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I had lunch at the Pit, a heaven for barbecue lovers in the Warehouse District, only a few blocks from our hotel. Bartender tells us the Flaming Lips and their 18-person entourage were there the night before, then shows us an image on his phone of himself with the lead singer, Wayne Coyne, he of the tousled Jim Morrison-esque hair that must take hours to perfect before he goes anywhere.
The bartender's exact words: "things got weird."
I went to a day party at the Lincoln, which had closed down the street so locals, the Rosebuds (Merge) could play elegant pop, with more shades of the '80s and British influences. Inside the theater, a documentary film "The Secret To A Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive By Truckers" was playing for those who needed an air-conditioned break from the heat. It seemed decent from what I watched.
That evening, I had dinner at a global themed downtown restaurant that was just OK. It had everything under the sun (Ethiopian, sushi, Filipino) but didn't seem to do any one thing that great. While we were eating, a local marching band parked right behind us in the street and serenaded the outdoor dinner crowd with a few instrumentals, while a deejay inside the restaurant played slow jams such as Beck's "Debra." A little bit of sensory overload for a dinner, but in a good way.
We left in time to see most of the Flaming Lips at City Plaza. It was the biggest crowd of the entire festival. I'm not a huge fan of the band, so the music really didn't do anything for me, but the visual spectacle was as impressive as advertised. Coyne did the ball-walk thing early, nearly taking out an onstage lighting rig, while the rest of the show had plenty of smoking bells and whistles and at least one catchy song, their 1993 classic, "She Don't Use Jelly." My overall reaction: Blah. If you need that many audience distractions, the music can't be that good. These guys definitely listened to a lot of Pink Floyd growing up-they even closed with a cover of "Brain Damage."
Afterward we went back to Slim's for a grungy set by live favorites Shit Horse, then on to one of the most relaxed venues, the Pour House, kind of analogous to the old Alley Katz in Richmond. We were there to support Richmond's own Fight the Big Bull, who have quite the following in North Carolina. But before the Richmond band, we saw a great, jazzy set by Peter Lamb and the Wolves, which featured some impressively limber sax solos and the aforementioned amazing Tom Waits "Temptation" cover, sung by the keyboardist who sounded like a poor man's version of Yma Sumac. It was a very nice closer.
Visibly disturbed, Matt White of Fight the Big Bull told me there was a large, live rat in their backstage room upstairs trapped in a trash can. He walked in to it jumping up for dear life. The group's set soon started and it felt a little like a Frank Zappa big band show -- slow swamp rock notes with lots of horn solos and an enthusiastic crowd (trumpeter Bob Miller was not with the band, as he had Bio Ritmo duties in France). Headliners the Budos Band shot pool and drank beer upstairs. Having seen Budos before in Charlottesville, I bailed.
Crowd fatigue was setting in. We wanted to see the Men and Titus Andronicus, but couldn't bear the crush. Instead I wound up at the Union to catch a late night set by Times New Viking of Columbus, Ohio. It was an abrasive, noisy set that I enjoyed, partly because it wasn't crowded, and also because the band had a nice mix of raw distorted garage and pop flare. Just after midnight, their drummer introduced the band with the following: "We're Phish and we're from Burlington, Vt. ... Happy Sept. 11."
Lead singer Beth Murphy reminded me of a young Patti Smith with a little Partridge Family thrown in, bumping and grinding against her old-school keyboard- smirking like a slum goddess from the Lower East Side. Another of my favorite lines of the weekend happened here: I asked the guitarist if they had any T-shirts. So sue me, I like to check out the merchandise table, it's a habit from my teen years I'll probably never get over. I'll be a T-shirt slut until I die.
He just smiled and said, "No, we don't have anything like that."