Banished to small rooms, opening slots, and acoustic nights, singer-songwriters are the perennial underdogs of the independent music world. Not so at Noise Pop. Here, they are headliners and marquee acts. Here, local and celebrity frontmen play ultra-rare solo shows. Here, lone performers appear on innovative bills creating new contexts for their skills. At Noise Pop, singer-songwriters get their due.
Admittedly, this is half by chance. The many small venues scattered across San Francisco that open their doors to Noise Pop every year are ideal for intimate shows where quiet performers can find hungry, diverse audiences. Venues like the Swedish American Hall and BrainWash Cafe book solo performers year-round, but for one week, Noise Pop appropriates the city's wealth of cozy clubs to find new niches for pigeonholed singer-songwriters. This year, for example, experimental San Francisco musician Nyles Lannon appears second on a lineup headlined by upbeat indie rock group the Walkman.
Another tactic fest planners use is organizing "solo breakout" shows, where members of groups play sans backing band. "Noise Pop has tried over the years to get as much of that as possible to help make the festival special," says Dan Kasin, who booked the majority of this year's thirty-odd shows. Past solo breakouts include Spoon frontman Britt Daniels in 2006, Gris Gris songwriter (and Oakland resident) Greg Ashley in 2007, and Sugar/Hüsker Dü linchpin Bob Mould in 2000 — a show co-producer Jordan Kurland considers one of his three favorite Noise Pop performances of all time.
This time around, most of the high-profile shows are built upon the talents of singer-songwriters. In his first official solo performance, Adam Stephens of hometown indie-rock duo Two Gallants helps open Noise Pop 2008's closing show. At the Great American Music Hall on Sunday, he joins San Francisco folk singer Emily Jane White and Los Angeles indie-folk quartet Whispertown2000 on a bill headlined by revered indie singer-songwriter M. Ward and actress-musician Zooey Deschanel in their debut performance as She & Him.
The last time Stephens played alone was by accident. At the start of Two Gallants' European tour this past November, passport woes stalled bandmate Tyson Vogel, leaving Stephens to his own devices for two shows in Ireland. This set the stage for his Noise Pop appearance. "It just made me more confident that I could actually do it," he said. But two weeks before the big day, what still worries Stephens is the very thing that makes solo shows special: intimacy. "To me, more of the frightening thing at times is playing really quietly. When you play electrically, you can turn it up really loud and hush the audience out." Playing alone and acoustic is "a much more tender production. There is a little bit of that worry that it won't go across that well."
The Mountain Goats, a stalwart of the indie singer-songwriter scene led by prolific lyricist John Darnielle, headline three Noise Pop shows this year, two of which are built around the voice-and-guitar aesthetic. On Friday, the band sits atop a bill featuring indie-folk from Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters, a rare appearance by Fremont's Marty Anderson, performing as Okay, and San Francisco pop-rock group Aim Low Kid. The next night, the Mountain Goats headline a diverse bill featuring ex-San Franciscan David Dondero, indie rock group Tusla, and local all-female a cappella group Conspiracy of Venus, performing the songs of Leonard Cohen.
Though his name is synonymous with lo-fi recording, John Darnielle resists the singer-songwriter label. "I don't want to be a part of acoustic night. Would you come out to come see acoustic night?" he retorts. "I prefer touring with rock bands." Darnielle says this not as a snub to his current company, but as a personal challenge. "Put any two rock bands in front of me and I'm gonna rock as hard as they do. I can rock Metallica off the stage on a good night," he boasts straight-faced. "Instrumentation does not equal rock." Anyone who has heard Darnielle live knows just what he means.
The most anticipated shows of all this year belong to Boston's Magnetic Fields, a four-piece band that's really an outlet for musical handyman Stephin Merritt. Both nights sold out weeks in advance. Call it coincidence if you want — and neither Kurland nor Kasin say it was intentional — but Noise Pop '08 imparts a rare glamour upon singer-songwriters, offering a welcome respite from stale tradition. Until next year, there's always acoustic night.
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