Photo Credit: Brian Hensley Photography
It’s not every day you find someone who has been writing a music blog for 4+ years but who doesn’t go to live music performances. The author of this blog is just that person. However, a couple of weeks ago I attended the Big Guava Festival in Tampa, and because I enjoyed it, I’m going to share my thoughts.
Banks is an electronic/pop artist who is something like a cross between Lorde and trip-hop. Her vocals are haunting, her beats are captivating, and if you ignore the mostly-teenage girl audience, her music feels very mature. A good example is This Is What It Feels Like. It rises and falls slowly, like gentle waves, and it doesn’t have the “bounciness” that characterizes textbook pop music. I had only heard one of her songs before the festival, but I had listened quite a bit to FKA Twigs, and for those who like one, I’d expect them to like the other. They’re both part of this trend toward chill, dark-sounding pop music.
To many people (as Passion Pit is extremely well-known), it may seem odd that I’ve listed them as a pleasant surprise. However, going into the show, I had anticipated a performance dictated by the type of music they were playing – light, upbeat, and sugary. However, it turns out that when you crank the volume up on that so-called “light” music, it becomes nothing short of explosive. I’ll Be Alright is the one I remember best, and hearing the intro you can imagine what it must have been like at full blast. I was quite impressed with the whole show, and they definitely got the crowd going better than most of the bands at the festival.
I’ll put it like this: I forgot to fasten my seatbelt before I got on Reptar’s wild ride. Let me try to enumerate what I experienced: wild dancing, percussion out the ass, a brass section, a headbanging, batshit keyboardist, and a bona fide jam band disguised behind an “indie pop” genre tag. I have no more words: just watch this live performance of No One Will Ever Love You to get an idea of what they’re like WITHOUT a crowd.
That I would like James Blake was not a surprise. I’ve listened to all of Blake’s albums several times. What surprised me was actually what an engaging show he put on. It would have been easy for a downtempo artist with introspective music like Blake to just come out and press play on iTunes. However, he had a band, he recorded his parts live into a loop station, and he got the crowd moving. This was another show where the high levels of bass really caught my attention. It is certainly not as obvious on the album.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness
The path I took to emo music was circuitous, so long story short, I had never heard of Andrew McMahon. I had never listened to Jack’s Mannequin or Something Corporate, because when I finally started listening to emo music, I bypassed its pop-punk/piano-rock cousins. McMahon is a good musician and performer, and I really enjoyed his show. Ironically, the song I enjoyed most was his cover of Dark Blue from his Jack’s Mannequin days. If you take it as a pop-punk song, it is quite exemplary, and unfortunately I felt that it blew his newer material (which is still more or less the same genre) out of the water.
I was not sure what to expect from AWOLNATION. I had, of course, only heard Sail, but I was under the impression that his songs had some variety to them. Indeed, I was startled to find that AWOLNATION was just about the heaviest band at the entire festival, with some of his tracks bordering on sludge metal. It’s an attribute of his music that is not immediately obvious when listening to his more popular songs. Hollow Moon has a bit of it, if you keep in mind that his band uses an actual bass guitar and electric guitar — not a synth. Dreamers is another one. Moreover, the lead singer of AWOLNATION, Aaron Bruno, was quite energetic and fun to watch. The reason I am ambivalent is because I just didn’t actually enjoy that many of their songs. When you get over the shock of the loudness and the electric guitars, it’s just a bit too poppy for me.
Death from Above 1979
I was vaguely aware of these guys prior to the festival. They’re a two man group consisting of a bassist and a drummer, and they put together pretty hard-hitting “dance-punk” tracks with just the two of them. They had a lot of energy and stage presence, and I enjoyed the show, but at the same time all their tracks started to blend together for me. Virgins is a solid summary of their sound.
These guys had some good songs and some boring songs. The times they went into that full post-rock “wall of sound” mode were quite satisfying, but I would argue that is to be expected from any post-rock band. I did not find that they had much to add to that genre or indie rock in general.
Hip-hop does not strike me as the most entertaining genre to hear live, and Bronson did not change my mind on that. Maybe if I had been in the pit, I would have felt differently. As it stands, he rapped his lines, his hype man threw in some backup vocals, he brought in some other rappers to do a few verses, and I got to hear my favorite Action Bronson song, Strictly 4 My Jeeps, live. Bronson is a fun guy. I know he’s a fun guy. I’ve seen his videos, I’ve seen some of his interviews, and I’ve seen him raid a retirement home. However, his enthusiasm was at about half-tank at this show.
Allow me to introduce my preexisting biases: The Strokes are nothing to me. I don’t listen to their music, I’m only moderately aware of who they are (I actually thought they were British). A majority of the music I listen to falls under the umbrella of rock music. All that out of the way, their show was very boring, and their music was very boring. It was repetitive and monotonous, beyond a few catchy riffs. The band has a massive fanbase, but I do not see the appeal of textbook rock and roll in this day and age.
The lesson learned from this is that going to an EDM show and not dancing is a recipe for boredom. Certainly not news to any EDM fans. Enough said.
TV on the Radio
Their last.fm tags include “Experimental”. I don’t see it. I had the same problem with them as I did with The Strokes. It was just standard rock music to me, and I got bored.
Fitting with the theme of disappointing artists, I found their song selection to be uninspiring. I had no desire to listen to their music upon walking away from the show, but I decided to listen to it again anyway because I was writing this blog. Surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly, as they are a very new band), the recorded material is a step above the live-performed variant. They’ve got a legit post-punk sound on tracks like Contagious and Back To Your Love. It wasn’t obvious to me live, but now they seem to me to be an 80’s throwback band, not unlike CHVRCHES. In fact, I like them more than CHVRCHES.
So, what is the damage assessment? Three electronic artists in the positive, three rock bands in the negative, with a hodgepodge of other artists in between. That isn’t the sentiment I thought I would be walking away from the festival with, and it is worth considering.
Maybe electronic artists are cheating by producing dancier music — I disagree, given the generally “pop” song-structuring of the rock groups present. Maybe the fact that I knew the electronic artists ahead of time swayed my judgment — perhaps, and I intend to go to some shows specifically to see rock bands I like in order to find out what the truth is. Maybe electronic music benefits from being able to bring the bass lower and the treble higher, and being able to express sounds that aren’t strictly possible on normal instruments. Something to think about.
For my part, I liked the festival enough to be looking for more, and I aim to be back next year.