Mo Pop Festival 2018 benefits from solid, balanced lineup

Wednesday, August 1, 2018 - 5:45pm

Annie Clark

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Jacob Mulka / @jmulka

With just one look at the 2018 lineup for Mo Pop Festival, anyone with a decent grip on modern music knew the event was going to be a hit. Stationed in Detroit’s West RiverFront Park adjacent to the Detroit River, with Detroit’s eclectic skyline as a backdrop and equally eclectic acts like Bon Iver, The National, BROCKHAMPTON, Billie Eilish, Rex Orange County, Homeshake and Clairo, all the Mo Pop administration had to do to satisfy ticket-holders was not make a Fyre Festival. And they did exactly that.

The festival was organized to maximize the music on display: Two stages, 200 yards apart, an overlap-free (a.k.a. anxiety- and regret-free) performance schedule and minimal other attractions save a neat arcade courtesy of Punch Bowl Social. There wasn’t much going on, but not much has to go on when you’re hopping back-and-forth from Clairo to Rex Orange County to Homeshake to Billie Eilish to Alvvays — does a more solid quintuple threat exist?

The minimalist nature of the festival also made it easy on social groups; with just two stages and a one-act-at-a-time platform, the dreaded group-schisms that tend to plague big events like music festivals were pretty avoidable.

Mike Watkins, Daily Arts Writer

SATURDAY

Clairo

The queen of bedroom pop had an extremely impressive and dynamic backing band, something unexpected from an artist who first turned heads with her minimalism. The drums knocked, the bass bumped, and the guitar cooed, making for a steadily enjoyable set and a great start to my Saturday at Mo Pop.

Mike Watkins

Rex Orange County  

Charming British, boyish singer/songwriter or just a bad Frank Ocean?

Mike Watkins

When I first saw Alexander O’Connor, from a distance, I thought he kind of looked like Bo Burnham. He wore a colorful, striped tee shirt that set him apart from the rest of his band, and he had an self-assured way of singing that at times made it feel more like he was reciting poetry. His deliveries of “Best Friend” and “Untitled” were surprisingly touching, but the most tender moment came during “Loving Is Easy,” when everyone in the crowd joined together to sing along. As one of the earlier acts on Saturday, Rex Orange County was instrumental (get it?) in setting the tone for the rest of the festival. While later acts might have been more explosively memorable, Rex Orange County brought a shrewd sentimentality onstage that added color to Mo Pop as a whole.

Laura Dzubay, Daily Arts Writer

Billie Eilish

My friend told me Billie was 16 and I collapsed in a fit of self-loathing and jealousy. This young woman controlled her crowd like a seasoned pop star and is primed for a boundless music career (see: Lorde).

Mike Watkins

Alvvays

If Mo Pop was a dream, Alvvays was the moment when you’re falling asleep and you let go of everything that kept you tired. The indie set was a excellent precursor to Vince Staples and Bon Iver, and a perfect experience of synth pop in general. Molly Rankin led the audience on a carousel ride through songs like “Dreams Tonite” and “Archie, Marry Me,” hitting every note with exuberance and spirit.

Laura Dzubay

Vince Staples

Probably the most fun experience of Saturday was being in the crowd for Vince Staples late in the evening, jumping and shouting along to songs like “Norf Norf,” “Big Fish” and “Get the Fuck Off My Dick.” Staples himself was charming. His was the last act before the headliner, Bon Iver, which seemed like an appropriate way to round off the night. Staples was energetic and exciting, a bang on which things easily could have ended, and Bon Iver was able to seal the deal under the stars afterward.

Laura Dzubay

Bon Iver

The money set; the big kahuna; the primary reason Mo Pop was such a draw this summer: Bon Iver. Indie’s king, Justin Vernon, and his band graced Detroit for the first time ever to deliver the most unbelievable live performance I have ever seen.

The stage was filled to the brim with music equipment. Ten feet from the stage, I stood in anticipation wondering what Vernon and his men planned to do to me with these sonic tools. I predicted where Vernon would stand and planted myself between two 12-foot men for the perfect view. When the band assumed their positions on stage, the crowd fell under Vernon’s electro-folk spell for an hour and a half. The ear-tickling falsettos of For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver and the digital mush of 22, A Million merged seamlessly under Vernon’s raw and passionate stage presence; his modified melodies, lively shouts and charged audio pulsated through the crowd to create an experience impossible to achieve anywhere but a live setting.

For the last song of the set, “The Wolves,” Vernon enlisted the crowd to loop the phrase, “What might have been lost,” as the band grew their sound to a chaotic crescendo. As the performance peaked, the crowd screamed ferociously in an exhilarating atmosphere of pure emotion that seemed to bridge the gap between the performers and the audience for a brief moment. The song ended; Bon Iver thanked the crowd and exited the stage; I was satisfied.

Then, in front of the dark stage, the crowd began to stir; the same phrase, “What might have been lost,” grew from a timid experiment to a roaring beckon in which you couldn’t help but participate. We were calling on Bon Iver, but with a more personal touch that reflected the band’s ability to impress and move its fans. Eventually, dark shadows hopped across the unlit stage, and the band returned for an encore. Bon Iver gave us a fitting and introspective reminder of our own mortality with a performance of “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and left for good.

Mike Watkins

 

Early on in Bon Iver’s set, I lingered toward the middle of the enormous crowd, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be feeling. Periodically I’d close my eyes and tune into the live renditions from 22, A Million swelling from the stage speakers — but I was also acutely aware of a group of people standing nearby, who kept breaking the rapt silence of the audience with loud shouting and peals of drunken laughter. Live music tends to be a bit of a mixed bag in this way, but as the set went on, we wriggled forward in the crowd, gaining both distance from the noise and a slightly better view of the stage.

The immersion, for me, happened gradually, but it also happened naturally, because Bon Iver’s music is nothing if not immersive. Almost everyone in the crowd closed their eyes and swayed to the music, standing near friends and the ones they loved while a bright full moon perched high above the Detroit River and the lights of Windsor. It’s hard to say what was more transfixing — the sounds of Bon Iver, or the sight of the moon’s reflection spreading over the river — but then again, this didn’t feel like an either/or situation. Everything that was mesmerizing, was mesmerizing at once.

Anyone who came looking to hear strictly softcore acoustic tracks like “Skinny Love” and “Re: Stacks” might have been disappointed or at least surprised by their setlist on Saturday, which covered a wide variety of material spanning across all of their eclectic releases from the last ten years. But it ended up being an ideal ending to the day as the atmospheric synths and hypnotic, high-pitched vocals filled West Riverfront Park, sending us off for the first good night of the weekend.

Laura Dzubay

 

SUNDAY

Jeff Rosenstock

Jeff Rosenstock is a certified punk rocker, but with a lineup including BROCKHAMPTON and Vince Staples, never would I have expected him to be the most hype part of Mo Pop. But while Rosenstock slammed his way through hits like “Nausea” and, of course, “Festival Song,” in a literal sense, the crowd was carried away. Seven or eight people started crowd surfing during his set, one after another. As someone who’d never witnessed crowd surfing at close range before, I was interested by the quick pattern that emerged: a new shape would pop up above the crowd, buoyed by a tide of arms and shoulders; delighted surprise would register on the person’s face, like, Oh my god, I’m crowd surfing! and then they’d submerge again and someone else would rise, inspired, to take their place.

The most memorable moment was when Rosenstock himself sailed off the stage and into the crowd, saxophone in hand. For a few stretched-out moments, the crowd went wild at the sight and feeling of Rosenstock on his back, saxophone tilted toward the sky, crooning out music with the hands of his fans all around and beneath him. If a music festival is meant to be an opportunity for a community to come together and celebrate music, in its purest form, then Jeff Rosenstock’s set was the apex of Mo Pop: forty minutes of shared excitement, anger, passion and joy.

Laura Dzubay

Daniel Caesar

Daniel Caesar is a niche artist; he makes slow-side neo-soul jams that get you groovin’ and feelin’ sexy. Unfortunately, an hour of 90 bpm R&B in the hot summer sun can get old; Caesar’s crowd steadily dwindled as hype-thirsty festival goers grew tired.

Mike Watkins

BROCKHAMPTON

As the internet’s first boy band took the stage, the entire (massive) crowd jammed forward toward the spazzy and energetic rappers with scary strength fueled by relentless frustration and adrenaline; I stood in the middle of a 500-person monster. In the midst of this frenzy, a middle-aged woman punched, like wound-up-engaged-her-core punched, my friend Louie before calling him a “fucking fuck head.” This was the hype I was looking for. After 5 minutes of hysterical moshing, however, I exited the crowd to find a cushy spot in the back and observed the mayhem from afar. Just as entertaining, much more safe.

Mike Watkins

There’s no stereotypical boy band. The phrase works for artists as completely disparate as early-sixties The Beatles, Green Day, 5 Seconds of Summer, mid-sixties The Beatles, the Beach Boys and late-sixties The Beatles.

You can tell what sort of benchmark I had in mind while I waited for BROCKHAMPTON to take the stage on Sunday, amidst a tide of concert-goers. The one commonality among boy bands that I find interesting is the criteria shared in their very name: not the fact that they’re boys, but the fact that their boy-ness is what defines them. Audiences for boy bands are typically thought of as straight teenage girls, drawn into fandom by the attractive straight, and generally white dudes on the stage, by the marketing of attraction itself.

BROCKHAMPTON is different. The self-proclaimed “best boy band since One Direction” has already made headlines with their intentions of being not only great, but truly all-American, which means representing a wider variety of backgrounds between their 13 members. The crowds they draw aren’t homogenous, either — a BROCKHAMPTON crowd doesn’t necessarily look like teenage girls. It doesn’t necessarily look like anything.

On Sunday, their crowd looked like several hundred people of different ages, different genders and different races, all of which wanted to mosh. That was the main similarity. The band stormed onto the stage with the right attitude, constantly in motion, aggressively cohesive even without factoring in their matching white tee shirts. They gave the audience what we wanted: shouting, togetherness and “BOOGIE.” They cut no corners and took no prisoners, as musically committed and as convincingly dynamic live as they are in the studio.

Yet probably the most apt summary comes from a 20- or 30-something-year-old man standing near me in the crowd. About ten minutes into the set, I overheard him telling his friend, “I was just in a mosh pit. It was awesome!”

Laura Dzubay

St. Vincent

A neon goddess. Annie Clark wore a tight orange dress and heels that looked like they’d been flown in from outer space (or some ‘70s or ‘80s vision of it, anyway) and she switched to a new bright color of electric guitar every couple of songs. She shared the space of the stage equally with guitarist Toko Yasuda, keyboardist Daniel Mintseris and drummer Matt Johnson, the latter two of whom moved only minimally and robotically, and wore bizarre masks that obscured their faces. On the screen behind her, music videos displayed Clark in a variety of situations that felt bizarre and sometimes body-horror-esque: stepping through hoops and climbing ladders in increasingly sped-up and boomeranged footage, speaking into a telephone while bright blue vomit dripped from her lips.

Every movement was coordinated and confident, every song captivating. St. Vincent’s closing performance of “Happy Birthday, Johnny” was unquestionably the most heartfelt and personal moment of Mo Pop, and a clear reminder to the audience that while we had all come here to share this moment with each other, the artists were sharing it with us, too.

Laura Dzubay