Saturday started with Booker T. Jones. The name is probably unfamiliar, but he’s written some very iconic songs including “Green Onions“, which he produced while still in high school. You’ll recognize it from the Sandlot and pretty much any other movie made in the 90’s. Considering he’s 71, Booker T had no problems carrying the funk and busting out blues with his signature Wurlitzer sound. His session included Green Onions, plenty of jamming and a cover of “Everything is Everything”, which he recorded with The Roots a few years back in New York City.
Mac Miller was coming on as Booker T was ending, so I migrated and took my place in the pit. DJ Clockwork hyped the crowd up right as Mac busted out on stage. He mentioned this was his first performance in months and it seemed like he could hardly contain his excitement to be on stage in front of thousands again. He bounced around, cutting songs like “100 Grandkids” out at key points where the crowd was more than happy to pick up where he left off.
Soul Rebels started playing on the adjacent “Here” stage and I drifted over to check them out. I played trumpet in my high school’s jazz band and fell in love with New Orleans when we went there to perform, so I’m partial to brass bands out of that city. Composed of two trumpets, two trombones, a sax, a tuba and two percussionists, The Soul Rebels were like the grittier, street version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and what they lacked in comparative talent, they more than made up for in fun. They interacted with the audience regularly and drew in a sizable number of passersby with covers of Kanye’s “Testify”, Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and a slue of old funk songs in the same vein as James Brown.
Back on the “Be” stage, a microphone stand covered in white leather tassels stood alone, soon flanked by a band clad in white robes. Miguel strutted out, grabbed the mic and began with “Simplethings”. He crooned like a modern-day Prince and played some of his bigger hits like “Hollywood Dreams”, peaked with “Do You” and capped off his performance with “Adorn”.
Big Gigantic is one of the pioneering livetronica acts, a la Grizz or Grammatik, that combines live instruments (in this case drums and a sax) with electronic beats. I’ve gone on before about the depth and dimension I feel it adds to a performance and it was easy to see how they’d drawn such a huge crowd to the “Now” stage for the biggest dance party I saw all weekend. Rather than give you a set list, just check out this video for a good idea of what to expect from Big Gigantic; although it doesn’t contain their latest release “The Little Things” which they just dropped this weekend, so check that out on their Soundcloud.
Then it was time for Kendrick Lamar. Most everyone I’d spoken with came primarily to see him; all the other acts were icing on the cake. Shooting from the pit, you usually have some time to kill before the set starts and conversation with people in the front row is a natural occurrence. I’d met Logan earlier during Mac Miller – he was a young, overweight kid who had a great attitude and no problem cracking jokes about his size. As soon as the gates opened at 11 on Saturday he made a beeline for the “Be” stage to stake his spot out and while his extra cushion helped with the pushin’, by now his ankles were killing him; but he’d been a fan of Kendrick’s since Section.80 and there was no way he was gonna be anywhere besides the front row.
The live band kicked off and Kendrick dragged a mic stand to center stage. He sheepishly approached the mic and backed off a few times before launching into “Backseat Freestyle”, which caused the crowd to explode with cheers and start screaming along. I did my thing and fell back into the audience to enjoy the rest of Kendrick’s set. “Swimming Pools” and “Money Trees” followed by “m.A.A.d City” into “U”. Then it happened: Kendrick noticed Logan had been singing every word to every song since he started and asked him to come up on stage. For another story I asked a friend in a popular metal band to describe the feeling of looking down and seeing your fans singing your songs back to you and he said he couldn’t – that the feeling is indescribable. Can you imagine?
People pushed Logan up and over the barricade and with a little help from security, he climbed onto the 10 foot stage. The band jammed to an extended breakdown while Kendrick gave thanks to Logan. He started to walk off to the side, but Kendrick ordered him back out on stage and let him know that no matter how much money or fame he’s acquired, he’s been through real shit just like Logan and when he makes songs like “U”, that’s him expressing himself and relating to everyone going through the struggle. The cynic in me wants to downplay it and think he says something along those lines during every performance, but he delivered the message with such conviction there was no doubt in my mind that his words were genuine. He closed with an encore consisting of “I Love Myself” and “Alright” and the massive crowd slowly dissipated to catch their breath and grab a beer or bite to eat.
The irony of thousands of suburban white kids screaming the lyrics to Kendrick’s born-in-the-ghettos-of-Compton songs isn’t lost on me, but music as powerful and timeless as Kendrick’s transcends race (the video for “Alright” is worth a watch for the cinematography alone). After the set I ran into Logan after and he was still in a state of utter shock. Not even a week earlier, he’d written a 1,000 word essay on Kendrick’s song “U” for a college English class and then his happens. At 18 years young, he said being called up on stage by his hero, watching the rest of the performance from the side stage and meeting Kendrick after was one of the best highlights of his life so far. Not bad considering this was his first music festival – the only downside is that it set the bar pretty high. Four different people congratulated him as they walked by during the few minutes we stood there and talked. Kendrick pulling people on stage is nothing new (as seen here and here), but this one in particular felt extra special. Words, pictures and even video fall short of capturing the energy and essence of the moment.
Although his song selection left plenty wanting (he played a lot of tracks from To Pimp A Butterfly and his set was on the artsier, eclectic side), a few folks I spoke with who’d seen Kendrick before said it was the best performance of his they’d ever seen. The only song I wanted to hear but didn’t was “A.D.H.D”, but you can’t have it all.
Kendrick was a tough act to follow but Skrillex was one of the few who could. The crowd had reassembled, spilling out onto the sides and deep behind front-of-house while they waited impatiently before the glowing white lights of the stage. I was going to go on a huge rant about people bringing their totems, flags and rage sticks into the middle of the audience, but I found this post from Get Festy which more than adequately explains why they suck. I digress. The LED screens lit up and the pioneer of dubstep took to the decks to deliver one of the high energy, heavy bass sets that he’s known for, which included a throwback to his 2011 remix of “Levels”, Tove Lo’s “High All The Time” and plenty of tracks from Jack U, his collaboration with Diplo.
The night ended with Pow Wow!, an all-star jam session where Miguel, Win Butler, John Oates, members from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and a dozen others (plus Skrillex after his set), who all somehow managed to fit on the same stage. Another perfect March day packed full of incredible music and awesome experiences.