The Sweetlife Festival was a memorable day of great music and great grilled cheese. And, when it comes down to it, aren’t those two things what life is really all about?
I’m going to break this recap down into two parts, first reviewing the performances at the Treehouse Stage, and then talking about the headliners at the Main Stage.
The Treehouse Stage was meant to showcase up-and-coming, little-known artists, and that it did, introducing me to a variety of interesting acts I’d never heard of before. The easy standout was LP, a female singer who dresses like Bob Dylan but sure as hell doesn’t sing like him. Rather, she sounds like some kind of higher-octave (if you can imagine that) version of Florence and the Machine, and boy, she can really wail. The songs were all hard-charging, building indie rock anthems, and when she closed with “Into The Wild” I realized I knew it already – and you probably do too! It’s the tribal stomper from that inescapable Citi commercial where a rock climber reaches the terrifying peak of a mountain and you hear that crazy good voice sing: “Somebody left the gate open.”
Other performers I caught at the Treehouse Stage were Haim and Yuna (Delta Spirit, Twin Shadow and U.S. Royalty were unfortunately overlapping with can’t-miss headliners). Haim was a soulful trio of tipsy, bluesy women who could really jam out. They were impressive, but not entirely my style. Same goes for Yuna, a relaxing solo singer-songwriter whose best song was the fun clap-along “Remember My Name.”
On the Main Stage were the performers who really made my day. Fitz and the Tantrums were very impressive – before seeing them live I only knew the hit “Moneygrabber,” and wasn’t expecting much. But lead singer Michael Fitzpatrick and soulful backing vocalist Noelle Scaggs had an unbelievable amount of energy and chemistry, demanding the afternoon audience pay attention. The songs were all filled with high-quality horns and classic funk drum rhythms. Seeing the band rock out live definitely encouraged me to look up and listen to more of their music in the future. showing the most energy of anyone performing.
Later in the day came Explosions In The Sky, who offer up no banter or audience engagement but rather let their music do the talking. And their music speaks very, very loudly. They played two of my favorite songs – epics “The Birth And Death Of Day” and “Your Hand In Mine” – and built a set around those two songs that really felt like one long jam session. Unfortunately, Explosions’ great live act was overshadowed by a slightly frustrating aspect of the Pavilion’s festival atmosphere. While the Pavilion on its own is one of the coolest music venues I’ve ever been to, as a part of a festival it can become a place for people to just sit down and talk. As I freaked out when Explosions In The Sky played those opening chords of “Your Hand In Mine,” other people around me were loudly talking, completely disinterested. This is the type of thing that can’t really happen at a normal concert at MPP, but is an unfortunate occurrence at the festivals that there’s really no way to avoid.
That issue was not an issue at all by festival’s end, however, as The Shins, Kid Cudi, and Avicii had everyone’s undivided attention. The Shins, the band I was most excited to see at the festival, blew me away with their unique arrangements and tight sound. While I’ve heard gripes in the past about the band’s live show, clearly James Mercer and the band (which has changed up a bit since its last album) has changed things up with this new album’s batch of songs. The band did an excellent job of playing songs from every album, the newest (one of my favorite albums of the year so far), as well as the classics from Chutes Too Narrow, Wincing The Night Away, and Oh, Inverted World. They made the old sound fresh, transforming “Australia” into a 60′s swing song, and playing “Kissing The Lipless” like an arena rock jam rather than a twee indie pop gem. Closing with fan favorite “Sleeping Lessons” was a perfect capper to a great set.
Kid Cudi and Avicii were far and away the most mainstream performers of the night, and both succeeded in their own way. Since I’m not into Avicii‘s style of music much at all, and since he was basically just DJ-ing to a ridiculous amount of people, it’s hard for me to truly review his performance as a concert. I will say, however, that his dance-electronica-remix style brought about some incredibly cool moments, mostly when he warped the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Otherside, and especially when he mashed up Gotye’s ubiquitous “Somebody That I Used To Know” with his biggest hit, “Levels.” The crowd was into it and the lights looked incredible, so Avicii did what he was supposed to do.
It was Kid Cudi who really surprised and impressed me. Unlike my feelings on Avicii, I’m genuinely a big fan of Kid Cudi’s music overall, but was nervous that his live show would be sloppy and lazy, as he would inevitably come out high and try to play the guitar, right? Wrong. Well, maybe he was high, but he certainly didn’t show it, as Cudi is actually a masterful performer with a high-energy stage presence. I was truly unprepared for it, and on top of that he played none of the songs on his weak new “rock” album, WZRD, instead just going with his hits and fan favorites from his two major rap albums and mixtape. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand, and even though Cudi is by no means a good singer, he talk-sang his way through the songs just as he does on the albums. For some reason, even though his voice is technically “bad,” there’s something about it that people (myself included) just like.
That’s it for the performances I saw. Before I wrap it up, just a few thoughts about the overall festival experience.
Sweetlife is still a work in progress – this is only the festival’s second go-round at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, and last year’s only had one stage. The area surrounding the Pavilion is very flexible – different festivals can alter it and use it in different ways. Virgin Mobile Fest, back in the fall, had a slightly more expansive layout, with three stages and an entire area of interesting sponsored events and tables. But the layout for Sweetlife was still really cool, with the Treehouse Stage way at the back of the lawn that the Pavilion’s crowd extends to, and the “food forest” of gourmet food trucks right next to the Treehouse stage, so you could watch performances while you wait in line.
The biggest negative was the bus service. I don’t need to go into great detail about it because you can read it all at the Baltimore Sun, but I’ll just say that my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as the horror stories I’m reading on Facebook and in the newspaper.
Even with that slight inconvenience, the festival as a whole was clean, well-organized, and featured a great lineup of bands and food trucks. I look forward to going back in the future and hope it becomes a yearly fixture at Merriweather!