Live: Woodsist Festival in Big Sur, CA

August 06, 2012

At music festivals, more so than normal shows, bands get in competition with the crowds for the crowd’s attention. It’s especially true at big, celebrity-laden affairs like Coachella, where starlets bring a trail of both professional and amateur paparazzi with them. But at the Woodsist Festival, any attempt at crowd peacocking was in vain. The venue stole the show.

The Henry Miller Library, with a stage built right into California coastal redwoods, is a lovely, lovely place. It holds about 300 people on its lawn and for this event, they added a strangely expensive food truck ($22 for salmon curry?!) and, as always, keep the bookstore open and stocked with everything Henry Miller ever wrote. Last year’s two-day festival, a co-production of the Woodsist label and the Big Sur-centric (((Folk Yeah!))) event brand, sold out quickly, as did this one, although things never felt crowded. In fact, the Woodsist Festival felt comfortable — to a fault.

White Fence.

Day one’s lineup included San Francisco garage pop act The Mantles, Woodsist mainstays White Fence and Woods, grizzled rockers Pierced Arrows and headliner Real Estate. Maybe it was the excess of wine, but I had trouble finding highs and lows with the bands: all were uniformly happy, giving solid performances but mostly just mellllooowww. White Fence was a standout, with a jumpy, energetic set and Woods’ whirring guitars got (at least two) people noodling near the stage. Pierced Arrows was the biggest surprise, booking-wise: as anyone who has seen the documentary Unknown Passage knows, they have a great story. The nucleus of the band is a married couple who performed as legendary punk outfit Dead Moon until they kicked the junkie drummer out and become Pierced Arrows.

Pierced Arrows.

I wish I had gotten to hear their thoughts on what must have been a very strange gig for them. The trio made the already-soft sea of bearded white guys in plaid shirts look like infants: craggy faces, crazy hair, tigh black jeans, the sweatiest drummer I’ve ever seen. The trio rocked continuously, no breaks between songs, during their entire 50-some-minute set, which encouraged the crowd to finally stand up and made some vague hip thrusts towards the stage. “Good luck, Real Estate, going on after that,” remarked one attendee.

Saturday and Sunday would blur into each other completely if it weren’t for two things: the weather and the hangovers. Sunday was far sunnier and the Saturday night after-party at nearby Fernwood Resort (“resort” being interpreted very broadly) left the campers puffy-eyed. And by “campers,” I mean the bands. One of the best parts of the (((Folk Yeah!))) concert experience (and nowadays, they draw names like Arcade Fire, Rufus Wainwright and Neil Young) is how much it is a musician’s festival. There are no green rooms, no VIP passes, no status markers of any kind. Between the bands and their friends, organizer Britt Govea told me that at least an extra 50 people are added—that’s 1/6 of the event itself.

Sunday was very S.F.-heavy finale, with Thee Oh Sees and the Fresh & Onlys capping off a day of more blanket-core style and non-stop pot consumption. As befitting the woodsy vibe and aided by incredibly spotty service, people mostly kept their cell phones in their pockets. But this one woman did something pretty daring: sipped champagne while reading her e-book. Sadly I missed the first afternoon band, Ducktails, but Sun-Araw proved a highlight: they basically stepped into dub territory, which worked great, acoustically, in the space. Peaking Lights, a duo with former Numbers’ band member Indra Dunis, worked less well: their simple synth-heavy songs seemed to evaporate into the expanse of the outdoors. Fresh & Onlys gave the fans a surprise, preview of “almost” all the songs on their new album, due next month. Tim Cohen sang primarily of fools and dreamers, with special emphasis placed on the “fools.” Fools for love, fools for dreaming.

Tim Cohen and Wymond Miles of The Fresh & Onlys.

But the final band of the weekend was the only one that truly forced the audience to keep their eyes on the stage, and not the nice hike behind the food truck or the stars above. Thee Oh Sees, fresh from a month in Europe, played as tight, loud and fast as they ever have. The woods suited them. The heavy guitar reverb and the grueling pace and the whole John Dwyer package (manic energy, piercing vocals, crazy eyes) has felt oppressive to me in clubs before. But currently, I am typing this in a car parked on the edge of Highway 1, they are reducing the redwoods to rubble with a wall of sound. My Corolla is shaking. Go Big Sur or go home.

Live: Woodsist Festival in Big Sur, CA