Noise Pop: San Francisco’s premiere indie music festival celebrates its 20th year

Valentina Fung/Staff

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It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, Noise Pop was a small concert consisting of five bands playing in one venue. Unlike other festivals, like Outside Lands, that started out in the concert big leagues, Noise Pop has steadily grown from an unknown show to a city-spanning behemoth featuring over 100 acts. Whether you like to stick to the more traditional groups, such as Wye Oak, or want to engross yourself with the more obscure, such as Die Antwoord, Noise Pop has a band for almost every flavor of indie you can think of.

That’s not to say that Noise Pop is only for the unknown or underground. This year’s headliners included the ever-so-quirky Flaming Lips and the intense electronica/hard rock hybrid Sleigh Bells. Although the major label headliners caused multiple sold-out shows throughout the week, the real heart of Noise Pop comes from the numerous local bands that play throughout the festival’s six days. Established local favorites like Imperial Teen and The Dodos can be seen along with up-and-comers such as New Diplomat and Release the Sunbird, along with a plethora of other hometown heroes.

In addition to all of the shows, the festival once again included other eye-grabbers such as the various art showcases and the Pop-n-Shop designer fair. No matter what you attended — or what you will try out in the future — all the Noise Pop activities celebrated  the spirit of indie music.

Ian Birnam is the lead music critic.

Surfer Blood:

Anticipation mounted for the Florida natives as the gap between the previous set and theirs seemed to stretch for all of eternity (about thirty minutes). Voices grew louder, liquor puddled on the floors and there was a visible sense of passivity in the air as I tried to ascertain what was actually creating the suction on my cross trainers.

When the lo-fi indie quartet finally made their way to the stage, the crowd seemed re-energized. Opening with the “Floating Vibes,” the pounding first track off of their breakout first album Astro Coast, Surfer Blood had the crowd on their side.

Unfortunately, while their sound makes the transition to the stage quite well, closing your eyes and ignoring the stage was probably the best way to experience the show.

Front man John Paul Pitts’s energy carried the band for the entire set, keeping a small number of audience members from their conversations, their shouting and their cell phones. The rest of the band was incredibly stiff, particularly guitarist Thomas Fekete, whose navel-gazing picking was one the most self- satisfied displays The Independent will ever see, spawning countless zombie-like audience members.

In the end, after technical difficulties and a gratuitous amount of yet-to-be-released material, the band closed on a high note with “Swim.” Sadly, it was not enough to bring to life the newly undead trickling out of The Independent in search of Surfer Blood elsewhere.

— James Bell

 

The SHE’s:

As the first opener for Surfer Blood’s headlining set at The Independent, The SHE’S didn’t have a very big audience. Though, it didn’t seem like they truly wanted one at first. With an energy level that would mirror a number of bands to go on later, the small audience swayed back and forth to the beach-inspired ’50s/’60s pop-rock stylings of these four girls from the Bay Area out of acquiescence more than anything else.

Despite their initial lack of energy and uncomfortable demeanor, The SHE’S hit their stride mid-set, proving to be an astoundingly polished group (especially for girls who wouldn’t have been allowed into The Independent had they not been on stage or had extremely convincing fake IDs). They moved through their songs without a hitch and did their best to engage the audience members who were easily ten years their senior.

The band played the majority of the songs, if not all, from their impressive nine-track full-length debut, Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer. The harmonies on “Jimmy” and “Fabian” were pretty damn catchy, and the harder-hitting (for The SHE’S, anyway) “Running” was sonically charged enough to get some toes tapping.

All in all, though their lyrics could benefit from some versatility, The SHE’S worked their sound to its maximum appeal, and by the end of the set they had won over just about everyone in the place, delivering one of the strongest performances of the night.

— James Bell

 

Archer’s of Loaf:

The ’90s indie-rockers Archers of Loaf were three songs into their set at the Great American Music Hall when bassist Matt Gentling’s amp started rattling with an overdose of reverb. Silence filled the air as angsty middle-aged fans relived a bit of the teenage anxiety reminiscent of the days when they had first listened to the group. Being the first reunion tour since the band’s breakup in 1998, you could feel the pressure mounting from the fans’ cringing case of indie-nostalgic-blueballs — would there be the urgently needed happy ending?

Taking a note from our dear friend the honey badger, Gentling just played through the face-melting reverb — he just didn’t give a shit.  They jumped back into the set with their eardrum-kicking single “Wrong,” where both guitars played scraggly garage melodies punched out with aggressive rhythmic speed. Frontman Eric Bachmann sang each line with a newfound mature voice that had aged like a good whiskey.

Archers of Loaf showed they still had their signature explosive intensity when performing their classic “You and Me”. The song started with a minimalist bass line and  gentler, more youthful cries of Bachmann singing “I’ve been so down lately/You’ve been so low lately.”  A beat later, Bachmann screamed the line with his ripened growl as  a cataclysmic blast of dueling guitar arpeggio’s seared through the crowd — and just then the audience collectively experienced the first Archers of Loaf eargasm they’d had in 13 years. Somebody grab a towel.

— Daniel Means

 

Craig Finn:

After listening to the slow acoustics of Clear Heart Full Eyes, the latest solo album from The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, you’d expect his live performance to be akin to the guitar-wielding crooner you saw at last Wednesday’s open mic night. Instead he swaggered into Bottom of the Hill armed with his Texan band, Some Guns, making it clear that tonight he’d be kicking ass and takin’ down names.

Finn played spur-rattlin’ tunes that’d be enough to get Clint Eastwood back on the horse to ride off into one last cinematic sunset. Finn’s folksy brand of Americana came with rhythmic strums of muted guitar strings,  slow and solemn cymbal-heavy percussion and an omnipresent slide guitar. While performing “Western Pier” Finn, accompanied by the tumbleweed-rolling twangs of the slide guitar, shouted the line “I don’t even know what’s east of here!” inciting an American wanderlust in the crowd of San Franciscan urbanites.

Finn’s a natural storyteller that just so happens to have a guitar strapped over his shoulder. The man doesn’t sing so much as he palpitates with overwhelming energy until he’s shaken loose all his deepest sentiments that come pouring out into the mic. It’s  not the story that’s important so much as the way Finn spits out each tale — delivering every line with an emphatic energy so contagious that you’d have to be a brick to not relate to him. On stage, Craig Finn’s a small-time prophet who chooses to speak the truth about the little things in life.

— Daniel Means

 

The Dodos:

Anyone who has played music before knows that playing a piece quietly is significantly more difficult than shredding a blustering, upbeat jam. Sunday night at the Great American Musical Hall, Meric Long and Logan Kroeber of The Dodos awed the crowd with their  mastery of soft-loud dynamics, and did so with unassuming ease. The Dodos — who used to play with xylophones, vibraphones and, at Noise Pop 2010, even a modular symphony orchestra — brought Noise Pop 2012’s extensive five-day festival to a close with a refreshingly simple and effortless drum and guitar performance.

Long and Kroeber barely looked at each other the entire night, but accompanied each other exactly and smoothly through countless syncopations and tempo changes. Kroeber played an unconventional drum kit without a bass drum, and was able to produce rich, deep beats nonetheless — especially when he opted to play on the rims, creating a satisfyingly organic sound. The best part about Long’s performance was how entirely he gave himself to the mercy of his instrument in order to produce the precise tones that he wanted. Long crouched down close to his guitar, curving his back — nearly folding his body in half — and it seemed as though nothing else in the world mattered at the moment except for his finger tips and strings.

Less is truly more for The Dodos, and their departure from indie-pop to indie-rock may be a disappointment for some fans, but is a change that better showcases their undeniable musical talents.

— Soojin Chang

 

Cannons and Clouds:

Except for few exceptional instances, openers are not expected to be too spectacular. On Sunday night at the Great American Music Hall, the usual expectations sank to an all-time low. The most disappointing band was Cannons and Clouds, a six person indie-rock ensemble from San Francisco — and it was because obvious musical talents were compromised by an inability to come together as a band.

Their sound was a second-rate version of the louder songs of Explosions in the Sky mixed with the heavier metal tracks of Aerosmith — and the experience of listening to them was just as unsettling and displacing as that description. There were times when the sound worked, but these fleeting moments were mostly due to lead singer, whose voice was so milky and crisp that it could probably make a grown man cry.  Amid the blurry chaos, the harp helped create a layer of calm precision in this otherwise adrenaline-packed and scattered performance.

Their best songs were calmer and less experimental, although their unique take on psych-folk was an interesting surprise. But the resonance was destroyed as soon as the volume escalated, as each band member would go off on their own mini-solos instead of accompanying each other.

The fact that Cannons and Clouds includes an array of different performance styles is great, but a more conscientious awareness of how they sound as a whole will help create a more enjoyable live performance.

— Soojin Chang