Part of the fun of being at the launch of the SoundTown festival is that everyone here seems to have settled into a relaxed, come-what-may mood. This morning, I had the opportunity to sit down with Somerset Amphitheater's owner Matt Mithun, and he seems pleased with how smooth the festival has been running so far and very optimistic for the future of the grounds. You'll find more of my discussion with him in the paper this week, but for now I'll say that Mithun seems very realistic about the stakes of this weekend's event and has a long-term plan for Somerset that makes me excited about next spring and summer.
SoundTown is Mithun's first attempt at booking a concert, and last night's proceedings had some of the signs of a first-timer at the wheel -- to be honest, though, I have no complaints about the acts that were chosen to perform, there were just a few odd things about the order of the sets that seemed to throw off the flow of the evening and cause it to end with more of a whimper than a bang.
The evening peaked with back-to-back performances by Delta Spirit on the main stage and Sims in the tented Summit stage, who delivered the two highest-energy sets of the night. Delta Spirit were the first SoundTown performer to deliver an encore at the request of the crowd, an impressive feat given their 6:45 p.m. set time, and they were also the first main-stage performers to transcend the challenges of playing on what is quite a mammoth stage and connect with the gathering crowd. "We're halfway between Minneapolis and Madison, two of the best rock 'n' roll audiences on the planet Earth," lead singer Matthew Vasquez gushed between songs, praising the crowd for their enthusiasm. He did his share to rile up the audience as well, throwing his guitar up into the air as he played and bounding around the giant stage. After a quick layover, the band returned for a two-song encore that included a wicked black metal cover of "John Henry" that was a highlight of the night.
Sims, on the other hand, was the first performer to bring the audience in close and create an intimate atmosphere. The grounds here are quite sprawling, with room for easily 30,000 more people in the giant bowl that nests the main stage, so I was happy that they placed Sims on the smaller tented stage where he could really harness the energy of the entire space. Sims's set heavily played on his new solo album, Bad Time Zoo, and the crowd seemed especially familiar with tracks like "Burn it Down" that receive heavy airplay on the Current.
By the time Sims finished performing the sun had completely set, and the festival grounds were transformed into a giant nightclub as Ghostland Observatory cranked their shuddering bass and flooded the main stage area with lasers. While I found their set to be a bit monotonous overall, it also had a trance-inducing vibe that would have made it a perfect way to close down the night.
Roma di Luna performed next in the tented stage. Their show was one of my priorities for the weekend and one I looked forward to the most, given that it would be one of the last times to see the group in action before they disband (a pair of holiday-timed shows at the Cedar will be their last). It was surprising, then, to see that the band's lineup has already been altered, as founding member Alexei Moon Casselle was missing from action and only Channy fronted the band. There was a somber, almost funereal vibe on stage as the band filed out, and for the first few songs the musicians barely made eye contact with one another, much less the crowd.
"We're getting ready to call it quits," Channy said, to a hearty round of boos from the crowd. "But you'll still see us, I'm sure. These are the best bandmates I've ever had," she reflected. "This is my first band."
Over the past few years, Roma di Luna has grown from a husband-and-wife duo to a roots band to its more recent reincarnation, which most closely resembles a soul group, and as they played I couldn't help but admire how much Channy has grown as a vocalist and performer during her time in Roma di Luna. The time she spent with Gayngs also seemed to bump her up into a newfound strata of confidence and prowess, so in a way I suppose it makes sense that she would eventually grow in a direction that didn't align with the goals of her bandmates. Roma di Luna will always have a special place in the Twin Cities music scene timeline, but I for one am extremely anxious and excited to see where Channy goes next. Her new project, Polica, just set up its Facebook page yesterday, so for now it looks like that will be the best way to keep tabs on where she's going next.
Last night's headliners, the New Pornographers, were disappointingly lacking in a few of their key members (both Neko Case and Dan Bejar have their own solo projects and were not performing last night), and it really took some of the oomph out of what is normally an engaging delivery from the veteran indie-pop stars. Lead singer and chief songwriter A.C. Newman did his best to hold court with the backing band, and they did manage to get the crowd bouncing for a few of the songs, but overall it lacked the intensity required to end things on a high note. That the band didn't even return to play an encore only added to the buzzkill.
Concertgoers were happy to file back to the campground, though, and impromptu sing-alongs and blaring boomboxes kept the party going until well into the night. There are some pretty obvious perks to being able to stay on the grounds overnight, chiefly not having to worry about driving home, and as we go into the second day of the fest the event is starting to develop a real feeling of community among the couple thousand of us sticking it our for the whole weekend.
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