Rock festivals, fun as they are, can frankly be tiring. They're usually either marrow-freezing mudbaths (Glastonbury, Woodstock '99) or heatstroke-inducing endurance tests (Coachella, Warped). And either way, they're so shoulder-to-shoulder crowded that a Who-in-Cincinnati-style incident seems possible at any given moment. So L.A.'s first annual Download Festival, held Sunday, July 20, was my kind of rockfest: indoors (at the Gibson Amphitheatre), air-conditioned, and conspicuously under-attended.
Of course, from a selfish point-of-view, the shockingly low attendance rate for this under-advertised festival was a wonderful thing, as it meant I was able to see supercool bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Gang Of Four peacefully, conveniently, and unobstructedly, with nary a wait for a beer or bathroom stall in between. But from an equally selfish point-of-view, such low ticket sales means there probably won't be a Download 2009. So I definitely enjoyed this year's Download Festival while it lasted.
The uncrowded afternoon started with the matching-tracksuit electrofunk of the Norway's always entertaining Datarock, then a soothingly hippie-dippie set by English shoegazing psych-rockers the Duke Spirit (fronted by comely, tambourine-rattling Nico lookalike Liela Moss). Then it was a quick, painless, clear-path walk to the sidestage (outdoors, but pleasantly tented) for the festival's best-dressed band (yes, even better-dressed than Datarock): indie-poppers De Novo Dahl.
DND's bumblebee-ish yellow/orange stripes caught the attention of all random passers-by like myself; their music was cool, too; and when I later learned that their drummer's last name is Huxtable, which practically makes him an honorary Cosby, I dug this colorful collective even more.
Before heading inside for Mutemath, it was time to make the swag rounds. The Gibson front lawn was a virtual sea of booths practically begging the sparse crowd to, in the words of Steve Martin in The Jerk, "walk right up and win some crap!" So of course I could not refuse the chance to pick up a custom-silkscreened Volkswagen T-shirt (and receive a lifetime of target-marketed Volkswagen spam); roll a giant six-sided foam die and win a NowWhat.com-branded Magic 8-Ball (I later learned NowWhat.com is the faux indie-cool website hosted by State Farm Insurance--wow, State Farm is sooooo hip); and get my MySpaceable pic snapped at some other corporate-sponsored photo booth. Hey, there wasn't any long line whatsoever for any of these freebies, so why not?
Back inside, Mutemath made a jangly and jambandy racket, banging on various gongs, bongos, and keytars (the keytar was the coolest thing about them)--so much so it made me feel like I was at Bonnaroo, not Download. Not really my thing, but I give MM credit: They put on quite the show of shows. Lead singer/keyboardist Paul Meany was literally bending over backwards and turning somersaults to please the crowd (it was actually a bona fide crowd, for the first time that day, as everyone had eagerly pushed up to the front), and the audience was going positively apeshiz for them. An A for effort, indeed.
Postpunk legends Gang Of Four--or more like Gang Of Two, since bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham recently left the reunited band again--were up next. While it was odd to see sundress-clad teen girls attempt to toss a beachball around during the indoor evening set by this decidedly dark and unsummery band (a pastime that was humorously stopped, and rightfully, so, by Gibson security), this show, even minus the Go4 rhythm section--and minus a full audience--was still cause for celebration. Gang Of Four may have looked like normal suburban dads, but when they came out hard-charging into "At Home He Feels Like A Tourist," they were as sonically fresh and of-the-moment as any of the current bands they have so obviously inspired (Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Liars, the Rapture, et al). And they rocked so hard they made Mutemath's acrobatic and percussive set look like a James Blunt gig. Those Mutemath guys may have banged on a few bongos, sure, which is all fine and good...but Go4 frontman Jon King attacked a giant computer printer with a baseball bat, and then when it failed to break into plastic splinters, he picked up this pile of damaged goods and hurled it, Hulk-like, to the floor. Now that's Entertainment!
The show wrapped up with a beachball-free headlining set featuring the equally black-clad, equally stonefaced, equally unsummery stylings of equally godlike, also recently reunited alt-rock pioneers, the Jesus & Mary Chain. Sitting in the second row (finding a prime seat was easy in this unpacked house--great for a fan like me; not so great for J&MC), I kicked up my still-well-rested feet and watched the Reids crank out one blissfully fuzzed-out 120 Minutes-heyday hit after the other: "Head On," "Happy When It Rains," "Sidewalking," "It's So Hard," etc. Meanwhile, the sweet stench of my neighboring gig-goer's old-school, smuggled-in clove cigarette drifted in the Gibson's recirculated air and further drifted me back to 1987 (as did a typical Jim/William brotherly spat during the stopped-and-restarted new single, "All Things Must Pass").
And thus concluded possibly the most fuss-free, muss-free, pain-free festival experience of my long concertgoing career. Whether or not it's an experience that will be repeated in 2009 remains to be seen--after LiveNation counts this year's Download receipts, I assume--but I'm definitely glad I made it in 2008.