LIVE: 2013 Sweetlife Festival

All photos by Joy Asico (joy@chunkyglasses.com/www.asicophoto.com) and Julia Lofstrand (julialofstrand@gmail.com/julialofstrandphotography.com/)

A memorable music festival often involves as much luck as alchemy. Is the lineup great? Do the performances match expectations? Does the weather cooperate (and do the masses stay engaged if it doesn't)? Are there good food and beverage vendors? Do they have enough variety (and supply) to satisfy the masses? Is the venue appropriate? Does the experience inside the venue trump any issues with traffic, parking, or the parking lot scene? Whether by luck, alchemy, voodoo, or just good vibes, and in spite of an often rainy day at the end of an awfully rainy week, the folks at sweetgreen can look back on the fourth installment (third at Merriweather Post Pavilion) of the Sweetlife festival with a smile. The almost 20,000 in attendance most certainly will!

Solange captivating the early crowd at the 2013 Sweetlife Festival

Solange drew an early-afternoon set at Sweetlife, and it wouldn't be controversial in the least to suggest that she stole the show. Leading a funky, dynamic, band she certainly proved to many in attendance that she is so much more than just "Beyonce's little sister." She delivered excellent renditions of many tracks from her outstanding, Blood Orange-produced dance/pop/funk EP True. Solange has style and substance, incorporating excellent dance moves and a confident, winning stage presence, but her voice is what made her set truly special. It soared, swooped, trilled, and whispered throughout her mesmerizing, too brief set, which included stellar performances of "Losing You," "Lovers in the Parking Lot," and "Bad Girls," but what may have been the most memorable moment of her set was the closer. With a band that has clearly explored every nuance of "Bumpy's Lament" in tow, Solange brought cheers from a boisterous bunch at the main stage with her rousing, note-perfect interpretation of Dirty Projectors' hit "Stillness is the Move." The best proof that Solange is one to watch? At 2:15 in the afternoon of what would prove to be a long day, so many couldn't take their eyes off of her.

Gary Clark, Jr. followed, prowling the main stage wearing a dapper pinstriped vest, and a facial expression that said "all business, all the time." He concluded every one of his blistering, bluesy, soul-inflected tunes with the authority and conviction of a man with something to prove. But he couldn't help but smile at the adoration greeting him from pit, pavilion, and lawn alike. He certainly did everything he could to earn the frequent "Gary! Gary! Gary!" chants that erupted throughout his set as well as the plaudits he has earned for his new release Blak and Blu and comparisons to such contemporary guitar heroes as Mike McCready, Dan Auerbach, and Jack White. His band was excellent throughout, including the title track and "Ain't Messin 'Round," which highlighted the funkiness of his rhythm section. For those who might not have come to Sweetlife familiar with his work, his medley of the Jimi Hendrix Experience classic "Third Stone from the Sun" and original track "If You Love Me Like You Say" certainly made some new converts.

Karen O took the stage to a thunderous roar befitting of the biblical downpour throughout the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' explosive, expressive set. Much has been written about her beguiling stage presence, and rightfully so, but Nick Zinner is possibly the most inventive guitar player not named Tom Morello. Brian Chase drums with a Cheshire Cat grin that belies his immaculate feel and deceptive ferocity, and David Pajo is the band's live multi-instrumentalist/secret weapon. The Yeahs’ set was a heady blend of crowd pleasing rockers from throughout their impressive catalog ("Gold Lion," "Zero," and "Pin"), tender moments ("Soft Shock" and a delicate "Maps," dedicated to Pajo), and muscular, excellent songs from their new release Mosquito (album and set opener "Sacrilege," the title track, and an exceptionally funky "Under the Earth"). There were no low lights to speak during this energized outing, and when Karen O left the stage to lead almost every fan along the security barrier through the falsetto backing vocals from the bridge of "Cheated Hearts," the set was a guaranteed success. Closing with “Heads Will Roll” was almost gratuitous. Almost.

Kendrick Lamar showing the crowd at Sweetlife around his M.A.A.D. City (photo by Joy Asico)

Hip Hop music can often be hit-or-miss at music festivals if for no other reason than because it is difficult for all but the best MCs to command the attention of a sprawling crowd without the dynamic shifts most rock bands have at their disposal. It's time to face facts: Kendrick Lamar deserves to be counted among the best MCs and he brought a taste of Compton to Columbia. He delighted the swelling Sweetlife crowd with a strong selection including his verse from A$AP Rocky's smash "Fuckin' Problems" as well as many of the best tracks from 2012's standout release Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Highlights included obvious fan favorite "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Backseat Freestyle," the dynamic "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," and a complex rendition of "Poetic Justice" that didn't suffer at all in the absence of Aubrey Drake Graham. While his set was preceded by a deluge, it concluded in a burst of blazing sunshine fitting for a star that is still on the rise.

Passion Pit's set was an excellent opportunity to stroll the grounds and find sustenance, and sweetgreen was able to assemble some incredible local brewers and vendors. The Kushi Moto Food Truck's Grilled Pork Belly Donburri got my taste buds revved up and my one regret with the choice was that I didn't order two bowls so that I could have had leftovers. The portions were generous and flavorful, the rice was fluffy, and the pork belly was succulent. I will definitely be visiting their brick-and-mortar location, and I'll probably chase down the truck the next time I see it.

No amount of wind, rain or mud could keep these fans from living the Sweetlife (Photo by Julia Lofstrand)

Sweetlife ended with an ebullient set from French pop voyagers Phoenix. For some, it is inconceivable that "the band from the Cadillac commercials" is now a bona fide headliner of major music festivals, but seeing is believing. With critically acclaimed release Bankrupt! following four years after the likewise-lauded Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Thomas Mars and company had plenty of scintillating material that paired perfectly with their dynamic light show. Familiar tracks like "Lasso," "Lisztomania," and "1901" kept an enthusiastic crowd (including Solange Knowles) moving throughout the set, but what impressed most of all was how seamlessly these songs worked with new material like current single "Entertainment," "The Real Thing," and "S.O.S. in Bel Air." Phoenix's mastery of the stage was, perhaps, best demonstrated by their excellent performance of "Sunskrupt!" which is a medley of Wolfgang's broody, synth-based rocker "Love Like a Sunset" and "Bankrupt!" Phoenix have earned their place among the bands in big font on summer festival lineups this year and they proved it again at Sweetlife.

Phoenix finishing out the 2013 Sweetlife Festival on a high note (Photo by Joy Asico)

It would be malpractice to neglect the venue in this review, as it was a perfect fit for the festival. The staff at Merriweather Post Pavilion could not have been better. They were knowledgeable, personable, and enthusiastic throughout the day. Given the rainy conditions early, late, and throughout the preceding week, the edges of the main lawn mere expectedly muddy (and more than a few people, your intrepid reporter included, left wishing that Tide had been a co-sponsor), but those who didn't have access to the pavilion still had mostly favorable conditions throughout the grounds. The sound quality remained consistent from the pit to the Honest Tea sample booth at the back of the lawn, which is particularly impressive when the eclectic nature of the lineup is taken into account. Coupled with excellent sight lines, a patron could have conceivably spent the entire day on the lawn at the main stage and still left Sweetlife with a full belly, a head full of great music, a broad smile, and stories to tell. Call it luck. Call it alchemy. If you're the organizers, call it a job well done!