We love live music. Before embarking on our Journey we spent a lot of time seeing live music and going to music festivals around the US including Bonnaroo, High Sierra, Gathering of the Vibes, Mountain Jam, Jam Cruise, Langerado, etc. The concept of the multi-day, outdoor, multi-stage music festival is not well established in Central America but we’re happy to report that after a four year absence the Festival Imperial in Costa Rica came back with a vengeance this past weekend and we were there.
Put on by the folks who do Lollapalooza, the two day lineup included The Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio, LMFAO, Bjork, Thievery Corporation, Cypress Hill, Moby (doing a DJ set), Skrillex, Maroon 5 and Gogol Bordello plus some great bands we were happy to discover. Many of these same artists are continuing down to Lollapalooza Chile and Lollapalooza Brazil over the next two weekends.
If it looks, smells, tastes and sounds like a music festival…
Held in appropriately dusty and sunny conditions at speedway near the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, Imperial Festival had all the usual trappings: three stages, semi-smelly porta-potties and a bunch of food vendors some selling fast food junk or freshly made chifrijo, which is pretty much the national dish of Costa Rica made with rice, beans, pico de gallo and pork.
Plenty of recycling bins and an on-site sorting and crushing facility and a kick ass crew kept things remarkably clean. There was even a small strip of stalls selling better-than-usual clothes and jewelry from local, hip boutiques like Hija de Tigre. Oh, and beer. The whole festival was sponsored by Imperial, the biggest brand of beer in Costa Rica, and there was plenty of the unremarkable stuff on hand though it was no bargain at US$3 per can. Where’s the Sweetwater or Sixpoint tent when you need it?
We were there for the music anyway. Day 1 of Festival Imperial was awesome. Here’s what moved us, scared us and surprised us on Day 2.
Hard to say, easy to dance to
Sonambulo. It doesn’t roll off your tongue but this band will have you rolling your hips. That’s what happens when a bunch of guys (the full band is 11 members strong) from places like Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia get together. Though Sonambulao means sleepwalker there was no sleeping or walking involved in their set as the band cranked out what they call “Psico Tropical” sound. Just when we thought we were in the midst of a classically infectious cumbia, for example, the band threw in some trippy keyboards, keeping the crowd on their toes literally and figuratively.
One of the greatest things about Festival Imperial was that performances on the two main stages never overlapped. This meant we never had to make agonizing Bonnaroo-style decisions about which act to sacrifice in order to see another one. Find just the right vantage point between the two main stages and you could practically treat the festival like a ping-pong match and never do much more than move your head from left to right to catch acts on both main stages.
TV on the Radio on Stage at the Festival in Costa Rica
Sure we’d been hearing the buzz about TV on the Radio (we’re in Central America, not under a rock) but we’d never seen them live and, frankly, they should be called TV on the Radio on Stage because seeing them live is the only way to fully appreciate lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s arms, which must be the longest and most flexible in the industry. We also loved that the bass player looks like Harvard Professor, author and commentator Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. after a bender.
Tunde waves those amazing arms around a lot, one of the few constants in a performance that ran the vocal gamut. Close your eyes at a TV on the Radio show and you might swear the band was changing up singers, toggling between Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals, Prince and Michael Jackson depending on whether they’d dialed up a ballad, a ska shaker or a fully eclectic alt rock anthem.
And now we would like to make a random, humble suggestion: 86 the thunder sticks. They must have handed out 75,000 inflatable thunder sticks during Festival Imperial creating a sea of ad-clad obstacles in between us and the stage and leaving behind tons of plastic trash.
Thievery Corporation steals the show
“I wish America had no army,” said Thievery Corporation co-founder Rob Garza when asked during a press conference what he thought of the fact that Costa Rica hasn’t had an army since 1949. Par for the course from a driving force behind the hottest band with a conscience.
Thievery Corporation got things rolling with an anti IMF rap (International Mother F…ers) but this band makes even global financial shenanigans fun with a bottomless roster of singers, a sitar player on a white settee, turntables and a bass player who somehow managed to dance as hard as the crowd.
The overall effect was Massive Attack after a stint in the Peace Corps. Hip, sexy energy, smart words, haunting vocals.
Not only do we agree with Garza’s music we also agree with his assessment of Festival Imperial which he praised for its “eclectic” line up. Unlike many US music festivals Festival Imperial was not booked through the prism of one musical genre or even one definition of what’s popular or mainstream. Come to think of it, radio stations in Costa Rica tend to mix it up the same way.
And speaking of eclectic….
Now for something completely different
Shaved head and long hair. Cool and dorky. Distorted and melodic. Much-hyped Skrillex, who looks like a creepy loser kid from an episode of The Brady Bunch, produced something between brown noise and the sound one imagines mice would make if you fed them acid and gave them paperclips and tin foil to play with. We actually mean that in a good way…
And he’s so small!
Were we really bored by Bjork?
For an artist so defined by visuals it was disappointing that you had to be within 30 feet of the stage to get a proper view of the show Bjork presented. Instead of using the stage-side mega screens to simulcast from the stage, she used them to show video footage of lava splitting the earth apart and starfish moving in fast-mo. Cool, yes, but those same images were being shown behind the stage as well and what 90% of the crowd was really hungry for was a good look at Bjork.
We did our best. We can tell you that Bjork was wearing a stiff, matronly orange wig and a deep plastic dress with inflatable fat lady bulges at the hips and breasts. She was backed by a disturbing number of blondes dressed in sequined versions of choir robes. Together, these women produced a soaring cacophony of voices which almost made up for the dearth of musical instruments on stage (no, a laptop doesn’t count).
Bjork does get our Best Gracias of the Day award, however. Petite, sweet and with perfectly rolled Rs.
From The Temptations to The Contemptible
We managed to miss most of the LMFAO mania but a few songs have been unavoidable. Up until today we actually got a kick out of hearing LMFAO’s Sexy and I Know It on the radio in the truck. We even started singing along to the ridiculously earnest line “I work out.” Those days ended as soon as we saw LMFAO live.
Well-known fact: LMFAO was created by Redfoo and his cousin SkyBlu (not their real names). Little-known fact: Redfoo is the son of musical legend Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, and SkyBlu is Mr. Gordy’s grandson. SkyBlue couldn’t make it to Festival Imperial show but the whole thing was so pre-packaged that he wasn’t even missed. Hell, they probably could have both stayed home and the crowd still would have worked itself into a frenzy as if pure pheromones were being misted from the stage. And perhaps they were.
The show was a mash up of Romper Room, a low budget Japanese sex show and a Jane Fonda workout tape with glimpses of the resort wear catalog from International Male. Toss in dry humping backup dancers, as many hot button words as you can think of and more costume changes than Madonna and you’ve about got it. (Redfoo has said he wants to focus on the band’s clothing line and live shows have become fashion shows for his lurid, lyrca, lyric-splashed gear.)
LMFAO attracted one of the largest and youngest crowds of the festival and elicited the most enthusiastic reactions–mostly in the form of teenage girls squealing and screaming whenever Redfoo asked “Where my bitches at?” which was often.
There is a chance that we were repulsed by the LMFAO show because we’re not 19 years old and anything that involves raping zebras and t-shrts that say “I am not a whore” worn by women (and men) acting like whores just pisses us off (you can buy that t-shirt, btw, on the LMFAO website!).
There’s a much greater chance, however, that we were repulsed by the LMFAO show because it sucked. Despite the fact that we could hear our own brain cells dying the longer we stood in the crowd, we stayed. We wanted to Laugh Our F…ing Asses Off with the band at their fantastic joke on the music industry. We were waiting for the tongue to go in the cheek–hell, Redfoo had been singing about his tongue going everywhere else.
But Redfoo never broke character, never let the audience in on what we hope and pray is a joke meant to highlight just how easy it is to descend low enough to reach the heights of pop music. Instead we got a musical roofie: it hits you, you wake up later, then desperately want a shower.
Are these guys really the spawn of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy? The same man who brought us the Jackson 5, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and more? Shudder.
Thank you and good night!
Thank you Festival Imperial 2012 and Hotel Presidente, where we were hosted in a huge room with festival weekend rebound essentials: sound-proof windows, a mini fridge and an awesome breakfast buffet served until 10.
The end of Festival Imperial is not the end of the noteworthy live music in Costa Rica, by the way. In May 2012 Bob Dylan will perform in San Jose and Paul McCartney is coming too though dates for McCartney haven’t been announced.
Other musical moments on the road…
We’ve managed to see a smattering of live music since our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006. We kicked off the Journey with a visit to the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans (we made it to Jazz Fest a total of three times on the Journey). Our path crossed with that of our favorite epic percussionist, Mike Dillon, in the US and in Canada. Our most recent music festival was the invitation-only Black Sheep Family Festival in Oregon way back in 2008.
Oh, and we once drove 2,000 miles from the tip of Baja to Boulder, Colorado for a two-night run by one of our favorite bands ever, Bustle in Your Hedgerow–a vocal-free, totally raging Led Zeppelin cover band made up of keyboard killer Marco Benevento, bad ass drummer Joe Russo (currently on tour with Further), Ween man Dave Dreiwitz and awesome guitarist Scott Metzger who wrote our very own theme song. Did we mention that we have a theme song? Go to the bottom or our homepage to play it!
Read more about travel in Costa Rica