The first thing I have to say is that Quail Run Park is a pretty cool venue and has the perfect layout for many festivals to come (I hope), as it hosted two festivals this weekend. It's also conveniently located immediately off the 202. The entire setup was a pretty great experience, from the food vendors area, the stage area, and even an amusement area that had a giant slide and a Ferris wheel.
My experience at FestivALTAZ began with Family Of The Year, who I had initially written off as a neo-folk band and little else. That impression, mainly from their hit "Hero," couldn't be farther from the truth. Granted, there are definite folk elements to the band's music, but much of their music is just pure indie rock, especially their new material, with only some folk flourishes. They opened with "Carry Me" as I entered the gates, and the follow up was equally compelling. It was the third song, a new song from their forthcoming summer release, that really tripped my trigger -- there was no folk in this gem at all, it was just great indie rock with a summertime theme. Their entire set was a delicious display of a band with fantastic musicality on the verge of breaking out. Whether it was "hits" from 2012's Loma Vista, like "Buried," or the exciting new material, their set was solid from start to finish. They finished, of course, with the heartwrenchingly beautiful "Hero," and it couldn't have sounded sweeter.
Up next were Oxford's Glass Animals. The band was probably the perfect act to play to the crowd for sunset. I wasn't sure how their brand of psychedelic trip-hop-rock was going to play out with a festival crowd, but it went over great, and their groove was far more exciting live than it is on their records. They opened with the fantastic "Black Mambo" and hooked the audience right from the get go with their synth-soaked, intricate tribal percussion, and of course the stunning voice of David Bayley. The equally hypnotic "Golden Antlers" came next, which featured some fantastic African rhythms and during the course of which two guitars stopped working. The alternative hit "Gooey" (which I once thought was sung by a woman) was next, and I had to respect them for throwing their best known song into as the third in their set, but at this point no one was walking away.
Bayley said "it was time for something special" and the synths went ablaze as he sang a brief, customizable song that referenced Arizona, Phoenix, Mesa, and Tempe, which garnered further favor from the crowd. "Hazey" was up next and by now everyone was reduced to fervent Glass Animals fans as he announced in the lyrics that he was "fucking loco." As the sun set, "Toes" was the perfect groovy way to dance into dusk as Bayley sang "All I ever want is breaking me a part. " This moved perfectly into "Wyrd" with its refrain that "You and I could have had so much." What happened next was pretty unexpected as they launched into a cover of Kanye West's "Love Lockdown" and legitimately pulled it off. It was certainly an impressive feat. Bayley said, "Who needs Coachella, huh?" before launching into the perfect finale of "Pools." Aside from early technical difficulties, the entire set was brilliant and one of the best of the event.
I was ready to take Panic! At The Disco to task in no uncertain terms. First of all there is only one original member left, singer Brendon Urie. Plus the last time I saw them was 2006 for the "Nothing Rhymes With Circus" tour, in their full theatrical glory. I had high expectations. Iwasn't sure how they were able to snag second billing when they haven't been relevant for many years at this point. I will give the band this, they do put on a high-energy show designed to make white people attempt to dance, which was alternately amusing and embarrassing. The problem is that Panic! At The Disco 2015 sounds like a Panic! At The Disco cover band, and Urie's voice has changed so much in the last decade, that he doesn't even sound like himself anymore.
There is talk that they will have a new album released in the near future and I'm actually curious at how it will sound. The material without Ryan Ross' lyrics just doesn't hold up and comes off as Vegas-disco-pop-rock, like The Killers but without the depth. This was pretty clear from the start with the opener of "Vegas Lights." Still, the crowd was loving it and singing along with every chance they got as they hit the early classic "Time To Dance" next. The gothic "The Ballad of Mona Lisa," was followed by yet another classic "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage", while a pretty great rendition of "Let's Kill Tonight" held the audience's attention rapt. A slew of newer material came across as high-energy filler. Sure, people were still dancing, but there were a lot of folks hitting the beverage stands during this point in the set.
In a way it's sad that the greatest moment in Panic! At The Disco's set was their cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." I mean, they nailed it, out of the ballpark perfection. I'm not sure I would have followed it with a stand-out track like "Lying is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off", but Urie's decision-making doesn't seem to be the best when constructing a set list. I was actually impressed with the latter day "Nearly Witches" and "This Is Gospel," but the funniest moment of the set was Urie's "Postive Thought Hardcore" during which he screamed happy things at the audience at breakneck speed. There was only one song that could finish the set and that was of course "I Write Sins Not Tragedies." Here again, Urie's voice just doesn't seem to be up to the flexible par that he was capable of a decade ago. Me? It just made me want to listen to A Fever You Can't Sweat Out all over again.
It was finally time for headliners Death Cab For Cutie to take the stage and no one budged. No one left after Panic! and I was a little surprised. If there is one thing that Panic! had it was a high-energy, electric presence, and coming off of that Death Cab is a little low key to say the very least. This was the first time I've seen them since the departure of Chris Walla and despite that fact, I have to say of the three or four times I've seen them, this was easily the best set they've ever delivered. It was also the longest I've ever seen them play, at just under an hour and a half. Part of the reason that the set was so great was that they were playing a fair amount of songs for their new album Kintsugi, which is heavier and darker than much of their past work. Still, they started off with the friendly alt-pop of "No Room In Frame" and got the ball rolling for a stunning set of songs that spanned their entire career. This was followed in short order by the now decade-old hit off of Plans, "Crooked Teeth." Going all the way back to the Forbidden Love EP from 2000, "Photobooth" was a surprising addition to the set and it sounded glorious. This was followed by "Doors Unlocked And Open," which featured an amazing hypnotic intro that left me slightly dazed. "Grapevine Fires" from 2008's Narrow Stairs was outstanding, but it was quickly overshadowed by their most recent single "Black Sun" which sounds a million times better live than on record. "Little Wanderer" was next in suit and it was one of my favorites of the night as well.
The band left the stage and Ben Gibbard performed a solo acoustic version of "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" with great effect and a stark presence. One of my favorite performances of the evening was easily "I Will Possess Your Heart," and as I was watching it, I could imagine an entire orchestra supporting Death Cab and I would love to hear that would sound like. The set got a bit heavy with guitars for a few songs including their amazing performance of "You're A Tourist" and the brand new "The Ghosts of Beverly Drive" which roused the audience and kept them grooving right into the end of the set. This included "The New Year", the brilliantly heavy "Cath" and the initial and expected finale of "Soul Meets Body". As the headliner they couldn't get away that easy and they of course came back for a stunning encore which featured the brand new "Everything's A Ceiling" and the fantastic classic "Transatalanticism" which feature building, wailing guitars to finish of the evening. I had my doubts going in about Death Cab being a good choice for a headlining act, I shouldn't have they have the talent and the presence to pull it off without any issue at all. Even now, the next day, I kind of want to see them again.
Critic's Notebook Last night: FestivALTAZ with Death Cab For Cutie/Panic! At The Disco/Glass Animals/Family Of The Year
The Crowd: Overall, the crowd was very, very young. All ages were represented, but a lot of folks were waiting to be picked up by their parents at the end of the night. It was, however, wonderful to see families dancing together
Random Notebook Dump: "Alright, it's not that this is bad, but they do sound like Panic! At The Disco covering Panic! At The Disco, they do however have me dancing and at times singing alone, so at least they've got that going for them."
Random Notebook Dump 2: "Yeah, Chris Walla is gone, but I didn't even notice, in fact this is the best set I've ever seen Death Cab do. Maybe his absence makes them try harder or maybe it actually makes them a better band--this is all Gibbard's show now and he's making the most of it."
Random Notebook Dump 3: "I don't know what the hell that new "Summertime" song is even called, but it assured me that I am buying the new Family Of The Year album the day it comes out, because that's the greatest thing they've ever done."
About The Festival Itself: This was the first one of these and I truly hope this becomes an annual thing. While the drinks were typical festival prices -- $5-$7 for a beer and $8 for a cocktail -- the concessions were actually fairly priced. Most of the food stands were within reason for the fare, which was quite a surprise. My only complaint? $10 for parking. I never like it when you have to pay for parking at a festival, if nothing else, include it in the ticket fee and let it go. That said the parking was executed brilliantly, I was on the highway 15 minutes after Death Cab finished, so maybe it was worth the tenner. Finally, I have to say it's completely foreign to me when a festival ends at 10:30 and even stranger when I'm home by 11 on a Friday night.
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