Photography by Adrian Spinelli
Watching John Darnielle on stage during the final night of the 2016 Noise Pop Festival, it was clear that he was all alone. Yes, it was in the literal sense a solo set from the man behind The Mountain Goats, but as he filled the intimate confines of the Swedish American Hall with his unique brand of introspection, the common elements of musical festivals were also absent. There were no giant banners for energy drinks hanging behind the performer, no sound bleed from the EDM DJ on a neighboring stage. It was simply music, being played the way it ought to be heard, the signature of Noise Pop and a large reason why, in the festival’s 24th year, it remains fiercely independent amid a growing tide of homogenized lineups and diminishing returns in the world of music festivals.
For 10 days each February, the Noise Pop Music Festival takes over San Francisco, bringing with it a welcome breath of musical diversity. Spread across smaller venues throughout town, Noise Pop is a carefully curated mix of known commodities like The Mountain Goats and Metric and undiscovered treasures thirsting for new ears. On any given night, there is talent from almost every genre taking the stage throughout San Francisco. If the festival has one downside, it’s that badges don’t come with a cloning device to allow you to take in everything Noise Pop has to offer — but we did our damnedest.
There is no denying the popularity of the Outside Lands Festival or Treasure Island Music Festival, two pillars of the Bay Area music scene. However, while both of those institutions exist in a vacuum – being relegated to Golden Gate Park and Treasure Island, respectively – Noise Pop embraces the city that serves as its host. On any given night, you may be catching the early show with saxophone maestro Kamasi Washington at the Independent, then jump over to see rockers Day Wave and Harriet at the Rickshaw Stop or head to the glitzy SF Jazz Center to take in electronic jazz fusion from Kneedelus, before moving on to Swedish American Hall for a solo set from Mitski. Every night of Noise Pop serves as a de facto tour of both San Francisco and today’s promising musical landscape.
Like any good festival, Noise Pop is an exercise in hard choices, unexpected discoveries, and testing the limits of one’s endurance. On Saturday alone, there were sold-out shows from American Football, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vince Staples, and Neon Indian. Behind each of those names are the openers and supporting acts, each selected with care to highlight local talent and introduce attendees to their new favorite bands. Not every act was necessarily at home in the somewhat loose, fast-paced setting of Noise Pop, but many embraced the opportunity to deliver memorable performances.
In addition to their onslaught of concerts, Noise Pop offered special events and a film component to round out the experience. Monday was a David Bowie tribute night, featuring lightning bolt face painting and a screening of the 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Before the week of music got underway, director Rob Hatch-Miller presented Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, a documentary on the little-known soul singer who found a second life when his music was sampled by everyone from RZA to Kanye West. From celebrating the life of one icon to learning the story of a man who could’ve been another, Noise Pop strives to bridge the ever-widening gap in tastes and knowledge among music fans in one surreal week and a half of strobe lights, reverb, and bliss.
Read on for Consequence of Sound’s coverage of the 10 best sets at Noise Pop 2016.