The Creator’s Project in San Francisco [Review]

03/20/2012

Where to start? As the guy behind me in the ticket line put it, “this is gonna be like Disneyland for nerds!” And by the end of the night, the blitzkrieg of auditory, visual and technological stimuli known as the Creators Project turned that man’s giddy proclamation into a full-blown prophecy.

(Critic’s disclaimer: Vice sure as shit knows how to throw a party. The opinions below feign some semblance of neutrality, but will inevitably be colored by the warm and woozy satisfaction that stems from copious free booze and hitchless press pampering. Well played Vice, well played.)

The music lineup alone — highlighted by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, James Murphy’s DJ set in the post-LCD Soundsystem world, and Squarepusher’s first show on US soil in 7 years — boasted the kind of star power that would normally leave you puzzling over your bank account, planning the triple-digit mathrobatics that could facilitate a way to squeeze the concert into your schedule (“I totally won’t get sick of Ramen for three weeks!”).

Add Intel‘s mission to curate all manner of tech-anchored art installations, and their decision to present the entire package at the dazzling price of RSVFREE, and you begin to understand the dumbluck-happy smiles that dominated the Fort Mason grounds on Saturday. As packed as the 25,000-strong event was, the demand felt tenfold greater–like 90% of SF (including 5 of my 7 roommates) missed out on the ticket lottery. You could see the exclusivity of the event baked into the perpetual glow on ticketholders’ faces — all of us milling around the Fort Mason grounds in a blissful culture coma.

Here’s what we saw: music reviews first, with our thoughts (and a video) on the installations further down.

yeah yeah yeahs at creators project

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

In a critical climate that sees hype cycles rise and fall in the span of a tanked SNL performance, Karen O’s staying power is awe-inspiring. From the moment the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage, every throaty yelp, catcall and snippet of song-to-song banter elicited delirious roars that rattled the windows of the Festival Pavillion. It didn’t matter that they haven’t released any new material since 2009′s It’s Blitz! – quite in contrast, it played like a frenzied homecoming. The set’s time constraints forced the YYYs to take the hit parade route to some extent, and the introductions to “Gold Lion” and “Heads Will Roll” triggered a rush of punctuated euphoria (as opposed to, you know, the garden-variety excitement that permeated the rest of the set).

I never did track down Karen O on the sidelines, but here’s the question I had prepared in case I ever ran into her: “Does it ever feel like a curse to have written a song as good as ‘Maps,’ one that your fans will request at every show, without fail, until the day you retire?” Of course, they played “Maps,” and as the hypnotic guitar trill hit the speakers — an introduction which, by now, triggers so many separate cases of nostalgia in so many separate people — I could see my answer in Karen O’s body language. She loves the love her fans have for her, and she pours her heart into her performance accordingly.

And perhaps it’s that symbiotic relationship between fan and performer–the way she so openly feeds off her adoration–that accounts for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ longevity in a sea of wayward rockstars, passing in the night.

LCD Creators Project

James Murphy 

Dogggg! Why did you have to leave me! …is what I would have been saying to myself during James Murphy’s DJ set, had my brain still been receiving messages from my ears at this point in the evening. The Murphy-fronted LCD Soundsystem, if you want to get a little hyperbolic about it, was responsible for showing an entire disassociated twentysomething generation that it’s okay to dance again–and so they broke our heart when they disbanded almost a year ago.

Last night, Murphy (with help from former bandmates Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney) inherited a mixed crowd at the tail end of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs set. (More than once: “well, we saw Karen O…should we go?”) He immediately flipped it into the most sustained dance party of the night, quite a feat for an event that had been running for over 12 hours at this point.

Zola Jesus at Creators Project

Zola Jesus

Never underestimate the power of believing your own world. When you watch Zola Jesus perform, you see disparate chunks of the Nika Danilova lore start to take coherent shape. Sure, she was in and out of opera training, something that becomes abundantly clear when the band’s cinematic swells dissipate and leave her voice towering like a pillar of strength in the empty space. That she grew up on forest land as the daughter of a hunter is just as important: her stage persona channels cagey beasts of prey, at times stalking the width of the stage until she finally pounces on her verse and thrashes about for the kill.

It’s not a front – for her, the whole package is communicative, and that is what makes Zola Jesus’ music so essential right now. She comes from a background that isn’t likely to be replicated, and she’s banked her artistic reputation on embracing and channeling her isolated roots.

Squarepusher

Squarepusher

I was in the photo pit for this one, hands hovering near my ears at all times should one of my earplugs decide to leap from my ear cavity in protest. Those earplugs were my two best friends during the Squarepusher set, as he worked every thunderous rumble he could out of the chin-high stack of floor amps that lined the entire base of the stage.

The quality of Squarepusher’s set probably depends on your familiarity with his cult status in the drum and bass arena. If you know him as Aphex Twin’s worthy contemporary — a secluded innovator responsible for guiding the twitchy micro-sequenced electronic music scene — it probably served you well enough to bask in the glow of his first US performance in 7 years, and let the experience just sort of wash over you. If you aren’t familiar…well, you watched a man press the space bar and hype the crowd like a mad conductor, jabbing at the air as if “directing” the breakdowns and flip-ups which were clearly programmed into the set from the start. Which is a little tragic, because Squarepusher is a notoriously talented multi-instrumentalist — none of which he put on display for his set Saturday night.

With all that, we have to mention the visual presentation, because it really salvaged his set for me. Dressed in black, Squarepusher donned a futuristic helmet which flashed a continuous stream of white lights, its patterns duplicated on the screen at the base of his mixing desk as well as the massive projection screen behind him. The three layers of lights (from background to foreground) swallowed him up in a sort of blinding anonymity, something that certainly jibes with Squarepusher’s MO. I was way cooler with his set when I stopped thinking about him as a performer, and starting processing him as another larger-than-life installation that embodies the Creators Project ethos. The showmanship could have been better, but the sensory flooding was spot-on.

Shabazz Palaces

I caught these guys at Treasure Island, and my main gripe was with the way their percussion just seemed to evaporate away in the open-air festival setting. In direct contrast, Creators Project went down in a massive echo-y warehouse with rattling glass windows. And this time around, it was ferocious. A too-small crowd (everyone else’s loss, really) witnessed Shabazz slay selections from the dark and intricate Black Up, though at some point it seemed like newcomers stopped trying to figure out what the hell he was rapping about and just got down with the bass instead.

Bonus points on top of bangin’ set: they hung out by the bar upstairs, smiling at whoever walked by and talking to anyone who wanted to. For no apparent reason, they gave me a thumbs up. Cool people.

-Written by Phillip Taylor-Parker & photographs by Julie Logan

For the full gallery, click here.