Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CL on the Road: DeLuna Festival, Pensacola Beach

A wrap-up of last weekend's North Florida music fest featuring Big Boi, Weezer, The Shins + more (with photos)

Posted By and on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 12:00 PM

The Shins
DeLuna Festival wasn't quite brain-melting, body-beating, or simply depraved like many of my previous festival experiences. It was pretty tame by comparison, yet I loved it, maybe even more at times, than the typical outdoor mega-fest. Am I getting old? Or is the idea of a mid-October music festival on a North Florida beach one of the best to hit the circuit, ever? [Text by Andrew, photos by Mike.]

While reveling in the dirt, dozing off in shoddy tents, and finding your spirit animal or whatever at a back country fest is admittedly pretty awesome, it's fucking difficult, too. DeLuna was easy, almost too easy; think like, the Sandals resort of weekend music festivals. You've got two main stages right on the beach flanked by three mega-corporate hotels (Hilton, Holiday Inn, and Hampton Inn), and three smaller stages dotting the parking lots with 80 or so bands playing throughout the weekend.

Shirtless dads, their sun-wrinkled counterparts, and pint-sized offspring looked just as much at home on the DeLuna grounds as the ironically mustachioed pale 20-somethings. The blend was pretty fascinating in a social-experiment-y kind of way. It's oddly endearing seeing things like a Baby Gap-era boy perched on his dad's shoulders during The Shins [Mercer pictured right], some lady surely fresh from the denizens of cubicle life gyrating to The Constellations, or the dude with his washer-worn Stone Temple Pilots tour shirt discovering the psyched-out weirdness of War on Drugs.

Mike Wilson
  • Dinosaur Feathers
  • Mike Wilson

At the start, you'd hardly expect this, though. By mid-day Friday, DeLuna was more like a barren ghost town than the "America's Best Beach Party!" it had made itself out to be. A front-row spot at Margot and the Nuclear So So's felt more like a favor than actual eagerness to experience. The droll, bedside lull of, like, all their songs didn't help lift the spirits much, either. Grunge, mid-90s inspired alt rock — whatever you want to call it, it has its place. But after an overly rote set from the So and So's, the realization hit that said place is definitely not on a sun-seared beach in the middle of the afternoon.

After navigating through the salty, beachside bar neighboring the stage ($9 hamburgers, anyone?), Mike Wilson, my handy and apparently law-breaking (more on that later) photographer decided to hit up an asphalt lot performance from recent Peter Bjorn and John openers, Dinosaur Feathers, which provided a welcome jolt out of my initial DeLuna dreariness. While their set wasn't anything new or particularly brilliant, it was a breezy venture in past-pop, dabbling in influence from the Beach Boys to the Everly Brothers, Elvis Costello, and surely a few others. Enthusiastic harmonies and general cheeriness reverberated from band to the still laughably-small crowd.

By this point we were in the thick of Day 1. Ra Ra Riot took the main stage and churned out a captivatingly slick set of, what I guess you could call baroque dance pop. Crooning strings from violin and cello melded with club pulsing beats to create a crossbreed of a set not quite invigorating but nowhere near the depths of boring either. "Kind of like Morrisey on Prozac" as my scribbled notes read.

The sleeper hit of the day, maybe even the entire fest, goes to Lafayette, Louisina's Givers, though. Just when I thought the "Look! We very obviously listen to African music! Can you tell?!" thing had been trapped in the jar and beaten heartily by a certain band of beloved, Ivy league indie darlings, Givers comes and turns the notion on its head. Frontman, Taylor Guarisco and vocalist/percussionist Tiffany Lamson work as the focal points, trading off verses, sharing harmonies and each seemingly try to outdo each other when it comes to getting straight buck wild on stage. I almost want to compare their sound to Paul Simon's 1986 classic, Graceland, but that feels a little short-sighted. Givers lay down a foundation of bouncy, yet brutally crushing drum beats, then slather them in instrumentation and vocal patterns so playfully unrestrained and innocent it's kind of mesmerizing.

A quick jaunt over to see Stars on one of the parking lot stages revealed a band deft in their execution, but pretty boorish in delivery. The jump from Givers' primal party to a Stars' set rife in tight, sterile songwriting couldn't have been more apparent. They did throw out a lot of roses and played "Your Ex-Lover is Dead," easily one of the most beautiful, evocative songs in memory, so that was pretty cool.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer
Weezer's recent album output has been nothing short of molar-rotting audible candy, but live, they know what we want and for the most part, they give it to us. Friday night's set kicked off with the wholly appropriate "Surf Wax America" followed by a slew of new, older, and even older tracks including "Troublemaker," "Island in the Sun," "The Sweater Song," "My Name in Jonas" and more. The last time I saw the Weez, River's unbridled enthusiasm for modern mega-pop led to a mash up cover of MGMT's "Kids" and Lady Gaga's "Pokerface." This time, it was Foster The People's irritably catchy "Pumped Up Kicks," which they did well, but seriously, come on Rivers.

Speaking of Rivers, he jumped off the stage, over the banister, and straight into the crowd during one of their early set songs. Photographer Mike (and easily 30 other people) chased after him before he stopped to sing on this big sand dune to the side of the crowd. After Rivers left the dune, Mike crossed back over it only to be greeted by one of Escambia County's finest. Cops don't like it when you flash a festival-sanctioned photo pass after they tell you to get off a sand dune — apparently and walking on one is a federal offense. Mike was in cuffs before he could say anything and soon stripped of his photo and festival pass (even though Rivers and a swath of other crowd members and photogs were on the dune as well). But some gentle police coaxing and care that went above and beyond their call of duty, the DeLuna media folks got him out of trouble and granted him a new pass. We'll just say Day 1 is dedicated to them. Thanks, guys!


Day two began with Bad Books, an indie "supergroup" composed of singer-songwriter Kevin Devine and members of Manchester Orchestra. This set was, apparently, their first in over a year. Good spirits emanated from all the dudes, as if Bad Books was a sigh of relief, a hair letting down of sorts, from their respective original outfits. I'd never listened to a note before, but Nirvana, The Weakerthans, and Built to Spill — whose song "The Plan" they churned out a fairly faithful cover of — all seemed to have a strong presence in their song crafting. An impromptu drumbeat led Kevin Devine to spit a couple bars of inaudible lines to the audience in the middle of the set. He looked like he was having fun, so I won't be a dick about it.

Just under four years. That's how long it took Big Boi to drop his first, official solo album after his last tryst with Outkast. He's is a rare breed in modern hip hop that seems to value the inherent worth of a full album as opposed to the single or two padded in cheap, cornmeal filler that many of his contemporaries churn out ad nauseum. If it takes years, so be it. Dude cherishes quantity over quality and it's hard to blame him.

After Saturday, I kinda wish he'd pour the same sense of meticulousness and care into his live performance. Don't get me me wrong, Big Boi put on a good show at DeLuna, just not quite a great one. Tracks from his latest, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, Speakerboxx, and even a few Outkast tracks were executed with precision and rapid fire delivery from Boi himself, but man, can a hype man just murder everything decent about a quality live rapper. I still don't get the benefit of having one of your boys on stage blurting out every end rhyme, but that's here nor there. Big Boi's set was a big ol' party on and off stage, nonetheless; just more like a big sloppy bear of a party than strong, killer lion of a party, if that makes any sense. It probably doesn't. It's late.

The New Pornographers took the other beach stage for basically one long yawn of a late afternoon set. These guys definitely know their way around a cheery, ol' fashion pop song, but looked pretty disinterested in conveying any of this exuberance on Saturday. After a handful of tracks, it all felt the same.

Night fell and with a few minutes to spare before The Shins, we stopped at one of the lot stages to catch a few songs from Philadelphia outfit, The War on Drugs. Imagine for a second if Bono and the Edge ditched all the faux-revolutionary bullshit and suddenly spiraled out of control into arm-purpling heroin addiction. If they still had the will to write, I'd venture to guess the end product would sound a little like The War on Drugs. Meditatively droney, layered in molten tones of echoed overdrive, Drugs' set wasn't so much instantly gratifying as it was lulling, almost hypnotizing.

The Shins
The Shins were one of the main selling points of this festival for me. Never touching down in Florida, The Shins and surely many Floridian fans at the fest (self included) hold a relationship bound solely by their solid three-record catalog.

Live, they churn out a sound so vivid and crystalline, it's damn near perfect. Bathed in blue foggy light, Mercer and company (now including singer/songwriter Jessica Dobson on guitar) kicked off with "Caring is Creepy" and breezed through a setlist largely rooted in songs from Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow. Two new songs gave way to a delightfully weird, dancey side of the band that sounds pretty intriguing. The highlight, though, was their late set cover of Pink Floyd's "Breathe." Mercer'spitch perfect delivery over their lush instrumentation was enough to send chills down the spine more than once. Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" was covered as well before they launched into a crescendoing, rapid rendition of "Sleeping Lessons" to end the show.

If Diplo doesn't love his life right now, I think we're all screwed. Night in and night out, this guy jet sets across the globe DJing to lovingly-packed crowds likely loaded with enough collective MDMA to put an elephant in a coma. DeLuna was no different. Just to give you an idea, here are a few things I saw that really encapsulate the vibe of a Diplo set:

Crowd-surfing inflatable sharks
Pool noodles
Guy in a banana costume
Guy in monkey costume trailing suspiciously close behind guy in banana costume

Diplo (aka Wesley Pentz) had the crowd eating from the metaphorical hand with brutal drops and quick breaks that never got old throughout the late night set; largely because Diplo isn't afraid to dish out a schmorgasboard of juxtaposing influences in his mix. Flux Pavilion's "I Can't Stop" merged into a moombahton rendition of Lil Wil's "Bust it Wide Open" before somehow warping into a dubby "Hard in the Paint" all in like, maybe 90 seconds. A Diplo set is frenetic exercise in audible ADD. In other words, pretty much amazing.

The crowd at Diplo
Last up for the night was Ghostland Observatory, which easily had the sweetest light set up of the entire fest. Amidst lasers, fog, lights and mirrors, the duo played a set of kitschy electro carried by the Robert Plant-ian sex howl and sweeeeet dance moves of frontman Aaron Kyle Behrens. It felt a little novelty after a while, kind of like candy cigarettes or fake moustaches, but was still pretty badass.


Day three was pretty short-lived due to work obligations the next morning (yay adulthood!) and all the notable bands played far too late into the night for us to get back into town at an hour that wasn't obnoxiously late.

We caught an early afternoon set from Brooklyn outfit Bear Hands. While their debut full-length, Burning Bush Supper Club, is a solid venture in psych dance a la MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, many of the album tracks fell pretty flat live. Frontman, Dylan Rau appeared unenthusiastic about the whole thing while the other guys (bassist, lead guitar, drums) did their best to carry the set.

The Constellations
The last band we caught was The Constellations from Atlanta. Beginning their set with a side-of-stage, very audible a capella rendition of "In the Air Tonight," they soon took off into their first song with a startling sense of fervent energy. Even if the band's terrible, watching it rock the fuck out is always solid entertainment. Luckily, the Constellations weren't terrible. Keyboardist Jamie Gordon's rabid energy easily stole the show while vocalist Elijah Jones howled through a slew of songs with what Wikipedia calls a "psychedelic, soul rock sound." They showed a lot of teeth at first, but seemed to lose steam after some time and monitor trouble. "You guys wanna hear a new song?" Jones asked halfway through the set before they launched into a completely out-of-place and laughably terrible ballad. It didn't get much better from there.

And then we were gone, off the beautiful beach and back to normal life. Hopefully DeLuna sticks around. It's a solid live music experience in a beautiful, non-clusterfuck of a setting, which many of its festival brethren across the country can't quite claim. If you can swing it next year, I'd say go. Just stay off the sand dunes.

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