10 Observations From Treasure Island 2014

Just across the bay from the Embarcadero, with lush views of the SF skyline and Bay Bridge, the Treasure Island Music Festival's slightly crusty, Ferris wheeled, seaside setting feels like the perfect spot to scarf down some funnel cake and catch a John Mellencamp show with your old man. However, TIMF's smattering of paella stands, bacon-themed food trucks, and Patagonia-clad SFsters making their way from St. Lucia to Outkast feels right at home in post-Guardian 2014

In its 8th year as Another Planet's alternative to its own Outside Lands' rock-dominant lineup, Treasure Island's democratic grab-bag of electronica, soul, indie pop, and all the PBR&B between the cracks, (aided in part by Noise Pop's curatorial muscle) spoiled Ray Banned festival-goers with a generous range of musical dynamics, and a handful of shows one might never catch outside a festival environment.

Our feet are exhausted, and the lines for charter buses back to the city were harrowingly long, but we made it. Here are some standout moments and lasting observations from yet another year at Treasure Island. 

[jump] [Check our full slideshow from the two-day fest here.] 

1. Memo to Mark Kozelek: if you thrive on the festival atmosphere, but want to play a Sun Kil Moon show without the danger of beer-commercial-guitar mucking up your acoustic fingerpicking from the adjacent stage, Treasure Island is the place to play. Comprised of just a pair of stages, with sets expertly alternating between the two, the festival guarantees no overlapping acts, and encourages the audience's attention at every turn. On the flipside, though, zero conflict yields zero options. So, if Zedd or alt-j don't float your boat, time to either wait patiently or go chow on some sliders.

2. Some acts just don't thrive in the festival atmosphere, especially on a sunny, picturesque afternoon. The National is a textbook example of a low-key, somber festival-circuit band who'd be wise to stick to dark, intimate concert halls. In particular this year, LA neo-neo-soul singer Banks, and Icelandic Bon Iver facsimile Asgeir delivered impassioned sets, but were disserviced by chatty, early-afternoon audiences and a bright, summery festival atmosphere that just didn't complement the moodiness of their musical offerings.

3. The New Pornographers, Canada's premiere who's-who supergroup since the demise of the even more logistically nightmarish Broken Social Scene, thrived on the sunny afternoon vibe more than perhaps any other act. Ripping through hook-laden, sun-kissed pop songs with smart muscularity, and approaching new material from this year's Brill Bruisers with total conviction, the core triad of A.C. Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar offered three distinct approaches to songwriting and vocalizing, successfully diverting the audience's attention to a new part of the stage before any sense of staleness could take hold. A masterclass in power-pop from three individualistic personalities whose collaboration didn't feel like a back-burner project in the slightest.

4. As is the case with much live music, the Treasure Island audience sure spent a lot of time standing around and chatting. Admirably, Russian EDM personality-du-jour Zedd commanded the main stage's full attention, but if he's what it takes, it's a good indication that our culture has lost its way. Call me old-school, or just old, but this Zedd fellow's live show is some real fascist garbage: high-energy dance music presented without any sense of joy or subversion, complete with overblown Michael Bay-indebted visuals, requisite weed-wacker synth farts, and punctuated by limp, diet-Coldplay pop trance ballads, devoid of any musical or emotional tension, while the bro set nods in unison. Still, riding the Treasure Island Ferris wheel while taking this whole overblown spectacle in was a possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience, certainly worth pursuing.

5. The line between a wall-of-sound that works and one that doesn't is a fine one — and Brooklyn's TV on the Radio still has difficulty navigating it after a decade onstage. The unclassifiable soul-inflected guitar band's studio output deals in ear-suffocating pillars of noise, and their calculated approach to production requires both a good sound system and expert sound mixing to translate to the stage, neither of which can be relied upon in the festival setting. As a result, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone's vocals found themselves buried in fatiguing layers of noise that often failed to replicate the seductive immersion of TVotR on record. However, the best moments came when Dave Sitek reigned in his pummeling guitar sound, making way for cleaner, more approachable textures on tracks like “Young Liars”. Blame the sound guy, but the onus is on Adebimpe & Co. to adapt their material for a live audience.

6. Speaking of adaptation, Ernest Greene delivered the weekend's most pleasant surprise with his live band renditions of the Washed Out catalogue. One might question the relevance of Washed Out in the wake of 2010's summer-of-Chillwave (despite “Feel It All Around”'s distinction as the Portlandia theme song) and the prospect of such laptop-derived music being performed onstage might seem underwhelming in theory, but Greene's live approach circa 2014 is a seemingly direct response to any doubts surrounding his purpose or abilities. Guitar, bass, and drums provided a sturdy backbone, balancing effortlessly with the synths that define this music's identity. “Get Up,” from Washed Out's prophetic debut EP, was a clear highlight, preserving the feel of the recorded material while beefing up the sound and giving the audience a complete live show to feast their eyes upon. Greene's set was the perfect response to electronic music culture's reliance on solo, laptop-derived performances that so often result in disappointment.

7. Like Nine Inch Nails or Spiritualized, Massive Attack is one of those bands that thrives in 2014 by virtue of having broken through in the '90s, when major labels had a seemingly endless stockpile of cash to offer musicians without the assurance of commercial success in return. Take that financial advantage, pair it with Massive Attack's genre-blurring stew of hip-hop, dub, metal, house, and then some, and you've got one of the most indispensable bands on the festival circuit. We're seeing more live music at the juncture between acoustic, electric, and electronic approaches in 2014 than ever before, but few ensembles have the resources or the cultural capital to enact their dreams onstage as fully as Massive Attack's core duo of Daddy G and 3D. Armed with two drummers, guitar, bass, synths, and a handful of vocalists (Martina Topley Bird did justice to the crowd-pleasing “Teardrop” in lieu of the Cocteau Twins' Elisabeth Fraser, and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe made a solid appearance on “Pray For Rain,” while veteran reggae vocalist and longtime collaborator Horace Andy unfortunately missed his flight from Jamaica) Massive Attack showed no signs of slipping in their unparalleled delivery of heady, relentlessly visceral, deeply sexual, groove-based music that dares the audience not to surrender to its intoxicating spell.

8. Dressed in white from head to toe, modern soul icon Janelle Monáe and her backing band took the stage looking like the funkiest lawn bowling squad you've ever seen. Although Monáe's vocals were completely missing for a good two songs (was the sound guy asleep?) she approached technical setbacks with great poise, and ended up delivering a barn-burning set of highly technical, generously layered pop songs that never felt too busy for their own good. From the breakthrough hit “Tightrope” to newer tracks like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Monáe's electric stage presence sidelined any and all prim, proper stereotypes of female R&B vocalists. Instead, she threw herself around the stage with TAMI-show-era James Brown levels of abandon, as her assertive, horn-fueled live band matched her energy every step of the way. The amount of potential Monáe shows at 28 years old is shocking.

9. Sure, Outkast's first tour after nearly a decade of silence might feel more like a check-cashing scheme than a creative rebirth. And, the selection of hits, predictably chosen and performed, could've allowed for more surprises. But, a year ago, did Outkast 2.0 even seem possible? This is the Smiths reunion of the hip-hop world, and however pedestrian or phoned-in it might've seemed, it's a joy to have Big Boi and Andre 3000 back together again, ripping through the anthems we know and love. Less a hit-parade than a hit-mosaic, arranging and compressing material in Daft Punk-ish medley form, the two MCs hopped and skipped from “Aquemini” to “Ms. Jackson” to “So Fresh, So Clean” to “Prototype,” ticking all the boxes with speedy energy, and the help of an eight-piece band of previous Outkast collaborators and session players. Here's hoping this reunion results in some new music down the line, and a non-festival tour to make room for some deeper cuts from the Outkast archive, but this one-off greatest hits party was more than satisfying. Plus, Andre can rock a silver wig like nobody's business.

10. Comments? Agreements? Complaints? Have at us in the comments section below, and see you next year in paradise.

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