It’s easier being a thirteen-year-old festival than a thirteen-year-old human. You can stay out as long as your noise permits will allow. Acting out for attention signals maturity instead of hormonal instability. There’s no awkward self-discovery period (though there’s still a fair amount of self-rubbing). You can be sponsored by Miller High Life. Respecting your elders is cool. And best of all, you’re not going to get beat up by the neighborhood bullies.
The big kids do still exist, though, and San Francisco’s Noise Pop, held Feb. 22-27, differs from the major indie festivals in a variety of ways. It follows a similar club-oriented format as the CMJ Music Marathon in New York or SXSW in Austin, Texas, but it’s not of the same magnitude. (Whereas those festivals flood their respective cities, there are plenty of non-festival shows going on in San Francisco during the week Noise Pop rolls through.) It’s not as intensive as Indio, California’s Coachella, which crams eighty-some-odd bands into less than two days. And it doesn’t quite have the same magnetism that the larger festivals have; many bands that already plan to play San Francisco are designated Noise Pop events post facto. (Ted Leo left the stage by saying, “And, um, enjoy the, uh, rest of Noise ... Pop.”) In those respects, the thirteenth annual Noise Pop still plays the little brother to some of the more high-profile indie festivals. But unlike a petulant adolescent, Noise Pop embraces its idiosyncrasies and celebrates its homegrown atmosphere. The festival reflects its host city: It’s laid-back and cozy, and some (indie-) worldwide attractions are mixed with hidden gems. And, most important, it continues to cultivate music for music’s sake. The festival’s lazy Northern California vibe was immediately evident; about a hundred bands played at ten venues over six days. Still, vast overlapping forced me to prioritize: Even if you had a coveted all-festival badge, you couldn’t see both Rogue Wave and Bob Mould, which played different venues at the same time. Once I got past the gut-wrenching selection process, though, attending the festivities was a breeze. The ten venues are remarkably diverse: The swanky, 650-capacity Bimbo’s 365 bathed the larger shows like Mission of Burma and the Polyphonic Spree with a retro-supper-club feel, and the serene Swedish American Hall, adorned with Nordic woodwork and filled with folding chairs, formed a home for quieter performers like Joanna Newsom or Alexi Murdoch. But the festival’s musical diversity was revealed only with some parsing of genre. Noise Pop is historically heavy on the indie-rock and folk -- the event’s name originally echoed the music you’d find there -- and this year was no exception. That’s not to say that a harpist (Newsom), a piano-drums duo comprised of ten- and twelve-year-old sisters (Smoosh), a psych-rock-jazz outfit (Comets on Fire), and a fifteen-member a capella male choir that exclusively performs Leonard Cohen songs (Conspiracy of Beards) have anything in common. But with a few exceptions, hip-hop and electro heads are largely left out in the cold. With Amon Tobin landing a headlining gig this year and Sage Francis playing last year, the festival is making strides toward opening new paths. Much like the liberal echo-chamber that exists in the social vacuum of San Francisco proper, this homogeneous musical landscape allows Noise Pop to create its own little world. You see the same staff members, make comments about the same hipsters, and spill your drinks on the same wallflower couple nearly everywhere you go. The bright side is that this intimacy fosters an inherently local scene, which is evident after a quick glance at this year’s participants. Close to half the bands were from the Bay Area, and though many were openers that were likely missed by many concertgoers, it’s a significant stat thanks to Noise Pop’s propensity for nepotism. Local acts such as Two Gallants and Comets on Fire spent last year in that opening-band dungeon but this year have graduated to headliners. If you’re putting out good records in the Bay Area, Noise Pop will take notice. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists isn’t from the Bay Area, but Leo and his band are a major force for Berkeley’s Lookout! Records. As the headliner for the only opening-night show for this year’s festival (if you don’t count Seattle’s United State of Electronica playing the Opening Night Party at Thee Parkside, Noise Pop’s official headquarters -- and if you read Prefix’s coverage of their act during last year’s festival, you would know we don’t), the politically charged rocker had center-stage all to himself, and he didn’t disappoint. His confidence onstage is apparent and well-deserved: The man knows how to perform. While bounding around the stage during crowd-pleasers “High Party” and “Under the Hedge,” Leo’s frantically flailing fingers never missed a note. Most of his banter consisted of him claiming he couldn’t understand the crowd’s screams, but he made up for it by laying prone on the stage during the finale, “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” while holding the mike into a group of particularly fevered fans. Judging by the puddle of sweat he left at the Great American Music Hall, Leo had little else to give by show’s end. While Leo’s patriotic (or, if you’re a Republican, “communist”) energy struck a chord with the bluest state’s indigo city, the Pharmacists helped further the cause. Drummer Chris Wilson pounded away with a ferocity that should have exhausted him after three songs, but he never let up. Near the end of a heated performance of “The One Who Got Us Out,” he even knocked one of his cymbals across the stage. (During the ensuing delay, Leo played a solo version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” No, I am not making this up, and no, there was no irony involved.) Leo’s shoegazer bassist Dave Lerner grooved under his bushy beard and curly afro. Nearly a third of the crowd bounced along to the trio’s delirious version of “Little Dawn.” By typically cement-footed San Francisco standards, that denotes a huge victory. One of the most well-known names on the lineup, the Walkmen, had no problems communicating with the Noise Pop gang, either. The crowd was glued to the stage from the propulsive opening salvo of “The Rat.” Cavernous songs like “Wake Up” sounded just as stunning as noisier numbers like “Little House of Savages,” and Matt Barrick made a pretty convincing case that he’s the best drummer in indie-rock today. Even more-atmospheric songs like “No Christmas While I’m Talking” received loud cheers and lots of swaying from the swarm of people that packed Bimbo’s. Singer Hamilton Leithauser struggled to be heard at times near the show’s beginning, but as the night progressed, his tortured screams took charge. He kept the band going during the encore, which lasted nearly half an hour, even when Leithauser proclaimed after ten minutes that “we’d like to keep playing, but I’m not sure we have any more songs.” The Walkmen made the most of their time, claiming they wanted to make the most of the six-and-a-half-hour flight they had endured that day and would repeat the next day. And they did; if there’s one thing to be learned from a Walkmen performance, it’s that the band’s recorded work doesn’t do it justice. The same thing is true about Noise Pop veterans Oranger. This year, the San Francisco-based crew didn’t play a typical live show. They instead opted for a bigger challenge: scoring Dziga Vertov’s 1929 experimental film, Man with the Movie Camera, live at the Castro Theatre. Vertov’s film, a study of Marxism and its intersection with modern life in the Soviet Union, is a collection of images from everyday life there, from factory workers on the assembly line, to trolley cars, to walks on the beach. Even with Vertov’s original music direction, the seventy-minute film can grow a bit tiresome. But Oranger’s score changed that. Playing with electronics, pianos and theremins as well as bass, drums and guitars, the group conducted a fairly literal score, picking up the pace and intensity as on-screen action and editing increased. During a meta-commentary near the movie’s midpoint, where we watched an editor splice film, re-animating the frozen frames, Oranger’s ominous soundtrack induced chills. Bluesy guitars and Afro-Cuban drumming may sound entirely out of place, but they helped emphasize the values of health and leisure that Vertov promoted. Their thundering crescendo at the film’s climax was stunning technically and cinematically, and the band earned the standing ovation it received. But the crashing and bombastic -- though welcome, if not preferred, at Noise Pop -- is not what’s putting San Francisco back on the musical map these days. Perhaps prompted by another growing generation of domestic turmoil, it’s the folk renaissance that’s bringing recognition back to the city. Though freak-folk flag-waver Devendra Banhart sat out this time, Noise Pop recruited a number of local folkies to pick up the slack. The revival clearly isn’t just a media creation; Joanna Newsom sold out two shows in advance. As the horde of onlookers sipped their tea and coffee (Swedish American, the upstairs counterpart to Café Du Nord, has no liquor license), Newsom, clad in a dark blue dress on Saturday afternoon, plinked her harp, delighting the audience with “Sprout and the Bean” and a particularly lively rendition of “Book of Right-On.” Without launching into a discussion about Newsom’s voice, which polarizes like no other, I will say that hearing it in person is much easier on the ears. Maybe it’s her charm. For all her pleasantries, Newsom may not have even been the best performer at Swedish American that day. Bay Area native Nedelle Torrisi (half of Nedelle and Thom) sat onstage with her guitar and sang quiet songs with the festival’s sweetest, most heavenly pure voice. She sounded amazing -- even when she was complaining about feedback. Swedish (seriously) singer/songwriter Nicolai Dunger put the crowd to work, asking the audience for some foot stomping and help with vocals, for which he gave a good deal of guidance (especially for the songs sung in Swedish). Although known mostly for the fact that local hero Banhart often joins them on guitar, Vetiver, the creation of San Francisco resident Andy Cabic, proved during their set at Bottom of the Hill that they need no “celebrity” draw to succeed. Joined by semi-members Alissa Anderson on cello and Jim Gaylord on violin, Cabic’s elegantly fragile acoustic tunes kept the place packed and attentive. The band even upstaged headliners Damon + Naomi (ex-Galaxie 500). The place cleared out when Cabic and Co. left the stage -- except for Greg Proops, of Whose Line…? fame. He stuck around and took shots at the bar. True story. That’s not to say that the locals have no respect for out-of-towners. Brooklyn’s Hold Steady may have been only the second band out of four on the bill for an afternoon show at Bottom of the Hill, but the bouncers were already turning people away before the five-piece took the stage. Ex-Lifter Puller frontman Craig Finn, who bears a striking resemblance to Pee Wee Herman in both appearance and dance moves, was gracious for the warm welcome, a favor the band returned by rocking insanely hard during their half-hour set. Theoretically, the Hold Steady are unknown. Their 2004 release, Almost Killed Me, appeared on “The Ten Best Albums You Didn't Hear”-type lists in Rolling Stone, Spin and Magnet last year. But after those write-ups and a slew of incendiary live shows, the Hold Steady may not get to keep their “buried treasure” status next time around. The ultimate little-guy status belonged to Portastatic, the side project of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan. On the same night that the Polyphonic Spree and Hot Hot Heat sold out shows in North Beach and the Tenderloin, Portastatic played to a relatively undersized crowd hidden away at the bottom of Potrero Hill. Portastatic is one of those bands I like but can’t put my finger on why. They’re not really groundbreaking, and they have no unusual stories to tell (although McCaughan is part-owner of Merge Records). They’re just perfectly musical. And though they may not have had the draw other high-profile bands had that night, Portastatic proved why McCaughan is so easy to root for. He walked on stage with little fanfare and started belting out some of the most impeccably written indie-rock I’ve ever heard. Songs with intricate and varied arrangements like “Oh Come Down” captivated the crowd, prompting pumped fists that remained in the air even during new, unfamiliar material. McCaughan is the classic underdog. And there he was on stage, flawlessly performing songs that over the course of his remarkable fifteen-year career have earned him respect but disproportionately little financial reward. His voice is stretched to its limit, but that only makes me love him more. It’s evident he’s doing what he loves. And at its core, that’s the hope that comes attached to independent music. Like McCaughan, independent music is a microcosm that has largely retained an underdog status, situated within the shadows of the music industry. It’s a setting where passion and talent are given more weight than image and marketability. That’s not to say appearances don’t matter; Neighborhoodies and vintage shirts are just as bling as a Sean John pullover or a bulletproof vest -- it’s just a different kind of currency. Instead of aiming for TRL, it’s a major coup to get played in the background of The O.C. But the underlying hope is that something of substance can succeed in a business that’s more concerned with superficialities. And at a time when it seems as if indifference is becoming a national pastime, any reassurance that there are people who give a damn about something -- anything -- is welcome. Music is just music, but Noise Pop celebrates that optimism and brings anticipation of the future. And when you’re thirteen years old, that’s about all you can ask for.