Sunfest? More like Spatefest! The rain was out in full force last night for the opening of the 31st annual waterfront West Palm Beach music and arts festival. We were wondering -- considering it always starts on the cusp of our rainy season -- was calling this five-day-long festival "SunFest," a cruel joke? No matter, it was not the first time the festival was marred by drizzle, so the natives came prepared.
Yes, the poncho was haute couture on Wednesday night, an evening that, through the years, has become recognized SunFest's more alternative, and indie-leaning night. "New Music Night," it was called a few years back, and this year, although not carrying that moniker it featured bands with a less mainstream bend. Portland, Oregon's experimental pop group Aan, the neo-psychedelic Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and alt rock giants the Smashing Pumpkins.
The time slots didn't work in our favor. We weren't lucky enough to catch an entire set of any of the bands. We saw a brief snippet of the squiggly synth splendor of Aan, up-and-comers whose electronic rock is often compared to Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. Unfortunately, we had to skip out on them, because their set overlapped with cult-like troupe, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Consisting of 13 touring members, with upright and electric piano, a stand-up bass, five or so guitar players, a brass ensemble, violin, and two drum sets, Sharpe's catchy and effervescing cast of members took up every inch of the Tire Kingdom stage. Frontman Alex Ebert, in his spacey, took-way-too-much-acid-in-high school, messianic figure way, announced that it was his band's first time performing in West Palm Beach. "That's What's Up," was a perfect song for the start of the set, a duo with Sharpe's enchanting chanteuse Jade Castrinos. She was dressed for the occasion, in a billowing summer dress, which would be the ideal garment for a true SunFest. The song evokes the evangelical hymn underbelly of the Magnetic Zero's tunes. Skippy "um ba, um ba" lyrics and bubbly bells "Jangling," evoked Saturday morning cartoon jingles.
The group was given a two-hour set, which caught even Sharpe off guard. At one point, he asked the crowd for requests. Obviously, there was an overwhelming number of screeches for "Home," the group's most popular single, but between all those people, yelling "Home," "Home," "please play Home," Sharp managed to pick out someone from the crowd who was shouting for "I Don't Wanna Pray." This country meet gospel choir number of the group's latest album Here was the last Sharpe tune we heard as Billy Corgan's prog rock, dream pop ensemble was getting underway over at the larger Ford Stage.
Upon arrival, we heard the news we had just missed a Smashing Pumpkins cover of "Space Oddity," but our melancholy was broken by the familiar, delicate guitar strums of "Tonight, Tonight," one of the Pumpkins breakout moments from their 1993 smash album Siamese Dream. We were way back in the crowd, but on the big screen, we spotted Corgan's shiny noggin, besides the monk 'do, Corgan has not changed one bit since his band's '90s heyday. And his angst-ridden snarl hasn't lost its edge either. Corgan nailed the number's screeching yelps with ease. At one point, we overheard a girl in her early thirties next to us mention, "I think everyone our age has had sex to this song."
Got us thinking... Well, there was that one time in my parents' Chevy Celebrity with the girl from the drill team... OK, we won't kiss and tell, but "Tonight, Tonight," is one of those pervasive songs you just couldn't avoid in early '90s. And with its charging guitars and backing drum snares, this new edition of the Smashing Pumpkins does a remarkable job at recreating the band's glory years.
Corgan asked rhythm guitarist Jeff Schroeder if he had heard the rumor that there was a lot of pot smoking going on. "I haven't heard that rumor, but I have certainly smelled it," he joked. It was a moment that reminded us of that time at Ultra when Madonna asked the crowd if anyone had seen Molly...
A message aging rock stars: It's just not that cool for you to act like they are hip to the drug scene. Don't accuse us of ageism readers, because this reporter is only a few years younger than Corgan. We just find it contemptible when greying rock stars try their hardest to seem relevant with drug references. Given that however, it was sort of just an observation. There was a lot of noticeable marijuana smog in the air. With the rain it created a sort of misty ganja melange.
Anyway, Corgan made this marijuana reference because the title track from the Pumpkins 2012 album Oceania is "aimed at those who might be altered in any way." The track began as a mid-tempo slow-burner and then erupted with Corgan's crackerjack guitar licks and high-pitched sneers. This track could easily have fit in Siamese Dream. Another Oceania number, rather unremarkable one called "Pale Horse" followed.
An industrial crunch began with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness hit "Zero." The current reincarnation of the Pumpkins was much more electronic than the original on this version. Loaded with fuzzbox beats and heavy bass thumps, it sounded as if industrial act Front 242 covering "Zero" -- that's how far removed from the original it was. But, we enjoyed it nonetheless. In "United States," Corgan tapped deeply into his metal side, unleashing gnarls worthy of Cannibal Corpse and taking some time to display Steve Vai-style virtuosic licks.
The rain was coming down steady at this point as Corgan and his new crew bid the audience adieu. Yeah, we all knew there was an encore coming. Not one soul left. No surprises. Corgan couldn't have picked a better ending number than "Today," perhaps one of the most uplifting numbers from his catalog. The rhythm section dominated this track, with the drum overtaking every other instrument, even our favorite staccato guitar stokes. Still, it was a dutiful rendition of the original.
The crowd, decked out in Primus, and Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shits were either drenched, or in ponchos when leaving. No matter how cynical we tried to be, we left feeling somewhat giddy about Crogan's latest Smashing Pumpkins revival. He's added elements to the material that made each song relevant, and yet, if you were a teenager in the mid-'90s, Smashing Pumpkins' songs come enveloped with such nostalgia, that it's hard to remove yourself from your emotions.
Billy, you're still cool. We didn't mean what we said earlier about the pot joke. Moral of the story: You don't need sun in order to have fun at SunFest. Good tunes help, and beer seals the deal.
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