Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Two concerts in a week? Three in a month? It appears that I'm turning into an older, squarer version of the Cameron Crowe character in Almost Famous. So, when I heard that the Popped! festival was going down at Drexel University this past weekend, I knew that I had to brave the crowds of hipsters, scenesters, and (ahem) bloggers to bring you my report.

The first act of the day were the Ting Tings, the UK duo whom you almost certainly know from that iPod commercial (the one without Chris Martin). Their music was fine and energetic, but nothing I heard in their set really grabbed me as much as the cool guitar part from "Shut Up and Let Me Go."

Hoots and Hellmouth sound pretty much how you'd expect them to sound, given that they feature a mandolin, and upright bass, and a dude with a bushy red beard. They played a set of bluegrass-tinged jams. Not really my thing, but the hometown crowd (H&H are signed to Drexel's Mad Dragon record label) was much more enthusiastic.

Remember how I recently expressed the view that live performances are generally a lousy way to get introduced to new artists? Well, count Mr. Lif as the exception to that rule. Perhaps it's because the relatively small crowd let him rap in an actual flow instead of shouting to be heard. Lif's dense, political rhymes were backed by some great beats by his DJ, New York rapper Metro, and a cameo verse by an impressive female MC whose name I unfortunately did not catch.

That's the best picture I could get of Dan Deacon's set, since he sets up his equipment in the crowd rather than on the stage. I was especially curious to see this guy; his bleep-bloop videogame music tends to leave me cold, but I'd heard that his live shows are amazing. It started out promisingly, as he coached the crowd through a bizarre routine of pointing, kneeling, and thinking about Frasier; it was all kind of charming and amusing. Once the music started, though, I quickly lost interest. The audience-participation aspect of Deacon's show seemed more like the made-up games of an elementary school gym teacher ("Everyone run in a circle and high-five each other! Now make a tunnel with your hands joined and everyone else run through it!"). Maybe the fun is in jumping around like an idiot in a sweaty crowd, but my philosophy is that if you have to be doing something specific to enjoy the music, then you're not really enjoying it.

Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello took the stage with a necktie around his forehead, a bottle of wine in his hand, and a guitar with stickers that read "Drum machines have no soul;" ordinarily, I'd dismiss that as knee-jerk rockism, but after Dan Deacon I thought he might be onto something. Hutz looks like Frank Zappa, moves like Iggy Pop, and growls like Shane MacGowan, and the only time he took a break from the music was to ask if Russia was still beating the Netherlands. Gogol Bordello plays their "gypsy punk" with the usual rock instrumentation, as well as an accordion, a violinist, and two dancer/vocalists/percussionists in heavy makeup and sequined bodysuits. The audience matched Hutz's manic energy throughout the set: there was dancing, moshing, body-surfing, and at least one bra thrown at the stage. Sure, I only rarely understood a word that they were singing, but that seems like nitpicking in the face of such an awesome performance.

Hooray! More bleep-bloop music! Crystal Castles consists of Ethan Kath, who dressed practically for the heat in a denim jacket and hooded sweatshirt, and vocalist Alice Glass, who resembled Sally Bowles reincarnated as a pre-teen Goth (there was a drummer, too, but I couldn't come up with a snide way to describe him). While Kath played dark, heavy house music, Glass lurched around the stage like a zombie, dove into the crowd, stood atop the drum kit, and repeatedly hit herself on the head with a microphone, all the while shouting what I can only assume were words. I was actually sort of into the music, but as far as I was concerned, the singer added nothing but spectacle.

Fortunately, as the sun dipped lower in the sky and the temperature started to drop, the performers got noticeably more mellow. The husband-and-wife duo Mates of State did a nice job of easing everybody into the early evening with their pleasant indie pop. I guess I don't have much more to say about them (except that their kids, who were dancing off the side of the stage, are adorable); it was all very pretty and sway-worthy.

Vampire Weekend represents a lot of things that bug me: preppies, Ivy League kids, Paul Simon's Graceland, and mountains of blog hype, to name but a few. I thought I'd give them a chance to win me over, though, since I'm such a fair-minded individual. They did not succeed. I'll admit that their songs had more punch when played live (getting blasted through enormous amplifiers will tend to do that) but they revealed nothing new to me. In fact, they sounded practically identical to the studio versions; I suppose that's a testament to the skill level of the band, but it also seems like it defeats the purpose of a live performance. My opinion was clearly in the minority, though; as I made my way from the stage a few songs into the set, I was confronted with a densely-packed sea of bodies and dozens of people dancing in goofy little circles.

My usual closing bullet points:
  • Strangest thing I ate: vegan "ice cream" made out of coconut milk -- it's actually pretty good.
  • Celebrity watch!: WXPN General Manager Roger LaMay, checking out Vampire Weekend's performance. Also, a local blogger on whom I have a bit of a crush.
  • Oddest bit of on-stage banter: "Who likes shouting?! [crowd cheers] Who likes music?! [crowd cheers] Who likes Guitar Hero?!" - Alice Glass of Crystal Castles
  • Funniest thing I overheard: "Do you guys just wanna take the train home? 'Cause my mom's being a whore." -Some whiny kid
  • Runner-up: "C'mon, let's go! Let's turn this out!" - Overly-excited lady behind me during Vampire Weekend's soundcheck
  • Most dramatic crowd transformation: Before Vampire Weekend's set, the area close to the stage, which all day had been filled with the tattooed, hair-dyed hipster masses, suddenly saw a noticeable uptick in gray-haired couples, some of them there with their kids.

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