Noise Pop 2013: Is a Smaller, Weirder Lineup Better Than a Big, Predictable One?
Much of the negative commentary we heard about this year's Noise Pop festival ran along one of two narratives. The main criticism was that the 21st edition of the local indie music festival disappointed with a lack of strong national headliners. The big-type lineup of Toro y Moi, !!!, Starfucker, and a DJ set from Amon Tobin, people said, didn't stand out from the excellent variety of shows during a standard springtime week in San Francisco.
Christopher Victorio Local group Maus Haus playing the Noise Pop closing party on Sunday, March 3, at 1772 Market.
The other criticism, which tended to come from more diehard types and even a few local musicians playing this year, viewed Noise Pop as indie-lite: The festival for casual showgoers, who prefer safer, NPR-approved acts like Thao Nguyen or STRFKR over more adventurous, difficult music.
There's some truth to both of these arguments. But ironically, by failing to book some of the major headliners of previous years and lining up lesser-known acts instead, Noise Pop helped diffuse the latter criticism and bolstered its reputation as a host of local talent.
Instead of big shows, this year's festival was about small ones. Noise Pop moved into the tiny club at Hemlock Tavern for the first time, and did shows every night at Brick and Mortar, along with usual small-to-midsize venues like Bottom of the Hill and the Independent. One of the most anticipated local acts, Ty Segall project Fuzz, played at tiny Mission dive the Knockout, and some of the most interesting bills of the week were held during happy hour at Bender's Bar.
At these venues, festival organizers put together a wide selection of local artists, many of which have yet to be noticed by Pitchfork or dulled by the music industry machinery. There was Oakland post-punk outfit Synthetic ID, electronic group Shock, psych-rockers Golden Void, psych-punk group the Mallard, brutal metal act Burmese, Mike Donovan of Sic Alps, and the face-melting assault of Wax Idols and Blasted Canyons. There was the dance-psych outfit Tussle, and the pristine pop of Social Studies. There was Lenz. There was James and Evander. There was Dirty Ghosts. There was Maus Haus and Emily Jane White and Wild Moth.
Christopher Victorio Burmese opening for Kim Gordon's Body/Head at Rickshaw Stop
All of these are solid-to-excellent local acts, and all of them play around here with some regularity. So was Noise Pop really doing something that special? Yes and no. The best thing the festival has done for local music in the last 20 years -- better than bringing in the Flaming Lips for a one-off performance of The Soft Bulletin -- is put worthy local acts on a bill where they get more attention than usual. And that's pretty much what Noise Pop did this year. The lineup may not have been full of bands most people have heard of, but the corollary was that this year's Noise Pop turned out weirder, louder, noisier, more punk, and generally less predictable than it has been in recent years.
In our view, the worst thing that could happen to Noise Pop is that it turns into a mere branding exercise for major club and theater shows that would've come through town (and sold-out) no matter what. It's fun to see the Magnetic Fields at the Fox, but the Bay Area music doesn't need a festival for that. It needs a music festival so that those of us going for Kim Gordon at Rickshaw Stop also get our eyebrows singed off by Burmese. It needs quirky happenings like tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus (another local artist) playing a giddy DJ set on her birthday at a small cub on Market. (And we won't complain if, after Garbus spins, rising local ambient outfit Tycho plays a thrilling set to no more than a couple hundred people, as happened on Sunday.)
Over the last 20 years, Noise Pop has come close to growing too big for its own good. Even this year, with the vast majority of the shows selling out, the main benefit of a festival badge -- hopping between multiple shows a night -- proved all-but-impossible. It is disappointing when the lineup comes out without many big, exciting names in big type. But most of those those names will be at every other music festival this year, whether it's Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Sasquatch, or even Treasure Island. If Noise Pop can get the Bay Area's heaps of local talent together for a solid week of multiple shows per night -- with a few major acts to help draw crowds -- that's a unique kind of festival, and still one worth celebrating.
Christopher Victorio tUnE-yArDs behind the DJ booth at 1772 Market, on Merrill Garbus' birthday.