Manimal Festival, June 7, 2008, Pappy & Harriet’s, Pioneertown

Last last Saturday, while most people were still recovering from their hangovers, my crew was travelin’ to the Manimal Festival in the low desert. I was a little worried, because when we neared Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, the horizon was burning like Mordor—big black plumes of smoke were flying out of Joshua Tree National Park, threatening to engulf us all in a fire like the one that ravaged this area two years ago.

But it was worth a little danger to be there. The Manimal Festival promised to have everything Coachella has—multiple stages, wildly different acts, desert heat, the faint smell of sage and horse poo wafting through the air—but no seven dollar Heinekens or need to buy a cheap plastic spray-mist bottle to avoid heat stroke. And while we expected a large crowd sprinkled liberally with familiar faces, we wouldn’t have to stand behind 50,000 people to see a band or wait in a three hour traffic jam just to get to the venue.

Actually, when we got to Pappy & Harriet’s, the crowd wasn’t all that big yet. I felt bad for the first band, Corridor, really just one guy who had a cello, guitar, and all these effects pedals and equipment up on stage. He sounded great, playing more intricate music with one member than most bands do with four, but the heat was his enemy: the two-dozen people who showed up early were all scrunched into the shady bar area on the right, trying to ward off instant melanoma from the blistering sun, so he kind of had to play with his neck craned to see the audience. Too bad, because the noise-drone experimentation he was doing perfectly matched the dusty haze of the hot sun beating down on those of us who sat up front. He started packing before we could snap a photo, but my photographer Amy Jo got one later of him, hanging out in a Chinook.

Corridor, after we’d convinced him to take off his shirt and love America

Gangi was next. They started off with an instrumental song that was all drums and droney keyboards. Something about their faux-Native American double tom-tom mallet slogging felt a little offensive, a little fakey, like the tomahawk chant at a Braves game. But by the second song, when they pulled out some guitars and started vocalizin’, their singer sounding somewhere between Geddy Lee and the early Flaming Lips, I found myself enjoying it a lot more. As they rat-a-tat-tatted along to drum samples and continued belting out ditties with that sweet girly voice, they sounded something like Suede meets Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance. And that was pretty mind-blowing on such a summer’s day.

Mariee Sioux played next, solo, continuing the Native American theme by wearing her hair in Indian braids. She might have been the best artist of the day, despite what her timeslot suggested. On her recordings, she’s as lyrically vibrant and mythological-sounding as Tyrannosaurus Rex, yet dark as Bert Jansch, with guitar as sad and sweet and flowing as something you’d expect to hear from Joni Mitchell or Mia Doi Todd.

Mariee sings with a uniquely beautiful voice, too, with hints of Joni and Bert and Mia (and with a bit of a lilt, kind of like Joanna Newsom, but without the lisp), but far more childlike—and at the same time, far more ancient, as though you talked to a seven year old child in the street and she could recite word-for-word the stories your grandfather told you when you were a baby. The soundman could not compete with the impeccable recording job the engineers had done on her album Faces In the Rocks, and Mariee didn’t have her backup musicians, so some of that magic may have been lost, sifted into the desert sands around her. But the songs were still cool, cool water on a hot day.

* * * * *

By now, more kind faces were starting to show up, and we were happy to meet a bunch of cool kids from KXLU, who were handing out stickers and business cards and pure, unadulterated love. For some wonderful reason, the DJ was playing and re-playing music by Selda, the psychedelic folk singer who was Turkey’s Joan Baez in the seventies. Hearing this underappreciated bardess, such a breath of fresh air from the normal crapola DJ’s at festivals typically play, made me realize more than ever that love was all around us, in our fingers and toes, and that I better start getting over the glow of happiness if I was going to review these bands objectively.

By this time, we were hot and sticky and more than ready for Xu Xu Fang, the brain child of ex-Warlock drummer Bobby Tamkin. This band has had a revolving door membership since the day of its inception, which may explain why nobody has ever really talked in print about their singer, Barbara. On recordings, which literally utilized sound effects from rain and wind, they’d sounded like stormy space rock, like an even more psychedelic version of the Warlocks. But live, Barbara’s subdued alto voice grounded their disco/funk beats and classic Korg keys, making them sound great, almost normal, almost like… the Motels meet 200 Motels.

They had the sunset spot on the bill, and as the sun started dipping down behind them, the music seemed to match its speed, going from a slow trot with occasional slide guitar into a light loud chord-cruncher, a bit like a Melissa Etheridge song that got spruced up by Crazy Horse, but with a doom-doom-doom-DAP drum beat building and building the tension. As the sun finally set, and the bright orange crust started crackling along the horizon, little flecks of warm wah-wah started breaking through the caveman rock, followed by Hawkwind keyboard be-doop-boops. Just as things were dropping down into a Saucer Full of Secrets groove, the sun set completely, and they brought their sound down to a slow, haunting refrain reminiscent of a Twin Peaks number that finally itself wound back into another Velvet-y, fast, tight jam of the witches.

Winter Flowers played next, with still enough sunlight left for the elvish sparkle in Christof’s eyes to gleam underneath his Bartholomew Cubbins hat. In the past, their group singing sometimes fell a little short of the mark, but their harmonies Saturday night were stunning, perfect, and powerful. They were singing words of wisdom, and with the conviction of their harmonies, I believed them! There are things I cannot deny! Love is free! No singer wearing a leather man-purse would lie to me about something like that.

Winter Flowers, blurred by the summer snow

I kid about their outfits, but I cannot stress enough how good their performance was. It had the folksy beauty of Pentangle, the forceful vibrancy of Jefferson Airplane, and the manly prettiness of the Left Banke. Good, solid stuff guys.

Up after Winter Flowers was Dame Satan. I really wanted to like these guys, especially since one of them came up to me and was so nice and fun and conversational, and was going to be playing drums with the Chapin Sisters, one of my favorite bands of all time. But despite the face that these guys have wooed the folks at Manimal Records, the Chapin Sisters, and a bunch of other people and musicians who now probably consider them friends, I was not into their thing at all. I couldn’t get past their lack of songwriting hooks. And their vocals—eh. Does the world really want folk music that sounds like songs rejected for Dark Side of the Moon as sung by the guy from Collective Soul?

The Chapin Sisters, who went on next, were probably the reason I came out for the festival in the first place. This would be the first time I saw them with an expanded band, and it was also the first time I ever saw them play without older sister Jessica, who was away attending a horror movie festival or something. T’was a pity, since without her tutelage, the other two sisters looked a little bit lost, and their music reflected it—still fantastic harmonies, but without that third ringing note of awesomeness that had lent their vocals such an amazing buzz on covers such as “Toxic” and “Borderline.”

They’ve been trying to move away from their image as fantastic hit-coverers, but their efforts to write new songs over the past three years has been rather slow-going, and I didn’t hear much new stuff Saturday night. I hate to think that this gaggle of gals can’t come up with original songs as vibrant and interesting to hear with ringing sisterly vocals as their covers. But nonetheless, they still sounded angelic. Their final song, a stripped down cover of Doc Watson, did make me wonder why they went to all the fuss of adding a drummer and backline when they sound so striking on their own.

Rainbow Arabia brought the folk section of the evening’s entertainment to a screeching halt, when they launched into a very good but jarringly different batch of self-described “happy hardcore.” So I wandered into the bar in time to catch some songs from War Children, normally a four piece but tonight just a bass and acoustic guitar. It was subdued and a little sparse compared to the folk we’d just seen outside, but Scott’s bass was so perfect and so punchy that it made Rachel’s watery vocals, about seas of forgiveness and drowning sorrows, really sail for me when otherwise they might have just bobbed along.

I soon went back to the outside stage, though, because We Are the World was up next, and I’d heard they were going to be amazing. I think everything people have hyped them up about is true, except maybe the music. These guys can’t be called a “band” really, since all the music played here is strictly ornamental. Their drummer was whacking mallets and sound effect drum pads, but most of the beats were pre-ordained by the programmed songs, which sounded almost exactly like industrial music from the KMFDM/Nine Inch Nails early nineties school, with perhaps just a smidge of Art of Noise thrown in here and there. I think even the vocals were mostly lip-synched.

None of that matters, though, because the dance troupe was so incredible. It was like seeing a tribal industrial nightmare come to life, with oppressed workers and cleric-like figures throwing each other around, and tap-dancing, and cutting holes in swathes of cloth to stick their hands through. Their professionalism and attention to detail and design actually reminded me quite a bit of seeing Blue Man Group in New York in the early nineties, before they got all huge, and I think We Are the World is equally ready for their own high-paying Vegas showcase.

* * * * *

There were still a bunch more bands to come, but by this point, Pappy & Harriett’s super-sweet margaritas were getting to me, as was the mysterious sugar cube that an old friend popped in my mouth for no particular reason. I talked a bit with Ariel Pink, reminiscing with him about his old days playing Mr. T’s with various makeshift bands, but by the time he and Hecuba and blackblack had played, I was out in the desert underneath the stars, communing with the spirit of Gram Parsons and talking to the cactuses.