We'd booked into a motel, which I'll call the Blue Orchid so as not to give away its true identity. This little gem was two tram stops down from the Street Scene. We got there just an hour before the 4pm start of the Friday program and checked in rather hurriedly. It's a rock-bottom motel, though the price, $72 including tax, seemed a bit steep. We were thoroughly charmed by the sign saying that we were not allowed to have prostitutes, drugs or firearms in our rooms. STB wondered why the Marriott never sees fit to put up signs like that, and you know what? I don't know either. It seems a very sensible set of rules. The proprietor handled transactions through one of those bullet-proof glass windows where you have to slide your ID and credit card under a dip in the counter so there is no chance you can fire through the cash slot or grab someone's hand as they work. The place was clean inside and some things in the room worked quite well. Although I'd brought everything – a heap of electronics ranging from laptop to flat-iron for my hair, it turned out I didn't have a comb. And we were in a part of San Diego that just wasn't going to provide one. Oh wells. We paid for our MTS (tram) tickets in quarters and set off to the Street Scene.
It was kind of deserted. As I got used to it, I realized we were here way early. There was not much going on except the music, so no one would be arriving until the bands got 'good'. The 'scene' itself was three stages on three dead-end streets in the poor enclave of East San Diego, arranged so that the short stub of a street was the auditorium, and there were two larger stages at opposite ends of the parking lot of Petco Park. This meant the entire thing was on concrete or asphalt, in the middle of August in San Diego where the temperature is mid-nineties and the humidity is far higher than LA, making it a sweat bath with nowhere to sit or lie down at all. And I mean at all. A festival normally has like, a tree or something, or a patch of grass. This had just San Diego curbs to sit on. There were unlimited pass-outs when you wore the wristband, of course, but you passed out to East San Diego, i.e. several thousand acres of more curbs, concrete, parking lots and asphalt. There was a tram station but my sleeping on benches in bus stations days are thankfully over. Anyway, I said no whining in this post, so I'll stop, after mentioning how much my feet were still blistered after spending Wednesday lining up, seeing The Dead Weather and walking on concrete in LA.
First band we saw were the Wavves, whom I liked tremendously. Guitar, voice and drums, punk sound. They had Animal on drums. I know that's a cliché, but the description really fitted the guy, and on guitar (a powder-blue Strat (copy?)) was a young guy with seventeen thousand metric tonnes of reverb on his microphone. At one point between songs he said, "Is that too much reverb? No, we're good." And off they went again. Except he actually sounded to have said "Is that is that too is that much that reverb too much that reverb too much reverb much reverb reverb?" They were great. Wonderful attitude and some good songs, just happy to be playing for people who are happy listening to them.
Next, Holy Fuck. I'd assumed they were a punk band too, from the name, but I guess it is a trance sort of name instead, judging by their sound. At one point somebody appeared to blowing down a tube into a pixiephone and we decided to classify them as 8 bit or at least Lo-Fi. They were nice, danceable and listenable but not too memorable.
I did want to watch Mastodon, but STB vetoed them on sight, after catching a glimpse of a Hairy on the stage's overhead screen and hearing the heavy (man) music pounding out on the street. On that brief and possibly unfair exposure, they seemed like the sort of band that would have gone down very well in Birmingham (UK) in 1976 along with Sabbath, Purple etc. I'm told they are part of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, and having heard the original heavy metal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I imagine I'm not too incorrect here.
We saw and heard a bit of Cake in the distance and it seemed mostly to be Mr. Cake saying something bad tempered about the band, the equipment or the lights. Then suddenly out of nowhere they played Black Sabbath's War Pigs so we sang along and head-banged. It's always good to have a daily fix of Sabbaff.
Then another Canadian band, Chromeo. They played rather wilted modern R&B with a lot of synth, voice changing synthesizers and common or garden beats. The only thing I can remember of them is their "station ID" song about their name being Chromeo which is stuck in my head and won't dislodge. Great light show. They had sort of tall poles of light behind them that did tricks and I could have watched them all night. It was like a trained circus pony act except made of photons. Great stuff. Can I have one for my birthday?
We made the mistake of going to see the very, very popular Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band on one of the big stages. It sounded like watered-down Irish music, bland and virtually affectless. The audience loved it and lapped it all up. What does that tell you? I don't really know but I guess it explains why whenever I ask someone to recommend me really good music I'm usually disappointed. De gustibus non est disputandum.
Same deal with Modest Mouse. I thought they sucked the life out of everything they touched. But thousands of people went to see them and cheered every song to the heights. They reminded me of those modern light bulbs, you know the ones that say "37 watt bulb! Saves 10% power over the old 40 watt bulb!" Yes, they do, but they're 10% duller. This was a definite 37 watt day for these guys. I know this is a cruel thing to say, but I classified them as "Music that is trying to win a Grammy". That's not very indie, is it?
We should have then gone on to watch the Black Eyed Peas but we decided that it would not be necessary.
Best festival food: Curry, from the Bombay Curry stall. Usually festival curry is a combination of lethally undercooked garbanzo beans, some strange acid (lactic?) picked up during an unconventional cooking process, salmonella and brown rice that resembles sharp gravel purchased for parrot's gizzards. In this case, it was a nice, warming, perfectly-cooked vegetable curry. We browsed stalls selling scarves, t shirts, bangles, nose rings, Nokia phones, and some sort of sharp-taloned curved finger stalls with skulls and monsters on them. I would like to be the sort of person who wears things like those but I'm not, and short of a Singularity I'm unlikely to become one. There was not a great deal of merchandise, it has to be said.
Back to the motel, shedding all prostitutes, firearms and drugs on the way so as not to break the posted rules. In the morning, since I had forgotten a comb I sent the ever-lucky STB out to buy one. He came back with a brush and a beard trimmer set that included a comb. (I don't have a beard.) The tail-light on my car had been smashed.
We drove back to East Village or whatever it's called, instead of taking the tram, and parked in an industrial road close to the tram station. There was a 'no defecation/no urination' sign against the fence, but from the smell of it, most people in the district ignored it. We walked past probably the most run-down area I've been in inside the last thirty years (I used to live in un-rejuvenated East London, and I'm counting that) before arriving at the tram station. At one point, next to a traffic light box, a weed had thrust up through a bad repair in lumpy asphalt and produced a strong and evil looking shrub almost four feet high. It was the only green thing surviving, a nasty, stinking weed like something Sam might have found growing in a crack in Mordor's filth. Having walked through LA's garment district three days before, the contrast was incredible. The LA area was poor, but everyone was doing something, working, thronging, buying, bustling, shuttling kids, maybe working for piece rates but at least working. This was a dead area. (It was Saturday, which didn't help, but I think there's still a significant difference.) At the tram station, the world suddenly went from post-industrial (closed muffler shops, abandoned pipe-fitter shops) to post-modern, with the square concrete clock tower and its little red decorations, the hotels, Petco Park, a lot of new apartment buildings, and the well-trodden areas of the city.
We had pizza for breakfast at BASIC pizza, which was far better than basic, chatted to the homburg-wearing pizza guy about Street Scene (Dead Weather fan, unable to go tonight) and then left to leach off the Marriott's internet connection until the day's festivities started. We had a list of wifi hotspots in the area and I felt a little like a nomad with a nomad's arcane knowledge – not knowing the oases where I can graze my goats, or the mountain caves where god manifests but a very clear idea of the power points where I can recharge my computer and the overlay of wifi where I can rejoin the net.
We saw the Crocodiles – can't remember much about them but they went into the "would see again" category. Then Blue Scholars, who were a lot of fun. An old-school hip hop group, they had some classic beats and hook-filled dance tunes. The DJ was fast and clever with a great sense of humor. At one point one of the GIANT bugs that live in the industrial area beyond the end of the dead-end streets flew over and buzzed him and he was running around shouting about the biggest bug he ever saw. That wasn't part of the act, I'm just saying. I wonder what the hell they were? They looked like beetles rather than palmetto bugs, and seemed to seek out sound waves to fly around in. Maybe pressure waves in the air confuse them or something.
Then we went to see Public Enemy, who need no introduction, I'm sure. Although by this stage they are a greatest-hits group, touring their albums on their twenty year anniversaries, they were tight, loud, fast and still politically motivated. The beats started with that deep bass thrum that I used to be able to hear, but now can't, played so loud that they made the cartilage in my nose and throat vibrate. Weird when you can no longer hear it. It continued to be loud enough to be felt for an hour and a half. The bad news is that they were only booked for 45 minutes, but nothing, and I mean nothing, shuts up Flava Flav when he's in full effect. Chuck D and Flava Flav traded off, as usual. The S1W's did their silent, menacing dances (with katanas, this time. I guess Uzis were banned at some point in the last twenty years) and we all danced, a lot. Flava crowd surfed, climbed the scaffolding, threw goodies out to the crowd and generally kept up a steady 120% of capacity energy level. He insisted Chuck D's wife come onstage so we could cheer their wedding anniversary. At one point he told us he did the things he did because he liked pussy, and then caught himself and apologized to all the mothers with children out there.
And Public Enemy were the only band we saw who bothered to deliver an anti-war message. PE alone who gave the speech about supporting troops meaning not sending them meaningless places to die over pointless causes. Brave, in a military town like San Diego and very much appreciated by me.
That threw everyone's schedules out. I really wanted to see the Silversun Pickups, but instead went right to the large stage to watch the end of Of Montreal so I could get a good place for The Dead Weather. Since I hadn't planned to go, I hadn't looked them up and I have no idea why Of Montreal do the shtick they do, but the overall effect is of people dressed as cardinals and furry animals singing glam rock songs much like the ones from Velvet Goldmine. They had a big crowd, all there for them, very happy with the band. I'd definitely put them in the "would see again" category.
As they left, we moved forward for The Dead Weather, and I staked out a place near the barrier. In front of me was a young girl, no more than five feet tall and in front of her, a friend of hers the same height. That's always good. I'm five four. I wear heels but almost everyone is taller than me. Getting to the barrier is the only way to see a show. With two women that size in front of me, I had the duty of ensuring no one pushed me, which would crush them – I'd have a soft landing, but they would have the metal barrier in their ribs. I braced myself against the barrier with one hand, next to a woman who I'm guessing didn't appreciate it by the way she tried to crush my hand. The rather messy roadies for Of Montreal used a leaf-blower to clear away confetti and glitter – some of which stuck to us – while the disciplined, hat-wearing Jack White roadies set up their gear with simple efficiency. Since we had nothing to do but watch, someone in the crowd took to answering one guy's mike testing by hollering his words back to him as if it were a call-and-response song. Eventually he gave us the finger. Hee. You make your own fun, don't you? We have a larf, don't we?
The crowd was boisterous, determined to push from the sides to the middle. I kept my hand on the barrier. Despite the crushing. (I'll never play guitar again.)
The Dead Weather had to change their set slightly for Street Scene – no encores, so Treat Me Like Your Mother was moved up to just before Will There Be Enough Water. They played two new ones – Jawbreaker and one I didn't recognize. I love Jawbreaker, which has such a great riff. They were in a far more open mood tonight, possibly because they were winning over people who had come to see other bands, rather than performing directly for people who have already bought into the mystique – no fighting, no drinking, no theater, just straight ahead bluesy rock and roll. We even got smiles and thank yous a couple of times. The band has really come together in just a few months and yet plays as though they grew up together, tight, focused and full of energy. It was a blistering show and must have won over a lot of new fans.
As soon as they finished, I twigged we wouldn't get an encore and started to leave. About half way out I remembered the little girl in front of me. She had been swaying with heat and dehydration and I'd just left her, without pulling the man who was with her, behind my companion, forward to take care of her. I hope she's okay. I felt terrible about that.
To celebrate yet another wonderful Dead Weather show, we didn't bother going to watch MIA. We went back to the car, where the secret of the aroma of Excrement Alley was revealed – it's where all the homeless people sleep. So the way to our car was lined by hundreds of lumps of clothes, bags and plastic bottles, each of which had a sleeping human at its kernel. Each one sleeping on concrete in an arid wasteland.
These inner city deserts, that's what I'll take away from this week. Dehydration, heat prostration, hard concrete, prison camp lines and long forced waits in borderline dangerous environments. That, and the 96c water-seller guy waiving the extra fee because I didn't have it, the wonderful people in line with me and the great shows.