October 12th, 2009 |

Pizza! opened the festival with a set that showcased old tunes—including an audaciously slowed down and countrified version of “Repress Yourself,” a playful propagandist’s exercise in post-structuralism which challenges the power of certain infamous words and dictates “You can’t just do what you wanna/Repress yourself!”—side by side with new ones that will be released by Manimal early next year.  Pizza! cheerfully maneuvered the awkward first slot as well as technical difficulties and a missing member with style—Their songs are just so fucking good!   They swamp-marched onto the stage and launched into “Buttersaw”—a stunning paragon of the Pizza! aesthetic complete with a titillating synth line that rivals the gloomy glamor of hip hop hits like “In Da Club,” anxiety/gyration-inducing guitar lines, and lyrics that casually dismantle the theory of American exceptionalism: “Every culture’s got a demise/Don’t look now, oh the prices they’ll rise!… ‘A new American Century?’ Give us a break!/An entire generation’s got nowhere to escape!” They closed with another of my favorites—“Mammoth Skull” represents another Pizza! archetype led by Duncan Thum who foils Geoff Geis’ historical/political insight with fantastical myth-spinning…Perhaps it’s wrong or simply impossible to specify sources in this band—Together, Pizza! produces a rare repertoire that exhibits the perfect mix of chops and whimsy, scholarship and senselessness.  Watching them double-drum, glitter-synth, disco pick, howl, holler and croon out in the open air as the sun sunk in the desert distance was truly a treat.

I was anxious to see Weave! because I hadn’t seen them since like their fourth show—they’re fun! They were wearing awesome ’90s tribal hip-hop costumes that left singer Ivory Lee’s bikini line and butt cheeks exposed, much to the crowd’s delight.  Oh yeah, and their music: dancey 70’s pop punk to the max! Rough and tumble parking lot party drums set a creepy groove upon which sexily snarling bass lines and slowly ascending and descending keyboard melodies build off-color scales while a biting guitar and cleverly arranged vocal interplay between Ivory Lee and Jenny Sayaka beg your foot to stomp your hip to twitch your shoulder to twist your jaw to drop as you sham shimmy into the night time.

I went inside to warm up and became utterly entranced by a 10-year-old boy who looked like a girl and played piano like a genius, exuberantly performing the motions of a virtuosic concert clearly with no idea which note was which, resulting in a cacophonous play only a 10-year-old kid in a desert bar could make.  So I didn’t see Corridor but Sarah said he was “epic.”

The first time I heard the name Rainbow Arabia, I imagined a gaggle of lesbians from Yemen—so I was a bit disappointed when I found out that they were a white married couple, a habitus I don’t particularly connect to either of the words in their band name.  But they got a GOOD THING goin on!  Tiffany Preston’s larynx is a trans-Atlantic bridge—she channels at once the post-punk yelper and the Hindustani Taranist as she navigates nonchalance and sargam with enviable ease.  Her guitar transcribes sitar through fuzz and distortion, ripping a cozy hole in the space-time continuum like the guitar-pick-shaped center of a Venn diagram where nostalgic American ’90s, the Islamic Mughal empire, and the Gulf of Guinea intersect.  Danny’s melting pot percussion and micro-tonal synth phrases draft the blueprints and hang the drapes on the house that is Rainbow Arabia—an equatorial palace that Tiffany and Danny erected and deconstructed in under an hour as the Manimal herd tickled tiger whiskers on its tapestried daybeds and gamboled across its onyx balconies only to disperse into the darkness at set’s end, fingering imaginary tassles and humming “Holiday in Congo” into the wind.

Everybody told me not to get too fucked up before We Are the World so I stopped drinking whiskey and got my giggles out before I bundled up to brave the wind.  More costumes—these ones samurai-like and scary in a good way!  We Are the World celebrates the visual as much as the sonic—incorporating into their performance as much dance and design as music with fantastically spooky effects.  We Are the World’s brand of macabre is delightfully eerie!  We ate acid laced sugar cubes about half way through the show and the anticipation mixed with their hypnotic world beat electro-goth itched my feet to jumping and set my eyes to ogling the precision with which this band performs—as aesthetically dynamic and scrupulous as a Julie Taymor production.

We Are the World raised the bar for the rest of the night, then Fool’s Gold picked the party up off the sand where everyone was melting.  I’d heard them described as the “first Afro-Hebrew jam band”—which left me a bit skeptical, worried they’d be just another group of dudes haphazardly co-opting ethnic associations as if thousand year old artistic traditions could be justifiably reduced into a year-long trend like fringy vests or high-waisted jeans or the term “boho chic.”  Ugh, but that’s a different story because Fool’s Gold totally won me over!  The most eccentric family band I’ve ever seen—their bounteous line-up included an exuberant epicene percussionist, a child wearing a shirt that read “I Am On A Boat,” and a mysteriously disheveled guitarist who did not open his eyes once during the entire set.  Fool’s Gold zigzags the globe between and within songs that manage to both honor and experiment with African rhythms and Klezmer consciousness, with Hebrew lyrics that seem to communicate the most joyful celebration of existence that I’ve experienced since seeing Os Mutantes live.

I drank some more sugar water, ate a pot cookie, and settled into an old wooden chair stage-right inside Pappy and Harriet’s to watch my buddies Jonesin’ celebrate their own joyful existence by bouncing around the stage, cheekily relating tales of their meeting, their love, and their propensity to get so stoned that they are unable to fornicate.  Their audience featured a five-year-old kid and a man in a bear suit.  The two seemed unaware of the fact that their mutual presence was causing people on acid to laugh until they peed their pants.  Jonesin’ is almost too adorable, but they save themselves by being downright friendly folks who sincerely believe in extra-terrestrials and make songs that are catchier than the fuckin’ swine flu.  Their song “Bummer Summer” was the only thing that had the power to rouse me from the cozy chair in the corner that later became a part of my body.

I passed up Edward Sharpe to see Amanda Jo Williams, who put on a show that mashed the South and the West into a blissfully psychedelic folk opus that highlighted Amanda’s unbelievable voice—at times a tiny craggly mountain child, and at other times a Goddess—as well as her badass band: Crooked Cowboy, Feather, and 5-track.  There should be an illustration of 5-track next to the word “guitarist” in the dictionary!  His luscious bush of hair, his chillaxed grin, his gnarly licks, and his all around good vibes makes him an absolute pleasure to listen to and watch.  Crooked Cowboy manhandled the bass like a real cowboy rounds up dawgies—courageous but patient, fearlessly meticulous.  And then there’s Feather, the percussive siren.  She hops and shakes and jangles, commanding silver dangling anklets, an assortment of drums, and sometimes two tambourines at once.  Feather’s performance is a modern mating display, and I’m sure she’s credited in the fantasies of many men and ladies who attended Manimal festival.  Amanda Jo Williams’ combination of personalities and skills results in the most compelling roller coaster I’ve ridden in years—from the depths of a miniscule cracking whisper weaving tales of trauma, to the soaring heights of elongated elated instrumental breaks, Amanda Jo Williams will stop your heart, show you the light, then bring you right back again…

So there was light.  And then there was Hecuba. It took approximately 40 years for Hecuba to set up but, as the dense chemical fog filled Pappy and Harriet’s and Isabelle Albuquerque and Jon Beasley rose from the mist like two aliens beaming in from a starship, I knew it was going to be worth the wait.  They had me by the first refrain—Hecuba’s set erupted at the outset with the most ominous pop I’ve ever experienced.  Isabelle squirmed, half-ballerina-half-Kraken, while her voice pierced the fog and filled the room like silken gelatin mix, quickly congealing around and inside each and every audience member, leaving no thought or movement outside her control.  If Isabelle’s voice is the bullet, Jon Beasley’s synthesizer voodoo is the gun.  But it’s the lyrics that killed me—that first refrain found me singing along to a song I’d never heard before, a diabolical catchiness I didn’t question until I realized what I was singing: “I got beat up but I’m laughing now/I got beat up but I’m laughing now”—to the most deviant meter this side of the prime meridian.  Hecuba is like Sparks meets Depeche Mode no wait ’50s R&B no wait, fuck it, Hecuba is like nothing else.  After recently shaving their eyebrows and cropping their locks, Isabelle and Jon became visual synonyms, elevating androgyny from charade to brilliance… Forget trying to figure out which gender you’re attracted to—Hecuba makes you wonder which gender you IS.  Like their mythological namesake, Hecuba begets heroes.  Listen to their songs, and you’ll know what I mean.

And like a miniature pony or a talking camel, Har Mar Superstar was the best surprise a girl on drugs could ask for!  He stomped on top of the speakers and crooned and schmoozed and blubbered, telling two adoring fans, “You don’t exist,” and alerting one overzealous audience member, “You aren’t a part of this.”  Grinding on tables and waltzing ‘cross the floor, Har Mar Superstar does for celebrity sex appeal what Paula Dean does for rich Southern food: shows you all the ingredients so you realize how gross and unhealthy it is but also how easy it can be to make.  Delicious!

Laco$te turned what could have been a bizarre and noisy piece of performance art into the rather uncomfortable realization that it was time to get the fuck out of the bar and wander around the desert for a bit.  After Hecuba, watching Laco$te’s lead singer X writhe on the floor and jump off a chair (hitting her head on the ceiling) was downright anti-climactic (like following Andy Kaufman with amateur strippers).  I mean, I know they are young and that, like the band that opened the festival, they experienced unfortunate technical difficulties—but those are the times to make jokes, not to squabble and literally push each other around.  An ornery static and the fact that the dwindling crowd was coming down off acid probably didn’t help… I mean I do really like their song “La Laitier”!

Anyway, I pried my ass from my dear old chair ready to head home to the Yucca Inn when Jen from Jonesin’ frantically explained that Matt, her band-mate and fiancé, had disappeared to go to a teepee party. We were on a mission!  We re-parked the car for no apparent reason, scarfed and hooded ourselves, and stormed out across the desert, winding between Joshua trees in the bright blue light of the full moon.  Finding the teepee involved receiving intentionally vague directions from two groups of kids, navigating a sudden neighborhood with way too many lawn ornaments, and sneaking into someone’s backyard via a labyrinthine system of wooden gates I opened by tugging on bits of fishing wire tied into little loops.  Inside the teepee we found Matt as well as Ed Sharpe (“Has anyone seen my metal flute?!!  Who took my magical flute?!”) and a pack of orgasmic chickies in face paint.  I realized quickly that I’d rather be howling with my own pack, so we blew kisses to our ecstatic new friends and rambled back through the Joshua trees towards the car—but perhaps not towards it enough because we somehow ended up in a sandy lot of retired farm equipment on the brink of a camp full of guffawing men drinkin’ round a campfire.  “Oh shit,” I thought, “it’s gang rape time”—but then Daiana exclaimed, “We’re in jail!” and led us through a creaky wooden structure that smelled like splinters and ghosts ’til we came out the other side and realized that we had just been on the wrong side of the movie set.  Once oriented in Pioneertown, we found the car and hit the trail snaking our way round the hills to the motel where the party rose and fell like a sine wave whose amplitude could be measured as the distance between a cheerful group jam session and a room full of people who can’t fall asleep even under the influence of codeine cough syrup watching a sharpshooter blast aspirin tablets and split playing cards at thirty paces on the History Channel.  Good night!

Drew Denny