IRVINE, Calif. Seven years ago, when indie-rock hysteria was at its peak, it'd be hard to imagine the kind of mellowness that enveloped Sunday's This Ain't No Picnic festival, featuring genre heavyweights Beck and Yo La Tengo and contenders such as Built To Spill and Creeper Lagoon.
Maybe that's to be expected in a phase where Lollapalooza is just a memory and Seattle is practically a dirty word. But it was a Washington trio (Issiquah, to be exact) that stole Sunday's show, allaying fears that their recent ascension to a major label would make them any easier to peg.
The crowd, roughly estimated at 5,000, was at its most frenzied (a mild frenzy though it was) when Modest Mouse took the stage. By the time the alleged "next big thing" launched into "Doin' the Cockroach" (RealAudio excerpt), from the group's third album, The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), the first sign of electricity broke through the hot summer air.
Though some hard-core followers expressed concern over the band's newfound attention the group's The Moon & Antarctica was released on Epic last month there were few signs of apprehension during their 30-minute set, as, for the first time, most of the assembled got to their feet and stayed there. Afterward, a drained Issac Brock, the hard-playing trio's charismatic frontman (looking like a less affected and pudgier Stephan Jenkins) gulped down a beer and fought off fans trying to get a piece of the man who some say might just save rock.
"I just wanna pick your brain," said a self-described fanatic from Colorado, imploring the trailer-park scion to teach him everything he knows about music.
"I can show you everything I know in about five minutes," Brock said, showing true disdain for being wanted.
It wasn't something he thought he'd be able to get used to. "It's best I don't think about it," Brock said. "I don't pay attention to what people are saying about us. I just roll with the punches, you know?"
Asked if he noticed the enthusiasm of the crowd, Brock struck another oblivious pose. "They seemed pretty subdued to me," he said. "This really isn't our sorta thing."
A Calmer, Gentler Beck
Headliner Beck is all too familiar with this sorta thing. He survived Lollapalooza, after all, and he seemed pleased the metaphorical heat had died down.
"With music at its current state ... it's cool to have a day like this," he told the crowd. "There's some cool sh-- out there ... but it's taking up a lot of room. I feel like a refugee here."
(Click here for photos of Beck and other artists from Sunday's show.)
Playing tribute to the day's theme, Beck dedicated "Sing It Again" to D. Boone, the Minutemen singer who wrote "This Ain't No Picnic." (Another Minutemen veteran, bassist Mike Watt, opened the festival on a side stage.) Maintaining a recent trend of filling his live sets with country-tinged numbers, Beck played virtually nothing but, occasionally frustrating the crowd.
But then, Bob Dylan took heat for Nashville Skyline (1969), and Beck seemed to enjoy not giving the people exactly what they wanted. "We're playing a lot of songs we don't normally get to play," Beck said before launching into the harmonica-driven "One Foot in the Grave" and the mournful "I Get Lonesome" (RealAudio excerpt).
Preceding Beck, on the smaller side stage, was another country-flavored act, Los Angeles' Beachwood Sparks. Mixing complex, folksy lyrics with a steel-guitar twang, they were one of a handful of indie favorites that attracted a small core of believers a short distance away from the featured players.
Standing out prominently among the wannabes was Atlanta's Shannon Wright, and not just because she was the only female performer besides Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley. Switching between guitar and keyboard with the subdued strut of Kim Deal, the red-haired Wright attracted converts with an intense, hard-to-define set.
"I'm just trying to be honest," Wright said before hawking copies of her second album, Maps of Tacit, released in May. "I don't know if what I'm trying to do goes over well here. It's a little too daytime for me."
But none of the virtual unknowns generated the buzz of San Diego's Tristeza, described by one fan as "space lounge with some kick-ass drumming."
The instrumental outfit's set included such songs as "Golden Hill," from their debut full-length, Spine and Sensory (1999). A second LP is due in September.
"I thought Tristeza was incredible," said 17-year-old Lauren Agnew, of Ventura, Calif. "There's some really talented bands out here."
However, others said they would have preferred a more diverse sound, with perhaps a little hip-hop thrown in for flavor. A sense of sameness is often blamed for the demise of indie rock, and those who said they were searching for something different said on Sunday that they remained lost in the desert.
"I think there's been a bit of monotony," Brian Tamborello, 23, of Santa Barbara, Calif., said. "I like to see music that doesn't have anything to do with each other. I haven't heard anything yet that really excited me."