The first two day’s of Pemberton Music Festival had their share of good acts, but the festival’s weekend is unquestionably the main event. With perhaps the most impressive list of headliners for any festival this year, you could practically feel the anticipation.
With such high stakes for the day, it’s a good thing the festival opened with it’s best act so far in, Pennsylvanian crooner ZZ Ward. Best known for the stint of touring she did with Eric Clapton, the blues and R&B artist showed the versatility and skill of a blues legend, opening her set with a drum solo accompanied by flawless vocals that drove the energy of the crowd to new heights. ZZ Ward also displayed her ability to marry the old and the new. Between harmonica and guitar solos came an incredible soul cover of Drake’s “Hold on We’re Going Home”, which was pretty much the last thing anyone expected. Crowds danced and sang their hearts out, even in the slower songs. We haven’t gotten a new album from ZZ Ward since 2012’s Till the Casket Drops, but this performance showed that we need one soon.
Hailing out of Los Angeles, electronic producer Shlohmo filled his set with arching, ethereal riffs that packed enough bass to feed an entire village, backed up with sharp visuals. Shlohmo limited himself to dancing onstage while playing, much like any other electronica show, not even pausing to interact with his audience. However, his transitions were excellent, with songs and melodies blending seamlessly into each other. While it was an enjoyable set, you have to question why it happened in the middle of the afternoon– if he had been lucky enough to play at night, the set would have doubtlessly had much more energy.
Cage the Elephant:
Cage the Elephant are an alt-rock band with the power to form moshpits faster than a whole team of EDM producers. As their set began, guitars screeching and drums pounding, people practically flew into the front of the stage, buffeting less speedy festival-goers as they thrashed along to the music, a mix of the band’s newest album Melophobia and older hits from their eponymous debut and sophomore album Thank You, Happy Birthday, including classics “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “Shake Me Down”. By the second song, singer Matt Shultz had lost his shirt and was crowdsurfing, improvising melodies, slowing and speeding the tempo of songs as he pleased to control the throbbing masses. When he finally returned to the stage, he checked his white jeans, explaining that he might have accidentally peed himself in all the excitement. Contrary to the band’s name, the set resembled an elephant breaking out of a cage. The energy, skill, and passion of the band made the show more than worth it, and a highlight of the festival so far.
Vancouverite Claire Boucher AKA Grimes is something of a mythical creature in music, lacing her tracks with ethereal synthesizers and obscure samples and slipping in and out of mainstream attention as she pleases. Her set, however, was remarkably simple. Boucher stood alone with her synthesizer without much visual aid. She actually appeared to be manually arranging every track herself, adding her own vocals into loops until they blossomed into full tracks, showing a truly remarkable sense of timing and melody. The crowd cheered her every magical move, even chanting fanatically for a stagehand who came to clean some water she had spilled. The sets strongest moment came when Boucher unveiled some of the tracks she produced along with Blood Diamonds, especially the lusciously danceable “Phone Sex”. Boucher played it relatively low-key, but that’s because she doesn’t need complex visuals to put on a good show. Give the woman a synthesizer and an audience, and watch the magic happen.
Empire of the Sun:
We were prepared for Empire of the Sun to have a trippy set. The Sydney electronica duo has practically made an artform out of their spacey visuals, elaborate costuming (member Luke Steele usually performs in a pointy golden headdress), and somehow even more abstract music. But nothing could have prepared us for the insanity that was this performance. As guitars came smashing down and the crowd screamed ever louder, smoke machines, dancers, and confetti cannons through smog all over the duo, making them appear even more alien than they usually do. Ironically, the sun began to go down near the end of the set, adding even more chaos to the explosion of visuals. Somehow amongst all the visual stimuli, the band still held together an incredible set, keeping in their respective “characters” and taking themselves just seriously enough to not appear ironic or obnoxious. With such an over-the-top performance, we’d like to formally nominate Empire of the Sun to choreograph the Rapture.
After successfully moving to the effective top of the underground and mainstream rap scenes, Kendrick Lamar became a lock for a headlining act at Pemberton. But while the Compton MC’s skills on a microphone are superb, he seems to hold true to the unfortunate rap tradition of never starting a show on time. Lamar arrived 50 minutes late to an anxious and packed crowd, opening his set with “Money Trees”, while nonchalantly walking the stage. After two years of intensive touring, you could forgive Lamar for his familiarity with the festival crowd, but he rarely showed much energy onstage, usually staying at around a walk or a jogging pace while focusing his attention on keeping up with his lyrics. The show’s peak came with a riveting performance of his hit song “Backstreet Freestyle”, which the audience knew every word too, and in the A$AP Rocky and Drake collaboration “Fucking Problems”. The quality of Lamar’s music and lyrics cannot be overstated, but it’s a shame he didn’t have the amount of energy or inspiration the crowd would have preferred to see tonight.
Nine Inch Nails:
Nine Inch Nails are so beloved by their fans that it would be hard for the group to disappoint. Indeed, the band is so prestigious– and boy, do they know if– that they took license to focus their entire set on solely music. The show began Trent Reznor opening the night’s first drum beat, letting his bandmates join in one by one. Clad in plain black clothes and never even pausing to talk to the crowd, the group was nothing like any other act at this festival. Assisted by blinding lights and bursts of decay, the band felt as if they were from another world, playing only to amuse the petty masses below. The crowd ate it up, moving itself into a fervor with the song “Destroyer”, and swaying silently as the set ended with the classic tearjerker “Hurt”. As fantastic a show as it was, you almost wished the band had at least said a few words, just to let us know they were really there.
It’s midnight at Pemberton and a guy in a bucket hat is rapping about his dick again. Unlike his label mate and friend Kendrick, Schoolboy Q does not suffer for energy, jumping around the stage with incredible fervor. Most of the crowd, at this point, was very, very done. You could scarcely walk to the stage without stepping on an unfortunate audience member trying to catch some sleep. But those who were still going were rocking out to Schoolboy– hard. Opening his set with the Baauer anthem “Harlem Shake” and progressing onto most of his Oxymoron record with unbelieveable gusto, Schoolboy proved tonight that he’s just as noteworthy as Kendrick, if for his stage presence and bucket hats alone.