Photography by Philip Cosores
How do you know if a music festival is successful?
Is it all about making money? The fan experience? Being able to book top-tier artists? There seem to be countless metrics for which to grade a music festival, and none can really capture the sum total of the event. You can’t be everywhere at once. In the end, you are just one person with certain standards of what is “worth it” and was is not.
In its second year, Pemberton Music Festival saw between 25,000 and 30,000 fans enter the grounds each day in one of the most scenic locations on Earth to see one of the year’s most eclectic and inspired music lineups. In many, many ways, Pemberton is a rousing success.
But maybe the most important take away is in a very specific demographic: the 16-23-year-olds who populated the festival’s Bass Camp, which featured top-flight DJs and hip-hop artists, and made their way to the festival’s main grounds for acts like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, and Weezer. For young people, the festival felt like a pinpoint in the arc of their life, with four days of camping and partying playing as much a role in their entertainment as the actual music. Getting off a flight in Los Angeles the next evening at the festival, three teens could be overheard saying they wished they were back in Bass Camp. Even the four days for them weren’t enough.
On top of that, there was a water slide, well-curated late-night sets that let the party extend until two am, a comedy tent, free water refill stations, and many of the other amenities that meant a good time for the fan that was truly able to immerse themselves, that didn’t mind either not showering or waiting more than an hour to clean off, and whose answer to last night’s hangover was to just go harder on the next day. In short, if you came to party, Pemberton provided the setting for a great one.
Of course, pleasing this group means a less desirable experience for others. Despite inspired sets from Broken Social Scene, Father John Misty, and Beirut, Pemberton Music Festival was not kind toward indie rock, where the acknowledgement that most of the attendees had little to no interest in them alleviated any tension that they were playing to small audiences. Despite the eclectic billing at more and more festivals, the reality is that fans of a BSS are getting too old for a music camping festival, and would rather see a band like The Decemberists on their own tour. Yes, there are many young people that don’t relate to EDM and hip-hop culture, but it seems like the word is now out on many music festivals, with certain music fans well aware that the environment just isn’t a fun place to see The War on Drugs.
The only way the consumer really knows if a music festival is doing well is whether it appears the next year, and the hope is that Pemberton keeps doing what they do, because the setting is gorgeous, the majority of the fans seem pleased, and the organizers appear to have a real passion for putting it on. Of course, there could be improvements. For one, the food selection was a notch below what Coachella and Outside Lands and many others are bringing to the table. Another would be inserting more shady areas on the grounds, as unexpectedly hot weather kept many of the day time sets from great vibes as fans were unwilling to deal with the heat.
But these are minor points that can’t take away the conversations heard about the best weekend of many young people’s lives. Is it Canada’s answer to Bonnaroo or Coachella or huge European camping fests? Not yet. But the raw material is there for it to grow into one of these landmark events. Nevertheless, here’s a complete rundown of the most notable performances we caught.
Best Work in Progress
Spooky Black (Corbin)
“This is our first show together,” said Spooky Black, aka Corbin, and everything but the music would exemplify this fact. The singer rarely looked up from his shoes, or even opened his eyes, and when he spoke, it was more sheepish than his withdrawn stage demeanor would even indicate. But the voice of Corbin, usually falling somewhere between James Blake and Antony Hegarty, enthralled, until “Worn” left that behind and found the young man yelling and rapping effectively. Just when you thought the tone of the set had come into focus, a pretty terrible Bob Marley cover (“Is This Love”) appeared, seemingly just to fill time. In the end, the lasting feeling of Spooky Black was intrigue, with Corbin maintaining his weirdness, humor, and clear talent while delivering disinterested irreverence that maybe only millennials can truly appreciate. If the goal was to maintain a mystery, it had been achieved.
Best New Artist
“I don’t know if you know my music or just stumbled by because it’s a festival,” Ryn Weaver said early in her set on Thursday night. Aside from her parents doting proudly in the photo pit, most people fell in the latter camp. But the thing Weaver has going for her is that her pop music is instant in its effect, her loose delivery sometimes adopting a Lana Del Rey drawl. But musically, Weaver is closer to Ellie Goulding at first impression, and her performance chops indicate a similar level of professionalism. Either way, for those willing to stay out late on the festival’s first night, they were rewarded by a performer aiming to impress, and doing just that.
Best Rap Headliner
J. Cole doesn’t get a chance to top too many bills festival, but a Thursday night Pemberton stage appearance up against Bassnectar allowed Cole to show why he is next in line after Kendrick Lamar and Drake. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Cole can draw: He’s currently in the midst of an arena tour and his latest album, Forest Hills Drive, sold 350,000 copies in its first week, a fact Cole is plenty proud of. “They say this was the quickest album to sell a million copies without a feature,” Cole boasted before announcing that he was going to play a lot of it. And this is where he proved himself savvy. On his recent tour, Cole has been playing the whole album, but tailoring the performance for a fest, while remaining committed to his most recent material, paved the way for the rapper to seem like he’s been headlining music festivals for years.
Best Reality Check
Father John Misty
It didn’t matter to Father John Misty that he played at 2:30 in the afternoon or that half his audience was seated. Or, maybe it mattered but he didn’t show it. Instead, he was the joke crackin’, suit wearin’, microphone spinnin’, layin’-down-on-the-stage, bearded tour-de-force that he’s been all year at festivals. And when he went deeper into his back catalog for “Only Son of the Ladiesman”, he was rewarded by a surprisingly large contingent singing his words along with him. There is something contagious about watching Father John Misty, where you leave feeling a little snarkier, a little more suspicious of everything, and (sometimes) hating everyone and everything around you. And maybe he summed it all best when he announced that, “This is a huge hit of mine back in my home country, the Internet,” before “Bored in the USA”, a song that boils with contempt towards contemporary living. He finished the song holding up a smiling poop emoji totem. It was perfect.
Worst Set to See After Father John Misty
Matt and Kim and Bleachers (tie)
Going from Father John Misty’s hyper-self-aware, sarcastic satire to Matt and Kim’s unselfconscious, earnest joy parade was a terribly strange juxtaposition that no one should try. Because seeing Father John Misty means adopting his worldview for a few moments, every bit of that worldview hated Matt and Kim.
For Bleachers, it was the same thing as Matt and Kim, except the .fun member covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”. Somewhere, Father John Misty spit.
It’s weird that Dave Navarro and Perry Farrell have managed to form a successful partnership for as long as they have. Whereas the stoic Navarro plays it straight on stage, letting the back tattoo, nipple piercings, and formidable guitar work speak for itself, Farrell seemed like he was on another planet on Saturday afternoon. “Hello Vancouver,” he exclaimed, and after receiving brushback due to the city’s location being two-and-a-half hours away, Farrell started calling the crowd “Whistler”, before going off on a tangent about his stepmom not letting him whistle when he was a little boy and how he now whistles all he wants. It’s hard to be down on the guy that is majorly responsible for music festivals being a thing in 2015, but with vocals that failed to come close to his band’s recorded work to banter that was often uncomfortable, the best thing that could be said about Jane’s Addiction on this day was that the other three member performed with competence.
Best Reason to Have an On-Stage Panic
For the opening series of Weezer songs, Rivers Cuomo seemed even less at ease than usual, nearly forgetting to finish the last line of “My Name Is Jonas”. A crew member brought Cuomo a towel but that still didn’t appease the singer-songwriter, who continued to stiffly wade through “Hash Pipe” and “El Scorcho”. After the latter, the reason for the near-panic was clear: Cuomo wanted sun screen. It was a funny reason to nearly fumble the opening of the show, but once the Weezer frontman had received his skin protection, the band delved into a satisfying hit parade that had the young crowd chatting into the next day as they returned to the Bass Camp and the campgrounds.
Best Hangover Soundtrack
At 3:15 in the Bass Camp dance tent on Sunday, numerous portable hammocks were seen on the sparsely populated wood chip landscape. “You can come closer if you like,” Hundred Waters‘ Nicole Miglis said to start their set, but really, this was music to wash away a weekend, to find peace in the dust and clarity in the unrelenting heat. There was something brave in the set, with Hundred Waters doing what they do very well rather than trying to play to what they think a fest should be.
Best Festival Transformation
Tobias Jesso Jr.
Though he’s from Vancouver, Tobias Jesso Jr. admitted it was only his second concert ever in the area, bringing with him a five-piece backing band to flesh out his piano-driven tunes. The crowd was small and mostly huddled on one side of the stage for shade, but Jesso’s songs soared with the full-band treatment, and the singer didn’t lose any of his charm by climbing out of the dark clubs and onto the bright, huge festival stage. Before many songs, Jesso would ask “what’s next?” to his band, getting a song title and giving little fun facts about each one. The one thing about the set that didn’t work, however, was the size of Jesso’s piano, which obstructed the view of his face for much of the audience. I’m sure the instrument sounds better than a smaller one, but maybe some reconfiguration should be made so that fans can see his expressive face while he sings.
Least Challenging Set
Skrillex and Diplo began their set riding handleless Segways while waving both Jack Ü and British Columbian flags and the massive audience ate up their set that managed to mix their collaborative work, their own individual favorites, and pop hits. But as much fun it is to watch two of the world’s biggest DJs hype up the crowd, there is something silly about the fact that both are able to perform their songs while standing on their decks, their body twisting every once in a while so they can push a single button. It just comes to a point that the show is simply Skrillex and Diplo being there, which is weird, because live shows in every other genre seem to surpass a Jack Ü set in some manner, be it dancing, singing, performing live, or having an intriguing visual component. Even many other DJs make it at least seem like they are performing on the spot. Maybe Jack Ü should be held to a higher standard than just being on a stage and getting people excited?
Best Greatest Hits Performance
If you thought a sunset performance in the corner of North America would be a good chance for Beirut to offer up a slew of new material from their upcoming September release, No No No, think again. Instead, a smiley Zach Condon and co. seemed more intent on reacquainting themselves, and fans, with their older songs. The set actually found a comfy place at being a rare moment, as it didn’t resemble a set from their Rip Tide tour, but felt more like a Beirut’s Greatest Hits offering. There will be plenty of time in the coming months, and years, for the new stuff. Pemberton felt like a calm before the storm.
Worst Rockist Attitude
Though big in Canada and across the pond, Billy Talent has never really caught on in America. And when Benjamin Kowalewicz proudly exclaimed that they “don’t have synthesizers, they don’t have banjos, and they don’t have beards,” their rockist agenda also seemingly has no place in 2015 music. These sort of attacks on anything aside from muscular guitar drivel is amusing in that it doesn’t really flow both ways. You don’t hear DJs or pop singers or the Punch Brothers mocking the tattoos and hair styes of their rock counterparts. And when an act like Billy Talent goes on trying to save rock and roll, they end up being better arguments for why rock has lost favor. Inexplicably, the countrymen crowd ate up their set.
Most Surprisingly Strong Set
The knock on Kendrick Lamar as he headlined a slew of festivals this summer is that he is stuck in his Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City phase, failing to incorporate in his new material, despite the universal acclaim and desire to hear cuts from To Pimp a Butterfly. And for the first half of his Pemberton closing set, that storyline seemed destined to repeat itself. But the latter part of Lamar’s performance saw the script change, with “i”, “King Kunta”, and “Alright” all showing up, along with an appearance from Compton rapper YG Hootie to perform his and Lamar’s collaborative track, “Two Presidents”. In the end, Lamar wound up playing 15 minutes beyond his allotted time. After appearing at the same festival last year, Lamar seemed well aware that he had to do something different this time around, and soared above and beyond expectations.
Most Improved Band
CHVRCHES were a fine live band for their impressive run on their first album, The Bones of What You Believe, but frontwoman Lauren Mayberry was never shy about admitting her shortcomings, noting her status as an introvert for her standoffishness on stage in interviews. But with a new album just announced for September, CHVRCHES’ return seems set to showcase a new side of the band, with both stage presence and enthusiasm increased majorly. Where did this newfound confidence on stage come from? Who knows, but whether performing their new single, “Leave a Trace”, or a slew of past favorites, CHVRCHES seems ready for a jump in attention that is very possible in the coming months.
A$AP Ferg wouldn’t be the last artist to hit the stage from the Full Flex Express to brandish a British Columbia flag (Jack Ü would later wave one), but hitting the stage wearing the flag as a cape, not to mention his reference to Pemberton as “British Columbia” and not Vancouver or Whistler or any other lame thing that other artists did, found the rapper seizing the moment. His rap anthems are party starters, shout alongs, and ragers, enough to feel like one of the more unifying moments of the festival. Sure, the music may be hyper-aggressive, but Ferg feeds off the energy he creates and responded to the crowd more than even hip-hop headliners J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.
Worst Response to a Poorly Attended Set
For a band that can sell out amphitheaters, The Decembrists had one of the saddest turnouts of Pemberton. But, that happens, especially when most of your fans are now in their 30’s and too old for a camping festival. What made things worse, though, is how the band responded, playing a stiff set that came across like they were trying to get out of town as soon as possible (and indeed they finished 10 minutes before their scheduled end time). For the fans that did turn up, the band performed a typical smattering of older tunes (though “The Island” was nice to hear) along with a wealth of new tracks. Given all the great material up their sleeve, it’s sad to see them willingly avoiding their best stuff and trying to live up to a vague idea of what a festival rock band is supposed to be, rather than just being the hyper-literate, bummer ballad band that they thrive at. Whether you were a long time fan or a new listener, The Decemberists didn’t make any friends with this phoned in set.
Missy Elliott seems like the most obvious booking after her recent Super Bowl appearance revealed a deep-seeded love for the rapper that spans generations. And with her appearance at Pemberton, the word can now be out that, yes, she is a great booking, delivering a set of hits that included wardrobe changes, backup dancers and acrobats, and a passion for performing that you wouldn’t expect from a performer who’s been out of the limelight for so long. Elliott is the kind of musician that has way more hits than casual fans realize they know, resulting in a siren song effect as her music is heard across the festival grounds. The smart thing for any festival to do is follow suit and get her at their 2016 installment.
With the amount of shows Courtney Barnett has been playing of late, it’s refreshing to see her still giving 110% on a daily basis. Playing early in the day, Barnett was all smiles and spunk, wading into her rich lyrics and loose guitar rock with a trust in the audience that they are game if she is. Her music doesn’t demand familiarity to be enjoyed, and maybe that’s why it plays well at these things. But, Barnett’s delivery argues that her salesmanship is also a big factor in her current wave of success, making her one of music’s newer artists that you want to see succeed.
Kendrick Lamar drew the biggest audience of the festival, but after him, it was a bit of a crapshoot as to who would draw. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes packed in a disturbingly large mass, while Kid Cudi almost matched the biggest turnouts of the event. Cudi, for his part, lived up to the fanfare, bouncing on stage with abandon to offer up songs from his entire catalog. After several years of which his career seemed like it might have missed its opportunity to blow up, his Pemberton set showed a still ripe audience for him, and that maybe the arc of Cudi has yet to reach its peak.
Broken Social Scene
There were a number of indicators at Pemberton that indie rock is no longer a draw at festivals catered to dance music and hip-hop leaning teens, and maybe none was more tell-tale than Broken Social Scene’s appearance. Playing to no more than a couple thousand people (if you count the majority of the fans sitting in across the Pemberton stage’s field), frontman Kevin Drew didn’t pretend to be oblivious: “My mom always said I should’ve written more hits, but I think we got a pretty good vibe goin’ up here.”
And that might be the solace to take in this for fans of Broken Social Scene and the mid-aughts indie that was once a festival mainstay. This was music never designed for the mainstream, it was just a spin in the cycle of taste that mainstream culture ever caught an interest in indie rock. And having a small devoted fanbase is enough for many bands of this ilk. In return for the devotion shown by those in attendance, BSS played 105 minutes of enthusiastic rock and roll that hit on all points of their career, including definitive takes on “Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”, “Superconnected”, and “Major Label Debut”.
Despite not having played for a year, the group’s dozen or so members were tight, even inspired, in their playing. They also brought Stars’ Amy Milan with them to add to the special occasion. In the end, it was the kind of set that made traveling to Pemberton worth it for the small contingent less impressed by Skrillex and Diplo waving flags. But maybe that’s the great thing about the modern festival, is that there truly is something for everyone.