BERKELEY, Calif. — With punk-rockers Sleater-Kinney standing on a
huge, open stage in the late-day sun and Sonic Youth filling the headlining spot with
long, spooky jams, the all-day festival at the Greek Theater here Friday was anything but
your typical rock festival.
Which is perhaps why this gathering of indie and indie-bred rock bands was called This
Is Not a Festival.
“I’ll admit I was skeptical,” a tired but elated Maggie Yates, 29, of Berkeley, said after it
was over. “I wasn’t sure if this would work, seeing this weird bill at the Greek Theater. But
it worked. Oh yes, I’d say it worked.”
The show was the first of two holiday-weekend appearances by many of the same
bands. On Sunday, a similar lineup played in Irvine, Calif., for the This Ain’t No Picnic
About 3,000 people, many of them 30-somethings, in styles ranging from standard-issue
punk rock to cardigan sweaters, were here for Friday’s show on the University of
California, Berkeley, campus.
They wandered in and found their seats during early sets by local punk-rockers
Bratmobile as well as experimental duo Scarnella and the rock bands Rocket From the
Crypt and Superchunk. As fans spread blankets on the grass or staked their places in
the concrete “pit” at the bottom of the open bowl, the bands played short, tidy and
relatively catchy sets, with fast turnarounds between acts. Many bands shared
equipment to save set-up time.
The afternoon lengthened the shadows across the open arena as Guided by Voices
got ready to take the stage. The Dayton, Ohio, guitar-rock band has a fervent
fanbase, which was present down front in strong numbers by the time the band’s famed
cooler full of beer was carried onstage. The crowd cheered, the band came out, swung
into “Submarine Teams” (RealAudio excerpt of Pollard version) — from frontman Robert Pollard’s most recent solo album, Kid
Marine (1999) — and people started dancing. Clutching a bottle of beer in his
left hand and the microphone in his right, Pollard executed odd little karate kicks as he
“These guys are like the Replacements of the ’90s,” Charles Turner, 32, of Berkeley,
said. “They’re loud, they get totally drunk onstage, and folks either love them or can’t
stand them. Of course, I love them.”
The lawn area at the rear cleared out as still more people flocked to the floor in anticipation of
Sleater-Kinney’s set. Dwarfed by the huge, open stage, guitarists Carrie Brownstein and
Corin Tucker, along with drummer Janet Weiss, did their best to fill the space. After a
self-conscious start (“It’s kinda cold up here. And it’s so … big,” Brownstein said), they
found their footing.
Encouraged by the crowd’s roars of approval, there was an imperceptible shift, and as
they tore into “The End of You” (RealAudio excerpt) the trio’s
presence somehow leapt outward from the stage. All eyes in the arena were focused on
the three small figures in black.
Brownstein’s and Tucker’s vocals stitched together the pounding drums and two-guitar
attack of their stripped-down sound. Their voices floated in and out of each other’s,
sometimes harmonizing in contrast, sometimes so alike as to be inseparable as they
communicated both fury and vulnerability in their shrieks and whispers.
A tiny mosh pit sprung up in the first few rows, and between songs Brownstein sweetly
admonished the crowd: “Remember now, no moshing … Jump this way,” she said, with a
quick up-and-down pogo demonstration.
With the crowd in the palms of their hands, Sleater-Kinney settled into their stride. “OK,
we’re adjusting to this big outdoor thing,” Brownstein said at one point. “It’s like a big
They closed their set with a roaring, screaming version of “Dig Me Out.” Adhering to
Brownstein’s dancing instructions, the entire packed floor of the arena seemed to bop as
one body, looking from above like a sea of deliriously bobbing heads.
Screams for an encore went unheeded, and the trio left the stage as the sun
Strolling onstage without a word, Sonic Youth picked up their instruments and launched
into a long, spacey instrumental vamp. The crowd, wiped out from the afternoon’s sun
and the poppy, noisy music that had come before, seemed stunned by the reverb-heavy
sound. Sonic Youth used the evening’s darkness to their advantage, their minimalist
stage show enhanced by blue and orange lighting. The crowd stood and watched,
Their between-song patter was limited to comments such as, “We’re called Sonic Youth,
and we’re from the Northeast part of this country.” The band’s wall-of-sound discord put
the evening on a decidedly abstract curve. Playing at times with three guitars and no
bass, the quartet favored drawn-out, spooky jams over its more accessible material.
“This is nothing,” Thomas Trillin, 34, of San Francisco, said. “I’ve seen them do
40-minute songs that consisted mostly of Thurston [Moore] hitting his guitar with a drum
stick. This is downright catchy in comparison.”
Guitarists Moore and Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon on bass (and sometimes guitar) and
drummer Steve Shelley created extended jams that had alternately soothing and
unsettling effects. Overlapping Gordon’s whispery, ragged vocals, Moore literally danced
back and forth on his effects pedals in the multicolored lights, producing guitar sounds
ranging from a chain saw to a car’s engine to a watery ultrasound heartbeat.
It may, however, have been Sonic Youth’s last chance to make some of those sounds.
On Saturday, a truck carrying sound equipment and the band’s guitars — many of
them customized to unusual specifications — was stolen from outside an Orange
County, Calif., hotel, according to an e-mail posted by Ranaldo. The band played at the
This Ain’t No Picnic festival with borrowed equipment.
Sonic Youth’s faster numbers, including “Sugar Kane” (RealAudio excerpt), got Friday’s crowd
moving a bit, though the band broke that song down into a 10-minute cycling swirl that
tapered down to near silence before crashing back into the finale.
Sonic Youth’s hypnotic discord was an aural lullaby for the tired crowd, as the arty noise-rockers wound down the evening and sent people on their way.