Friday, July 6, 2012

Concert Review: Ultra Violet Petting Zoo, July 1, 2012

"It's basically just a group of artists who are fed up with the music industry."

I was talking to Jackie Lancaster, someone I knew from high school who was now helping run the second annual Ultra Violet Petting Zoo. Organized by Tom Schraeder, she explaining to me that most of the bands performing at the event were friends who collaborated and performed often together before the festival. It was clearly a labor of love as this was a festival that gave the word "basic" a whole new meaning. Despite the fact that beautiful Horner Park was less than twenty feet behind the stage, the UVPZ was in a hastily fenced off area of the parking lot for a wire supply company which featured little shade, a devastating heat island effect and a steady supply of cars and trucks passing just beyond the gate. It was if to say "yeah, we're just here for the music and the people, deal with it."

It was a brutally sunny day on Sunday with conditions that tried desperately to match far end of the dial oven settings and the first bands, as they always do at festivals, bore the worst of both the heat and the lack of early attendance. When I arrived the recent high school graduates of Give Back had just taken the stage and despite the sparse crowd (over 50% of whom I suspect knew them by either friendship or blood) they brought some early energy with a live set that managed to vibe both classic rock and Vampire Weekend. They were followed by Stoop Goodnoise, whose guitar-heavy jams convinced an impressive number of fans (probably also of the friends/relative variety) to eschew the shade of the beverage tent for some up-close rocking.

The first knock-you-out great set of the afternoon came during height of the blazing heat and was delivered by the guitar and drum duo Sleepy Kitty. They had a lo-fi indie charm to go with impressive songwriting chops and some nifty looping tricks that would delight any tUnE-yArDs fan. They first grabbed my ear with loose cover of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" and continued to hold it throughout the rest of the set, which included several promising songs from an upcoming album, including an impressionistic remembrance of riding Batman: The Roller Coaster when it first opened which seemed all-too-perfect with the rides of the Boys And Girls Club Carnival whirring away in the background. Lead singer Paige Brubeck also managed to channel the sunny, lo-fi pop charm of Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino only with a exciting experimental side and something to talk about besides getting high and missing some guy.

The Microphone Misfitz were the victims of a mid-afternoon lull, with sparse crowds taking in either set. Those who missed them should have been especially dissapointed to miss the impressive breakdancing during the Misfitz set, which helped infused some energy into the more laid back, bass heavy raps from the group ranging on everything from life philosophy to proper nutrition. I also have to cop to the fact that I missed ZiPS while checking out the rest of the carnival. Other indie fests should take note because unlike the endless delays that normally mark time between sets, it seemed like no more than 10 to 15 minutes passed from the end of one band to the beginning of the next. Of course that is a good thing... unless you nip out to see the rides and lose track of time.

I was back however in time to see the sun set while Brighton MA played one of the most satisfying performances I've seen in a long time. It was clear from the first song that this was a group that was ready for prime time. As they launched into their set I couldn't help but wonder what Real Estate apparently has that these guys don't. Gorgeous melodies introspective lyrics and with covers of "Folsom Prison Blues", "Hey Bulldog" and "Listen To Her Heart" featuring an eerily spot-on Tom Petty impersonation. I have to tip my hat when I group whose songs I don't know play a series of inventive covers and I actually end up yearning for more originals.

By the time local hip-hop group Natureal took the stage, the sun had mostly set and the crowd was out in (relative) force. Their music absolutely bleeds positive vibes and bouncy, upbeat soul and it didn't surprise me at all to find that the musicians were similarly inclined. Maybe it was the personal bias, but I felt that that charisma translated perfectly on-stage despite their sometimes-shaky stage show. Sure they might have engaged in some awkward audience banter that kinda petered out and their DJ might have launched into a few songs unexpectedly but they were clearly in their element. The mixture of good-natured charm combined with clear determination and tight rhymes certainly connected with the crowd and even got the audience out of their seats with their hands in the air by the end of the set - no mean feat.

As the last orange light bled away over the wire factory to the west the evening seems poised to offer some measure of relief for the beginning of Mazes' set. That was not to be, however, as the gods decided to then kill any hint of a breeze, leading us into a still, choking night. The heat somehow played to the band's strengths though, as they ripped through a set of dreamy, guitar-heavy jams that, combined with the heat, produced an almost meditative haze that seems to crystallize time and allow the crowd to enjoy the shiny carnival background in peace. Finally, at the end of the set, they ripped into a guitar-shredding jam that seemed to wake everyone up just in time for the festival's big surprise.

Allout Shelter, a new Tom Schraeder project, was shrouded in mystery before the show as this was their first public appearance. After a day spent hearing every artist tip their caps to the man who spent the day hauling gear, setting up sound checks, stocking the artists tent and anything that needed it was great to see Schraeder finally take the stage. It was an odd setup with two drummers, a bassist/effects player and the man himself on keyboard but it worked. The first song seemed to marry a traditional singer-songwriter bedroom strummer song with a blurpy and busy electronic background to create a disorienting but intriguing effect. Not all the songs worked as well, with a few hitting the abstract angle a bit too hard but each the last four songs each found its own odd but unmistakable groove. 

Finally closing things out were the ever-touring wunderkind that are White Mystery. They've spent the year putting out a new EP and touring the country and let me tell you, it sure shows. They ripped into a technical difficulties-shortened set with the ferocity of a band hungry for greatness that has just tasted blood. Alex's guitar buzzed like an angry chainsaw and Francis attacked his basic drum kit like it was a rouge wolf and he was Liam Nissan. "It's insane that he's making all that noise with only one cymbal!" Evan Sult, drummer from Sleepy Kitty yelled midway through the set and he was right. Never a dull live act, the group had progressed leaps and bounds since I'd last seen them nearly a year ago. Indeed, the only thing that could stop them was a busted amp, but by the time Alex's trademark orange speaker gave way they'd already packed an hour's worth of rock into 20 minutes and most people were satisfied and ready to head home towards cool air and soft beds.

I chatted with Alex white before her set, complimenting her for her abundant Twitter love for fans. "Well yeah," she said, echoing Jackie's statement from hours earlier, "no else is gonna do it. I gotta get out there and be my own publicist." As she said this she was hauling her own gear while her father beamed proudly at her from backstage. Even in their second year headlining, even with their national tour and love from everyone from NPR to MTV (I didn't know they still played music either), they still just saw themselves as a couple of musicians clawing out a living with their two hands, the old fashioned way. It was an ethos that pervaded the festival and could be heard in the music and seen in musicians who took the time to shake every hand, sign every CD, watch every friend's set. Ultra Violet Petting Zoo was a group of people clawing a music festival out of hot day, a bare parking lot on the edge of chintzy carnival and their own collective willpower. And goddamn if it wasn't something to see.

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