Rock the halls: Not So Silent Night delivers rocksteady festival

Weezer On Stage At LIVE 105 Not So Silent Night 2017
Steve Jennings/Courtesy

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LIVE 105’s annual Not So Silent Night, or NSSN, is the most alternative way to ring in the holiday season. Yet, even though a good portion of the audience donned red Santa hats, the Christmas influence on the festival was otherwise dubious. Nonetheless, Oracle Arena was was far from silent, and the festival certainly succeeded in making spirits bright.

Friday

On night one, the arena came alive, uniting to the folksy-rock lineup. Teens in the Lumineers shirts sat with their parents in the stands while Portugal. The Man fans all but raved in the pit. This strange juxtaposition within the audience paralleled the lineup of Friday’s concert — while all the bands were within the indie-rock genre, the night was a rollercoaster, with fans going from screaming to waving their smartphone flashlights in the air and back again.

With most seats in Oracle Arena empty and the pit only a quarter full, the Cleveland band Welshly Arms opened the night with intensity, despite minimal audience engagement. For the rock-blues band incepted in 2013, playing an arena like Oracle Arena is a career-changing experience; both the audience and the band were filled with anticipation and struck by the importance of the night. A rock band at its core, the rich guitar trills and gritty vocals rang out through the stadium, with softer, bluesy beats slowing down the set.

After a quick intermission and awkward presentation by the LIVE 105 radio show hosts, Manchester Orchestra took the stage to continue the night. The most old-school rock band of the line-up, the Atlanta-based group was lackluster, with many audience members using its set to get another beer. Feeling this lack of engagement, the band seemed to shrink onstage, quickly losing steam. Its hit “The Gold” held the audience’s attention with its breathy harmonies and slow acoustic guitar. As the most folksy of Manchester Orchestra’s songs, it was clear that fans of the Lumineers latched onto the soulful rock, anticipating the headliner’s set. The band finished to scattered applause, with lead singer Andy Hull offstage before his dropped guitar hit the ground.

The high-pitched screams of teenage girls resonated through the stands as Vance Joy ran onstage, the camera panning to a girl in the front row with a sign — “This is my fifteenth Vance Joy Concert!” As the curly-haired Australian took the mic, it was clear he was in his element. Though the band played on behind him, Vance Joy was the focal point, both visually and aurally. Following Manchester Orchestra, his set slowed the show down, with his acoustic guitar and folksy harmonies ringing through the stadium. He debuted several songs off his upcoming album Nation of Two, before bringing it back to the basics with “Mess is Mine.”

Despite the large arena, Joy’s piercing vocals and quiet guitar strums still managed to fill the space. Switching guitars for every single song, Vance Joy brought the crowd to their feet with his catchy ukulele hit “Riptide,” his final performance before he and the band took a cute bow and made way for the next set.

In a line-up of folksy, bluesy rock, Portugal. The Man was the odd one out with respect to both genre and performance style. Following Vance Joy, whose entire set was brightly lit and welcomed audience engagement, Portugal. The Man proved to be the ukulele toter’s perfect foil. Opening their set with a blackout, the band began with an ambiguous voice sounding out with no visible body, deliciously disorienting. The first 15 seconds of each song were played this way, before the screen behind the band illuminated the stage with strange microscopic kaleidoscope visuals, backlighting the band in pink and blue hues. The animations soon morphed into humanoid, psychedelic, amorphous, almost erotic dancing beings, leaving the seated audience weirdly fixated on the screen. The dancing pit moved as one, with small puffs of illicit smoke emanating out with more frequency as the set progressed.

Slightly confused and put off, the audience was quiet, with the band’s vocal distortion and loud guitar riffs drowning out the vocals. Even chart-toppers such as “Feel It Still” and “Modern Jesus” were hardly distinguishable, overpowered by the echoing drums. But Portugal. The Man’s musical power isn’t its vocals. Though the rock group felt out of place in the lineup, its set was anything but mediocre. Uniting in an ominous allure, the band forced the audience to listen to the music rather than stare at their faces. They moved as one, electric guitar melding seamlessly with keyboard, punctuated brilliantly by soul-crushing drum solos. When the band left the stage, the complexity and perplexity of the performance left audience members wishing they were under the influence to fully appreciate it.

The Lumineers Photo Steve Jennings

Steve Jennings/Courtesy

The most anticipated set of the night, the Lumineers quickly brought the audience out of its confused, Portugal. The Man-induced funk. Obviously comfortable on the big stage, founder and lead singer Wesley Schultz’s long hair and wide-brimmed hat signaled the return of folk to the night, and his band did not disappoint. Playing its hits “Ophelia” and “Ho Hey” early in the set allowed the band to slow it down, creating a more personal and emotional atmosphere as the night progressed. Schultz used “Cleopatra” as an opportunity to speak about the important women in his life and the power of women’s voices; he dedicated “Charlie Boy,” a song about his uncle who died in Vietnam, to those who serve our country, noting the power of leaders’ voices and the power of those who stand up to them.

Personal anecdotes filled the set, transforming the large arena into an intimate venue, with the audience’s vocals joining nearly every song. Heartfelt choices by the band, such as a completely-improvised piano solo and a soulful accordion accompaniment, made the night even more magical. As confetti snow filled the air, the concert slowed to a close, with the Lumineers exiting to roaring applause, shouting “Thank you” at the crowd long after the last note faded.

Despite the sonic rollercoaster of Friday’s show, fans left the Oracle Arena content with their folk-rockish night, anticipation rising for Saturday’s sold out alt-rock show.

Saturday

Featuring one of Not So Silent Night’s best lineups to date, Saturday night was the hot ticket in town. Tickets to the night two of the festival quickly sold out, partially explained by its hosting of two headliners for the price of one — Weezer and the Killers. Weezer headlined the festival only two years ago and brought the same level of enthusiasm despite being NSSN’s penultimate band. The star-studded lineup, coupled with the impressive pyrotechnics of the show’s tail end, was a testament to the growing prestige of the festival overall.

As the opener for quite an impressive lineup, tremendous pressure rested on Alice Merton. With a voice comparable to that of Florence and the Machine, Merton succeeded in capturing the attention of the modest early-bird crowd. Her most popular song “No Roots” recently secured significant air time on LIVE 105’s radio station; it was clear from the audience’s reaction that it was a definite crowd favorite. The final song of her set, “No Roots” begins with an infectious low bass that Merton’s voice slowly builds upon. Merton herself seemed humbled and honored to open such a stacked lineup, revealing to the crowd, “This is probably the biggest stage we’ve ever played on.” While the audience that heard these words was far from the biggest of the night, Merton was still successful in setting the stage for the next band, Walk The Moon.

Chiefly well-known for upbeat, pop-influenced tracks such as “Anna Sun” and “Shut Up and Dance,” Walk The Moon subverted expectations with their opening number, immediately rocking into the aggressive hard-rock track, “Headphones.” A less-known song from the band’s new album was an unconventional way to start its set. However, this high-energy track undeniably allowed frontman Nicholas Petricca a chance to shine, with his eye-catching, rainbow jacket deeming him the night’s best-dressed. From his face covered in white paint to his impressive dance moves, Petricca utilized every inch of available space to his advantage; his passionate struts garnered enthusiastic cheers from the audience. Eclectic and enjoyable, Walk The Moon’s set overall was shorter than expected, a mystery later solved by NSSN’s next band, Foster the People.

Mark Foster thanked Walk the Moon towards the end of his set for letting his band have five extra minutes for set up. Why they needed these minutes was unclear, as their stage design was relatively reserved in comparison to the more elaborate stage constructions of NSSN’s tail end. A neon, handwritten sign prominently displaying their album Sacred Hearts Club hung behind the band. Yet, this sign could have been confusing unless one were familiar with the album name. Foster’s failure to introduce the band, or interact verbally with the audience until three songs into their set, further added to this potential confusion within the audience.

Foster The People On Stage At LIVE 105 Not So Silent Night 2017

Steve Jennings/Courtesy

That being said, Foster the People still put on an admirable set. “Don’t Stop” was a clear stand-out song, one the audience reacted to happily, their hands outstretched as they watched Foster’s energetic stage presence. Foster the People predictably ended their set with their anthemic “Pumped Up Kicks,” much to the crowd’s approval. The echoes of the last whistled note reverberated through the air, punctuated by applause.

Foster the People’s energy faded not long after their exit, ambient seagull calls taking its place as Weezer took the stage, enshrined in darkness. Diehard fans in the audience bustled with anticipation, knowing that these familiar sounds herald the start of “California Kids.” But in a beautiful bait-and-switch move, Weezer immediately brushed past the song into the opening chords of fan-favorite “Undone — The Sweater Song.” It was an unexpected move, considering the latter song’s popularity would have rendered it more fit as a set closer. Although frontman Rivers Cuomo commented that his voice was a little “fucked up,” the audience was far from modest about helping out. Hundreds of fans lended their voices in a deafening unison of sound. Weezer didn’t drop the energy from this high point — the rest of the set, save for a few exceptions, functioned almost as a “greatest hits” sample of Weezer’s discography.

True to the band’s very name, throngs of fans exhaled plumes of smoke into the air for the entirety of Weezer’s set. The humor of performing this illicit tribute during songs such as “Hash Pipe” was far from lost. Perhaps the greatest reaction generated by the crowd occured paradoxically during a song that was not Weezer’s own. To help promote their upcoming tour with the Pixies, the band rendered a cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind.” Cuomo’s interpretation was excellent, and the song itself flowed well with the rest of Weezer’s discography. When Weezer eventually emptied the stage, they did so to thunderous applause, leaving but one band left in the night — the Killers.

There was a great deal of suspense that built up before Saturday’s headlining band took the stage. Adding to this anticipation was the elaborate set design that the audience slowly watched the crew construct, its centerpiece being a massive Mars symbol of masculinity. Finally, Kevin Klein, one of LIVE 105’s morning show personalities, revealed that the “father of the Bay Area” was here to announce one of his favorite bands via megascreen. The crowd’s reaction to the man on the screen was mixed— there was some initial confusion in the audience, exemplified by one member of the crowd posing the question on everyone’s lips: “Is that Bob Saget?” It was. Performing at the UC Theatre that same evening, Saget took a brief moment before his own show to hurriedly announce the headliner of the evening.

The explanation behind the Mars symbol was provided by the Killers’ opening number. Funky, enthusiastic and upbeat, “The Man” succeeded in breaking the ice after a long intermissionary period. Helping this tremendously is the undeniable stage presence and appeal of frontman Brandon Flowers. Dressed the part of “the man” in a snazzy tailored jacket and slicked-back hair, Flowers oozed confidence with each note he crooned.

The Killers On Stage At LIVE 105 Not So Silent Night 2017

Rob Loud/Courtesy

Echoing this confidence, The Killers’ performance cemented itself as remarkable with its stunning pyrotechnics and special effects. From multiple confetti cannons, to a curtain of shimmering lights, to an elaborate web of lasers that oscillated above, the Killer’s set was visually stunning.

Flowers pulled the night’s second fake-out. The audience eagerly anticipated one of the band’s most famous tracks, “Mr. Brightside,” for the duration of the Killers’ set. Yet Flowers pretended the band’s set was over without performing the hit — an act of utter blasphemy. Flowers then told the audience, “Life can be tough sometimes. But sometimes, you get what you want,” before launching straight into the iconic lyrics, “Coming out of my cage.”

If one critique can be leveled against Not So Silent Night, it is that it’s not a festival where one goes to discover new music. Even bands that have albums released this year, such as Walk The Moon and Weezer, barely scratched the surface of their newer discography. Part of this may be because of the limiting nature of a festival structure, yet fan expectations undeniably play a role. However rewarding it may be to hear Flowers call out the memorized lyrics of “Mr. Brightside” or to head-bang to each high octane strum of “Undone — The Sweater Song,” it would be nice to give an opportunity for more upcoming bands in Not So Silent Night’s future endeavors — a strong New Year’s resolution for the festival.

Rebecca Gerny attended Night 1 on Friday, Dec. 8 and Sarah Alford attended Night 2 on Saturday, Dec. 9. 

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected]. Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].
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