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MANILA, Philippines – Warpaint. Mogwai. Youth Lagoon. The National. They may each have a dedicated fanbase, but it’s hard to find a common denominator among them other than the fact that they all have a substantially fewer following than your typical Top 40 bands. But for the last two Thursdays this February, they came together for a unique festival that put these bands in the fringes of mainstream popularity front and center.
Indie music lovers around the city and elsewhere trooped to the Metrotent at the Metrowalk Plaza in Pasig City last February 13 and 20 for Febfest 2014, the brainchild of concert promoter Random Minds. Much smaller than a full-fledged indie music festival like Laneway or Wanderland, the event was nonetheless bigger in scope than a one-off show featuring just one marquee act.
As much as it was a chance to fulfill the dreams of so many indie music loyalists of seeing their idols live and in the flesh, it was also an opportunity to discover other artists that they may have otherwise never come across.
Warpaint and Mogwai
The first evening featured Warpaint and Mogwai. After a curtain-raising act (Eyedress), the ladies of Warpaint took to the stage. The most hardcore of fans pushed themselves closer to the stage, although it took almost no effort as there was space in the back to do cartwheels, if people were so inclined. The thin crowd was not unexpected as the foursome of Emily Kokal (vocals and guitar), Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass and vocals), Stella Mozgawa (drums and vocals), and Theresa Wayman (guitar, vocals and keyboards), which formed in Los Angeles in 2004, has yet to build a sizable following in Manila.
The band played a steady, almost ambient set that were equal parts indie rock and dream pop. I couldn’t help but think how their songs, such as opener “Keep It Healthy,” wouldn’t be out of place if it were played in a David Lynch movie. Other songs basically followed the same format: languid, ethereal, with just enough kick to move your body around to.
The lighting design was particularly noteworthy; colourful beams hit the bandmembers faces at odd angles creating shadows that were frustrating if you wanted to see them in all their glory, but somehow appropriate given their off-kilter material.
While there were those who clearly bought tickets to Febfest for Warpaint, a majority of the audience that evening screamed loudest when it was Mogwai’s turn in the spotlight. The Scottish quintet—composed of Stuart Braithwaite (guitar, vocals), John Cummings (guitar, vocals), Barry Burns (guitar, piano, synthesizer, vocals), Dominic Aitchison (bass guitar), and Martin Bulloch (drums)—formed in 1995 in Glasgow and has since established themselves as a powerful force in the post-rock movement.
The acoustics at Metrotent was sketchy, with the cavernous hall somehow turning the sound flowing out of the amps tinny and louder-than-it-should-be, but that didn’t stop Mogwai from unleashing their brand of sonic goodness. Best known for their guitar-based layered, meandering instrumental pieces, the band played with raw, unbridled passion that was free from the distraction of lyrics.
Every melody coaxed out of their instruments was transformed into emotions—rage, fear, frustration, satisfaction, contentment. It was a journey that took audiences from valleys of sorrow to crests of joy. To be able to do that, to so easily manipulate emotions simply with their music, is Mogwai’s greatest gift and it was quite a transcendent experience to see them do it live.
Youth Lagoon and The National
Exactly one week later, many of the same faces in the audience turned up for the second part of Febfest. The venue was a little more packed, proof of the slightly wider appeal of the headliners that evening. Buke & Gase warmed up the crowd before Trevor Powers and his crew aka Youth Lagoon came out.
I first saw the band earlier this year at the Laneway Music Festival in Singapore and knew what to expect—atmospheric, experimental electronica, with a heavy reliance on synthesizers.
Powers was hunched over the keyboards like a dark-haired Schroeder in the Peanuts comic strips. While I would have loved to catch their whole set, I missed most of it because I was in a holding room with a few other journalists who were granted the chance to chat with two members of the final act that evening.
The National’s Matt Berninger (vocals) and Aaron Dessner (guitar and keyboards), were pleasant and laid-back when we met. I asked Berninger about his voice, perhaps the most distinct in all of current rock music. “When I was in college and I started performing in bands I was influenced a lot by bands like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Nirvana,” he said. “But I never really thought about [my voice] when I was starting out.”
While Berninger admitted that the band members do indulge in the occasional drink, they draw the line at substance abuse. “There may have been some marijuana use in the past, but I’ve never done cocaine or heroin. We realize that some things are really powerful and more than you can handle. I mean just look at what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman.” The singer also indulged me when I asked about a personal favorite song, “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” He began by attempting to connect the song to his roots growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio and “trying to understand but missing the connection.” He said a few more things, but eventually gave up. “You know that’s a good question. I have no idea.”
This complexity of their songwriting, coupled with Berninger’s vocals, have earned them well-deserved kudos as true artists. Onstage, the two were joined by the rest of the band amidst nonstop cheers and applause. They began with fan favorite “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and launched into their usual setlist in the current tour, one after another, barely pausing for a break to acknowledge the crowd. The frontman paced around the stage as if he was upset about something, but kept returning to the center, where he used his mic stand as a prop while singing. “I don’t have a guitar. This is the only thing I get to play with,” he said.
The band played a full set, 22 songs, including three encores that were the most applauded: “Mr November,” “Terrible Love,” and the big finale, a sweet, acoustic rendition of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” It was appeared that Berninger was perhaps slightly inebriated, but nobody cared. In fact, his relaxed demeanor endeared him more to the crowd. By the time they said their farewell, the energy emanating from the room was almost tangible. It was a fitting end to a unique indie music festival. – Rappler.com
Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana