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.
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.
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
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.
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.