The Treasure Island Music Festival in San Francisco is pirate-themed this year, its tents decorated with skull-and-cross bone flags and a wooden ship sitting on the grounds for effect. I get there early afternoon and funnel in along with hipsters, yuppies dressed like hipsters, and college kids.
Treasure Island has two stages really close to each other, and acts play one stage and then the other, with no overlap. In order to get a close spot for one set, you have to leave halfway through another. Choices are made. Songs are missed. After catching five songs from Passion Pit (including a rendition of “Sleepyhead” that elicits a crazed response), I beeline over to where Dan Deacon is setting up.
There are about a dozen musicians onstage. This includes two drummers with full drum sets, a bunch of bassists and guitarists, and a gaggle of keyboardists. The man himself stands before a table full of pedals. Throughout the set, the “Dan Deacon sound” seems controlled by the keyboard console. He makes sloppy “composer” gestures in front of the guitarists, the drummers and the keyboardist, or twiddles with knobs, or breaks out into manic bursts of singing. He also does a lot of crowd manipulation: There’s a dance contest that dissolves quickly into a sort of mosh pit, and a synchronized dance that has us squatting in a circle, flapping our arms like cranes. A strange “mosh resurgence” happens throughout the day in which people push into each other without actually shoving or swaying. A few people crowd-surf, including Greg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk.
But Girl Talk doesn’t happen until later. Right now, I am searching through the mud for my notebook. It flew out of my purse while I was dancing. When I find it, someone has torn out my show notes, and left the notebook for dead. It looks like it has been pulverized. I go to the restroom section. There is a business card on the floor of the Porta Potty, wet with piss. It says, “Describe an experience that made you feel larger than yourself.”
People lounge atop low-branched trees all over the grounds, rolling joints and enjoying the view of the San Francisco Bay and beyond it, the cityscape. I wander to where the Streets singer Mike Skinner does his candid Scottish rap-talk about girls and drugs. Big crowds of people are lounged out on the grass, cuddling, taking naps, eating, drinking and getting high. By the time Skinner does the song “It’s Too Late,” I wonder whether he’s too poignant of an artist for today’s party-vibe lineup. I leave his set to get a good place for DJ Krush.
DJ Krush lays down black waves of bass, and then throws on an African sample that is met with space-age effects. People aren’t really dancing or otherwise sure of what to do with it. A creepy version of “Hotel California” follows, and later, a highly spooky piano adaptation of “California Dreams.” He deejays using turntables and a Mac, which seems like a nice compromise to the argument. I feel like I should be in a dark room, a warehouse or basement: His mood is slightly lost on the bright day and cheerful scenery. There are scary-movie sounds, and then “California Dreams” gets a dark treatment. A ragtime song moves into what sounds like a vintage sitcom opener. He throws a little drum into the bass — not enough to really grab onto and dance, but something.
Brazilian Girls are on next. This is the most blatantly sexual act of the day, with Sabina Sciubba wearing a mess of fishnet material over black panties and bra. A red heart covers the front of her body. She moans to a tribal beat, augmented by more keyboard action. “Sexy Asshole” reminds me of a campy Marilyn Manson: I can’t tell if this group is sexy, or serious, or joking, or all of those things. This song is more like a series of different songs, held together by the “sexy asshole” refrain. “Keep me going until I come,” Sciubba sings, brassy and matter-of-fact.
I eat a sandwich and then watch LTJ Bukem and MC Conrad play the second stage. It’s interesting to see such a straightforward electronic act after Dan Deacon, Brazilian Girls and Passion Pit (all of whom experiment with the form). An older crowd gravitates toward this set, with some people actually jungle dancing like it was the ’90s. They seem like they have been doing this for a long time; their set is polished, solid.
Now that it is dark, the festival is lit in different colors by massive gels. I move from the stage area, which is red, into a green section where people chill on the grass. You can really experience the Bukem and Conrad set from all over the grounds, maybe because of the innate background quality of electronic music without vocals.
There is a Biz Markie “You Got What I Need” group sing-along at the MSTRKRFT stage as the crowd riots for their set to start. Once it does, the energy rivals that of Justice, who also blew Treasure Island up last year. A large projector makes a show of their hands on the turntable, their grungy look providing a cool contrast to electro cuts. Mr. Fingers’ “let there be house” declaration is followed by Hot Chip and later, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Girl Talk is going on in half an hour, so I wade through the crowd like a bug in syrup until finally breaking through to the second stage. I move to the front. When Greg Gillis comes out, the area I’m in is so crowded that we have to keep moving in order to fit. I have never experienced mandatory swaying just to control capacity, and personal space is being violated in every way possible.
OK, so this mashup? Going to a festival is sweet because it’s like seeing ten concerts at once. Going to a Girl Talk show is sweet because it’s like seeing twenty concerts at once. Who else has so brilliantly tapped into our culture’s fleeting, manic, ADHD passion for pop? People talk about him like he’s a novelty act, and he is, but in a way he is also tapping into the most essential musical desires we have. In the mix are Biggie Smalls, Kid Cudi mixed with “C’Mon Ride It (The Train),” Nirvana, the Jackson Five, the opener to Dr. Dre’s 2001. A giant plastic vent shoots into the crowd, pelting everyone with popcorn.
Of all the things that have happened today, of all the group moments being shared, there is nothing so epic, so emotional, so celebratory, so gloriously sung-along-to as Kelly Clarkson. Gillis puts on “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and the earth moves.
I like MGMT, but unfortunately I have a night job to get to and can’t call out sick. No matter — after witnessing Girl Talk standing sweaty on a table like a Sybil to the gods of pop culture as “Tiny Dancer” closes the curtain, it seems like a good time to go. I wander toward the shuttle buses as the lyrics of “Time to Pretend” move through the air.
[For a rundown of the festival’s second day, click here.]