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


Saturday, September 24

Mates of State

Mates of State are responsible for Saturday’s early gem, turning in the first performance of the day that seemed well-anticipated; local up-and-comers Patty Crash, Nikki Jean, and Zee Avi turned in nice performances earlier in the day, but crowds were awfully sparse after doors opened at 10:30 AM. Again, beach balls began making the rounds through the audience, as those in the front row – some of whom said they staked out their spots early – shouted out variations of “I love you,” each one making an obvious impression with the band, who would grin softly to themselves or shoot quick eye contact with another bandmate. It’s little moments like these that add a whole new layer of value to a show; it’s part of what helped make Mates of State’s set one of the more lasting memories of the whole event.

Seeing as they just released Mountaintops on September 13, their setlist consisted primarily of new tunes. The two most popular songs off that record, “Maracas” and “Palomino,” were bookends for a set that also included “Sway” and “Unless I’m Led” from the new album. For the more loyal fanbase, they played “For the Actor” off 2006’s Bring It Back and “My Only Offer” from Re-arrange Us.

Cults

Cults’ mid-day set will be remembered as one of the festival’s best, a relative greatest hits run-through for a band that, frankly, hasn’t made many songs that aren’t hits. They opened with “Abducted,” then ran through “Most Wanted,” “You Know What I Mean,” “Bumper,” and “Go Outside” among others. After a day where so many sets were hampered by time restrictions, Cults’ seemed suited perfectly; they have a small but fantastic library, so playing a home run set in a such a short window wasn’t all that imposing. At one point, Brian Oblivion seemed to concede as much, saying “let’s take a moment to notice how strangely hilarious this moment is. We won’t be back in a place like this for a long time.” Well, at least not until that discography has a chance to balloon. During the performance, singer Madelline Follin was proposed to a few times and tossed a rose, which she scampered off with smiling after a sizzling version of “Oh My God” wound down their set.

Budos Band

Charles Bradley

From the moment Charles Bradley stepped on the stage – which followed his band’s emergence so they could give him a proper introduction – it was clear his presence would be unlike any other. Dressed in a glittery one piece, Popped!’s elder statesman came out with arms spread open and a smile even wider, took a bow, and threw in a few hip gyrations for good measure. As he tore through an impressive set backed by squawking horns and a full ensemble band, this behavior and the cheers that followed only increased. And unlike several other highly billed acts, the crowd moved right along with him. When he sang, it was with gusto and sincerity; “No Time for Dreaming” and “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)” were immensely captivating. The emotion – and, let’s be honest, age – were unmistakably scrawled across his face. It was the kind of soulful, affective performance that so many artists strive for, yet Bradley made it look simple and, most of all, like a hell of a lot of fun.

Titus Andronicus

A few years back, not long after they’d released The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus opened up for Los Campesinos! at a fairly small club in the heart of Baltimore. Their record was spinning in my car practically non-stop, so anticipation was running high. But it ended up being a disappointment. Patrick Stickles, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, was almost completely unintelligible. He may be a screamer on stage, but his lyrics are smart and important, so not being able to make them out – even if I knew what they were anyway – was frustrating. On top of that, the small stage caused Stickles, in his punk-rock madness, to knock over a couple different amplifiers. It was sloppy all around. But at Popped!, this was the Titus Andronicus that all that anticipated had been bottled for years ago. They’ve truly become a must-see live act.

They only played five songs – “A More Perfect Union,” “Richard II,” “Titus Andronicus,” “No Future Part Three,” and the monumental “Four Score and Seven” – but their story is one of quality over quantity. From their very first note, the crowd’s energy level shot up. It was difficult to tell exactly, but it seemed pretty clear that a giant mosh pit erupted in the middle of the mass of people that had gathered. On a few occasions, Stickles seemed confined again by the size of the stage, which is probably ten times as large as the one he performed on in that Baltimore club. Noting this, he levied the event’s second U2 reference, saying “I wish there was a cat walk, so I could go out on stage like Bono.” He never did make it out into the crowd, but that’s probably for the best: I’d much rather see him on the stage with his band turning in a sickening performance, as they did, then surfing around on people’s heads.

Rakim

Rakim was one of the most alluring acts on the Popped! bill, not only because hip-hop was so sparse, but because, well, it’s Rakim. He could sell a show to hip-hop heads on his own. The problem in this case was, this wasn’t a hardcore hip-hop crowd. He performed all the classics (“It’s Been a Long Time,” “Microphone Fiend,” “Paid in Full”), but when he’d give the audience an opportunity to end his lines, they’d turn into crickets. It seemed like he was getting frustrated about it. To make matters worse, the middle portion of his set was devoted to rectifying obvious bass problems. For the first, maybe, two songs, it seemed like there was hardly any bass at all and then, when there actually was, it was painfully flat. To stall, Rakim shouted out his DJ and called out to the crowd, asking for emcees, DJs, producers, break dancers, b-boys, and graffiti artists to shout out, then led a chant of “come on, man!” towards the sound guy. But that that only made things awkward.

On the drive back from Philadelphia, this was the one performance that weighed on my mind the most. Rakim was on his game. But no matter how good of a performance he turned in – even if the bass was thumping with earthquake force from the very beginning – it was going to be a difficult set to completely salvage. The God MC, along with then-DJ Eric B, put out his first record in 1987. I was born two years earlier and, as best I could gather, a good portion of the audience was even younger than me. So the recipe for a high-energy show, at least from the perspective of crowd enthusiasm, just wasn’t ever there – and that’s terribly unfortunate.

Kreayshawn

Okay, here’s a confession: “Gucci Gucci” is my jam. There’s no use adding stipulations or justifications about it. And evidently, a lot of other people like that song too. Moreover, they seem to like all things Kreayshawn. Following Rakim on Saturday, Kreayshawn somehow managed to garner pops befitting a hip-hop legend, which was frankly a little bit disillusioning. The crowd was hot for every song (though they booed her when mentioned later in the night; Philly fans are notorious for being fickle and getting their rocks off booing performers), not just “Gucci Gucci,” which was shocking in the sense that I didn’t previously know she had other songs, really. But to her credit, she threw down a legitimately great performance. Flanked by “sister” V-Nasty and a hype man, she showed great control of the stage and the crowd, especially for a relative rookie. No, the content of the music wasn’t the most enthralling thing in the world. But it was incredibly fun to witness, at least as a sober bystander surrounded by bad bitches – Kreay’s words, not mine! – getting grimy all over the floor.

Girl Talk

Gregg Gillis doesn’t so much put on a concert as he does a spectacle. As has become his trademark, his Popped! set began with some plodding bass and a slow “Girl Talk” chant, both of which sped up more and more as his entrance approached. When he finally did come out, he spent only a moment addressing the crowd before immediately disappearing behind a DJ booth. Within seconds there was a guy shooting streamers from a canon to his right while two dozen or more audience members flooded the stage, effectively consuming Gillis into their mass. From there, it was sheer hysteria.


It would be impossible to list all the different artists and songs Gillis injected into his set, but some of the more memorable included a mix of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis,” a words-aren’t-powerful-enough climax to Phoenix’s “1901,” and a little Michael Jackson and Kelly Clarkson for good measure. Aside for a moment about an hour into his set where he climbed onto his booth apparatus to urged the crowd on a little more, Gillis remained flailing at his computer, eventually becoming half disrobed. At different points there were large plastic bags of balloons passed around, giant inflatable pillows, pyrotechnics, confetti, and even more streamers.

Gillis incites an audience unlike any other and, maybe even more commendably, he makes the show for them and about them. And frankly, that’s how a DJ should operate. For a solid ninety percent of the show, the man behind the mixing couldn’t even be spotted unless you were one of the unfortunate souls in the upper deck – which, by the way, wasn’t even open for business on Friday – and had the vantage point to be able to look down on the stage and behind Gillis’ booth. When it was possible to catch a glimpse of him, it was mostly just an unclothed limb being thrown around for a quick second. The energy being pumped out from his laptop was feeding couples grinding up on one another, girls in bikini tops literally skipping back and forth from one side of the arena floor to the other, hipster dudes with glow sticks going to town all by themselves scattered all over, and a sea of humanity in the middle of the floor that never once stopped moving. The venue still felt a little bit big – due to regulations, the Liacouras Center simply couldn’t let everyone down onto the floor to fill in the big gaps towards the back – but in some ways that just added bonus personality to what was already an exceptionally good party.

Foster the People

Sometimes it takes seeing a band live to truly appreciate them. Prior to their primetime set on Saturday night, “Pumped Up Kicks” was the only thing I knew about Foster the People. That song has been played so frequently and at so many different places (a few weeks ago it was playing in the barbershop while I was getting a haircut) that, frankly, it wasn’t all that appealing to me ahead time. But when all was said and done, it was really difficult not to feel a little bit impressed.

As it turns out, Foster the People’s entire catalog – or at least all of the nine songs they played – is of the same basic formula that’s made “Pumped Up Kicks” so popular. There’s a lot of raw, poppy energy, a bunch of solid rhythmic percussion, and a stage presence that cannot be undersold. Aside from the event’s two Saturday headliners, there wasn’t a more enthusiastic crowd for any show of the festival and, though maybe the songs weren’t my absolute favorite, it wasn’t all that difficult to see why. Foster the People are exceptional at nurturing positive vibes and have an aesthetic that really goes well with a festival environment – even a festival working from a contingency plan.

Pretty Lights

As the finishing touches were being put on Pretty Lights’ elaborate glowing pyramid stage setup, the stairs that led from the bleacher seating to the stadium floor had become filled with fans who’d erupted into a chant of “let us in!” Presumably they’d realized from watching Girl Talk that the real fun for these kinds of big time electronic shows isn’t cramped in between seats, but on the open floor.

The contrast between Friday and Saturday night’s closer couldn’t have possibly been more apparent. While The Shins came out and delivered pop songs from a mostly bare stage, Pretty Lights took a much gaudier route – and absolutely crushed it. Perched atop a flashing, at times nauseatingly bright pyramid of lights that often danced in unison with large cracks of bass, the momentum Girl Talk got rolling was picked right up and run with. Being up front near the speaker stack, there were a few times where it felt necessary to check to make sure my ears weren’t bleeding, but in a good way.

The one-two punch of Girl Talk and Pretty Lights was a phenomenal close that could probably best be explained by what happened outside the event: as I was getting onto I-95 to leave Philadelphia, the sky turned bright with fireworks – these weren’t flimsy little flares of light, but big, bold explosions in the night sky that actually turned parts of the air red. It felt symbolic and appropriate, maybe not of the entire event, but certainly of the two electronic headliners that ended up stealing the show.

Popped! was far from the ideal festival experience. In fact, there was never any one point where it felt even remotely like an actual festival. But the problems and circumstances that caused them aren’t what will be most remembered. Instead, Popped! will be looked back on as a wild weekend of mostly fantastic performances, framed in an unusual context that will only make the story more interesting to tell down the road. If you’re able to step back and look at it that way, then in the end it really was all about the music, man.

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


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