Standouts from the weekend include many of the acts outside the EDM genre.
Buku made its reputation first as an EDM festival, but starting last year it broadened its musical offerings. This year, some of its best moments came in other genres.
It's arguable that Nas had nothing to prove when he took the Buku main stage on Friday. That his show was in support of the 20th anniversary of his career-shaping debut Illmatic was enough to reassert his name among the best rappers alive, even for those in the crowd who weren't even alive when that album came out. Some of that younger audience might have felt out of place with how often Nas dated himself. His flow remains as strong as it ever was, but there were a few hiccups usually followed by some remark about how long it's been since Illmatic. The years have treated Nas well, but that doesn't mean he wasn't showing his age — an ultimately a good move for Nas.
It's hard not to compare Nas' rap headlining spot this year to Kendrick Lamar's last year. Nas took the stage with only a DJ by his side and amusing if not standard footage playing on the large screen behind him. But it wasn't overwhelming. It showed just how strong Nas has remained, and put him and his voice in the forefront. In contrast, Lamar's show was a pull-out-all-the-stops, chaotic event, or as I remember it, sort of a mess. It was surely fun as Lamar cranked up the bass in awareness of his crowd and with a rousing backing band, the show was non-stop high energy — at the sacrifice of Lamar's trademark delivery. Where Lamar had to push his voice to the limit just to overcome the verbosity of his show, Nas was able to keep it simple and show off what he's still got. It's a common toss up at a rap show, and often, choosing a more fun-focused route can be rewarding. In this case, Nas showed he hasn't been left behind. He proved his influence is still massive in the rap world and, above all, still needed.
I didn't like Wavves when I saw the L.A. stoner punks at Bonnaroo nearly four years ago. At that time, the band's buzz was at its lo-fi peak, but its show was sloppy and often unpleasant to hear. But a lot has changed for Wavves since then, especially with frontman Nathan Williams, who was once most notable for breaking down onstage. Last year's Afraid of Heights showed a new, more mature and more melodic side to Wavves, and I hoped that would show at the group's Friday evening Ballroom show.
Not only did Williams and company fulfill that wish, but they showed greater unity as a band that benefitted from having more melodic material to work with. Williams' vocals are still as delightfully off-kilter as they'v ever been, and he showed range on songs like "Demon to Lean On," a set highlight. That song in particular showed how maturity and pop sensibility have helped Wavves find itself and ground its live show. Still, in a small way, that branded brattiness so often associated with Williams was missed. Chalk it up to not being careful what I wished for. Wavves is making good, forward progress both in the studio and on stage, but let's hope that the beast hasn't been fully tamed.
- Zedd's set at the Power Plant was the first time I heard him independent from a Bud Light Platinum commercial, but it was quickly evident why he's become such a festival staple. His light show ranked among the most insane this weekend, and he showed a decent versatility between drops.
- Pusha T's Ballroom set was a weekend highlight, as the rapper pulled out new material as well as old work with his duo Clipse and two of the best tracks from Kanye West's 2010 My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His show fit perfectly in the context of the festival, as his latest work is some of the best examples of EDM-infused rap out there today.
- Sleigh Bells might be getting more irrelevant with each passing album that pretty much just sounds the same as before, but there's no denying the power of its live show. It's instant and effortless fun. The last time I saw Sleigh Bells, the duo went it alone on stage with nothing more than a guitar, vocals and a wall of amps. Now, there's a drummer and another guitarist, and while that may not really enhance the sound, it's much more engaging for the crowd. Sleigh Bells looked like a rock band.
- As much as Ellie Goulding's sound doesn't entice me, I thought her Friday night set showed she deserved a spot on the big stage during primetime. Her usually dainty vocals were backed by phenomenal backup singers and a band who were able to take her inoffensive pop to greater heights.
Dan Deacon shows are events of great lore. The oddball producer/singer/songwriter is known for heavy crowd involvement in creative ways, like having every audience member set the alarm on their phones for the same time, only to go off at a blissful moment later in the show. Maybe it says something about how we can use the technology into which we are so constantly plugged, or maybe it was just a neat gimmick. His approach is interesting if not admirable, but at his early Saturday set in the Ballroom, the grandiose felt forced.
Part of the draw to Dan Deacon and his fabled performances is the side of his music that brings out something primal. His songs are normally uptempo, chaotic and whirring with synths, drum machines and affected vocals. It's the kind of music that makes you dance crazy in traffic before you notice the people staring in the cars around you. It's Deacon's dynamics that can make his work so moving and affirming. Saturday saw him performing in the crowd so he could constantly organize it into different shapes, orchestrating theatric activities from a dance contest to a wall of high fives. It was a blast to watch and looked fun as hell to participate in, but it didn't feel like a Dan Deacon show. By the end, it seemed like Deacon only played a handful of songs, which often sounded more like background music to the craziness going on elsewhere. Trying to force the inhibition stripped it from the music, and for that, some fans who wanted to do their own thing in the crowd felt out of place. Much respect goes to Deacon for subverting the often drab live show formula, but it would've been nice to see a Dan Deacon show rather than be the Dan Deacon show.
Phantogram's Saturday night show might've overlapped with the Flaming Lips' sensory explosion at the main stage, but a large chunk of the Buku crowd skipped the Lips for Phantogram's moody, rich set that ranked among the best of the weekend. The sheer loudness and energy of the show was enough to satiate any Float Den fans who found themselves in the Ballroom. Everything was turned up, with an impressive light show and rattling bass, sometimes to the detriment of lead singer Sarah Barthel's huge vocals.
Overwhelming and indulgent as it may have been, the most impressive aspect was how confident and realized Phantogram sounded. The duo has been around the indie scene for a while, but this year's Voices surely bolstered them to a wider audience. Saturday's performance showed that more notoriety has gone a long way, because the duo and its backing band play like they're dream pop vanguards. What sounded typical on Voices found new life live. Some of that may be attributed to just turning the volume up, but Phantogram's tight performance and sizzling stage presence suggests there's more than what we've seen so far.
- Thundercat's early performance was another weekend favorite for me. His bass playing is widely regarded for good reason as he transitions to deep, scattering riffs to funky high-pitched back and forths. His backing band provided an experimental aspect to the show that placed it in a freak jazz context, only to transition into full-out funk grooves seconds later.
- Griz was an EDM standout for his adherence to the D way more than the E. Instead of sounding typically industrial and over-produced, it had an organic feel and had more established roots in the dance music genre.
- The Pains of Being Pure at Heart showed its teeth, but they may still be baby ones. The band has impressive indie rock chops, but nothing about its Saturday show was engaging. The group settled into a consistent groove midway through the set, but it never escalated to more than entertaining indie.