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Festival Review and Photos: Popped! Music Festival, September 23-24, 2011, Liacouras Center – Philadelphia, PA


Even after Hurricane Irene finished her long, slow crawl up the East Coast a few weeks ago, the rains kept coming. Just about every other night since then, a new thunderstorm has rolled through and, save for a reprieve here and there, the days have been soggy as well. And so with Philadelphia warned of a 60-70 percent chance of thunderstorms and already dealing with saturated terrain and flooding, the venue for this year’s Popped! Music Festival was changed at the proverbial last minute from FDR Park to the Liacouras Center, a multi-purpose arena home to Temple University basketball.

Let’s be clear about one thing: this was ultimately a good decision. It’s important to keep in mind that music events like Popped! attract thousands of tourists from other cities, but that on any given day, even more local citizens use these kinds of parks. Attendees are effectively guests in someone else’s backyard. From the city’s perspective, it isn’t worth the risk of hosting an event on grounds that have already been compromised by the weather. Even with everyone on their very best behavior – and if you’ve ever attended a music festival, you know what the odds of that look like – there’s going to be damage. Given the undeniable amount of precipitation recently, that damage was only going to be magnified. And, okay, maybe festivals have gone on in the rain before, but those instances weren’t always forecasted, didn’t necessarily come on the heels of weeks of near-steady downpour, and didn’t follow a season of festivals where stages collapsed and people died because of inclement weather.

That said, the problems that can – and did – arise from making a venue change at the eleventh hour are obvious. The original Popped! line-up featured a slate of comedians and a full food bazaar which was to highlight some of Philadelphia’s best local food joints. As soon as the event changed venues, these things dropped from the bill. You can say things like “but it’s all about the music, man” all you want, but deep down we all know that isn’t always true. These events are experiences where every little thing counts and every sense is tended to. Moving the event may have been the correct call and the show still went on (quite often with enormous success), but the ramifications were palpable.

Throughout most of the event, lines to reach the stadium floor required a significant waiting period, a problem magnified by the shortening of most sets; the longer you had to wait in line, the more likely it became you’d miss an entire performance. The food that ended up being served was generic stadium junk, beer choices were limited, and rumors even suggested the Liacouras Center may have run out on Friday night. Between sets – not that there was a lot of time (which, by the way, the stage crew should be commended for) – there wasn’t much to do besides wander the concourse, which is hardly a worthy time-killer. Yet, with all these warts considered, the fourth annual Popped! Festival was a success, even though it lacked the mystique of a true festival and instead felt most often like a sampler of bands swept swiftly on and off the stage.

Friday, September 23

Dead Confederate

Dead Confederate played a brief five-song set to an alarmingly small crowd to open the festival. After playing the Neil Young song “Tonight’s the Night,” they said that their original plan called for them to run through Young’s entire album of the same name, but because they only have 25 minutes of stage time, they had to call an audible. Though it felt a little weird watching a band play to a club-sized audience in a college basketball arena, the band did seem genuinely pleased to play in such a large building. To close, they played a new song (they didn’t share the title) that’s set to appear on their forthcoming album due in 2012, which they worked on with Black Lips and Deer Tick.

Miniature Tigers

Miniature Tigers breezed through a fun set that, again, would have only been helped by a fuller crowd. They endorsed dancing and a beach ball made the rounds, but there was still an awful lot of open space. In a lot of ways, Friday’s early sets felt like bands were playing a high school dance, with most in the audience huddled up together, a few stragglers along the bleachers, and then tons of open gym space. Nevertheless, Miniature Tigers sounded good, especially on “Gold Skull,” one of the standout singles from last year’s Fortress.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

“When we were kids we used to like rain days so we could stay in and eat snacks and watch movies. This is a rain day. Pretend we’re a movie.” This was a fairly apt observation from the guys of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., whose set was the first real home run of the day even though, like the majority of the bands, there seemed to be recurring sound issues (nothing crippling, but certainly noticeable). It helped that the crowd had grown significantly larger by this point. But mostly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s set was enhanced by their subtle but effective theatrics, which included giant flashing initials at the forefront of the stage, checkered glow in the dark blazers, a bubble machine, and a mid-set costume change into matching Detroit Tigers baseball jackets for a wonderfully delivered rendition of “Almost Lost Detroit.”

The highlight of their set came when they busted out a song they’ve been covering for quite a while now, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” For being of the garage rock vein, it’s a difficult task to take hardcore pop tunes – especially ones with the popularity of “God Only Knows” – and be able to simultaneously honor the original and add in some personal flavor. They performed the song flawlessly, eventually running through the verses and choruses and winding down in an instrumental maelstrom.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart only played five songs and didn’t necessarily bring the same gusto to the stage that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. did, but that’s mostly because they were willing to rely on the strength of their music. Even in light of less than ideal acoustics, they reeled off “Belong,” “Heart in Your Heartbreak,” “Come Saturday,” “Young Adult Friction,” and “My Terrible Friend,” which is just about the ideal setlist for a festival and given the circumstances of the event. It would have been nice to hear “Contender” or “This Love Is Fucking Right” – or hell, both – but in a lot of ways, Popped! was about compromise. And so in the end, it almost didn’t matter that their set was so punctual, because they did such a fine job with they presented that it was more than made up for.

Yuck

By the time Yuck took the stage around 5:30 Friday night, the event had already begun to establish certain themes. The first was that every band who took the stage would have to contend with sound that just seemed a bit off. Again, the stage crew deserves a hell of a lot of credit for how quickly they were able to set up between acts and stay close to on schedule, especially working with just one stage and scheduled start times that were sometimes as little as 30 minutes apart. Still though, it was frustrating at times how much feedback or static would find its way into a song, or how the vocals or a single instrument would get bogged down in the mix. Along these same lines, nearly every band had to call over to the sound booth at one point or another during their set to the point where these guys looked like Peyton Manning on stage, pointing at different pieces of equipment shouting instructions.

The more positive trend that had been set – and that continued into Yuck’s set – is how genuinely happy a lot of the bands seemed to be playing in an arena, even if it wasn’t anywhere near capacity. Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg said as much, noting that playing in the Liacouras Center made them feel a little like U2. And though their set wasn’t quite at a U2 level in terms of showmanship, it was still one of the more memorable of the first day. They played only seven songs, including “Get Away,” “Suicide Policeman,” and “Holing Out,” while leaving out only one hit, “Georgia.”

The Hold Steady

It must have been hard for The Hold Steady to put together a setlist so small. Hitting the stage for a mid-evening set, Craig Finn and company ripped through eight songs with exactly the raw, grateful energy that’s become synonymous with the band. The rub, unfortunately, is that their set yet again highlighted how drastically different this event had to be in an indoor, single stage set-up.

The Hold Steady haven’t released a weak album to date, though their most recent is probably their shortest on surefire hits. With such a terrific back catalog, it would have been really nice to see them get more than the 40 minutes or so they were allotted. This all goes back to how the whole event – especially Friday – felt more like a mixtape-style introduction to bands rather than a prize for those who were already fans of them. But in their truncated splotch of time, The Hold Steady put on a fantastic performance. It may not have rivaled some of their other, more intimate club gigs from years past in this area, but it was certainly up there. They opened with “Constructive Summer” and then jetted into “Hot Soft Light,” but it wasn’t until their fourth song, “Sequestered in Memphis” off 2008’s Stay Positive, that they really got into a stride.

They snuck in “Chips Ahoy!” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” both of which seemed to go over really well with the live crowd, towards the end, but it was the song that came between them – “Stuck Between Stations” – that made the performance for me. This has always been one of my favorite rock songs, not just by The Hold Steady but by any band. Seeing them pull it off in this venue was a treat, one of the rare instances where it was actually sort of cool being on a half-full gym floor with a raggedy sound system. In fact, that’s close to a perfect aesthetic for The Hold Steady.

Elbow

Elbow is one of those bands whose talent is easily noticed, but whom I’ve never become a true fan of. Truth be told, if one of their tracks came on the radio, it probably wouldn’t register with me. But their performance at Popped! was strong enough to warrant the impulse to immediately re-scour their back catalog. Their vocals were powerful even though they felt a little one-dimensional to me. Every vocal performance seemed intent for reaching mountainous heights, like every song was out to change the world. The urgency is appreciated, if nothing else. Where Elbow scored the most points is with their instrumentation, full of well-executed peaks and valleys. During their set someone shouted out something about this being their twentieth year as a band, which they acknowledged on stage. The tightness with which they performed just goes to show the value of such continuity.

Panda Bear

If your criteria for a great show includes a giant cloud of weed smoke, then Panda Bear’s set could be called a hit. Through that lens, Panda couldn’t have done better (and that doesn’t account for all the weird, jerky dancing that was clearly inspired by other extra curricular activities). However, his set was almost agonizingly long and a little inappropriate for such a large venue – the latter isn’t his fault, of course, but it’s still a reality. Because of the size, layout, and occupancy of the venue, there was already plenty of unnatural reverb. When Panda Bear added his usual treatment on top of it, it became a bit much, especially towards the end, when it seemed he already exhausted all his tricks (though “Comfy in Nautica” was, as you’d probably expect, extremely enjoyable). “Bros,” the last song in his set, was literally painful to the ears, with tons of loud screeching and effects that sounded like distorted sirens swirling around and around pushed unfortunately high into the mix, then repeated with frustrating frequency.

Cage the Elephant

Cage the Elephant’s slot was easily and predictably the highest octane showing of the festival’s first day and, if you take out Saturday night’s dance acts, it was the most energetic show of the whole shindig. On just their second song, singer Matthew Shultz lunged himself into the crowd – and naturally, on his say back to the stage, he was dropped into the photo pit, where he damn near kicked my head off. It was a strong performance, and that comes from someone who doesn’t usually enjoy a lot of yelling and chaos, which were core components of this show. Clearly though, the audience felt differently. Cage the Elephant, both in their performance and when mentioned throughout the night, garnered the loudest cheers of any act on the first night. In fact, talking to attendees to try and gauge who they came to see specifically, Cage was the most frequently mentioned.

The Shins

The Shins, to their credit, sounded better than any other band from the first day of action. Granted, headliners are always given better circumstances to work with. But even during their sound check – their volumes are up, their mixes are better, everything is more carefully managed all around – it was clear they were a suitable opponent for the venue’s otherwise mediocre (or maybe even worse) acoustics. Even during sound check, with the sounds of their instruments bouncing off a totally empty, hollow building, they sounded pretty spectacular.

“Caring is Creepy” opened their set appropriately, as everyone in the building, regardless if you were a fan of the band or not, knows that song and was immediately sucked in. In terms of energy, The Shins aren’t exactly known for sending the masses into a hysteria, so it was a smart move to get everyone riled up and engaged early. All around it was a well-planned festival setlist. They played “Australia” second, threw “New Slang” towards the end, and filled out the midsection with “Phantom Limb,” “Kissing the Lipless,” and “So Says I,” among others. My opinion has always been that bands should play their most popular, accessible stuff at festivals because they’re responsible for catering to an audience with wider demographics. Not everyone that came to the Liacouras Center on Friday night was there to see The Shins. But, if they didn’t walk in the door as fans, it has to be a near certainty that they walked out that way. It was a flawless set and, all things considered, a hugely refreshing and rewarding end to a busy, sometimes chaotic first day.

[Friday September 23rd] [Saturday September 24th]


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