – but man, Ra Ra Riot do it so freaking beautifully. The bouncy chamber pop of songs like Shadowcasting and Too Dramatic meshed surprisingly well with the bright sunshine overhead. And opener Too Too Too Fast used punchy synths to take the crowd's mind off the day's only real sizzling portion.

Bookish-looking singer Wes Miles possesses a glorious warble that skips gleefully up and down the high end of the male vocal register, and the group’s strings and percussion created an energy that made each song feel more propulsive than the last.

Totally dug Rebecca Zeller’s bedazzled violin, too. Tres sparkly.

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More than once, Miles reminded the crowd to “stay hydrated.” Thanks for looking out for us, Wes!

***

Caught snippets of a few other sets:

-- Early in the afternoon, Brookly’s scruffy Blackbells offered foot-stomping, hell-raising Southern grunge with a hint of outlaw country. They played to a sparse crowd, but hey, that’ll happen when you go on 7-1/2 hours before Weezer. (As it turns out, I ended up standing next to them during Weezer. They were all 110 percent into the show.)

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-- Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s are another Tampa Bay favorite, thanks to spacey indie jams with a hint of Midwestern earthiness. The Indianapolis sextet blends strings, organs and slide guitars and Richard Edwards’ strung-out voice is a perfect delivery system for the forlorn drunkenness of Skeleton Key.

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-- Electro-pop duo The Limousines channeled party-starters like Ghostland Observatory with their simple yet funky setup, and the result was just fly enough for a couple of white guys. The best part: iPad-wielding DJ/producer Giovanni Giusti dressed like Mike D in the (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) video.

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-- Lafayette, La.’s Givers dazzled on the hard-to-reach gopensacola.com stage, riling up a gaggle of shirtless hippie kids with psychedelic harmonies, trippy guitars and electric tribal rhythms. Do-it-all singer Tiffany Lamson also played guitar, ukulele and her own drum kit; while singer-guitarist Taylor Guarisco managed to find a comfortable common ground between Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective.

***

Finally, a personal highlight of the night: As I was racing across the length of the festival grounds, trying to get from Stars to Weezer in time, guess what band was playing which song?

Cake. The Distance. Priceless.

-- Review/photos by Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 6:09pm]

    

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