Festival review: LouFest 2012 Day 1: Phantogram stole our hearts, Son Volt drowned us with country-fried guitars and Girl Talk split our skulls in a feverish dance party, Saturday, August 25
Of all the days the weather vane could have picked to end Missouri’s historic drought, August 25, the first day of LouFest, was not the one I would have chosen.
Still, it was impossible to dampen the spirit of revelry in Forest Park in St. Louis while rain pelted us sideways and the cracked, hard earth turned to mush beneath our feet. The afternoon hours, with the notable exceptions of local faves (and babes) Sleepy Kitty and young Brits Little Barrie, were packed with rootsy, interstate-ready Americana.
King Tuff’s gritty take on psychedelia translated surprisingly well from a dimly-lit club to a humid afternoon. “We would like to thank Lou for having us to his Fest,” announced Kyle Thomas, the creative force behind a quartet of guys cinched into tight jeans, before tearing into a set full of fuzzy slacker anthems—the stuff rock ‘n’ roll is made of.
Cotton Mather, back together after a decade-long hiatus, followed on their heels with straight-up, high-powered pop-rock. Three men dressed as Schlafly bottles, apparently there to remind us that we could be drinking Summer Lager as we munched vegan nachos on blankets, weaved in and out of the crowd, their bottle-capped hats bouncing along in time to “40 Watt Solution.” Cotton Mather seemed genuinely happy to be on the road playing together again; light-footed frontman Robert Harrison skipped and grapevined across the stage, in a manner of which the band’s Puritan namesake would have surely disapproved. And the sprinkles began.
Little Barrie took the stage amid thick, gathering storm clouds, charging into a punk-inflected set with a nod to the Strokes here and some nice cyclical riffs there. The London trio was doubtlessly more accustomed to inclement weather than we heat-stroked St. Louisans, most of whom were sent scurrying under merch tents for cover as the rain began in earnest, playing right through the much-needed (but ill-timed!) downpour.
“Drown,” appropriately named and timed, and one of the best-known tunes of Son Volt’s substantial alt-country catalog, coaxed festival-goers out from under their plastic ponchos to toe-tap and two-step. Jay Farrar’s harmonica reached all four corners of the park during several barnhouse rockers, but they also kept it cool with a few quieter folk ballads — classic Son Volt, and perfectly suited for a lazy afternoon slipping into dusk.
The band’s monitors were still buzzing as the youngest and most tattooed chunk of LouFest-ies tripped over to the Blue Stage for a hotly-anticipated appearance by Phantogram. It was only the second time the New York-based indie darlings have been to St. Louis, and they seemed overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the feverish adoration contained within — “We’re definitely coming back!” promised lead vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel, following a set full of throat-constricting bass and forceful, danceable electronica-rock. (Rocktronica?) The duo (plus a drummer for the road) pairs Euro-pop and bass lines you feel in your stomach with Sarah’s sugary soprano—what Sleigh Bells wants to be when they grow up.
Rain and sweat began to dry on our skin as shadows lengthened. Of all the bands appearing at LouFest on Saturday, I saw the most t-shirts for Dinosaur Jr. — now a group of veteran rockers, well known for their distinctive muddy sound offset by soaring guitar solos. Frontman J Mascis’s heavy-eyed drawl lulled the crowd into a swaying, somewhat bedraggled mass of party-goers who lit cigarette after cigarette and knew the words to every song. Before things got too sad, however, Dino Jr. hit the wa-wa pedal and began to blast through a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” — to appreciative roars from the folks crushed together until the Blue Stage as well as the kids setting up camp by the Orange Stage, angling for a spot with Girl Talk’s dance party.
And it was true: The night unambiguously belonged to Girl Talk. Amid a pile of youngsters (including a couple dressed as Waldo and Ms. Waldo) wriggling like so much Jell-o, the headbanded Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk himself, churned out party anthem after throbbing party anthem that gathered more screams with every expertly calibrated shift in the beat. Shrieking reached a fever pitch every time confetti, beach balls filled with confetti, or balloons floating around the confetti, shot out of what I imagine to be a huge turbine packed with a year’s supply of birthday party favors as speakers punched the air.
While shaking every ounce of my body to M.I.A. layered on top of 50 Cent layered on top of Nirvana, it occurred to me that labels like “mash-up” sell Girl Talk a little short sometimes. Sure, the guy pieces together songs from his laptop, but there is a method and an art to his mashing: repurposing songs that everybody knows and slowing, speeding, distorting, mixing or otherwise tweaking them into completely new songs that everybody still knows takes not only an enviable iTunes library but an ear perfectly and simultaneously attuned to rhythm, beat, and crowd pleasure. It is ear candy, pure and not-quite-as-simple as it seems.
“CAN WE KEEP THIS PARTY GOING?” yelled Mr. Girl Talk, standing on top of a gigantic amplifier, as the screen images on the backdrop framed him with twirling pineapples, puckered lips and (to the dismay of several of my companions) large, color blocks of spiders. Despite the rain, it appeared that the crowd could in fact keep the party going; however, the people that make ordinances for city parks go to bed much earlier than we do. Girl Talk ushered us out of Central Field with Jay-Z/Aerosmith pulsing in our ears and residual shakes working their way through our bootys. ‘Til tomorrow, St. Louis!