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Festival Review: Sweetlife Festival 2013

on May 14, 2013, 6:25pm

Sweetlife fest

In 2010, Sweetgreen’s first ever Sweetlife Festival rocked the back parking lot of the Dupont Circle location. I remember dancing to a Hot Chip DJ set next to a Toyota Camry with my hallmates. The capacity of the lot was about 150. Three years later, I drove to the mammoth Merriweather Post Pavilion for the festival, expanded to host huge acts like Kendrick Lamar and Phoenix, with an estimated audience of 20,000. It’s not just salad anymore, either — the fest boasted a gourmet food selection that rivals that of food festivals, with mac and cheese food trucks and Rogue 24‘s friend risotto balls.

Sweetgreen is the charmed startup success story. Three Georgetown grads dedicated themselves to resolving a problem — no healthy, quick alternatives for students. Now the humble restaurant has transformed into a local favorite chain, featuring local sourcing, sustainability and healthy alternatives. The froyo’s more tart than sweet, but the name has a ring to it.

The salad and froyo startup has a keen focus on sustainability, and the festival featured that same focus as well. Each disposal station had a different crew member manning the waste, so that people would appropriately dispose of things in either waste, compost or recycling. The music selection, though, was fresh and jam-worthy even amid a torrential downpour.

Solange – Mainstage – 1:45 p.m.

Solange sweetlife (Joy Asico)

Photo by Joy Asico

Beyoncé’s freewheeling younger sister had a young crowd of lawn-dwellers vibing out to funkified jams. The sun was out and the grooves were fine, with Solange’s enthusiastic struts and croons inciting even the most reluctant tweens to slow-dance together. I didn’t realize the extent of her vocal range until I saw her perform live, from a growl to sweet harmonized cover of Selena’s “I Could Fall In Love”. By the end she owned the pavilion stage, but her star power is still developing into a force to be reckoned with. The journey, though, is something fierce: Solange’s grand-sounding R&B tones adapted well to the venue, and to everyone’s delight she covered Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move” to close out her too-short set.

Gary Clark Jr. – Mainstage – 3:00 p.m.

gary clark jr sweetlife Josh Cogan

Photo by Josh Cogan

The blues-rock revival, from The Black Keys’ early days to Jack White’s endless production of finger-licking tunes, continues to rollick and roll. Where Gary Clark Jr. differs lies in his tender care for the needlepoint guitar riffs, seamlessly transitioning R&B numbers into bare-bones rock and roll solos. The leather-clad bandmates centered around the rambling and able Clark, at one point riffing on his guitar as though scratching a record. The crowd in the pit wasn’t there for Clark, but rather to snag a spot for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs early (hence why no one was bopping and twisting). Yet Clark’s set proved that you only need a few elements to produce fluid, floor-shaking rock and roll — freewheeling guitar solos, a diaphragm-rumbling bass player rocking shades and a cape, a jittery drummer and a blues heart.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mainstage – 4:30 p.m.

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Photo by Josh Cogan

Backed by a menacing black backdrop bearing three silver Y’s, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the absolute highlight of the festival. The squealing Karen O emerged from behind the stage, all studded out with yellow sequins, long blue socks, and later a leather jacket bearing her initials — KO — all too appropriate for the knockout performance she gave.

Karen Orzolek’s stage presence is sultry and electric, practiced but never formulaic. She grooves out and jumps, then a second later shakes and stutters with pleasure, deep-throating the mike and panting. It’s method acting in song, an art form practiced between shouts and yelps, red gloved-hands shaking “our hands out of control”. The audience appropriately lost it with the disco-infused “Heads Will Roll” but “Maps” remains absolutely throat-choking live, like you’re hearing it again for the very first time. “This is a Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song,” rasped Karen. “They don’t love you like I do — I DO!” I wasn’t the only one with tears dotting the corners of my eyes as Orzolek drove the microphone into her heart when the song ended.

Right around the tribal drums of “Mosquito” and Karen’s abrasive squeals, it began to downpour. If you looked behind you, thousands of poncho-clad people, knee-deep in mud, screaming along. Much of the audience at Sweetlife consisted of middle and high school students, yet YYY still are one of those bands that can successfully cross generational lines with ease. It didn’t matter whether it was thirty-somethings humming to the memories of Fever to Tell or tweens stoked on It’s Blitz — Yeah Yeah Yeahs were, and still are the wily answer to rock music.

Kendrick Lamar – Mainstage – 6:00 p.m.

kendrick sweetlife Josh Cogan

Photo by Josh Cogan

“Is anybody ready to motherfucking party right now?” The first words out of Kendrick Lamar’s mouth erupted a young crowd into a rain-drenched tizzy. Rap is about building yourself up, and Lamar fed off the crowd’s enthusiasm to kick off his hour-long set with “Backstreet Freestyle”. The whomping beats were absolutely thunderous, offset by Lamar’s woozing vocals. Sometimes he spit so close into the mike that the words were almost indiscernible, falling flat from Lamar’s all-knowing vocal prowess that we know and love from the studio album. But I guess that’s not the point if your entire body is moving to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and you have a beer in hand.

The crowd murmured along to the majority of the set, mainly composed of Lamar’s acclaimed release last year, Good Kid m.A.A.d City. But Lamar had loyalty on the brain. “Anyone been listening to me since day one?” Screeches and arms wavered in the air. Halfway through the set and right around “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, I turned around to see if people were still dancing in the rain. They were; except now, the sun had come up.

Youth Lagoon – Treehouse Stage – 6:20 p.m.

youth lagoon sweetlife

I schlepped to the Treehouse Stage as daintily as possible in the mud (all in all I saw at least 14 people eat it from slipping in the mud). I approached the much-smaller Treehouse Stage to hear Trevor Powers belting “Pelican Man” from his latest heady release Wondrous Bughouse. I had seen Youth Lagoon in the backroom of a venue in D.C. in fall 2011, and today, they are a much different band than the simple strums of Powers’ keys and a guitarist. It makes sense, as Wondrous Bughouse is a much more complex (albeit less focused) album than The Year of Hibernation was. This time around, a drummer, two guitarists, and a bassist accompanied Trevor’s menacing set of three synths. As Powers yelped into the microphone, many in the audience had their eyes closed, swaying to the power of their internalized experiences to “July”. The 30-minute set ended abruptly, without a final number. Just Powers exclaiming — “Well, we’re out of time. Thank you.”

Holy Ghost! – Treehouse Stage – 7:05 p.m

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Photo by Elise Apelian

Razor-sharp drummer Nick Millhiser stole the show from Holy Ghost!, otherwise rusty as all hell. Lead vocalist Alex Frankel was visibly nervous as the synth-pop DFA crew took the stage, apologizing profusely to the audience for both being late (due to technical difficulties) and for the band’s time apart clearly visible. Frankels’ vocals were too soft and off until about mid-way through the set when the synths and lyrics were calibrated. The people were dancing, though, and it was a punchy way to see the clouds disappear and the evening roll in.

Passion Pit – Mainstage – 7:20 p.m.

passion pit sweetlife joy asico

Photo by Joy Asico

I’ve never been drawn to Passion Pit’s synthy swells, but I caught about twenty minutes of their set for curiosity’s sake. Lightning shook the sky in the distance and a satisfied crowd jived along to the falsetto stylings of the duo, especially during “Little Secrets” and “Sleepyhead”. This sleepyhead had to leave early for a long drive home, unfortunately missing Phoenix’s set (which apparently kicked major ass). But it was sweet indeed.

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Photographer: Elise Apelian

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