Sweetlife Festival: 11 May 2013 – Washington DC

Ah, summer festival season. The smell of Banana Boat and elusive marijuana smoke in the air, the unsettling sight of progressively younger tweens baring progressively more flesh every year until I feel like a pervert even clicking over to Ticketmaster, the comforting—in the way the eventual assurance of death is comforting—weight of a twelve-dollar plate of frozen chicken fingers and grease-sodden fries mooring somewhere near my lower intestine. What better way to spend a paycheck than making a few thousand new friends under the hazy glow of heat exhaustion and Heineken Light?

Washington, DC’s Sweetlife Festival does things a bit differently. Founded by local healthy-fast-food-isn’t-an-oxymoron chain Sweetgreen in 2007, Sweetlife works with a festival manifesto for the 21st century. Rather than fill a desert or city park with mounds of hot dog wrappers and cigarette butts, the festival promises recycling and compost. Instead of bringing a city’s worth of pollution to a gorge or beach, it promises to be carbon neutral. Instead of the typical faceless vendors providing various grease-delivery systems for lunch and dinner, it partners with local businesses and food trucks to bring top quality meals to Merriweather Post Pavilion. The idea, in other words, is great. The execution I’d need to see for myself.

Merriweather Post Pavilion, if you’ve never been, was designed by Frank Gehry and may be the nicest amphitheater this side of Red Rocks. Plenty of green space and actual trees, a sense of flow to the layout of the different drinks and food tents, and a side-stage well insulated from the main stage. MPP makes sense as a host venue for an environmentally friendly enterprise like Sweetlife. Anyone who grew up going to festivals on the endless sun-blasted expanses of pavement that pass for most large concert venues should give Sweetlife’s organizers a round of applause.

Still, the sun. My companion and I slathered on sunscreen and elbowed through the pierced-and-jorted teens to make it to the main stage right in time for Solange’s opening set. I caught Beyonce’s little sis at the a small club called The Black Cat a few months back, and I felt like I was watching a star. On the big stage at Merriweather, Solange delivered an even bigger performance, dancing in step with her band, dancing by herself, telling the audience to dance, basically being a topnotch Ambassador of Dance. Her material—and the shorter set worked to her advantage here, likely forcing her to focus on her newer, edgier songs—hewed close to her True EP, and her voice and backing band were crystalline sharp. As I watched her, I wondered whether Solange exists in a sort of paradox: most of the crowd was likely there because of her last name, sure, but wouldn’t she get more critical love if she didn’t have the world’s biggest pop star as a sister? Either way, she’s a brilliant performer and seems totally unencumbered by Beyonce’s shadow onstage.

After Solange, we were more excited about edible stimulation than aural. Good news: Sweetlife wasn’t kidding about bringing gourmet taste to compete with MPP’s usual array of flash-fried fare. Food trucks offered anything from Sweetgreen’s healthy salads to falafel to celeb chef José Andrés’s always-awesome snacks. Rows and rows of kiosks from craft brewers saw long lines but infinitely better choices than the typical amphitheater swill. We opted for Toki Underground, DC’s famous—and famously packed—Ramen house, headed by chef Erik Bruner-Yang. The line was short, and the food was incredible. Chicken ramen, oyster pancakes, banh mi, assorted skewered meats—we sampled all of them while enjoying Haerts’s new wave revivalism in the shade of the Treehouse Stage. Synths sound better accompanied by grilled chicken livers. Believe it.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a band I, like most people in 2013, likely under-appreciate. I’d never seen them live, though enough of Karen O’s legendary spitfire had trickled into my consciousness to convince me to get a spot on the floor for the trio’s set. Karen hasn’t lost any of her early intensity from what I saw, owning the stage like a professional bad-ass, which, of course, she is. She and her band were clearly having a blast. Brian Chase could be found grinning behind his kit for the length of the set and Nick Zinner filled the amphitheater with what sounded like ten rows of amp stacks. Karen had the crowd in the palm of her red-leather-gloved hand, and the group gave the best set of the night. They’re a headlining band, not an opening act.

But then, the bill at Sweetlife was laudably eclectic enough that each of the afternoon’s main stage acts could reasonably be called, depending on who you talked to, the proper headliner. Most of the floor emptied out after Yeah Yeah Yeahs but immediately filled up again as a new crowd streamed in to catch Kendrick Lamar, possibly the most hyped—and, it bears saying, deservedly so—artist of the previous year. Lamar put on a no-nonsense set, with very little of the “I SAY THIS, AND YOU SAY IT TOO, PLEASE” filler of most amphitheater-sized hip-hop shows. He also mostly skipped the inexplicable rap convention of only doing a verse or two of a track, running with hard-edged intensity through “Money Trees”, minus Jay Rock’s awesome guest verse, and other highlights from Section.80 and last year’s best record, good kid, M.A.A.D city. Likely the most excited (and certainly the most diverse) of the evening, his crowd danced harder than Solange’s.

Cognitive dissonance: following Kendrick Lamar with Passion Pit. I, for one, needed a skewer of chicken hearts and a cup full of whiskey more than I needed Michael Angelakos’s tweer-than-twee vocals. Sated, I caught pieces of the band’s set and was pleasantly surprised at the meaty stomp tracks like “Take a Walk” and “I’ll Be Alright” managed in a live setting. Angelakos brought more confidence to the stage, both vocally and in presence, than I’d noticed in his band’s TV appearances.

I imagine there were more than a few people on the festival grounds who felt the way I did when headliners Phoenix took the stage: a pure pop-music dopamine rush mixed with a hint of surprise at how this band slowly—without my even noticing, really—became one of my favorite groups of the last few years. Phoenix, like fellow fresh-to-the-arena workhorses The National, had years of playing small clubs to hone its professionalism before reaching peak, festival-headlining success. The band sounds incredible live, perfectly mixed but not stale, with Thomas Mars’s vocals just as breezy as on record but with charming imperfections here and there. They stuck mostly to the set they’ve been playing at festivals around the world this year, highlighting the material from Bankrupt!, though I was glad to at least hear the classic “Long Distance Call” early in the set. “Lisztomania”, the band’s best track (sorry to “1901”), came early, too, and the crowd bounced and sang along in total bliss. It was something to see. I moved from the floor to the lawn for the final few songs, wanting to check out the reactions in the nosebleeds, and everyone seemed to be swaying and singing along. It’s a wonderful thing to see a band like Phoenix—not flashy, not revolutionary, just sincerely great at what it does—get its due. They closed Sweetlife on the right note: sweet, refreshing, and the perfect sound of the summer.

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