This year’s installment of Treasure Island music festival (named eponymously for the island on which it takes place) was the fifth. A fifth anniversary is usually something to celebrate, an anniversary worth marking, but Treasure Island didn’t do this – in fact I only heard one or two mentions of the fact that this was the fifth year. No, Treasure Island is a wonderfully understated festival that doesn’t show off but rather boasts without being loud about it. Looking at the lineup you can’t really pick out any world-famous acts, but looking closer, amongst the array of great new talent you’ll see five artists who have released what are widely regarded as five of the best albums of the year and a few more who have released albums that can be considered modern classics. (I’ll let you figure out who I’m talking about).
The two stages are small and close together, which means that their system of alternating acts between stages with no overlap works perfectly, and over the whole weekend I can’t think of a single time I thought that the mixing was not right – something I’ve probably never felt at a festival before, which is quite an achievement, especially within those bay winds. And of course, there is the spectacular view of San Francisco that runs alongside the arena and is visible from more or less every point. The festival doesn’t make a big deal about it, posting signs like “take a picture here!” that I can imagine would crop up at other festivals, but rather just lets it sit there, quietly showing off without even trying.
Yes, Treasure Island is exactly that: a treasure.
Geographer was a new band to me, but evidently not for the sizable crowd who showed up early on the first day to see them open the festival. It didn’t surprise me then to discover that they can draw this large crowd because they are a local band, but, more importantly, they are also excellent. Bringing a vibrant electro pop-style to the sunny early afternoon they tapped into everyone’s as-yet unspent energy reserves and warmed them up for a long day of dancing ahead. Michael Deni’s voice soared over his band’s electronics, and having his instrument control handheld meant that he could dance around while playing. Nathan Blaz’s electric cello often sounded more like an electric guitar soaring over the rest. A small taster of new material showed a less overtly poppy direction might be coming for this band, and a definite growth. The fans stood back and admired, but what they were really waiting for was the final double header of “Original Sin” and “Kites” which rounded out the set brilliantly.
While the majority of the musicians on day one make music that is made for people to dance to, should they choose to, Aloe Blacc and his band simply made people dance. Blacc’s band appeared on stage before he did, teasing the crowd with an instrumental version of his biggest hit “I Need A Dollar,” but wisely once Blacc appeared onstage they switched songs, not wanting to blow their load so early in the set. This sudden switch in songs was not a problem, as Blacc’s band proved consistently throughout the set that they were tight enough to change gears at the drop of a hat. This proved particularly useful mid-way through the set when Blacc and his band dropped in a medley of homages to soul greats including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Throughout the performance Blacc stayed active, cooly gliding and dancing and keeping the crowd involved. Highlights came in the form of his version of “Femme Fatale,” and for “Loving You Is Killing Me” he had the crowd part down the centre, but unlike other festivals, where rock acts do this only to have the two sides run at each other and start a mosh pit, Blacc had people come dancing down the aisle in the style of Soul Train. Following this the crowd finally got a full rendition of “I Need A Dollar,” which probably somehow made them all even more satisfied than they’d already been by the fine performance.
Shabazz Palaces’ music is serious. And weird. Seriously weird. That’s why it was somewhat surprising to see the duo busting some simple choreographed dance moves during “Youlogy,” which included secret handshakes and salutes. This just goes to show how smooth and down-to-earth they are, both pulling this off without missing a beat and showing no embarrassment in expressing themselves in such a way. Their set was oddly placed in the early afternoon, and while it may have taken the crowd a few songs to get their heads around Ishmael Miller’s alienised vocals, it all eventually clicked by the time they played new song “Bop Hard.” Tendai Maraire’s African drums complimented the warm and sunny atmosphere and Miller removed his sunglasses, making it evident that he was smiling not just with his mouth while spitting his lyrics but with his eyes too, honoured to get to play such a picturesque locale. This combination invited the crowd to indulge in their experimental style, which they duly did.
While it takes some thinking about to understand the appeal of Shabazz Palaces, absolutely no thought is necessary when it comes to understanding YACHT. The band bounced through a number of their finest dance pop jams with lead singer Claire Evans showing her usual affection for the audience by jumping down from the stage and getting physically involved with them. At one point the band decided to take an impromptu Q&A, fielding questions about the end of the world with aloof and humorous replies. The small tunnel stage didn’t allow for their bright and fiery background graphics, but instead we got the searing sun, which made it difficult to dance in the heat, but not impossible, so people just went for it, obliging the beats from hits like “Dystopia” and “Psychic City,” which, after all, is YACHT’s main aim.
The Naked & Famous
With only one album under their belt, and from that album a clear trio of hits, it surprised me that New Zealanders The Naked and Famous started out their set by squandering two of those said hits inside the first two songs. However, The Naked and Famous obviously knew what they were doing by playing “All Of This” and “Punching In A Dream” to start with, since they whipped up the crowd into a frenzy that lasted through their whole 40 minutes. Following on from the start the band played more album tracks from their debut Passive Me, Aggressive You, which sounded just as electric as anything else in this powerful live form. Lead singer Alisa Xayalith chose style over comfort up on stage by wearing a leather jacket throughout, and I was proven wrong for the second time when she managed to keep it on for the whole set. Of course The Naked and Famous do know something about building suspense, so they saved their biggest hit of all, “Young Blood,” for last, capitilising magnificently on the energy they’d built up.
Battles’ music seems to me like a very precisely ordered mess that somehow works brilliantly. Looking at their stage setup, it seems that it’s kind of the same thing: the double keyboards facing each other and tilted back at an angle, the cowbell held up on its own stand with its own microphone prominent at the front of the stage and the drum’s crush cymbal so far above the rest of the kit that it looks out of place. It all only finally clicks when the band take up their positions and start to play, and even then it doesn’t work instantly. Opening track “Africastle” seemed like a long build up that’s waiting for a singer to appear on stage and sing, but of course Battles don’t have one. Nevertheless, following that Battles found their groove and absolutely demolished the Tunnel Stage. Ian Williams was the main focal point of the performance; he spent half his time getting busy in a very concentrated way, simultaneously playing the two keyboards or his guitar, and plenty of time simply dancing to the rhythms being made by Dave Konopka and John Stanier. “Ice Cream” and old favourite “Atlas” were the highlights in a relentless set. The latter saw the band using a sample of former singer Braxton’s vocals, and there were plenty of other samples used to fill out their sound. Cynics could look on this as a point of weakness, but this is a blinkered view and anyone watching could have plainly seen how focused, tight, and downright talented Battles are.
I was not really prepared for what Dizzee Rascal brought to the Bridge Stage in the early evening. I know his more recent material has been much more dance-oriented, but he pretty much brought a full-on rave to Treasure Island for his full set. Older material was present in the form of “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” “I Luv U,” and “Jus’ A Rascal,” each converted to a more danceable form, but maintaining their lyrical potency helped greatly by Dizzee’s incredible ability at rapping at speed and placing emphasis on exactly the right syllables. For their part Dizzee and his partner Scope stayed lively throughout, bouncing on the spot and jumping around at particularly lively moments, switching sides periodically so that both sides of the crowd could get a taste of the star. A preview of new material in the form of the song “Bassline Junky” showed that, unfortunately, he will be continuing down the more dancefloor-oriented route. Dizzee Rascal rounded out his set with “Holiday” and “Bonkers,” which may have disappointed me, as the songs leading up to this point had reminded just how potent a performer Dizzee is, but the majority of the rest of the crowd didn’t seem to care as they in turn went bonkers.
Buraka Som Sistema
Some other people who didn’t like the end of Dizzee Rascal’s set were the members of Buraka Som Sistema. With Dizzee’s set running over time Buraka’s start was delayed, and when they appeared on stage they apologised for having to play a short set before adding a vicious “fuck you Dizzee Rascal.” This anger was certainly channelled into their performance, which was intense from the first blast of that bass and drums to the last. The whole aim of Buraka Som Sistema’s existence seems to be to get people doing some crazy dances, and they certainly managed that. This was a “short” set and people were worn out, I’m not quite sure what kind of iron people could handle a full-length Buraka Som Sistema set.
People love Chromeo. As soon as the Canadian duo took to the stage, to their trademark introductory music, there was a definite change over a large portion of the audience: people couldn’t help but dance. When I was at the bar getting a drink even the bartenders couldn’t contain themselves, jiggling about as they poured beers. As I walked away from the stage, everyone going in the opposite direction couldn’t seem to walk without some kind of funky zig or zag in their step. The other great thing about Chromeo is that they’re loud; I could still hear their whole set from where I was standing, all the way at the other stage, except when the crowd cheering for Steven Ellison’s early arrival for his set drowned it out. Yep, Chromeo certainly does have a funny effect on people.
Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, is a master of his craft. With his set on Saturday night he tried to please everyone in attendance. He played a bunch of his more immersive and intense material, which saw him visually getting lost in the same world that he probably drags back all his amazing ideas from; while on the other side of the coin he pleased more casual fans by mixing in popular hip-hop songs such as Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers” and Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.” Earlier in the day Dizzee Rascal had shown off “true dubstep” by playing a piece of pretty heavy bass, but when Flying Lotus’ lower end kicked in it made Dizzee’s sound like little more than a stomach rumble. When he was told that he only had a short amount of time left he was evidently disappointed and in one final attempt to please as many as he could, he tried taking requests from the crowd, which, as usual, saw people throwing all different song titles at him and leaving him indecisive. In the end he spent his last five minutes playing short versions of several songs from deep cut “Massage Situation” to outright banger “Do The Astral Plane.” When his time was up everyone was vocally disappointed and pleaded for him to continue. Ellison kept looking imploringly to the side stage to see if he could be given permission, and on a couple of occasions looked as though he was going to throw caution to the wind and just play, but then thought better of it. Finally Ellison begged someone to throw a party where he would show up and play for two hours for free, but I don’t think that ever materialised.
Cut Copy are riding seriously high at the moment on the back of the success of Zonoscope (following up the towering success of In Ghost Colours) and their live show has received high praise from all outlets. It disappointed me then that they were not given the nod to play as headliners, but last band on or no, Cut Copy certainly played as if they were the main event. With a fine blend of hits pulled mostly from their last two records including “Lights and Music,” “Hearts On Fire,” “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution,” “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat,” and many more, they turned the island into a full-on cheesy-yet-trendy rave. “Saturdays,” the one song played from their debut Bright Like Neon Love, saw them doing their best homage to the dance pop of the 80s, while Zonoscope standout “Need You Now” was a master class in how to build up a dance rock track to its fullest throughout its length. The set culminated with “Out There On The Ice” which included an explosive conclusion of flashing lights and a heavy, house-style beat. The set may have only been 50 minutes, but by the end I felt like I’d been through a whole night’s worth of dancing.
Death From Above 1979
Death From Above 1979’s reunion tour has been going on for the majority of 2011, and with only one album and one EP’s worth of material to play you might think they’d lose their drive somewhere along the way and fall back into the same pit that caused them to split in the first place. On Saturday night’s performance, it doesn’t seem like they’re anywhere near reaching that stage yet. So what is it that drives them? Probably the same thing that made them think they could be a band with just a drummer and a guitarist in the first place: being completely inspired (and slightly unhinged). As they went pile-driving through their set playing all the hits everything was a thrill, but unsurprisingly it was those that stand out most on the record that stood out most here, “Romantic Rights” and “Blood On Our Hands,” which most emphatically emphasised the volume and downright grittiness of DFA 1979’s sound.
Empire Of The Sun
While Cut Copy’s set seems like the kind that invites you to join in the fun, Empire Of The Sun – whose music is not too dissimilar to the Australians’ – put on a show which seems to place the crowd as an outside element whose job it is to stand and admire. And, to be fair, they put on a lot to look at during their performance. Starting with main man Luke Steele’s Egyptian-god-meets-outer-space get up and on down from his podium upon which he plays as though he were a guitar hero, down to where the dancers line the front of the stage doing synchronised and hypnotic dance moves, there’s always something eye-catching to fill in those moments when the music can waver from being ear-catching. And, unsurprisingly, people danced. They danced as they had done all day, en-mass and without abandon, singing along to the songs they knew the words to and just throwing themselves about otherwise. Empire of the Sun’s album is over three years old now, but when they play live it all seems as though it’s completely new again to the audience. Even set-ending uber-hit “Walking On A Dream,” which everyone has heard more times than they need to, appeared fresh and original when paired with insane reaction it got from the audience. So, although they might not have been my choice for headliner, I can certainly understand why they were the organisers’.