Not So Silent Night 2013 continued to live up to its moniker last weekend with a rocking line-up so massive, it felt like a festival bill rather than an end-of-year radio show by an alt-rock station.
It was no surprise when Live 105’s Music Director and Assistant Program Director, DJ Aaron Axelsen was asked which acts he was most keen to see that he was hard-pressed to choose. He said: “NSSN 2013 is like having 12 children – it’s impossible for me to highlight or focus on just a few.” After the weekend, he did enthused that what he enjoyed most about the weekend was "The crowd! So amazing. Over 30,000 music fans and Live 105 listeners packed into the Oracle."
Likewise most of those music fans must have found it equally difficult to choose favorite acts. If you love indie and alternative rock, the bands you heard on the radio throughout the year, seem to all be there on the bill, and then some. Last year’s line-up with The Killers, Jack White, Passion Pit and Imagine Dragons was impressive and many thought hard to beat but Live 105 have managed to hit this year’s out of the ball park.
By the end of the weekend, however, there were definitely bands that emerged as clear favorites and others that functioned like festival support acts. These acts featured further down the bill - Queens of the Stone Age, Alt-J and Phoenix gave such convincing performances that legions of new fans would have been evangelized. The headliners big as they were – Kings of Leon on Friday, and Arcade Fire on Saturday weren’t necessarily the night’s most memorable acts.
Arctic Monkeys gave an early punch to the proceedings with a short but sweet set. Particular highlights were “I Bet You Look Good on The Dancefloor” and lead singer, Alex Turner’s intro into “Arabella”. He said, “Ok Oakland, I wanna tell you about a girl called Arabella,” in the now usual northern drawl spiked with a Vegas affectation. If “Why You’d Only Call Me When You’re High” as The Rolling Stone reports is about Turner’s break up with fashionista-cum-MTV host, Alexa Chung then “Arabella” must be about the statuesque new girlfriend, Arielle Vandenberg who he has been with for over a year now.
Though he refrains from discussing his relationship in the media, he has saved some awesome lyrics for his current paramour and he sings this with such vigour. “Arabella's got some interstellar gator-skin boots/And a helter skelter around her finger and I ride in endlessly/She’s got a Barbarella silver swimsuit/And when she needs to shelter from reality/She takes a dip in my daydreams.” And I bet Vanderberg has that cheetah print coat to go with those boots too.
Having now seen Turner on the same stage, a set apart from his chum, Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age you recognize that slow clock of his hip. But even from their show in the Fox Theatre in September this year, Turner is getting noticeably smoother with his moves, and rewarded the early crowd at the arena with a top taster of the evening.
Next up was California band, AFI who have been around for 20years but not known to the average Vampire Weekend fan camped out in the front rows. Lead singer, Davey Havok did make scores of their leather-clad longtime fans very happy as they sung along to tunes “Love Like Winter” and “Girls Not Grey”.
Then came the truly seasoned rocker, Josh Homme who showed everyone how it’s done. While Turner’s stage persona is an act that he is still trying to fine-tune, Homme is the real McCoy. A bit of cheek (“we’ve just started and already we’re banned on the radio”); a nod to the fans out front (“I love this girl out here, she’s just shaking everything”); and a whole lot of attitude (singing “Nicotine, Vallium, Vicadine, Marajuana, Ecstasy and alcohol” like you were square if you didn’t get just how meta he was being) without ever being cocky or obnoxious. Note that “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” has been used by a county police department to illustrate the dangers of driving under the influence after all.
But Homme and the band he has assembled tonight is in top form and it looks like it is the dawn of a new Queens of The Stone age. Their first album in six years, “Like Clockwork” is also their first to debut at Number 1 and has just been nominated for a Best Rock Grammy. The album’s second single, “I Sat By The Ocean” with its opening few chords reminiscent of Blur’s “Coffee and TV” as well as the older track, “No One Knows” were particularly memorable.
IF QOTSA shoot from the hip, then the next act, Vampire Weekend are polar opposites with lead singer, Ezra Koenig coming out in a denim jacket with Babar the elephant emblazoned on it. It is comparing apples and oranges but Vampire Weekend’s stellar set with dizzying hits like “Diane Young” “Oxford Comma”, ”Walcott” and “A-Punk” puts them as a clear winner in the fruit basket especially if all the communal singing and dancing in the arena was anything to go by. And always fun to hear in the Bay Area is the fabulous, “Step” where as Koenig sang “…slash San Francisco/But actually Oakland and not Alameda…” he takes a moment to give an ‘alright’ sign – a nod and wink to the home crowd.
Then came final act, the comeback brothers and a cousin - Kings of Leon, who this year released their sixth album, “Mechanical Bull”. To illustrate who the bigger draw for the night was, fans had started to trickle out after their first song, and even as the band performed one of the more popular new singles “Supersoaker”. The general admission floor had thinned out so much that by the time Caleb Followill sang the lovely ballad, “Wait For Me” couples were able to slow-dance with ample room like it was their high-school prom. But those who hung around were treated with their biggest hits yet, “Use Somebody” and the night’s closer, “Sex on Fire”.
Day 2 kicked off with “Sweater Weather” band, Neighbourhood who seem poised to be last year’s Imagine Dragons. A relative new act with one very catchy song on the radio but a live set that reveals they have more in the bag with their brand of California guitar rock infused with rap and hip-hop.
However, lead singer, Jesse Rutherford’s two-toned hair and their need to stipulate that all their photos be similarly shot in black and white hinted at a certain self-importance that a band this nascent should really not have.
Brit band, Bastille who played twice in the Bay Area this year was up next and easily filled out their set with one hit after another from “Bad Blood” to “ Flaws“ and “Overjoyed”. Singer, Dan Smith who was bouncing from drums to keyboards while singing, ended with the ever-popular “Pompeii”.
The young, Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor also-known-as Lorde gave one of the night’s highlights not just because the 17-year-old has incredible presence and her songs offer intelligent zeitgeist-y lyrics set to catchy melodies but also the fact that she was ever-so-sweet after her mic-debacle.
She entered the stage in the dark and proceeded to sing “Bravado” jerking and twitching to the tune for almost a minute as the audience grew increasingly embarrassed for her and many started to shout out that they could not hear her.
In truth, the mic was recording her vocals well enough for the live stream just not audible to the arena audience. Still when she came back on and in her sweet Kiwi accent said, “shall we start this again?” everyone was won over. With all her curly locks and Goth lip-stick reminiscent of a young Kate Bush, she continued to please the crowd with “Ribs”, a Kanye West cover and of course, “Royals”.
Last year’s Mercury prize winner, Alt-J were a revelation live. The music and musicianship was at the fore without the distraction of their gritty urban videos. Lead singer, Joe Newman’s R&B infused vocals, aided by the vocal harmonies of keyboardist, Gus Unger-Hamilton sounded like a heavenly choir pumped with trip-hop drum and bass beats. Their indie-hit, “Fitzpleasure” with those distinct nasaled-vocals and the frantic castanet -playing of bassist, Gwil Sainsbury far superseded anything you would expect from listening to their studio album.
Paris-band, Phoenix changed things up with their lively set, kicking off with “Entertainment”. Lead singer, Thomas Marr known for his epic crowd surfs, wasted no time diving into the crowd on their second song, "Lasso" driving a palpable bolt of energy into the arena after the superb but moody stylings of Alt-J.
This second last act of the night, similar to Day 1 for me, was the most spirited and memorable band of the night. Arcade Fire had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately for all its disco ball and shiny reflectors, I have to agree with Noel Gallagher that their music doesn’t set me on fire and unlike Gallagher, I have listened to both "The Suburbs" and “Reflektor” albums.
Though not a fan of sugary pop, when listening to something so pleasurable like music becomes a task it ceases to be fun and Arcade Fire’s latest album, “Reflektor ” felt like work. But they knew how to make the most of the shiny theatrics and “Wake Up” with its anthemic chorus and beautiful cacophony of rock guitars, drums and violin strings was a mesmerizing and fitting close to the event.
And as the evening ended it reminded me of what Homme had said the night before, “Man isn’t it cool to see a bunch of different music. We’re all so different but we’re all here together, for one thing. So much good music, how could you lose? Or you find something new that you never knew you liked.”
For me that was Alt-J, Pheonix and of course, his royal Homme himself from Queens of the Stone Age!