Festivals have become an indispensable element of the 21st century music scene, and it seems a new one is popping up every year. 2011’s Identity Festival has toured from coast-to-coast bringing an assortment of artists from the increasingly influential if not outright dominant genres of electronica, house and electro – producers, musicians, DJ’s and bands alike – face-to-face with very diverse audiences that reflect a new generation of Americans in the new millennium.
One of the most progressive elements of Identity Fest is the non-elitist approach demonstrated by the general admission treatment of typically “reserved seats,” meaning all could come and go as they pleased (only with the risk of losing their seats to those newly arriving). If one preferred the relative serenity of the lawn for ample dancing space there was plenty to spare, or they could grab a seat to chill, or work their way down to the pit to be closer to the action.
Our Identity experience began with Booka Shade, the House duo from Deutschland that features acoustic drummer Arno Kammermeier adding a distinct element to supplement the in-your-face four-on-the-floor rhythms that producer Walter Merziger unleashed. Merziger’s pulsating shards of fiercely chest-pounding vibrations threatened those standing near the amps with arrhythmia while from his kit Kammermeier added nuanced rolls and fills missing from the live shows of many other House artists.
Though we would rather have seen The Crystal Method, timing and proximity of stages prevented that, so we checked out Jessie and the Toy Boys. Gorgeous, blonde and long of leg, lead singer Jessie Malakouti did her best post-Lady Gaga routine with two fetish leather-clad male companions by her side as they gyrated and dry-humped their way through a patch of electro-pop. To wrap up her set, Jessie ratcheted up the kink by busting out a whip and leading a rousing chorus of “Get your fucking hands up!”
Though the Disco Biscuits may not be the headliners or the most popular act at Identity, they’re as responsible as any for the larger successes of the electronica scene, but then the innovators aren’t always the more recognized and rewarded in rock music – just as in other facets of culture. It was truly unique seeing the Biscuits in a setting where rave hipsters decked in dayglo bracelets and neon necklaces while half zonked on “Molly” (powder-pure MDMA) rubbed shoulders with thousands of wannabe gangbangers and their equally pushy girlfriends, making the “agro” Biscuits fans’ reputation seem tame by comparison.
More significantly, it was the Biscuits’ first-ever appearance at the aesthetically gorgeous and sonically generous outdoor venue Shoreline Amphitheatre, situated in weather-perfect Mountain View, and once considered the home base of the Grateful Dead from the late ‘80s until Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death, not to mention host to several noteworthy Phish shows over the years. While most of the second tier jambands have yet to make it to Shoreline, the Biscuits beat them to it in their first Bay Area appearance since their memorable November 2009 Fillmore run, and fresh off the heels of announcing they’ll be holding their annual New Year’s Eve run in Chicago (Dec 30 & 31, 2011) for a change of holiday scenery.
With the sun still shining (and thus negating the Biscuits’ typically impressive light -show), the Philadelphia foursome opened with high-energy instrumental “Caves of the East” that saw Marc “Brownie” Brownstein forego his bass to contribute effects via his Mac ‘n’ pedals. Guitarist Jon “The Barber” Gutwillig added psychedelic textures to the Biscuits’ ever-shifting soundscape via his new Becker guitar in what proved to be a strong show for The Barber during a year in which he and the band have been accused by some detractors as “taking a vacation” after coming off an impressive three-year run in 2007-09 (generally regarded as their best and most consistent years since their 1999-02 peak). But nobody in the band was vacating on this late afternoon – though Brownie wasn’t dropping as many bass bombs as usual once he donned his six-stringer.
For “42,” Barber returned to his trustworthy Gibson that provided soaring leads, and the only criticism to be noted was drummer Allen Aucoin’s playing during the composed segment of the song, which lacked the rolling force of the Biscuits’ percussion predecessor Sam Altman – however Aucoin made up for it once the “42“ jam kicked in, by leading the band’s forage into satisfying trance soaked improv. The majestic chords of “Orch Theme,” which keyboardist Aron Magner – one of the best in the business – played especially spectacular with the added boost of the Shoreline amplification, lopped into a head-bobbing groove as the Biscuits reached out to the uninitiated in the Identity audience. “Digital Buddha” was an apt choice, given it debuted in the Bay Area (at the seemingly never-ending 9-26-02 Fillmore show this reviewer was fortunate enough to attend).
As if playing directly to the few thousand Biscuits’ devotees in the crowd dancing in the haze of continuous clouds of cannabis, the band reached even further back in their vast song canon for Barber’s hypnotic “Svenghali,” which Gutwillig ended with a sublime take on the song’s main theme, a moment of rare subtlety amidst the often impersonal buzzing bass and electrified throbbing of the festival. The Biscuits finally dropped a track from their latest album, Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens, “Neck Romancer,” a overtly poppy Magner tune that comes to life once it’s free of the shackles of composition, as Magner’s synth knob-twisting swirled potent servings of “Bisco crack” (when the band abruptly drops off a shelf to plunge into deep techno/trance jamming), as the Disco Biscuits concluded their 70-minute set on a high note.
Once the sun dipped below the horizon, the setting was perfect for the next act, which came complete with a pre-set video screen countdown. For most that’d be considered too pretentious, but we have to admit, Pretty Lights were…pretty amazing. Pretty Lights is actually the stage name of Derek Vincent Smith, the master remixologist of sonic sampling whose sounds are bolstered by an eye-popping state-of-the-art light and visual show. Smith’s influences range from Pink Floyd to sax-fueled jazz to futuristic trip-hop, and he has to be commended for not selling his music, due to the extensive sampling he embraces.
Any review of Pretty Lights has to include mention of the visuals, and for this show, Smith and crew constructed a series of miniature towers upon which the swirling saturated lights of virtually every color were cast, spawning a series of hues and shapes that startled the senses as much as the throbbing music that had thousands swaying in allegiance.
To get a better big picture view of the entire scene, we headed up to the nearly deserted lawn (the emptiest this reviewer’s ever seen the Shoreline grass, having attended some 42 concerts at the venue) and we took in a near-perfect half-moon hanging over the venue looking down on the rainbow assortment of Pretty Light’s offerings coupled with the lollypop-like light sticks waved by an audience both blissed-out and audacious. All served as backdrop while Smith summoned his techno retake of Floyd’s “Time” that repeated the haunting David Gilmour vocal line: “Shorter of breath – and one day closer to death.”
Steve Aoki was unloading some seriously cavernous Electro-House as we left the venue to catch the last train back north to San Francisco, the rollicking vibrations carrying well into this darkly shadowed suburban enclave of Silicon Valley. Identity still has some edges to smooth out if they plan to take this concept on the road next year – but the tour certainly fills a void for electro enthusiasts who want more purified trance, techno and House expressions over the offerings of typical jamband/indie festival lineups.
Unfortunately, with summer just about wrapped up, Identity Festival is almost over, but there are a couple shows left. For information on the remaining dates see: http://idfestival.com/