African music, both traditional and contemporary, seems to be having a moment this summer in New York City. Artists like Oumou Sanger, Rokia Traore, Asa, Amadou and Mariam, and Tinariwen have enlightened ears with stunning cultural cadences. And this past week while ivy leaguers Vampire Weekend emulated West African guitars for rain-soaked teens at All Points West, virtuosos Béla Fleck and Toumani Diabaté played to a decidedly more traditional, and erudite, crowd. They came not only for the hour of acoustic duets between Fleck’s banjo and Diabaté’s kora, but also to view Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary (directed by Fleck’s half-brother Sascha Paladino) about Fleck’s 2005 journey to Africa tracing the banjo’s musical roots.
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On the third day, Wanderlust rocked. The Sunday line-up offered a tasty array of alternative bands that generally seemed pleased to perform in such a beautiful and natural setting. The sun shone more mercifully than it had on the previous day at the mountainous Squaw Value resort near Lake Tahoe, and the gorgeous weather helped lift everyone’s spirits.
The Honey Brothers opened the Sunday activities around 12:30 pm with a mix of everything from goofy ukulele and banjo pop tunes to more serious, angular electric guitar-based music. The acting fame of drummer Adrian Grenier (HBO’s Entourage) drew many people to attend the day’s first show, but the band transcended its novelty act status through the strength of its performance.
The combination of silly songs and powerful rock kept the crowd intrigued, especially when ex-Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer joined the group on a wacked out performance of Queen’s “We are the Champions”. Palmer loudly reached for notes she couldn’t quite hit but wouldn’t stop trying to in a pretense of desperation as the band smiled and played.
Palmer’s solo set provided the highlight of the festival. She sang many of her best known compositions, including “Coin-Operated Boy” and “House That I Grew Up In”, as well as inspired covers. She opened with a simple and lovely version of Bright Eyes’ “Lua”, and accompanied herself on ukulele while her keyboards went through emergency repair. She later offered a stately version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that showcased the grand melodrama of the lyrics and piano music.
Palmer engaged the crowd with between song patter as well as introducing her material to those who might not be familiar with her work. She commented on the pleasure of playing in front of a mountain and told stories about what she had been up to lately, which lead to a discussion of Comic-Con and Neil Gaiman. She and Gaiman had recently collaborated on a project, and she sang a somewhat bawdy tune they had written together. She ended her set in Pete Townsend like fashion by smashing her bench across the keyboards.
Maybe the problem was following such an incredible talent, or maybe it was because the band’s cellist didn’t make the plane, but the Mates of State who followed Palmer seemed to phone in its performance. Many in the crowd dispersed to get beers, go swimming in the nearby pond, or just grab some shade during the band’s set. The energy level quickly rose when Broken Social Scene hit the stage. Even before the band officially started playing, singer/guitarist Kevin Drew warned the crowd that, “This is gonna be a punk rock show.” The band rocked on all cylinders.
Singer Lisa Lobsinger joined the collective for several tunes, including a hot version of “Fire-Eyed Boy”. However, it was Drew that remained the center of attention. He told the crowd to engage in “scream therapy” and said, “It’s wonderful therapy, just like yoga” and counted to three to be hit by a loud cry in response. The yoga practitioners in the crowd weren’t sure if he was being ironic, but were caught up in the frenzy and joined in. He sincerely told the audience, “Be careful. Be safe. Fight for your right to celebrate and don’t let anyone take it away from you,” before launching into the closing number.
The strange stylings of Andrew Bird came next as he looped himself playing instruments and whistling, and then sang to the rhythms. Bird was burdened by the fact that much of his equipment did not arrive and he had to borrow stuff from Kaki King, Rogue Wave, and Broken Social Scene. In a way, this helped his performance as he became more improvisational and fed on the positive vibrations from the crowd.
Bird performed splendid acoustic fiddle and vocal versions of Delta bluesman Charley Patton’s “Some of These Days” and the old spiritual “Churnin’ Burnin’”. Bird earnestly told the audience, “This is one of the nicest festivals I have ever played,” and it was clear he was sincere.
The Austin band Spoon closed the festival, but rather than mellow out the crowd, the group got everybody re-energized. Spoon played recent favorites, such as “Isla Forever” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb” as if the group were performing in a sweaty, Texas club on a Saturday night instead of a beautiful retreat in the mountains on an early Sunday evening.
The quartet also offered a fast and hard version of Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River”. The band turned the sad and lonesome tune into a battle cry against the forces that drive one into insomnia and despair. As the show ended, Spoon promised to return again next year if band was invited because the landscape and the audience were so wonderful. As is usually the case when people are having a good time, no one wanted the show to end. The crowd slowly left the venue and descended the mountain with satisfied smiles.
The cofounders of the Wanderlust Festival organized the event as half music/half yoga, and attendees could buy tickets for one part or the other or both. But it does seem that Jeff Krasno and Schuyler Grant may have been more interested in the yoga than the music. The duo sponsored a meet and greet with the press during Kaki King’s set and hyped the 800-person yoga class being taught when Rogue Wave performed. The organizers also sponsored an organic gourmet dinner during Jenny Lewis’s set. Yoga adherents may have been willing to skip Lewis to feed their bodies, but music lovers would choose the redheaded songstress.
Unlike Friday, to see the music Saturday one had to take the Funitel to the Gold Coast Stage, which is well over 8,000 feet high. The 15-minute ride through the mountains in a gondola made me feel like I was going to some important destination, rather than a sandy, shadeless area with a nice view.
The steady groove of jam rock band Big Light opened the afternoon festivities to a small, but appreciative crowd at 12:30pm as the temperature began to climb into the 90s. Groups of people steadily arrived from the lifts so that by the time Kaki King played, there were large pockets of crowds dotted across the dusty basin. King, shredding her electric guitar as part of a power trio offered the most controversial and funny statements of the day, “I’ll be a hippie, but I’m not doing that barefoot dancing thing. I won’t drink the moldy water. I’m not gonna do yoga, unless you can convince me, and that would be like convincing me there is a god. I don’t think so. I guess I’ve just offended half the audience.” Some, in agreement cheered, but the reaction was mostly silent from the crowd that loudly clapped for her music.
Rogue Wave followed with their dreamy alternative indie pop and claimed to be locals because of their Oakland, CA roots. The band pandered to the yoga followers (“Namaste, that’s Yoga 101, right people,” the lead singer earnestly said. The electricity level of the crowd jumped when Gillian Welch took the stage. I overheard several people say that this was who they came for most.
David Rawlings accompanied her on guitar as the two performed a litany of her best known songs, including “Miss Ohio”, “Talking Today About Elvis”, “Time (the Revelator)”, and others. Welch, with a pale white complexion and a sleeveless, summer weight robin’s egg blue dress, played both guitar and banjo and remarked how the audience were “my people” because they cheered when she picked up her banjo. Welch offered no comments about the yoga going on, and cheered the people twirling hula hoops to mantra-like rhythms as if they were dancing to her tunes, which they were in a way.
Jenny Lewis joined Rawlings and Welch on “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”, which Welch wrote and sang with Emmylou Harris and Allison Krauss on the O Brother Where Art Thou movie soundtrack. The sweet harmonies generated a fevered response, that didn’t end even when Rawlings and Welch left the stage after a rollicking version of the country duet, “Jackson”.
Jenny Lewis was backed by a crack five-piece ensemble that also joined her for a five-part harmony on the song “Acid Tongue”. But the focus was always on the diminuitive lead singer whose small height belied her significant stature on the stage. Lewis took turns jumping and dancing besides singing and playing guitar and organ. She also conversed with the crowd. “Who’s your favorite Beatle,” she asked. She then added, “I’m in the George camp. I think he wrote this,” and then she played the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care,” a song in which Harrison plays guitar and sings, but is most associated with Tom Petty.
Lewis joked about the yoga present. “I went up in a gondola with a bunch of people doing ‘Downward Dog’ and it was a little creepy, sexually strange if you know what I mean.” Lewis and her band mostly played tracks from her two recent solo albums, including “Born Secular” which addresses religious issues first hand in a somewhat critical manner.
The musical highlights for me ended with Lewis, but not for many in the crowd who seemed to be there for mindless body movements, which isn’t all that different from doing yoga exercises. Common, replacing a sick Michael Franti, led the audience in exuberant call and response rap with steamy overtones.
For many, the biggest highlight was DJ Girl Talk, who inspired people to dance along with snippets of tunes like, Tag Team’s “Whoomp, There it is”, Van Halen’s “Jump”. and Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs”. The stage show used some sort of strange toilet paper blower, multi-colored confetti and oversized balls to generate excitement. The TP may have been better used elsewhere, considering the sausage grinder like quality of the dance music.
It’s impossible to be a casual Veils fan. Once you hear the sense of desperation inherent within Finn Andrews’ vocals, you’re hooked. Unlike many bands in this modern age, The Veils have no air of pretense or sense of even standard performance. It’s purer than that and much more human. It’s undeniable that The Veils are capable of composing songs that fit within an indie rock genre with remarkably memorable guitar rifts and the lovely bass playing by Sophia Burn. This is tremendously apparent in songs like “Three Sisters”, “Calliope!”, and “The Letter”. However, it’s the utter raw vulnerability of Finn Andrews that comes out more than anything when you see the band live.
Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy Entertainment and the director of the original New Music Seminar, arranged a redux of the legendary event on July 21st, 2009 to usher in, acknowledge, and anticipate the new forms that the music industry is taking. Silverman’s opening remarks set an implicit tone for the day: The drastic changes that the New Music Seminar would address didn’t just apply to the music business. He did offer many startling statistics about record sales, but he focused not just on comparing 2009 to the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and ‘90s, but also on the year 2012. Why 2012? Partially, because according to a Mayan prophecy, that’s when the world is ending. Throughout the talk, Silvermen called upon legends, wisdom, and philosophies that seemed to be of much greater global significance than just record sales. Perhaps the heaviness comes from the fact that although things have gotten bad, Silverman’s charts suggested that there’s still room for the business to get worse. That being said, there’s plenty of room for the individual artist to make things better.
Silverman’s goal seemed to be both to instruct and inspire. Just as it wasn’t entirely clear whether citing the Mayan prophecy was mostly in jest, he also added a layer of seriousness by constantly intermittently quoting President Barack Obama. He repeated, “we are the ones we have been waiting for” a few times, with the intent of empowering the artist and encouraging musicians to stop looking to labels for help. Additionally, it was made clear throughout the day that the way the artist gets empowered is by listening to the fans. Of course, that concept is the staple of social media, and it’s a trend that is pervading society as a whole. In fact, it’s the reason why Barack Obama was so successful: He made every person in the country feel like they mattered, and as a result, they rallied behind him in unprecedented numbers.
Musicians need to follow this same trend, because it is the fans who make or break them, and it is the job of music professionals to interpret the data correctly, explained keynote speaker Courtney Holt, president of MySpace. For example, counting the number of times a song gets put on a playlist that a user shares with friends is far more important. The exhibits in the foyer served to affirm this attitude. It’s sharing that matters. It is networks that matters. Fans ultimately decide what other potential fans should hear.
Exhibits at the booths outside the auditorium exemplified this angle. One table was manned by Owngig.com, a site where fans can actually submit requests for artists to do shows. If enough interest generates, the site works with the artist to plan a show. Naturally, it is not a one-sided endeavor: Artists are expected and encouraged to promote themselves through owngig.com as well, and rally the support they need from fans.
One of the sponsors of the event was ourstage.com, a seemingly more involved version of MySpace, where artists upload music and videos and fans get to rank them. Channels are created based on popularity and when artists get popular, they enter the finals, aiming to win prizes that include money, slots at concerts, and even good publicity from hot media outlets. It is created to be an entirely egalitarian, almost socialist, method of helping bands and artists gain exposure and possibly even fame. In the cases of both sites, fans are competing for popularity and success as much as the artists are. The playing field has truly been leveled in an unprecedented way: Both fans and artists are mutually using each other for different types of credibility and recognition.
And of course, that leads us back to the truth which is that no matter how the industry works, talent gets recognized, and there are more people who wish they had talent than people who actually have it. The audience at this event was largely dominated by hopeful musicians and producers looking to network, or just be recognized. Question and answer sessions after each panel were dominated by those determined to shout their own name, plug their next show, or grasp for exposure of their company. Unfortunately, these questions seemed to deviate from the integrity of the panel, and gently remind everyone, as one speaker pointed out, that you can’t “make” something go viral and there are more musicians trying to make it than ever will. The difference now is that all the music is available and everyone can produce an album. That means that in an already suffering industry, there are more alarming statistics than one can shake a drum stick at. Namely, 80 percent of artists are selling less than 100 albums, but that seems to be because over 400,000 records are being made each year.
There is a silver lining to this dark cloud, and it is that artists who sell less than 10,000 albums have seen much less of a plummet in sales than bigger artists. That means that if the small scale independent artists truly makes use of Web 3.0 tools, there is a still a chance of success. As explained in the “Fourth Movement,” your live show and tour, “you’re not descending from the clouds, you’re on Twitter.” Twitter won’t make you good, but if you’re good and you don’t need to be the next Justin Timberlake, it will give you a chance of growing. Hard work and humility dominate. Or as panelist Martin Atkins explained, “If you know that you’re fucked, you’re not. And if you think that you’re not fucked, you are.” Not only wise, but probably Tweet-worthy as well.