There is no unifying theme to the Download Festival. Unlike Ozzfest, which attracts metal fans, or Vans Warped, a punk-inspired behemoth, the Download Festival, now in its fifth year, aims to deliver "the best in alternative and modern rock," a category that includes all the good bands that aren't out with Ozzfest or the Warped tour. As one observer remarked, Saturday's 10-hour fest was like an iPod shuffle -- thankfully, one that belonged to a music fan with excellent taste.
One minute Neko Case was singing windswept waltzes in a voice the size of Virginia and a few moments later Karen O, wearing a bit of leopard print and tinsel, was hissing art-punk tunes with her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Good-natured Guster arrived next, all clever hooks and sweet harmonies, and just when we were starting to feel all warm and collegial the muscular, maniacal dance-rock outfit Modest Mouse, with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr in tow, took the stage. The contrasts were jarring, but the performances were stellar.
While the Download Festival didn't quite deliver on its promise to connect artists and audience (the ballyhooed master classes were downgraded to autograph sessions and big names avoided the Q&A stage altogether), Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock bridged the divide with one offhand comment encouraging fans in the back of the half-empy venue to take the open seats in the front section. Anarchy ensued. The gleeful but cash-strapped alt-nation barrelled past ushers and spilled over rows as Brock barked the apropos opening lines to "Float On": "I backed my car into a cop the other day/ Well he just drove off, sometimes life's OK."
The second stage lineup was a hodge-podge, too, and those poor bands had to compete with the irresistable lure of free stuff. Long lines to create DIY canvas tote bags (courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council) and silk-screened T-shirts (part of Volkswagon's massive presence) snaked through the crowd actually listening to rising Boston acts Apollo Sunshine and Bang Camaro -- who kicked off the festival with rootsy psychedelic grooves and arch metal tableaux, respectively.
The frontmen for mournful rockers Band of Horses and brittle popsters Wolf Parade have perfected the quivering yelp that has come to define quirky, post-millenial rock singers. They've clearly consumed large quantities of Neil Young and Wayne Coyne, and it's hard to imagine more inspired touchstones for young bands. No surprise, then, that both bands supplied awesome soundtracks for doodling with magic markers on a white VW Beetle.