San Francisco’s annual Noise Pop Festival is something both spectacular and unusual. Existing with the sole intention of celebrating independent music, film, and art over the span of a week, and featuring a plethora of concerts, films, industry talks, and gallery exhibits throughout San Francisco, it is as interesting as it is eclectic, and as intelligent as it is stimulating. Hands down one of California’s most important festivals, due if nothing else to Noise Pop’s dedication to independent music, the festival offers everything from seminars and conferences to unique opportunities for participants to engage in its flagship medium: indie rock ‘n’ roll.
Among the lineup this year were a range of indie artists that ranged from the legendary to those just getting started. Antony and the Johnsons, a curious blend of moody, cabaret-style, almost freak-folk somberness, moved even the toughest hearts when they kicked off the festival on Tuesday with a sold-out performance at the Nob Hill Masonic Center. The band’s rare brand of music is oddly narrative, and challenges social norms attributed to gender and sexuality; a perfect mix for a fest tied so closely to San Francisco’s soil.
Wednesday was the first full day of the festival and featured a gallery show filled with the art of independent musicians such as CocoRosie, Nate Manny (of Murder City Devils), and Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame), just to name a few. The film of the day was Ashes of American Flags, a doc that followed Wilco as they traveled through the South. In yet another part of the city, one could catch a talk on Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and why it’s arguably one of the greatest live recorded albums of all time.
And Wednesday’s performing artists were no less interesting. A legend in his own right, Stephen Malkmus played before a sold-out audience at the Great American Music Hall, while The Mountain Goats, Papercuts, Matt Costa, and French Kicks all played concurrent gigs around town.
Thursday’s lineup impressively included Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon), one of hip-hop’s darkest and most talented performers, who regularly works with San Fran dweller Dan the Automator (Dan Nakamura). Here, Keith presented a battle between two of his many aliases, Dr. Octagon and Dr. Doom. And while the concept of battling in hip-hop isn’t news, the almost schizophrenic clash of one man’s two identities is something too avant-garde not to appreciate.
And though the week proved exciting and engaging enough, the weekend quickly approached with an impressive lineup of talks and performances. The Morning Benders, who Santa Barbarans might have caught over the summer at UCSB, did a show Friday night at Slim’s where they co-headlined with The Submarines. The band rocked through their entire catalogue, with enough time for a cover of “Ceremony,” which they mistakenly cited to New Order. (The song was in fact originally written and performed by Joy Division.) And while that particular ditty wasn’t the quite right pitch for the Benders’ boy-faced frontman, the rest of their performance seemed well rehearsed and was notably executed.
Co-headlining Friday night’s show was husband and wife duo The Submarines, whose trip-hop-style beats paired with the vocal style of a feedback-loving Feist, made for a pleasant and likeable bill indeed. Highly commercial, The Submarine’s tunes can be heard in television advertisements, as well as television shows. Their track “Wake Up Song,” where husband John Dragonetti takes a turn on the vocals, is probably the pair’s most genuine. And while it was difficult to choose between the other shows that night (St. Vincent, Ra Ra Riot, and Port O’Brien), The Submarines with The Morning Benders was definitely a good choice. (And I learned that Slim’s even gives out free earplugs!)
Saturday presented sold-out performances from Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele, A.C. Newman, and Bob Mould. Mould, formerly of Sugar and Husker D¼, is in the midst of a heavy tour schedule indeed, and it’s not terribly surprising he’d pack a crowd at the very intimate Swedish American Music Hall. His new music is a little too reminiscent of some of the lesser enjoyable - and musically boring - parts of the late ‘90s, which is not only disappointing, but also surprising considering Mould’s age. Luckily, over at the Independent, Dent May could be found opening up for New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman, making for a much more creative and genuine evening. While May’s music is definitely humorous (his “College Town Boy” is a song about a guy who waits tables and drinks beer after college, all the while trying to find himself), it’s well written and original, sounding at times like early Beatles or Elvis Costello.
San Francisco audiences are difficult to decipher. They obviously want to go and see shows and will pay $15 to see May and Newman and up to $40 for Antony and the Johnsons. But they don’t sing along, they are reluctant to dance, and never seem as relaxed as crowds in other parts of the world. It’s an odd thing. That said, it was trying to decode their dance-less bodies and decide whether or not they were ever really enjoying what was going on around them. Still, certain moments were undeniably appreciated, like when May began his closing tune, “Meet Me in the Garden,” and even the most statue-like ticket holders seemed full of expression. The Independent was very professional about keeping things moving after May and his band finished up, and it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes before former Newman followed his violinist and bass player onto the venue’s stage, acoustic guitar in tow. Once Newman and his entourage were on stage, they set an excellent example of how a professional musician performs, delivering a notably polished and lively set.
The end result was a celebration of all things independent, and a shared appreciation for same. Although the music tended to have a poppier motif than it has in former years, closing with Les Savy Fav for example, it was still a remarkable and important production overall. And with any ounce of luck, 2010’s Noise Pop will be no less amazing.