LouFest, like any music festival, has its fair share of people coming solely for the headliners, but Old Lights had fun on the stage and wrung their tunes out for all they were worth. The southside band has become one of the flagships for the St. Louis music scene's legitimacy, the city's capacity to produce professional artists, and for good reason: The band is tight. But sometimes it seemed like the songs were safe emulations of what a more adventurous band could turn into more dangerous rock 'n' roll. David Beeman's rush of noisy upper-neck strumming wasn't as exciting as his face suggested, nor were the songs as infectious as the band wanted them to be, calling for claps and chants. Still, their music is solid and it was good to see them opening the day.
Jumbling Towers completed the local music set for the day on the East stage. Stylistically, the band has a lot going on: Josiah DeBoer's cringy vocals border on the comedic, while his snappy, sometimes mean guitar work slips out of a void like Robert Fripp on Eno's stuff. The other members of the band basically set up a dance-pop rhythm that seems generic except for the huge space between the instruments. Maybe this is just a result of playing on an outdoor stage, but it made them sound weirder, harder to put your ear's finger on, which is almost always a good thing. They lacked some of the upright composure Old Lights had, and it was good to see the goofier side of our city's music represented.
Then, anyone just arriving or drinking in a lawn chair or thumbing through records at the Euclid Records tent got woken the fuck up by Ume. This three-piece from Austin brings a fat sound united under guitarist/vocalist Lauren Larson's serrated, live-wire fretwork and her mix of delicate crooning and all-out howl.
She also moved more than the crowd did while playing, stirring up the humidity with kicks and showers of headbangs while wringing the neck of her guitar for muscled-up, nerve-twitch melodies. Bassist Eric Larson threads his fuzzed-out sound through the guitar with perfect balance, at times echoing her flood of 12th fret notes with a single line eight frets lower. Ume's new drummer, Rachel Fuhrer, hammers out a big, crisp rock sound, her sure and distinct kick and tom work as integral to the band's sound as John Bonham's was to Led Zeppelin. Lauren Larson claimed they drove 15 hours overnight to get to LouFest, and I couldn't have been more grateful to them. They brought some crazy noise to a festival that had too little.
The change from band to band was a little more abrasive on the second day of LouFest, but the need to adjust my ears, mindset and sometimes my emotions on the walk from stage to stage sort of renewed my spirits, opened my expectations of the next act. This was what happened in the transition from Ume to Lost in the Trees. While Ume hammered your heart out of the body's normal time signature and jolted your muscles, Lost in the Trees was all tingle and shivers on the skin. Trees began with Ari Picker's almost inaudible fingering and gentle, then soaring delivery of lyrics, and before you realized it, was churning into a kind of acoustic prog-rock.
The musicians pulled off the disorienting, enchanting swish of sounds with incredible control on songs like "All Alone in an Empty House" and the orchestral rush of "Walk Around the Lake." Most of the songs bristled with the strings section (cellists Drew Anagnost and Leah Gibson; violinist Jenavieve Varga), which took on roles from whipping the song into a spectral waltz, to acting as a kind of counter-verbal sound to Picker's unexpectedly sweet voice.
And then there was multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau, whose voice crept through you like theremin, even as she hammered a floor tom or dotted the keys of a xylophone (she even got a round of applause mid-song for a vocal solo). Unlike some of their stylistic cohorts and contemporaries, Trees sounds put you on edge, create a sense of alarm even as they are beautiful. And their live set at LouFest was no exception: Fheir music made me uneasy in the brightest part of day.
The Low Anthem lives in vaguely the same sonic orbit as Lost in the Trees, but its members handle themselves and their instruments with seemingly infinite restraint. I actually held in sneezes because the reverent silence of the crowd was so great, and the band's first three songs were so painstakingly quiet. Songs like "Apothecary Love" and "This God Damned House," which reverberate and can sound too produced on the recordings, become studies in delicacy live, sounding like some kind of American origami music.
The resounding attitude of the live set was reverence, even a grave reverence, to the songs; little banter between the band members themselves or between them and the crowd occurred as the Low Anthem endlessly moved about switching instruments, even mid-song. And even if the band takes itself too seriously for its own good sometimes, it may be because the music just simply requires it. Maybe I'm too bent on always trying to find the humor in a band's songs or attitude; then again, they do use pill bottles as shakers and cell phones as a theremin. Their deeply traditional music takes some boons from the ignorant, digital age.
Speaking of ignorance (or satirizing of it) and digital shit, hip hop trio Das Racist was up next, playing to what seemed like the largest crowd all weekend, maybe next to TV On The Radio. Heems, Kool A.D. and Dap put on a hilarious and pretty bumping hip hop show. Their pyrotechnical beats are gleaned from many sources including Baliwood soundtracks, then warped and chopped into unfamiliar pieces. Their humor ranges from hip satire touchstones such as "U.S.A." chants and Jesus Christ ("I look like the dude from Passion of the Christ) to old school shit like race issues, and plenty of pop-culture references and bizarre nonsense (see Lil' B) that's burgeoning on the rap scene now. This might include two full minutes of all three MCs talking incomprehensibly over each or just sporadically interjecting "Woo! Woo! Woo!" Hip hop shows can be hard to pull off, especially when they're supposed to be funny, but Das Racist had some real swag and ended the set with the intentionally unartistic touch of dancing around to Metallica's "Master Of Puppets," bringing new meaning to sampling and stealing music.
!!! was the consummate fun show of the festival. Frontman Nic Offer careened and humped around the stage, speakers and through the crowd like Mick Jagger on ecstasy. The band's crisp, ass-bumping sound, propelled especially by Mario Andreoni's guitar work, was even more danceable live. The crowd responded accordingly, jumping, grooving even as clouds moved overhead and a drizzle threatened to soak everything. Offer was on fire though, rubbing off on everyone in the audience with goofy, kinetic sexuality.
How would Cat Power's intense emotions follow the exuberant audacity of !!!? C'mon, it's Cat Power.
Chan Marshall and her band stepped on stage promptly when scheduled, just as the clouds split beyond the stage with a technicolor orange and purple sky -- perfect colors for the set to come. Backed by an incomparable band, nearly as expressing and overwhelming as the singer they played behind, Cat Power submerged the somewhat slimmer audience into a set of songs just as mesmerizing and emotionally inescapable as a dreamscape.
She quivered, fidgeted, seemed unsure, her voice sounding uncooked on a cover of "These Days"/"Dreams" (Jackson Browne/Fleetwood Mac). She made everyone wonder, "Is she toying with us?" as she nightmared out "The Greatest," her hand endlessly conducting the sound men right of stage to adjust her mic. Other than picking up the guitar for a moody interpretation of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," Cat Power paced the stage like someone disturbed with the sound of her own voice, but who can't help but use it. It enthralled beyond the music.
TV on the Radio's festival-closing set was everything it should've been, complete with a four-song encore. They shouted out to St. Louis, burned through their chain of killer songs in probably the loudest set of the weekend. Some of the subtlety of their music was washed out in the swirl and crunch of sound, but live, the band's energy derives from all the instruments settling together like a pulse. Especially on the band's biggest hit, "Wolf Like Me," which was as ferocious and as huge as anything I heard all weekend.