Bless the Beast 

Kamps, Kalem, and Clair: Our three critics on bEASTfest 2002.

By Garrett Kamps

On the first night of bEASTfest it was cold and windy; foreboding perhaps. The motley crowd standing outside the Oakland Metro -- so varied they seemed like mannequins from a hundred rejected Diesel ad campaigns -- indicated that what the East Bay needs most if it wants to improve its music scene is a little direction. Not that diversity isn't a good thing, but if the Metro's going to be able to afford a liquor license or the Stork Club a new PA, then a scene that can attract more than a handful of patrons per venue per night might help. And while you've gotta applaud bEASTfest's organizers for trying to provide a unified vision, it's unfortunate that their efforts only served to highlight the scene's shortcomings, rather than overcome them.

One of the festival's problems became apparent after watching performance artist Erika Sodos trying to wrangle her way out of the trashcan she stuffed herself in while talking about masturbation: We couldn't leave! The seven selected venues -- Starry Plough, Black Box, 21Grand, Blake's, Rooster's Roadhouse, Oakland Metro, and the Stork Club -- were all at least a few miles apart, which meant there was no way to hop over to a different joint to check out a different band and not miss the evening's headliner, Gravy Train. Ideally, the cool thing about music festivals is the choices. If what's going on in column A doesn't shizzle my nizzle, columns B, C, and D may be offering something better, right? But if B, C, and D are in B, F, and E, then I'm pretty S, O, and L.

So we stuck it out for Gravy Train, and thank God it delivered. Though the performance was delayed for twenty long minutes due to technical difficulties, a devoted fan, Brontez Parnell, eased the burden in the interim by treating the audience to the dance routine from Janet Jackson's "If," dressed only in his skivvies.

When the Train finally mounted the stage, it opened with a rendition of the holiday classic "Christmas Time Is Here." Sung in falsetto voices by four sex-crazed carolers dressed in matching short shorts, the song took on a whole new meaning. They then segued into their usual dosage of crap-ass electro and libidinous lyrics. Highlights included the sodomizing of a plastic Frosty the Snowman, as well as Parnell once again grabbing the spotlight when he jumped on stage, this time buck naked, to get his seven bucks' worth.

After the spectacle, because all of the venues had their shows scheduled simultaneously, there was nothing to do but go home and feel bad for anyone who purchased an all-access pass.

The following evening at the Stork Club was dubbed Welcome to the Digital World. The show featured Oakland's digital deviant J Lesser, the laptronic phonics and visual victuals of Sagan, and an opener called Festival of Stillness, an all-acoustic duo which, while impressive, really didn't fit into the night's theme.

Comprised of Merlin Coleman and Dan Cantrell, Festival of Stillness opened the show with gothic hymns that fused Eastern European folk, Indonesian gamelan, and even Tuvan throat singing. Though these acoustic lullabies were arresting at times, it was hard to imagine that a crowd that had come to see headliners Lesser and Sagan had much interest in them. But as it turned out, most of the whopping ten members of the audience were friends with Coleman and left just after her band played, leaving about five others, not including the clamorous assholes at the bar, to experience the rest of the program.

As Lesser kicked things off, what began as a thudding series of burps, twerps, and warbles eventually segued into what could have been the heavily digitized soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Bengal. Though the aural chaos was difficult to keep up with, the end result was a challenging maelstrom of sounds. Well, that and the subwoofer at the Stork Club blowing out, which prematurely halted the performance and forced Sagan to perform a high- and mid-frequency-only set. "I guess it just didn't like those sounds," said a smirking Lesser from the stage.

Though the members of Sagan -- boyfriend and girlfriend Lesser and Bevin Kelly (aka Blevin Blectum), and visualist Ryan Junell -- would feign modesty after the show, their set managed the lack of bass beautifully. As Junell's images of Kelly and Lesser frolicking in a park melted in and out of another video track depicting rush-hour traffic, the musicians laid out a sonic lava lamp of digital events: dual drum breaks fighting with one another for control of the beat; pianos twinkling austerely amidst a fuzz-filled background; and synthesized cicada beetles chirping out glitches that sounded like machine-gun fire in slow motion. If you managed to let yourself just kind of slip into the fold of visuals and sound, the performance was transportive.

For the final night of bEASTfest it was off to Rooster's Roadhouse (in Alameda!) to catch The Phenomenauts, Glitter Mini 9, the Heavenly States, and the Matches, an assortment of punk, rock, and rockabilly bands. Showing up at about ten o'clock, I was able to catch the last three power-punk anthems of the Matches' set before the entire show was over. As the audience members filed out, Lawrence Schwartz, soundman for the Roadhouse, explained that the Phenomenauts went on at nine sharp and the other two bands were no-shows.

"I can only assume it's because they're not professional," he speculated. "Maybe they don't understand how this business works. Maybe they're too cool for school."

Or maybe there was a Gilligan's Island marathon on TV and that seemed more important. As much as it sucks to pull out of a show at the last minute, you can't blame anyone for not taking bEASTfest too seriously. It takes more than a banner hanging at five disparate venues to create a sense of cohesion. It takes more than festival T-shirts to foster a sense of pride. Despite rain, sleet, snow, or gloom of night, both bands and crowds should be proud to support the scene in the East Bay. Perhaps if someone delivered a festival equal to the enormous amount of talent and interest that exists here, they would.

Who invited the oompah band?


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