Woods, Cass McCombs, Fresh & Onlys, Foxygen, Peaking Lights and others
August 16, 2014
For the second straight year, New York psych-folk label Woodsist decamped to the deserts of Southern California for a festival featuring their current roster, plus alumni and friends.
The lineup itself was sequenced almost like a lost Laurel Canyon record from the ‘70s—the first half hushed and smoky, the second plugged-in, freakier, more jam-oriented.
Pioneertown, California served as the slightly surreal backdrop. Located just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, it’s a kitschy, faux-ghost town that was once the setting of many a Hollywood B-flick.
Acts performing during daylight hours played outside, under the mirage-inducing sun. Early on, the Skygreen Leopards hit the highlights of their decade-deep discography of jangly, acid-flavored pop confectionary, sounding like the Byrds fronted by a pair of Californian Lou Reeds.
Next came a rare live appearance from Henry Barnes, a prolific experimenter who records under the name Amps For Christ.
Barnes, who’s often been pegged as an “outsider artist,” handcrafts his own string instruments, each possessing a unique tone. Barnes had a different homemade piece for each of his drones, which melded Eastern mysticism, Celtic folk and avant-garde noise into a singularly spaced-out sound.
Little Wings, the stage name of Kyle Field and his revolving cast of collaborators, brought things back to earth. A barefoot Field lulled the audience into a collective daydream with his honky-tonk hymnals.
These first sets were just the types of performances that wouldn’t stand a chance of being heard at a larger, less mellow festival. But in Pioneertown, with no competing stages, the music melted perfectly into the Southwestern ambiance.
The Fresh & Onlys took the stage next, easing the audience into the more psychedelic tone of the day’s back half.
Frontman Tim Cohen donned a Grateful Dead shirt, as the Onlys dug deep into their well of garage-pop nuggets that were just dreamy enough to avoid completely bursting the crowd’s trance.
This led into Cass McCombs stripped-down, mostly acoustic set that exposed the yearning troubadour heart at the core of each song. Dusk finally fell as he offered the achingly gorgeous, country-tinged “Morning Star,” then bowed out, making way for Woods.
Woods’ chief singer-songwriter Jeremy Earl is the mastermind behind Woodsist, and it’s a lifer's commitment to stoner craftsmanship that defines both label and band. Getting a boost from some trippy DIY projector visuals, they took a memorable run through the nimble, pastoral “Leaves Like Grass,” marked by Earl’s otherworldly falsetto and keyboards rigged to mimic the sounds of vintage Hammond organs.
They closed with the titanic 10-minute jam “With Light and With Love,” full of frayed, heavily distorted soloing.
Glowsticks rained from the sky, everything went tie-dye and minds were obliterated, then pieced back together.
Following Woods’ carefully calibrated interplay, Foxygen put on what was easily the wildest, least predictable show of the night.
There were glammed-up backup singers and synchronized dances. Lead vocalist Sam France entered the crowd at least half a dozen times, toppled over amps and borrowed some legwork from Tina Turner.
He peformed songs Todd Rundgren would be proud of, stole moves from Mick Jagger, and provoked like a young Beck. Wearing absurdly tight, silver leaver pants and with his blond locks streaked pink, he looked like an unholy combination of all three. This was purely cathartic rock and roll excess.
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Next, the festival migrated indoors to Pappy & Harriet's, and onetime Woods member Kevin Morby whipped through a perfectly Dylan-esque set of grooves.
Married duo Peaking Lights then played the closing spot with their sweetly lysergic dub lullabies, sending us off into the night with deep, fluid sounds and utopic visions. Vocalist/synth sorceress Indra Dunis also brought some much-needed female energy that was largely absent up to this point.
Expert curating and a laid back appeal made Woodsist perhaps the best fringe festival the area has seen all summer. It was a niche event, to be sure, but one that was all the better for knowing exactly what it wanted to be.