You don’t throw a music festival on the beach and neglect to invite Best Coast. Gulf Shores isn’t what Bethany Cosentino had in mind when she named her band, but even she saw the parallels: “This next song, it’s about California, but all of the things I talk about in it you guys have here.” They then commenced with “The Only Place,” one of the nearly indistinguishable (but identically awesome) sunshine refractions they performed at the Chevrolet Stage just after noon Sunday. Cosentino is one of those pop savants whose every lazy melody seems like the product of divine intervention; you can count on her songs to hit you in the heart. That said, half the charm of a Best Coast show is her rambling between songs. She fielded questions about her pet’s whereabouts (“Snacks is a cat. He’s at home. I’ll tell him you said hi.”), lamented the band’s imminent departure (“We don’t get to stay at the festival, which sucks, because it’s probably gonna be tight”), sung a spontaneous happy birthday, got her ya-yas out (“WOOOO!”), decried the Mega Drop carnival ride (“Whoever goes on that thing is insane”) and stoked the flames of romance (“We’re gonna play a couple slow songs. This is your chance to make out with whoever you want… hold hands… slow dance… finger bang…”). It’s hard to imagine a better start to this fest’s final day.
Shortly thereafter, Baauer of “Harlem Shake” fame was holding court at the Boom Boom Tent in front of killer video projections — I especially dug that house-on-fire effect — looking like a movie caricature of an enthusiastic whiteboy DJ with his exaggerated gestures and oversized T. Baauer dropped his big viral hit while I was away checking out Grouplove on the main stage, so I only witnessed the kids grinding in swimsuits to barely tweaked DMX and T.I. tracks, not preserving a months-stale gyration meme for posterity with their bro’s Samsung Galaxy. Grouplove, though: They’re definite children of the ’90s. One song, mathy alt-pop; the next, a Pixies loud/quiet/loud deal that morphs into Blue Album Weezer and back; the next, more Cuomo homage (Cuomage?), but digitized this time. The attitude was a little too “shiny happy people,” but the songwriting and energy were strong, and who am I to reject a woman in a skeleton suit?
Galactic presented a form of fun-time funk most closely associated with late-night TV bands. Although they lacked the rough edges I look for in a hard-hitting funk band, their cover of “I Am the Walrus” was dope. Not so dope: rap-rocker Chancellor Warhol and prospective arena rockers Moon Taxi. The former was burdened by a grating personality, the latter by no personality at all.
Is Ellie Goulding a genuine stateside pop star? The main stage masses were shrieking for her like a star, but Goulding claimed she’s been doing shows for about 20 people every night, “so this is fucking cool.” She certainly carries herself like a star in the best, most effervescent way. Her voice, so breathy and British, never fails to impress, and her poise never inhibits her playful enthusiasm. Plus her songs show the best side of the all-consuming monogenre that’s taking over pop (see: Coldplay featuring Rihanna); in ostensible dance-pop tracks, Goulding headbanged to guitar bombast, twiddled knobs to control live vocal effects and even pummeled a tom-tom Arcade Fire style. She might not be a star here yet, but she deserves to be.
Regarding that whole auxiliary percussion dealie: Just because you do it doesn’t mean you’re Arcade Fire. Vegas-based Killers biters Imagine Dragons would do well to learn that, and to silence their bro-tastic lead singer, who should realize that trying to sound like Brandon Flowers is like making a third- or fourth-generation Xerox. A far better option during their time slot was Space Capone, Earth Wind & Fire-reminiscent funk-soul brothers from Nashville featuring fine falsetto and one of the most awkwardly charming mustachioed backup singers/tambourine shakers in the business. If nothing else, the sprawling ensemble was a pleasant way to kill time until more pressing matters arose.
That’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ cue. Last month I suggested they could feasibly graduate to festival headliner status. Now I think they should headline all the music festivals. From a rousing “Sacrilege” on through an ebullient “Zero,” they were invincible. Nick Zinner’s scuzzy wrangled riffs plus Brian Chase’s grinning Muppet mania combined for some absolute raunch, particularly when Dave Pajo was on stage to beef up the sound. “Gold Lion,” “Phenomena,” “Runaway” — rabid and violent, all of them. They used programmed tracks as a boost but never a crutch, because who needs a crutch when you’ve got Karen O? Rock’s leading lady was so wild, so free. She took more joy than any performer from pronouncing “Alabama” — also from sticking microphones down her pants and throat — and saw no problem with going on a heavily accented “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” rant during the intro to “Maps.” (“Time for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song!”) Even when dance, dance, dancing ’til you’re dead involved skanking for some reason, she was unflappably cool and fully in command of considerable powers.
Bloc Party? More like Blah(c) Party, amirite? I would be angling for the Silent Alarm 10-year anniversary tour in 2015 if the tracks from that album didn’t sound so wobbly and fragile Sunday at the Letting Go stage. Thankfully, Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit were nearby at the BMI Stage reminding me that there are still mournful alt-country balladeers worth paying attention to. Then I stumbled upon Trey Anastasio Band, who I expected to despise because Phish. Instead, his brass-infused band’s neatly arranged set of originals and covers started off tolerable and crossed over into pleasant sometime around sundown. Good arrangements count for a lot.
That said, Anastasio is a fucking footnote compared to Stevie Wonder. I smiled with inexpressible joy when the instrumental buildup peaked and Wonder’s legendary voice rang out, the exact voice we’ve all been hearing on classic records our whole lives manifested in the flesh. The joy didn’t stop from there because every song Wonder performed was timeless. The first half of the set leaned heavy on covers — Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, two John Lennon tunes — and beyond the incredible performance of incredible songs, there was real resonance in realizing that Wonder probably knew all of those guys and watched them die young. This wasn’t just some schmuck playing standards, it was a master celebrating his friends’ legacies. Eventually he turned the spotlight on his own, rattling off a sick series of untouchable, iconic singles, all of them inspiring widespread sing-alongs and dance parties. Late in the set, after a thunderous ovation, Wonder turned somber and gave an emotional speech about performing in Alabama, where his mother was born into poverty. Realizing how far his family has come, and how he’d been able to give her a comfortable life, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. Sunday night in the ocean breeze, he did her proud, and those of us who had the privilege of witnessing it were feeling mighty thankful too.