It has been mentioned before that WE LOVE MUSIC. Before embarking on our Trans-Americas 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, etc. While the concept of the multi-day, outdoor, multi-stage music festival is not well established in Central America we are pleased to announce that after a four-year absence the Festival Imperial in Costa Rica came back with a vengeance this past weekend and we were there.
Festival Imperial, Day 1 in San José, Costa Rica
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. Convenient, right?
If it looks, smells, tastes, and sounds like a music festival…
Held in appropriately dusty and sunny conditions at a speedway near the Costa Rican capital of San José, 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. There were 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 them?
We were there for the music anyway. Here’s what got us going on Day 1 of Festival Imperial.
We broke out the ear plugs for Gogol Bordello (in a good way)
During our very first show on the very first day of the festival, we got to use the Etymotic Research ear plugs we’ve been carting around for years since we’d positioned ourselves right up front by a tower of speakers. Gogol Bordello rocked it like they were playing a 3 am set to a tweaking crowd even though it was only 1 pm and most festival goers were still figuring out where to buy drink tickets.
The crowd of skinny hipster dudes and big-bottomed, 80s-loving girls quickly got swept up in the onstage antics of this UN of a band (members hail from Ukraine, the US, Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Israel). For the next hour or so (too short) Gogol Bordello raged. There was jumping. There was butt-crack. There was onstage drinking. Best moment: Eugene Hutz opening another bottle of wine on stage without missing a beat then drinking straight from the bottle. Glasses are for sissies.
High hopes for Ximena
Next up was Ximena Sariñana a Mexican singer/songwriter/actress who attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, her debut album was called “one of the strongest debuts from a female singer-songwriter since Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me” by Rolling Stone, and Ximena was nominated for two Latin Grammys. We had high hopes. Unfortunately, her set was a snoozer. The vocals weren’t mixed well (a huge problem for a performer like her) and her overall presence seemed small and quiet. The stage seemed too big for her and her perky red dress.
Ximena’s set did give us some time to check out the slowly swelling crowd (organizers estimate that 30,000 tickets were sold for the first day of the festival). A third of the folks could have been at any music festival in the US: Sonic Youth t-shirts, a bare-chested man with a stuffed animal wrapped around his neck, tattoos, lots of homemade jewelry, hip belt purses, guys with discs in their earlobes. Yeah, there were even a few bozos walking around wearing those knitted Rasta caps with the fake dreads sewn into them…
We liked the local twists on the festival scene too, like the guy we saw wearing the mask of his favorite Lucha Libre star.
The Great Wilderness, Manchester Orchestra, and Cage the Elephant
The Great Wilderness is a quartet from San José (the capital of Costa Rica, not the one in California) comprised of three chick guitarists and a dude on drums. They took over the smallest stage at the festival with what they call “Dream Rock.” We call it a great mash-up of early Go-Gos and late Hole. Also loved their thrift store look, floppy hair, and the fact that their blog (in English and Spanish like their songs) is called We Cannot Sing.
Take a trip into The Great Wilderness with their video for Dark Horse…
The Great Wilderness performed at SXSW this year and they completely held our attention until it was time for another Festival Imperial discovery.
If you like brutally honest lyrics and driving rock and you can get past the bushy beards (there are two epic examples in this band) then you’re gonna love Manchester Orchestra. We slipped right into their grinding set which had twinges of both My Morning Jacket (the band’s second album was produced by the same guy who did some MMJ albums) and Nirvana, often at the same time. What was just as appealing was lead singer Andy Hull’s genuine delight about being at the festival. “We had no idea there would be so many people here,” he practically giggled at one point.
Manchester Orchestra is from Atlanta and has been around in one form or another since 2004. We’re not quite sure how we missed three whole albums from these guys but we’re glad we’re aware of them now.
Another find? Cage the Elephant. If we had reliable access to a TV and US programming we would have known that Cage the Elephant has performed on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award in 2011. As it was, the band’s insanely high-energy performance (exhausting just to watch) was all new to us. Honestly, the lead singer is just a long-haired blur and it would have been entertaining just to watch his antics even if he wasn’t shouting/singing at the same time. Think angry Beck all hopped up on something.
Still insane in the membrane
We haven’t seen Cypress Hill perform live since the early ’90s when the band was breaking out and playing all over the place, including at our beloved (long closed) Wetlands club in New York City. So the guys are older and pudgier than we remember (frankly, so are we) but they still put on a super high (no pun intended) energy show full of what amounted to a medley of hits.
Despite the fact that the median age of the crowd was mid-20s everyone seemed to know all the words. The rail was dominated by women (the opposite of how I remember it back in the day) and about 47 seconds into the Cypress Hill set a kid standing next to us took a joint out of an Altoids tin (where are we?). When B-Real lit up a huge spliff the crowd went wild.
And now that Flaming Lips song from all those commercials is stuck in our heads…
The Flaming Lips were one of the most hotly anticipated acts of the festival and we were looking forward to seeing their smart guy circus act again too. Technicolor video of a dancing naked woman flashed as dancers dressed as Dorothy, The Tin Man, The Lion or The Scarecrow grooved on stage. Then the band launched into a Black Sabbath tune and ring leader Wayne Coyne launched himself into the audience in his signature huge clear bubble.
So begins a Flaming Lips ride which included more awesome video, a 10 foot (3 meter) tall green alien and about 3,000 pounds of confetti and streamers. Wayne seemed a bit disappointed that the crowd wasn’t louder, but we found the Costa Rican fans a bit subdued in general. Though every lanky, earnest guy around us was singing along to every song no one seemed very interested in shouting or pumping their fists in the air which prompted Wayne to holler “Come on!” even more than usual.
Of course, The Flaming Lips played “Do You Realize?” and that anthem, which was inspired by a band member’s struggles while detoxing off heroin but has been used in half a dozen commercials nonetheless, is still stuck in our heads.
We’re not sure if this is creepy or cool, but The Flaming Lips keyboardist Steve Drozd playfully whispered “gracias” in falsetto after every song.
We skipped Maroon 5, deal with it
Though Maroon 5 attracted the biggest crowds of Day 1 (mostly screaming girls) and their ditties are positively unavoidable on Costa Rican radio we just aren’t that into them, especially with Adam Levine wearing a Bowie t-shirt doing a song called Moves Like Jagger with absolutely no hint of irony. Instead, we sat in the press tent and enjoyed a cold Imperial.
Thank you Festival Imperial 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 am.
Unexpected plus of attending a music festival in Latin America: Generally speaking, you are the tallest person in the crowd.
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, 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.
Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica