Jackson Wilcox of A Crowd of Small Adventures plays the Beauty Bar during the fall 2012 edition of Neon Reverb. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
John Dwyer plays at the Bunkhouse with Thee Oh Sees during the fall 2012 edition of Neon Reverb. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
They might not have money, but they have experience.
Nine biannual editions of Neon Reverb have now passed, and organizers are still without the sponsorship cash that allows the sort of indie bands only Cosmopolitan and House of Blues can afford, or a giant all-ages stage that potentially increases its patronage. So a more pared-down festival was presented to music fans last week.
It was a mixed blessing this year. It’s not as if the other venues stop booking acts; last week’s smorgasbord of quality rock shows made for one of the busiest concert stretches all year. (This reviewer caught 22 artist performances over six days.) At least for those loyal only to the downtown gigs last week, the tighter schedule meant few, if any, schedule conflicts — which is the one aspect of music festivals that attendees complain about the most, next to ticket/cover charges (an issue no one I spoke to raised at any point this week).
For one, the opening and closing parties, which boasted some of the biggest names of the fest, had no real overlap with anything else on the Neon Reverb calendar (unless you count tacking onto the schedule the weekly Tuesday event “Hip-Hop Roots,” which was hardly going to siphon attendees from that night’s garage rock crowd at The Bunkhouse). The Sept. 11 kickoff with Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees (and others) drew a large — and frequently unruly — crowd to The Bunkhouse’s under-utilized outdoor stage, and the Sept. 16 closing showcase with Hunx and His Punx at the same location, well, drew the festivalgoers not already exhausted from the big music week.
And the Sept. 15 gig with quirky indie act Moonface, the other big Reverb booking, was counterprogrammed with a rock showcase featuring more traditional alternative rock sounds, a metal/hard rock/industrial event and the New Wave-oriented “Rawkerz” party.
It also booked timely and noteworthy headliners. Ty Segall has been releasing anticipated albums all year, Thee Oh Sees’ profile has been surging in indie rock circles all summer, and both hail from a San Francisco retro/garage/psych-pop scene getting a lot of attention this year. Moonface is the latest and exclusive music project of Spencer Krug, who has since disbanded his more popular outfits (especially Wolf Parade). All three put on memorable performances last week.
Even the aforementioned metal showcase was headlined by Black Light Burns, fronted by Wes Borland, the lone Limp Bizkit refugee with any credibility.
And Reverb scored two “event” local shows: the return of local favorite A Crowd of Small Adventures, which hasn’t played for about a year, and the debut of Crazy Chief, featuring members of other established bands.
The rest of the festival — rounded out by standard indie touring acts, and the usual downtown-playing Vegas bands and MCs — comprised well-built showcases that nonetheless could have easily happened any other week of the year (though without the fanfare of being smack in the middle of the heavily promoted Reverb). It made for unexciting Thursday and Friday lineups that lacked the energy or anticipation of the Ty Segall/Thee Oh Sees and Moonface/Crowd shows.
I heard some attendees complain about programming. Some innovation with regards to spicing up the non-headliner/locals-heavy showcases is probably overdue. Beyond that, I don’t know how Neon Reverb could have better strategized its schedule or stretched its dollar. There weren’t local bands releasing an album this week. And unfortunately, the downtown music scene doesn’t have the spark it enjoyed two years ago, where certain local bands were drawing as well as the big touring headliners.
Neon Reverb’s financial capabilities have long been the biggest stumbling block of its evolution. It’s not fair that it was born and doggedly endures during a recession that continues to have its way with this city. Furthermore, it can’t help that booking agents have sharply risen the guarantee costs of their touring artists now accustomed to higher paydays — especially in the highly competitive casino venue market.
However — and not to put too fine a point on it — Neon Reverb must secure more funding to grow. It cannot thrive from the same pool of supporters. Soliciting liquor sponsors willing to contribute to the booking-fee kitty (especially for that all-ages show with a big-get indie headliner), further developing its new relationship with the Spotify music service and more creatively incorporating local acts (including hardcore/punk) should be priorities that organizers address far ahead of its 10th edition next spring. Implementation of some or all of those factors will allow the festival to ascend once again.
This was the Neon Reverb where we started saying, “They’ve just about got it.” It isn’t at a million venues in a bunch of neighborhoods. It doesn’t try to cram eight bands on a bill that starts at 10 p.m. And it doesn’t spend the whole purse on one band, then splatter the rest of the venues with lukewarm out-of-towners. Very seldom did we see visitors we didn’t enjoy, and even most of the local talent was on point and crowd-ready.
We probably won’t be racing to hear more from Black Light Burns and Ill Patietz, but we made some mental notes for Nashville’s Natural Child, Thursday night’s trio of shaggy psych-rockers who make no secret of their stoner kid qualities, poking fun at ghetto pop life (“B$G P$MP$N”) in between fuzzed-out rock ’n’ roll turning the joke on themselves (“White people can’t write a melody/cuz they get so drunk that they can’t even think”). It was almost too simple and goofy to follow locals Crazy Chief, whose Jim Morrison-treated vocals and walls of power chords suggested rock ’n’ roll in the Hell’s Angels sense of the word — but we’re glad it did.
Ditto goes for United Ghosts, Tequila Azul’s sleepy, ethereal Saturday headliner from L.A. We’re talking hyper-atmospheric, sometimes electro-droning indie rock music for late nights (case in point: “Holes into the Night”). Before seeing Ghosts, we ran to The Bunkhouse and caught The Witch Was Right, an industrial band bathed in Manson-esque makeup, fronted by Trevor Friedrich of the popular industrial/electro group Combichrist — to which former Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, who headlined the night’s show as frontman of Black Light Burns, once belonged.
Speaking of Black Light Burns: It wasn’t necessarily awful, despite being the brain baby of the most deplorable rap-metal outfit to hit MTV. It leaned into a more updated Korn camp, with thwacking, drop-pitched bass lines and driving punk drums stitched beneath. But Borland, his voice more a runner-up supporting actor than the best male lead in the first place, is possibly of the belief he’s still an internationally famous rock star, talking down to his audience for not requesting the song he planned to play — after taking requests.
But come Sunday night, that bitter taste got cleaned out by grilled ’dogs and some flamboyant girl-pop oldies. While we’d happily check out The Bonaventures and American Males again, the hits came from Shannon and the Clams and Hunx and His Punx (joined by Clams bassist Shannon Shaw). Hunx was a great closer, even though frontman Seth Bogart (Hunx) looked a little dismissive, not climbing back on stage for an encore despite at least 95 percent of the audience chanting it. But until then, he was a riot, pausing to demand weiner before playing “Private Room” and “Too Young to Be in Love.” It was a great way to end a mostly perfect Reverb — weiners or not.