Music  |  Features

SoCo Music Experience: San Diego

August 25, 2008  |  1:43pm
2SoCo_Common.jpgWith multi-day musical bonanzas like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Bumbershoot and godfather/standard-bearer South by Southwest using massive budgets and marquee status to lure the bands of their choosing and, subsequently, hordes of music fans, single-day city festivals heavy on local acts are often seen as also-rans in the eyes of aural addicts. But the SoCo Music Experience's latest stop in San Diego, Calif., proves that's not always true.

The "experience" pays homage to the city festival by offering a spotlight for notable locals, but has the national-tour format (and large sponsors) to involve larger acts at no cost to attendees (save a five-buck voluntary donation to support local music). San Diego's leg featured Saul Williams, The Black Keys and Common, playing over cornhole games and a menu-full of Southern Comfort cocktails. 


The local stage was highlighted by San Diegans The Burning of Rome, Buddy Akai and The Silent Comedy. The Burning of Rome leans toward gypsy punk, rife with keys, rasping vocals and animated onstage antics. More cohesive instrumental and slightly less growling might hone the band's act enough to grow beyond its SoCal base. Buddy Akai does its take on DJ-inspired rock, a la LCD Soundsystem but with less percussion, bearing an inclination toward anthemic pop, a tenuous line between laudatory and lame that bands like the Killers have done a commendable job of walking. Likely the most promising among the local bands was The Silent Comedy, whose name invokes early 20th-century zeitgeist, as did the group's stage clothing, which neared zoot suits, looking like a tattered big band section of a 1920s speakeasy. The band's folk-pop sound offered briefs nods to moonshine-soaked Appalachia, but stuck mostly to palatable anywhere rock, buoyed by a bevy of guitars, bass and violin.


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Grand Ole Party was an apropos segue, kicking off the main-stage acts. A San Diego-based trio, GOP has quickly emerged over the last two years. The band's toured with Rilo Kiley last fall (and its Humanimals was produced by Rilo's Blake Sennett), and it debuted on MTV2 the night it played SCMX, as singer-drummer Kristin Gundred somewhat reluctantly announced. Front and center on the skins, Gundred's voice recalled Grace Slick with a rockabilly edge, referenced by heavy snare and kick on the drums. The band collectively wanders in and out of these two realms, psychedelic guitar versus California punk-billy, but it would do well to stick to the former, as guitarist John Paul Labno does impressive interpretations of '60s-era six-string and bassist Mike Krechnyak looks the part.


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In stark contrast to GOP's rock was the main stage follow-up, Saul Williams (AKA: Niggy Tardust). As is his form, Williams offered up beat poetry and industrial hip-hop with a masquerade in tow. His keyboard player donned a vampiric cloak, his guitarist took flight in a silver space suit and his DJ sported red shoulder pads and shin guards, looking like the bastard offspring of Mad Max and Woodstock's brown acid. Williams himself was glittered with gold, sporting blue face paint and a white feather dress as a mohawk running across his scalp. But there's method to that madness. "Race is a social construct,'' he said, one of his clearer beat lines versus the oft-muddled screaming lyrics of his alt-rap. That line, along with his prevailing message of human unanimity, suggested his day-glo neo-Native American contrasted a pre-stratified America with today's unfettered ability to express subversive ideas.


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As twilight broke, so did the silence of the main stage's 30-minute intermission, when the Moneterry, Mexico natives Kinky showed that you can be influenced by ranchero music without sounding like Mexican polka. To be sure, Kinky are ranchero on speed. The band blends traditional Mexican bass and accordion elements into an otherworldly hybrid of electronica, funk, rock and post-punk, tinkering with genres as uninhibitedly as My Morning Jacket. The Elvis Costello lookalike who occasionally played the accordion managed to make the squeezebox sound like a synth beat, and just as often jumped behind the keys to, in fact, create a synth beat. All the while, bass player Cesar Pliego kicked across the stage, stogie hanging from his mouth, 10-gallon hat brimming over his stomping boot.


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After Kinky left the stage, the crowd, already doubling nearly every hour from the onset of the festival, doubled itself once more for The Black Keys. The Keys' soulful blues rock makes it hard to believe they're from Akron, Ohio, thinking the Mississippi delta itself must've spawned them. Dan Auerbach's voice projecting from a Gandalfian beard doesn't exactly sound like the hairy white guy from the midwest that he is, and live, his guitar doesn't exactly sound like it's just one person playing. And that's probably the most impressive part. He incessantly pedals his way through most songs, diving into guitar-bending riffs, while Patrick Carney slaps the skins double time to match the pace. It's like the percussion talent of the Whigs' Julian Dorio and the guitar virtuosity of Luther Dickinson packed into one band. There's little flexibilty for theatric showmanship when you're a two-piece, but when you play rock and roll like The Black Keys, skipping around the stage isn't really a necessity.


The headliner of the show, Common, certainly packed in the most guests, but his brand of hip-hop largely underwhelmed in a live setting. His samples are courageous (including the Cheer's theme and Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover") and his lyrics mature. His better efforts, which are certainly good, are in his cultural examination, which has been increasingly neglected in hip-hop over the last decade.


But he also needs stronger hooks. One of his better studio moments in that regard, "Announcement," features Pharrell to fill that role. But the N.E.R.D. whiz wasn't in attendance, and neither was the hook. That was the theme of otherwise decent hip-hop, resulting in a low-energy set. To compensate, Common leaned on his newly embraced acting chops to dramatize and stylize a few songs, as well as crowd interaction, serenading a female festival-goer on stage. His best performance was a three-minute freestyle dedicated to San Diego that was smart enough to prove he can write good songs and coax a crowd; he just needs to be more consistent in doing so.


All told, for a total of nine hours of live music, cheap burritos and drinks that are as refreshing as they are intoxicating, you could find much worse ways to spend a $5 donation.


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The SoCo Music Experience next heads to Madison, Wis. on Sept. 6. Featured artists at that stop include GZA, The Black Keys, The Roots and more.

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