Every now and then, you go to a festival of a certain size, or of a certain personality, where a particular day can feel as if everything is leading to one artist. This feels increasingly rare now, in an era where festivals have become big mainstream propositions, necessitating an array of artists that (theoretically, hopefully) appeals to the widest range of festivalgoers. People can show up and have totally different priorities, and that’s before you even consider the relative lack of truly massive, truly unifying artists you could get to headline these things. Even with an artist like Arcade Fire, there are going to be some people who don’t care. And that has to be true of LCD Soundsystem, too. There have to have been some people at Panorama who didn’t care about seeing them. But on Sunday, at least, it wasn’t easy to come across those people. LCD’s first big hometown show since their reunion — they previously did two very small shows at Manhattan’s Webster Hall, which were pretty much impossible to get tickets to — felt like an event on a level well beyond your typical Sunday night headliner, and well beyond their headlining set at Bonnaroo, too, for what it’s worth. There was an energy percolating in the air all day, and as soon as they hit the stage, that energy burst into almost two hours of non-stop euphoria. Otherwise, Sunday was Panorama’s weakest day artist-for-artist. But there were still a few great things to check out along the way.
There were certain through-lines at Panorama. Between Sufjan Stevens, the National, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem, the big indie headliners were all of the same era (and most of those artists are friends with each other). There was also a TDE artist each day: Schoolboy Q on Friday, Kendrick on Saturday, and finally SZA on Sunday. This time, that familiar logo popped up over black-and-white imagery with the letters themselves filled with pink flowers. Though she garnered a lot of attention for her outlier role at TDE — the female singer amidst male rappers — it could also be hard to tell the exact scope of SZA’s current fame. She could almost be known more for her associations or her guest spots or her co-writing credits, rather than on the strength of the three EPs she’s released solo so far. But a significant crowd gathered for her set, and more importantly, the tone felt specific. Sure, it’s a festival, but SZA elicited a different kind of universality and positivity during her set. The air was sticky inside the tent, a fitting setting for her humid neo-soul. Rather than attendees staggering through the final day, everyone who showed up to see SZA play seemed to walk away rejuvenated.
Kurt Vile & The Violators
There was nothing surprising or new about Kurt Vile’s Panorama set. This guy is, at this point, a festival warhorse of a particular breed: He rolls in with decently high billing, attracts a surprisingly large crowd for his brand of slacker-Americana, and then delivers hazy yet half-muscular sets often featuring his more uptempo material. But Vile does his thing better than most others, and his brand of rambling, drifting classicist rock is always a perfect fit for the sun-baked late afternoon slots he usually occupies. Also, “Pretty Pimpin’” is still a hell of a song, and that alone makes a Vile set worth seeing these days.
You know that feeling when you’re visiting a new city or a new country and you’re pressed for time, trying to cram in all the sights or something, and instead of finding that cool local lunch spot accidentally, you just wind up grabbing whatever’s quick and right in front of you? Until that last day or two where you do find that cool place accidentally, and then you kick yourself for not having stopped by every day you were there? That was Despacio. After going to Despacio yesterday, I wished I’d been taking detours there the whole weekend.
Despacio was a club tent situated in the mainstage field, named for the soundsystem that occupied it — a soundsystem that, as it happens, is the design of James Murphy in collaboration with audio engineer John Klett and 2ManyDJs. Their philosophy was partially one rooted in their audiophile tendencies, and partially in an older notion of clubgoing — the DJ is hidden, not up front like a performer, and people are in the center totally lost in the sound. At Panorama, the Despacio tent was a dark room, with much-needed air-conditioning, a giant mirrorball hanging from the ceiling with smaller ones dispersed around it and draped in green sashes that mimicked vines. There were palm trees positioned near the speakers, and at one point I almost tripped over an alligator statue that had a discarded Budweiser bottle sitting near its claw. The whole thing was like another world hidden within Panorama, and if you consider festivals as a temporary removal from real life, it was like an escape within the escape. The music selection was incredible (they were on Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” when I walked in, which is very on-brand, naturally), the sound is great — beyond being a respite amidst the final day of a very hot festival weekend, it made you wish Despacio was a permanent outpost in NYC.
Run The Jewels
After they pummeled their way through the post-RTJ2 coronation all 2015, Run The Jewels haven’t been on the road quite as consistently this year, with them working on new music and Killer Mike stumping for Bernie Sanders. That being said, they’ve gotten the whole fire-breathing machine back in order for some summer festival appearances, and this time they even have giant balloon versions of their zombie gun-and-fist logo to go with it. At this point, all the beats in the set are well-established, but always unfurl into something spontaneous. El-P’s requisite apologies to the people in front about how crazy it’s going to get during “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” turned into a bit where Killer Mike was trying to convert a LCD fan who was posted up front against the rail early. (He asserted that this guy looked like the white version of him, and checked in with “White Mike” through the rest of the set, promising him he’d be a fan by the end.) But even as a RTJ set does everything you expect it to, it’s still a thing to witness: It’s hard to think of many other artists going right now who can simultaneously be that aggressive and visceral, while also coming off as some of the warmest, most affable, most welcoming musicians at their level. At the end, Killer Mike said goodbye by yelling, “RTJ…3! RTJ3, that’s right, 3!” Hopefully he makes good on that promise sooner than later.
Panorama had a mainstage, a big tent stage, and the Parlor — an indoor tent that could hit capacity without too much difficulty. While an indoor venue is a great way to change it up at a fest that has like, eight things going on at once, it was a little weird for a festival of Panorama’s size; people encountered insane waits for Kaytranada there the night before.
But maybe because they partially conflicted with A$AP Rocky, maybe because so many people were camping out for prime spots for LCD’s impending set, Holy Ghost!’s show at the Parlor was the exact right amount of crowded for what felt like an opening slot for their big brothers over in LCD. Holy Ghost! have gotten way better live over the years. They have a muscularity to them now that was absent in the past, with a dense disco sound that works far better in an indoor space like the Parlor than in a festival field in the afternoon (which, inevitably, would be the time they’d play otherwise in most instances). Like Despacio, it felt like a little removal from the rest of the festival outside, a gigantic version of “Do It Again” able to temporarily fool you into thinking you were at some club night in the early morning.
If Kendrick’s Saturday headlining set had the power of superstardom and mind-blowing technicality, and Run The Jewels were a joyous assault, Panorama’s final big rap act brought one last, crazy party that entirely defied the fact that it was a Sunday night. A$AP Rocky has been in the news lately for making some pretty dumb comments, but if you were able to ignore that for a minute, his set was an exhilarating take-no-prisoners run through all the big stuff. He brought Ferg out for a mini-set that included “New Level” and “Shabba,” before Ferg (and the rest of their crew) continued hanging on the stage for much of the rest of the set. There was, of course, “Goldie” and “Fuckin’ Problems” and “Wild For The Night”; somewhat less expectedly given the tone of the set otherwise, there was also “L$D.”
Also: A$AP Rocky’s stage setup is so cool. There’s one screen toward the front of the stage; it’s actually the front of a big platform, and there’s another screen set back a ways on the platform. Rocky and Ferg could be up on the platform and feel larger-than-life, then a moment later everyone would be congregated below the first screen. It’s a simple design, but not a common one, and it made for a more dynamic show. It also left me wondering what an artist who relies on a lot of psychedelic screen imagery could do with such a setup.
Did you think the LCD reunion was old news by now? I’ll admit, I kinda did. This was just an accepted reality. Oh, yeah, of course LCD are back. I’m a little biased here: I saw them twice already this year, and also spent much of my year writing about Sound Of Silver. So when James Murphy quickly addressed the crowd early on and said, “Oh boy, oh jeez, it’s very nice to play at home,” it felt a little coy and self-aware even while genuine.
All of this is to say: Maybe it’s stronger in NYC, fair enough, but don’t underestimate the LCD Soundsystem reunion. The crowd was massive, and packed, and freaking out to nearly every song. Sure, they sang “You Wanted A Hit,” and that maybe they don’t do hits, but that was nonsense: The set continues to be lined with the hits, the fan favorites. Maybe this band wasn’t on this level during their first run. Now, they’ve reclaimed their mantel as one of the greatest live bands going in indie right now, and this time its with a Murphy who seems to, somehow, be a better singer and frontman five years down the line. Now, they can headline festivals and fill a field, and you can realize the full impact the break in “Dance Yrself Clean” has when it’s amplified over that kind of space. It’s ridiculous. It goes beyond anything I could’ve imagined these guys pulling off in a 1,000-capacity club in the past.
On Saturday, I wrote that there isn’t much that compares to seeing a festival crowd sing along to songs like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” at an Arcade Fire set. I found something that does. It’s seeing LCD Soundsystem close a festival with “All My Friends.” This is one of the songs of my generation. And it’s hard to sum up what it’s like being in a crowd, beside your friends but amidst thousands of strangers who are themselves beside their friends, and the effect this song now has on people. It’s like it’s just continued snowballing in size in the collective unconsciousness since LCD disbanded. It looked like everyone was singing along, and that half the entire crowd was jumping, arms aloft, for the entire last two minutes of the song. Friends were arm-in-arm, people were crying, people were laughing. It looked like one of those bullshit festival promotion videos, the ones where they make it look like crowds are constantly losing their minds at every set the entire weekend. But it was really happening. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Sunday headliner able to elicit this kind of response at the end of a set, after three days in sweltering heat. I am sure that it was the kind of thing that’s rare in shows, rarer at festivals. As soon as it ended and everyone started walking away, you just got the sense that LCD Soundsystem had left this little pocket of New York so much happier than they had been before. That’s a powerful thing. That’s what these festivals like to act like they’re always about, but it takes something unique, it takes something with the runaway power of “All My Friends” and the reinvigorated LCD Soundsystem, to actually get us there.