Technical issues were the name of the game on Friday at FORM Arcosanti 2019. Power outages at the amphitheater stage early in the day forced some artists to end their sets early — like American Football and Japanese Breakfast (see below) — and others to move elsewhere around the aging complex. But it wasn't all disastrous, and as you'll read below, the musicians rolled with the punches and ensured their sets were even more unforgettable. Check out our recap of day one below.
Florence + The Machine
Preceded by the strange, earthy spoken-word poetry of Yrsa Daley-Ward, Florence Welch took the stage to a packed, primed audience at the amphitheater — so packed, in fact, that this reporter decided to watch the show on the screen outside the entrance rather than brave the crowd.
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Barefoot and clad in a translucent white tunic, the redheaded songstress strode around stage, bellowing along to the folksy pop arrangements supplied by her band The Machine, probably the only entity at FORM to employ a harpist. Each song peaked and valleyed like the mountain drive out from Phoenix, building intensity with Welch’s dynamic voice, confident stage movements, and lyrics about love, family, the strength of women, and some stuff that frankly sounds like it’s taken from fairy tales.
As magnificent as she was while singing, she suddenly took on a certain can’t-believe-I’m-here shyness during between-song banter, much of which, due to distance from the stage and the softness of her voice, I couldn’t really hear.
When Florence + The Machine were the biggest names on FORM's bill, I was a bit perplexed. It seemed odd to choose such a poppy headliner in the midst of acts like Bonobo and Tim Hecker. This is the woman made famous by the Eat, Pray, Love trailer, lest we forget (and yes, she did do “The Dog Days Are Over”). But her power over the audience was undeniable, even when cellist Kelsey Lu (also on the lineup) joined the band for, among other songs, “Jenny of Oldstones" — y’know, the song she did for the current season of Game of Thrones. If she can make that into a stirring moment, she can clearly do anything. Douglas Markowitz
Sometimes you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and sometimes defeat steals it right back. Japanese Breakfast experienced this cruel yo-yo during their amphitheater set. Sound problems plagued them from the jump — they started playing 20 minutes after their scheduled time, not out of rock star tardiness, but because Michelle Zauner and company struggled nobly to get their sound check right.
Re-entering the stage to the disembodied strains of “Diving Woman,” Zauner wore a silver-gray dress that looked like a queen’s disintegrating gown. They launched into their first song, and they sounded fantastic — right up until the sound cut out.
One song into their set, the power rolled over and died. Unable to get it to work, they left the stage. But Zauner, in full "show must go on" mode, came out with an acoustic guitar and walked out into the audience. She played two songs with one of her bandmates signing harmonies alongside her.
A hush fell over the packed amphitheater as folks strained to hear her unplugged voice over the sound bleed from the Vaults less than 100 feet away; You could hear people shushing each other more readily than you could hear the music. But her voice rose on her second acoustic tune, “This House,” swelling to fill the air.
And then, miracle of miracles, the sound came back on.The band picked up their instruments and started playing “Essentially” ... until the sound died again right after the second chorus. With a “what can you do” shrug, Zauner and her bandmates left the stage. Ashley Naftule
Tim Hecker with The Konoyo Ensemble
Positivity reigns supreme at FORM. This isn’t a bad thing: After being steeped in the toxicity of, well, modern civilization as a whole, it’s nice to come to a place where diversity is the norm, where visual art and music aims for the transcendent, and where they host panels and events that speak with optimism about the future. But it’s also the kind of place where people wear Venmo T-shirts without irony and host pop-up astrology events, so having a burst of malevolent vibes here and there to balance things out is nice.
When it comes to bringing the bad vibes, sound artist, electronic musician, and noise maestro Tim Hecker brought plenty of otherworldly majesty to the Apse dome. Billowing smoke and red lights spilled across the stage, making it look like Hecker and the two gagaku instrumentalists that made up The Konoyo Ensemble were playing in front of the open mouth of hell. The sound Hecker and company conjured onstage, an ominous, rising throb that pressed against people's rib cages like an endless, demonic CPR session, matched the dark atmospherics.
Moaning vocals and the playing of instruments like the sho and the shakuhachi added an almost cinematic quality to the music. Like most noise sets, there was no break between individual parts, just a steady, oceanic flow of sound, oscillating between harsh intensity and moments of ecstatic beauty, with little shards of melody punching through the red smoke and shining a light on their dark music. AN
“There’s an Al Jarreau version, a Sergio Mendes version, and a serpentwithfeet version,” Josiah Wise wryly purrs into the mic midway through crooning a cover of “The Waters Of March.” Wise, as serpentwithfeet, is the kind of singer whose style and voice is so distinct that anything he sings becomes his song. You can practically hear him filing off the serial numbers in between breaths.
Alone onstage in the Vaults, bathed in golden light and wearing a white shirt that can best be described as a Jedi blouse, serpentwithfeet enraptured the huge crowd with his mellifluous voice. Watching him perform, it’s almost impossible to tell what's planned and what’s ad-libbed. He expertly weaves asides and meta commentary about what he’s singing throughout his songs, as if he's thinking out loud and singing at the same time.
Wise was scheduled to play the amphitheater stage but got moved to the Vaults while they handled the catastrophic sound problems that went on there earlier in the day. He admits as much that this set was an off-the-cuff, unplanned performance — just him and his keyboards and his swooning voice — but still, the crowd was in the palm of his hand. As he sang his third song, some loud talkers in the crowd got shushed by their neighbors.
Wise cracked “It’s like second grade” to the shushers, “and I’m here for it.” AN
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There's a lot of potential energy on the dance floor. It’s a place where you look around at the many faces illuminated by bright, flashing lights and think of the lives behind them, and your own. Will they intersect beyond the confines of your bodies brushing up against each other in the crowded space provided? Will the dangerous liaisons give way to something deeper, more lasting?
This potential was given a perfect backdrop thanks to Peggy Gou, the Korean DJ whose incredible mix of tracks from across the house spectrum — acid basslines, classic vocals, unexpected rhythm changes that prompted the crowd to chant "Whoop! There it is!" — provided the next-to-last set on FORM’s Friday night. It was fantastic, the kind of set you’ll easily dance the night away to. I left a few minutes early, but from my tent I could hear her close with “Starry Night,” her latest club hit, and as it thumped in the distance, I looked up at the sky to see nothing less than hundreds of stars, visible thanks to Arcosanti’s remoteness. A perfect end to a wonderful evening. DM