Losing My Edge at the Sweetlife Festival

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I’m losing my edge. I’m losing my edge. The kids are coming up from behind.
I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London. But I was there.

27 shouldn’t feel old.

Unless you’re a professional athlete, 27 is supposed to be considered young. But from the minute I stepped out of my friend’s car in the parking lot of Merriweather Post Pavillion and saw four high-school aged girls doing their best to open up a bottle of raspberry vodka with a nail file as a crowbar, I felt old.

And when those four girls, through the sheer magic of being young and dumb and really in need of strawberry-flavored booze, actually popped the cork, I didn’t feel a sense of camaraderie or accomplishment for my peers. All I could think about was the fact that sugar-filled cocktails at 11AM is a rookie move that they should know not to make.

But then I remembered that they may very well be rookies.

This may have been my third Sweetlife Festival (aka Virgin Free Fest Jr), but it wasn’t meant for me anymore; it was meant for them.

I was losing my edge.

I was there in 1968. I was there at the first Can show in Cologne. I’m losing my edge.

I’ve been going to the Sweetlife Festival since it was just Alex Winston playing at a random salad shop in 2011. I’ve watched the Sweetgreen founders blossom from wide-eyed guys with a good idea and better connections into full-fledged movers and shakers. And every year, as more and more Sweetgreens popped up around DC, their festival became more and more of a “thing to do.”

Now, in 2014, it’s an event whose buzz is bigger than the actual presentation.

And back in February when the lineup was announced, I went on a bit of a tirade, the gist of which is covered here:

The Sweetgreen guys are not dumb. They took some money that they had at their disposal as young entrepreneurs and wisely invested it in everyone’s desire to pay way too much to feel healthy quickly, then they built a cool music festival built loosely around that whole vibe/brand. But now Sweetgreen is receiving $22 million in funding and becoming a BRAND that needs to start looking at attracting an audience that is more than just semi-elite hipsters that live and work in the city.

They need to reach the people who really like that indie rocker Bastille’s new song and who don’t know to mock Foster the People for performing like shit on Saturday Night Live/being Foster the People. They need to cater to the college kids that can’t wait to Instagram themselves at St. Lucia (#Sweetlife2014). That’s their job now. …

It’s the inevitable transition for a festival that was always built from one singular brand. It has to evolve as that brand does. So Sweetgreen/Sweetlife guys, I get it. And I’ll almost definitely still go. But just know that this kind of shit isn’t cool for the people that helped build and support the previous festivals in good faith thinking we were all in this together. If this is the kind of festival you want to build, build it. But don’t be surprised when it turns into the next DC101 Chili Cookoff.

But I guess with a very sold-out festival, those guys can tell me to take my next quinoa lemongrass kale wrap and shove it up my ass while lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills.

I’m losing my edge to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks. I’m losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978. I’m losing my edge.

To all the kids in Tokyo and Berlin. I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.

But it’s weird writing about music for a living and not knowing most of the music being played at a festival conceivably meant to capture your (relative) age demographic. And it doesn’t feel right.

This might be what the Sweetlife Festival has become and will be from now on, but as I said back in February, it’s a slap in the face to the city that helped support it over the years.

But I’m losing my edge. I’m losing my edge, but I was there. I was there. But I was there.

I’m losing my edge. I’m losing my edge. I can hear the footsteps every night on the decks. But I was there.

Having said all that, it doesn’t change the fact that on a Saturday in early May, there is nothing like putting on an elegantly casual outfit, having an excuse to day drink, and seeing some live music.

When that many people are in that close of quarters, with spring’s rejuvenating energy pulsing through every artery, it’s hard to argue that life isn’t pretty sweet at that moment.

So without further crotchety ado — here’s what actually went down…

 ***

I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City. I was working on the organ sounds with much patience. I was there when Captain Beefheart started up his first band. I told him, “Don’t do it that way. You’ll never make a dime.”

HOZIER

Hozier is an artist I only recently got turned on to, having gobbled up his Take Me To Church EP only a few months ago, and he and his band played a beautiful mid-afternoon set on the main stage, but Andrew Hozier-Byrne, the 24-year-old from Ireland should never have been at Sweetlife in the first place.

With absolutely zero marketing — the ever-productive BYT New Tunes Column bump not withstanding — he didn’t stand a chance sucking in an audience that was hoping to enjoy the last bit of dry skies with his thoughtful folkish sound.

It was beautiful, but there’s no place for beauty at a place like Sweetlife.

Hozier needs to start booking some intimate gigs at 6th and I Synagogue or Black Cat; he can’t do it this way, he’ll never make a dime.

 

I was there. I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids. I played it at CBGB’s. Everybody thought I was crazy. We all know. I was there. I was there. I’ve never been wrong.

SPIRIT ANIMAL

I have never been more proud of a band than I was watching Spirit Animal realize they were killing their way-too-early set at the Treehouse Stage.

The hands-down biggest winners of 2014 ripped through a set that was very similar to the one they did when they played a small Black Cat backstage show back in February; it boiled down their older catalogue to just hits and very much highlights their new promising material like “Saturday Night” and “BST FRNDS.”

But the biggest new development for the band? Teenage girls.

Spirit Animal has been a hard-working, hard-touring band for a while now, but until Saturday, there’s not a lot of places young, horny teenage girls might have crossed paths with Steve Cooper and his exquisite frontman skills (not to mention his biceps and perfectly coiffed hair…). With every hip gyration, a The CW-esque shriek would emerge from the crowd, louder each time as the #SteveCooperIsAHottie bandwagon gained new members. As Steve, bassist Paul Michel, and I were catching up after their set, we were interrupted at least four times by groups of girls eager to take their picture with their “new favorite band.”

I said this band was going to be something big one day; I’ve never been wrong.

 

BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB

Destined to be the most under-appreciated act on the bill, the band whose album was perched at the #1 spot in the UK for a few weeks played the best front-to-back set of the festival, touching on the “Oh, I know this song” gems from their discography but mostly focusing on fleshed out, emphatic versions of songs from said hit album See You Tomorrow.

It was a perfect soundtrack for the final rays of sunshine of the day, and their set closer, “Carry Me” solidified any and all doubts that this band deserves that harrowed honor of being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful.

If there was any justice in the world, these guys would have been playing a night set to an audience that knew just how great “It’s Alright Now” is when you experience it live.

 

I used to work in the record store. I had everything before anyone. I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan. I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes. I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988. But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent. And they’re actually really, really nice.

ST. LUCIA

I once stood in a DJ booth with Jean-Philip Grobler back during the great synth pop wave of 2012, but that’s only partially neither here nor there.

Because Grobler is a talented guy with a talented band who writes inoffensively addictingly catchy music, but he’s stuck in a bit of a professional limbo.

St. Lucia is popular enough that I’m sure they’ve gotten more than their fair share of royalty checks from cell phone/car/tampon commercials and it’s hard to find someone say they actively dislike the group, but they’re not hip enough that knowing about them makes you cooler in any way, a major flaw when it comes to buzz bands.

Fortunately/unfortunately though, Grobler doesn’t really have much of a choice when it comes to what to do about it.

His music, even though I will always have a soft spot for “We Got It Wrong” and “All Eyes On You,” is getting better with each release and if he can keep surviving on the royalty checks and mid-level billings, he’s going to build up enough good karma that one of these songs is going to really burst through.

A very-appreciative audience had a very fun time watching the South African-born performer charm the pants off all in the vicinity, and that should be all they need for right now.

 

I’m losing my edge. I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits. All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87. I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ‘70s.

This was the 9:32 Club in a nutshell, only instead of the Beach Boys it was that song that you sort of know from that group that sounds sort of like Holy Ghost but you don’t think it’s them but you haven’t paid attention to the new album a lot lately, so you’re not sure.

 

I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

LANA DEL REY

I did my best to set up a sit-down interview with Lana’s people, but surprisingly, she had no time available for the beat reporter from the site that she’s never heard of. And that’s unfortunate because I had been sitting on a great question that I’ve wanted to ask her for a while:

How do you want to be remembered?

Think about it. What do you do when your name is bigger than anything you could ever do after that name is announced in a lineup? What do you do when your very well-known past is incongruent with your present persona?

If you’re Lana Del Rey, you apparently just don’t give a shit, act the way a real celebrity would, and craft your performance like the monumental event that everyone wants it to be. The sweeping ballads were graciously adored by the audience and Lana looked absolutely statuesque at times, even if she dressed down for the role that day.

When Nicky Blitz was playing at 12:30 that afternoon, there was a young teenage boy in a white, gaudy Lana Del Ray Spring Tour 2014 shirt pressed steadfast to the front railing, apparently staking out a prime spot for Lana 7 hours later. His enthusiasm was inspiring, if not a little comical.

There was no telling him — or Lana for that matter — that what took place after those 7 hours wasn’t magical, even if it wasn’t.

 

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.

CAPITAL CITIES

Capital Cities are proof of what I like to call the Chazz Darby Principle. In the 1994 movie Airheads, Brendan Fraser’s character admits, “I’m just average enough and screwed up enough that I could write a song that lasts forever; and then it’s all going to be worth it.

With one simple song, “Safe and Sound,” Capital Cities has found them raking in cash, getting prime slots and festivals, and wowing crowds with a much-better-than-you’d-expect live show that most likely comes from watching that song slow burn its way to super-stardom over the past few years since they first put it out. In the time since, they’ve learned not just to milk the most out of it (the horn solo is a great touch) but how to craft their set towards people who might be there to only hear one song.

The power of two turntables and a microphone these days…

 

I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

FITZ & THE TANTRUMS

It’s almost unfair that it feels like Fitz & The Tantrums are at every one of these outdoor festivals.

It seems like ever since Rolling Stone anointed them a “band to watch” back in 2011 they’ve been doing the roadwork waiting to see the dividends. As a result, their set is tight, their demeanor is charming, and they deliver every song with the kind of passion that feels like its improvised but that really comes from dedication and confidence. And all of that was on full display on Saturday.

But with a sophomore album that’s now hitting the one-year out mark though, they need to shake something up to help keep things fresh.

Michael Fitzpatrick has said he’s a bit anti-guitar and doesn’t court his Motown sound actively, but it might make sense to really double down on their instrumental abilities and attack that fairly niche sound in hopes of separating themselves from the pack a bit.

They’re too talented to be stuck in the rut they’re falling into.

 

CHROMEO

Chromeo is another act that feels like its everywhere, but with the intrinsic revelry that’s infused in every song of theirs, it’s hard not to want them to join in on any party. They’re never re-inventing the wheel, and they didn’t on Saturday, but they were absolutely necessary in helping a rain-wary crowd get a second (or third or fourth) wind, and that’s really what they were brought in to do.

 

I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

2 CHAINZ

2 Chainz isn’t one of the best rappers in the game. Not even close.

But he might be one of the best feature rappers…

Tauheed Epps, aka 2 Chainz, is smart enough to know that too; he chocked his late-afternoon set with almost every song he has a verse on, whether that be the smash hit “Fuckin’ Problems” or something more esoteric like “Duffle Bag Boy.” The constant fluctuation in sound kept the crowd involved and, at least for one night only, 2 Chainz, the king of the guest verse, got to be the star.

 ***

But have you seen my records? This Heat, Pere Ubu, Outsiders, Nation of Ulysses, Mars, The Trojans, The Black Dice, Todd Terry, the Germs, Section 25, Althea and Donna, Sexual Harrassment, a-ha, Pere Ubu, Dorothy Ashby, PIL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, the Human League, the Normal, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Monks, Niagra, Joy Division, Lower 48, the Association, Sun Ra, Scientists, Royal Trux, 10cc, Eric B. and Rakim, Index, Basic Channel, Soulsonic Force (“just hit me”!), Juan Atkins, David Axelrod, Electric Prunes, Gil! Scott! Heron!, the Slits, Faust, Mantronix, Pharaoh Sanders and the Fire Engines, the Swans, the Soft Cell, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics.

It’s impossible to argue that this festival rivaled past years’ line-ups…

  • 2011: The Strokes, Girl Talk, Lupe Fiasco, Crystal Castles, Cold War Kids, Ra Ra Riot
  • 2012: Avicii, Kid Cudi, Explosions in the Sky, A$AP Rocky, fun.
  • 2013: Phoenix, Passion Pit, Kendrick Lamar, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Solange, Holy Ghost!, MS MR

But as I tried to remind myself, this is the first year Sweetgreen is a national, mainstream brand, so this is the first year where their “hip music festival” in reality had to be a national, mainstream festival.

It just seems like they could have done better though.

There are enough people that really care about the music scene in DC that could have helped shape this list a little better. Even BYT’s own Speculation Article had some great options that are just minor upgrades from their cousins on the Sweetlife bill (HAIM, Against Me!, Future, Grouplove, Run the Jewels, Lorde).

And it’s a well-known secret that the founders skimped on the cost a bit this year (allegedly because of their new, deep-pocketed investors, which sucks). You might not have noticed it because of the sold-out response or the artisanal food offerings, but this was a pretty barebones offering when you compare it to the carnival atmosphere of something like Virgin Free Fest.

You don’t know what you really want.

But then again, when you have a festival sell-out (and quickly) and a few tens of thousands of people get the chance to see some mediocre to good to occasionally great music on a nice spring day, is there really a cause for complaint?

Or is this just the festival we deserve because this is what we’ve allowed ourselves to accept?

We’re losing our edge.

 

Originally posted on Brightest Young Things on May 12, 2014.