Proving that he’s nothing if not observant, Trent Reznor couldn’t have summed up Day 1 of Pemberton Festival any more succinctly than he did during the intro to “March of the Pigs”.
“What a beautiful day,” the alt-industrial icon announced four songs into a nuclear-strength set, sounding genuinely touched by a world he normally sees as an overflowing cesspool. “What a beautiful night. You bunch of fucking pigs! March!”
While his delivery didn’t win him any awards for graciousness, the weather was indeed, as Reznor noted, gorgeous for the kickoff day of the inaugural Pemberton Festival. The afternoon was hot but not sizzling, which somehow compensated for the two-hour standstill traffic jam that concertgoers had to endure to get to the site. Later, as the sky started to fade from a soft, cloud-swirled baby blue to a poison-plum purple, the night was as perfect as summer in Savannah, Georgia.
And, yes, almost everyone in the audience looked like pigs. Or, perhaps more accurately, Pigpen from the Peanuts comic strip. When you hold an event in a giant sun-scorched field and 40,000 people show up, a lot of dirt gets kicked up. Day 1 of the festival gave you a good idea of what Kansas was like during the dust-bowl years; after an hour on-site, you were grimier than an inner-city-America bag man. That, weirdly, became part of the fun.
If the five-hour haul from Vancouver to Pemberton was a grind, it took Metric all of about a minute to make the trek seem instantly worthwhile. Taking the main Mount Currie Stage in a silvery-blue hot-pants ensemble, singer Emily Haines was downright captivating, and not just if you were a heterosexual man hot-wired to stare at shiny things. As much as it must suck to be the guys in Metric, who nobody but their moms cares about, the singer showed why she deserves all the attention. When, right off the top of the set, she launched into a weird, robo-spazz dance to kick off the pneumatic new-waver “Poster of a Girl”, the field became an impromptu dance party.
The Gothic country-noir of Shearwater, on the other hand, provided sepia-toned soundtrack music for admiring the snow-capped majesty of the mountains that tower over the Pemberton Festival site. Singer Jonathan Meiburg may look like he doesn’t venture out of a musty antique store until dusk, but he stepped up for the small crowd of curiosity seekers assembled in front of the Lillooet Stage. Considering the set included a hammered dulcimer solo courtesy of Dog the Bounty Hunter doppelganger Thor Harris, it was probably better that the festival’s shirtless-loogan contingent was more interested in taking root in the beer garden than expanding its sonic horizons.
The smart people figured out early that the best place on-site to chill out was the Bacardi B-Live tent, partly because bartenders there were serving maple-syrup mojitos, and partly because it was air-conditioned. Raised platforms with padded patio furniture and potted ferns provided prime people-watching spots as bar-stars got down to the porno-funk-flavoured soul-man spinning of DJ K-Tel.
The one group on the bill that’s built above all for mega-events was Aussie retro-rockers Wolfmother. If the endless comparisons to Led Zeppelin bother Afro’d singer-guitarist Andrew Stockdale, you’d never know it considering that at one point he hauled out a Jimmy Page-model double-necked Gibson. He was rewarded with what was arguably the most rapturous reception of the day. Guys climbed onto the shoulders of other guys and chicks in unsightly one-piece bathing suits proved why white people shouldn’t dance in public. For 45 minutes, the Mount Currie Stage dust smelled suspiciously like B.C. hydroponic as Wolfmother brought the rock like the ’70s never went out of style.
The most impressive thing about spacy psych-rockers Secret Machines was that they wore all black when saner people were running around in nothing but shorts, flip-flops, and ass-floss. Singer and stun guitarist Brandon Curtis and bassist Phil Karnats also did an ace job of sounding like Peter Murphy and Geddy Lee going at it during a turf war between Primal Scream and Shellac.
Perhaps predictably, hard-rock iconoclast Serj Tankian drew the widest assortment of freak-flag flyers. As awesome as the filthy Pancho Villa dude in zebra-skin pants, a rainbow-coloured headband, and a multicoloured sombrero might have been, he was easily trumped by the guy near the front of the stage wearing a backwards snorkelling mask, yellow water wings, and an inflatable Ogopogo around his midsection. Leaving no doubt that he was a fan—as opposed to a mental patient who had gotten lost on the way to his swimming lessons—the entire ensemble was offset by a handmade green shirt emblazoned with the words Serj + Mark = Love.
Tankian was obviously feeling that love. Sporting a white, Slash-brand top hat, the moonlighting System of a Down frontman praised the Pemberton site as one of the most gorgeous places he’d ever been. And in marked contrast to his last B.C. appearance with SOAD, he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, concentrating entirely on his solo debut, Elect the Dead. Whether conducting an invisible symphony for the piano breakdown in “The Unthinking Majority” or ripping into the full-on maelstrom of “Empty Walls”, Tankian seemed thrilled to be there. He rewarded the crowd with an eclectically assaultive performance, his backing band—the Flying Cunts of Chaos—tackling everything from Balkan hardcore to revved-up freak folk to molten art-metal.
Alt-country chanteuse Kathleen Edwards has certainly cleaned up since arriving on the scene a half-decade ago. Forget dirty jeans and a stained T-shirt: she hit the Lillooet Stage in a floor-length black gown. For 45 minutes, every grey-hair at Pemberton Festival—and yes, there were more than a few—was enraptured.
Right after Edwards’s set, word must have gotten out that the Bacardi B-Live tent was the place to be. As the lineup to get in stretched back to Whistler, Tyson V whipped up a crowd that was already pretty much at a fever pitch. Two demerits, however, for general cluelessness; on at least two occasions, he suggested that the 24-hour party people give it up for Chromeo, announcing, “He’s not going to come on-stage until you guys make him feel welcome.” Proving that they are gentlemen, Chromeo’s P-Thugg and Dave 1 didn’t note Tyson V’s gaffe when they took their place behind the synths. That small act of mercy didn’t, unfortunately, make the duo’s heinous brand of ’80s electro-funk any less execrable.
Because you want to know, Interpol bassist Carlos Dengler was rocking a look best described as rockabilly meets JFK meets Calvin Klein. There isn’t a more ridiculously cool man in modern music. Still, the above-and-beyond award went to guitarist Daniel Kessler, who put on a clinic, both visually and musically, during marvels like “Mammoth”. Even though Interpol’s scenester-friendly take on gloomy postpunk seemed on paper like a poor fit for Pemberton, from the reaction of the crowd, the band’s appeal is no longer limited to those who wish they’d been born in Williamsburg.
Trent Reznor has been at the game long enough to know that sometimes you have to give the people what they want. The biggest crowd-pleasers of Nine Inch Nails’ set were, predictably, ragingly cathartic classics like “Closer” and the aforementioned “March of the Pigs”. It was at the halfway point in the performance, though, that things got really interesting. As a futuristic-looking transparent screen dropped from the rigging and came to rest in front of the band, Reznor and his hired guns took their places before a row of synthesizers. What followed was a half-hour diversion into the land of woozy glitch-riot techno, with a mega-sized video backdrop switching from snowstorms of white fuzz to solid walls of crimson.
It was hard not to laugh when Reznor howled “We will wipe this place clean” in the claustrophobic killer “The Warning”, only because, for the dust-covered Pigpens of Pemberton Festival, what was shaping up to be a great-but-grimy weekend was just getting started.