Live Shots: Phono del Sol 2013 with Thee Oh Sees, Marnie Stern, Surf Club

Pub date July 15, 2013

John Dwyer stood holding his guitar, smiling and making small talk with the crowd, having been asked by a Phono del Sol staffer to hold off while, presumably, the band on the other stage finished up its set. “Alright, I think we’re just going to get started,” he said, seemingly without cue, and Thee Oh Sees began playing, giving the day a much needed jolt in energy.

Can you have too much control? Up until that point on Saturday, things were running smoothly. The musical acts were alternating without interruption on the two stages set up at the idyllic (and freeway adjacent) Potrero del Sol park, the weather was perfect, you could test drive an electric Fiat, and everyone seemed sated, even in the beer garden where the queue for Lagunitas and wine had started to resemble a Möbius strip, with patrons receiving a drink only to return to the back of the line to wait for another.

Everything was very under control, on the Potrero Street entrance where you could watch skateboarders try to confidently hustle their way past security, only to be directed to buy a ticket if they wanted to gain access to the park skating area during the festival. (“Just a tip,” Dwyer joked, “but if you show up at the skatepark tomorrow you can skate for free.”)

An hour earlier, during Marnie Stern’s set, I’d been wondering when things were going to pick up. The giddy guitar shredder and her band were speeding along at an energy level that seemed well above the stony, post-lunch crowd. Stern herself seemed rather high, hopping around bare-foot on the hot stage, delivering Woody Allen impressions and wondering whether her guitar overpowers her vagina (or vice versa) between finger-tapping blistering rhythms. But the response — polite applause from a largely reclining crowd — was typical for the day up to that point.

If anyone was gonna change that, it was San Francisco’s best live band, and a few songs in, the crowd was good and riled up. Not for lack of effort. I love watching this band play in part because of how animated they are, and half-way through a marathon version of “Contraption/Soul Desert” drummer Mike Shoun — his veins bulging out of his neck like a pissed off Ren and Stimpy character — was totally in control but with a look of effort somewhere between fighting off an epileptic fit and vomiting. Meanwhile, Dwyer was shifting around like he belonged on a Rat Fink t-shirt, changing gears but never slowing down. (The closest they came is during the middle dirge of “Strawberries 1+2” off Floating Coffin.)

With a sound that’s not punk, or garage, or surf, or psych, but rather a distillation of each’s best aspect, Thee Oh Sees have honed a distinctive sound over the last decade that’s totally affecting, so that when Dwyer invites everyone who wants to come up on stage, with the promise that Brigid Dawson has an extra tambourine for someone and the warning that they better not knock anything over, a lot of people take them up on the offer.

It’s not complete chaos, because Thee Oh Sees have enough control to make it work.

Notes on some bands:

Surf Club: I haven’t seen these guys in a while, but the tail end of their set sounded good, as they’ve loosened up on stage and gone a bit from the light surf rock influence that — coming out of Stockton — plagued them with an irony (there’s no beach there!) that writers (like myself) jumped on.

Cool Ghouls: Sorry Tim Cohen, I can’t save my Kinks references if a band is going to open their set with a song that sounds exactly like Muswell Hillbillies-era Ray Davies. But “Natural Life” was a swell opening and showcased the backup horn section right off the bat, and I subsequently enjoyed this band, and lolled at Pat McDonald’s Beefheart-like goofy rendition of “Eenie Meenie Sassaleenie” as stage banter. (Probably my biggest laugh of the day. The only real competition came from host Anna Seregina, who delivered commentary between bands in a Yakov Smirnoff-style Eastern European accent, probably in reaction to the uphill battle of being a host at a day-time music festival: “I like music like the Dixie Chicks, but they are not playing today.” “Thanks to Aaron Axelson of Live 105 and Popscene. I like Live 105 and I like Popscene. but they do not play the Gypsy Kings so I do not like them.”)

Social Studies: They sounded so much better than opening for Hot Chip the other week. Most likely because as a band it relies less on any sort of posture and attitude and more on a big multi-guitar sound that plays better out in the open. Ditto for singer Natalia Rogovin, whose vocals tend to hang in the air a bit. Shame she was having technical issues with her microphone just as it she was slowing down and coming to the front on “Developer”.

Radiation City: It reminded me off a bigger, less twee Hospitality, without a distinctive sound, but I may have just been hangry.

Painted Palms: These guys sound like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” meets “Star Guitar,” and hearing them take their time getting into “Falling Asleep” from their Canopy EP, it was clear they know how to structure a song. Occasionally I felt like they could lay off the la-la-la’s, and various oh-oh-oh choruses, if only to let the light, whimsical rhythms float on a bit more.

Bleached: Black bean burger from Doc’s of the Bay. Bad name/pun, great burger, amazing ketchup.

YACHT: Having caught the band recently at Noise Pop, and having just emerged from the pit of Thee Oh Sees, I didn’t make to the end of YACHT’s set. But the duo looked great, obviously.