Live Review: Thee Oh Sees, Real Estate, and a Bunch of Cool Kids Relax in the Redwoods at the Woodsist Festival

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Real Estate performing at the Woodsist Festival this weekend.
Woodsist Festival
Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur
Aug. 4-5, 2012

Better than: A "music festival."

An hour south of Carmel along the serpentine path of Highway 1, there's a bend in the road and a fence, behind which lies a lawn of the size that'd fit behind a standard suburban house, and a cozy wooden building surrounded by a deck. This is the Henry Miller Memorial Library. For one weekend each August, this is also the site of possibly the coolest hipster convention in the world, the Woodsist Festival.

There's just not really any getting around the fact that nearly all of the 300 or so people here -- who've come mostly from S.F. and L.A. to recline on the lawn, smoke weed, drink beer out of orange S.F. Giants cups, and watch a dozen bands from both coasts -- pretty much define your stereotype of cool young urban music types. There are enough thrift-store cardigans and hand-me-down flannel shirts to outfit a logging company. Beards in every stage of unkemptness. Two racks of vintage clothes for sale in the back, in case you forgot something. Between sets, people are reading The New Yorker. One girl is wearing an "I'm on drugs" button. And yes, that's Chuck Klosterman standing around.

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White Fence at Woodsist
The standard, tired gripe about this crowd is that its voracious pursuit of cool values little other than coolness itself. Even if you buy that idea, there's at least one other value on display here: That of the near-perfect aesthetic experience, designed with minimal regard for money-making potential. Woodsist is more like a friendly backyard party you can buy tickets to than a music festival. It's kept small enough that the hassles of proper shows and festivals simply don't arise. There's no line to get inside, or to do much else except use the bathroom. There's space for most people to sit on the lawn or deck. Concessions are limited to one food truck (vegan hot dogs; $20 cheese plate), and one bar with a keg of beer and a few different types of wine. There are dogs running around. After the music ends, there's another band playing down the road at the Fernwood lodge if you want. Missing at Woodsist is all the stress and difficulty that comes with attending a music festival. What's left is the ideal -- musicians, their families and friends, and a few of their fans, all gathered in a supernaturally gorgeous setting for two days. So while Woodsist may be cool, it's also just really pleasant.

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Woodsist Festival began four years ago, after Jeremy Earl, singer of the Brooklyn band Woods and founder of the Woodsist label, found himself particularly entranced by the experience of performing at the Henry Miller Library. "This location inspired it," he says of the festival. "It's always just like, 'What bands do I want to see in one of my favorite places on Earth?'" Woodsist doesn't really make money: Earl and co-promoter Britt Govea (of Bay Area outfit Folk Yeah) are hoping just to break even, which the event didn't last year. Still, tickets sell out fast; plus there's the trick of finding some place to stay in a popular vacation spot at the height of tourist season.

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Woods, with Jeremy Earl at left.
If you can make it to this small gathering, though, the experience is unlike anything else. The bands here tour all over the world, and most of them play San Francisco once or twice a year. At Woodsist, though, they perform in long, unhurried sets, often packed with songs from albums that aren't out yet. The fans here are into that (or if not, they're into lying back on the lawn). The music is varied, but not that much: Other than Sunday's three-act run of freaky electronica from Ducktails, Sun Araw, and Peaking Lights, most of the bands deal in rock 'n' roll of different weights. Saturday ended with woozy, gorgeous dream-pop from Real Estate; Sunday concluded with a set from Thee Oh Sees, deans of the San Francisco psych-garage scene, whose typically rabid assault came off a touch more mild amid a stand of redwoods. In between, we got the schizoid psychedelia of L.A.'s White Fence, the earnest and gorgeous folk-rock of Woods, an old-school punk assault from Pierced Arrows, and a peek at the hallucinatory pop of the Fresh & Onlys' upcoming new album, among others.

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Below are some of the musical highlights from this year's Woodsist Festival. As you read them, try to imagine sitting on a lawn under a clearing of redwoods amid a throng of weirdos, fashion victims, and rugged-looking Big Sur locals, with everyone in variously altered states of mind. Yes, the Woodsist Festival is kind of a cool-kid convention. It's also a uniquely lovely experience.

Saturday

White Fence: Sounding thicker and clearer than we've ever heard them, the L.A.'s psych outfit took listeners through a strange maze of guitar workouts and extended jams. This set gave us a new appreciation for the band.

Woods: Previewing songs from their upcoming album, Bend Beyond, Jeremy Earl and company showed off their preternatural talents for Neil Young-esque folk rock. Fresh single "Cali in a Cup" felt like a perfect anthem for the occasion, and the new album's fantastic title track heated up into an extended guitar duel.


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