Matt Shultz collapsed onto his knees, shirtless and completely exhausted.
A seemingly endless streak of energy, Cage The Elephant’s frontman had spent the prior 80 minutes of scorching guitar rock flinging himself about the Westfair Amphitheater stage. He shook his floppy hair back and forth in a Jagger-esque prance, leaping around, onto and off of whatever structures were in his way.
Shultz’s exertion came to a head during the encore. Surveying the landscape of thousands of fans, he stepped from the barrier between stage and standing room and onto the hands of those pressed against it. He shook for a moment, steadied himself, then fell into a surf, “Sabertooth Tiger” crashing all around him.
In its inaugural run, No Coast Music Fest was a success by many standards, and maybe against self-imposed odds. For a weekday festival with a 1:30 p.m start time, festival hosts One Percent Productions and 89.7 The River likely had a youthful audience in mind. That crowd came out in droves, growing larger (and older) as the day progressed. Some flooded the highly populated concrete standing room near the stage, while roughly one-third of attendees dotted the hill overlooking the stage.
And Cage The Elephant’s performance was the apex of the day-long event that became louder and more energetic throughout. Each act seemed to take the fervor built by the act before it as a challenge, upping the ante for each performance by intensifying their own.
That’s not to say that Twinsmith, the festival’s opening act, was lethargic; on the contrary, they set a fun, loose tone early. Opener “Is It Me” bounced along happily and set the early crowd in motion. If there’s pressure in an opening time slot, they didn’t seemed phased in the slightest. Frontman Jordan Smith cooed the night-ride closer “Dust” as spacey guitars filled the amphitheater.
Los Angeles indie folk trio In The Valley Below followed shortly thereafter, taking the stage to a tribal drum recording. The harmonies of Angela Gail and Jeffrey Jacob lent a theatrical quality to their dreamy rock, boosted by duet leads. Jacob took their electro-folk nearly atmospheric, ripping off a prog rock solo during opener “Stand Up.” At times, they borderlined on eerie, like when Gail shook actual chainlinks for “Searching For The Devil.” Closing song “Peaches” spread out as if across a canyon with big, open chords.
It’s worth mentioning that “Peaches” received the biggest ovation of the set. Not only was it the closer, but as the single for an indie pop band seemingly on the cusp of mainstream success, it’s simply the one people knew. And granted, that’s how concerts work; everyone gets excited for the best known song. But during a festival full of bands with similar standing, each with a popular song or two, it was a constant theme.
To that point, as Saint Motel checked sound, its saxophone player hit the four-note riff from “My Type,” and the crowd lit up. Guitarist Aaron Sharp had a little fun with that, wondering aloud why he wasn’t also the recipient of praise for his vocal sound check. Bassist Dak Lerdamornpong, after videoing the crowd via cell phone, played the same riff to tempered applause.
And their actual set was just as loose, if not musically overwhelming at times. The band implored the sound booth for more brass volume while tuning up, and they got it. Saxophone and trumpet blasts darted around the salsa rhythms and handclaps of “Feed Me Now,” and paid homage during retro-pop number “Benny Goodman.” Frontman AJ Jackson’s charismatic lounge voice anchored Saint Motel’s performance as it ramped up through singalong “ohs” and dancey piano. When “Just My Type” hit second to last, it came with a huge horn intro, cascading into fire and brimstone as Jackson invoked it, cackling maniacally and raising his arms Night’s King-style.
Icky Blossoms followed, a sideways veer from the sunny tone that carried the festival to that point. The predominantly Nebraskan crowd danced, sure, but it was a different kind of environment for Icky’s electronic dance pop than one might imagine from listening to its records. If the songs feel really claustrophobic in a cramped venue, seeing them performed in an amphitheater — set to throbbing bass and heart-stopping synth — was like peering in on that packed-in feeling from the outside.
But if Icky Blossoms was the black sheep of the festival, they seemed to enjoy it that way. Sex and love, in typical pop fashion, dominated the subject of many of the songs to that point, but none with the air of doom and paranoia like “Sex To The Devil.” Vocalist Sarah Bohling was playful and energetic, going full Shirley Manson on “Living In Fiction” and dedicating songs to “all your moms … and their moms!”
As the sun peaked and skin began to bake, Joywave took the stage to an intro littered with samples and FX. Entrance music was en vogue yesterday: In The Valley Below took the stage to tribal drums; “Tomorrow” played over the loudspeaker as Bleachers walked on. Joywave’s had to be the most disorienting due to the sheer obnoxiousness, mixing laser gun noises with a sampling of the first two words of “One Week.”
Musically, the Rochester, N.Y., quintet leaned heavily on new-wave mixed with ‘80s dream pop. Pulsating reverb tinged frontman Daniel Armbruster’s droning voice, creating a harmonic effect. Armbruster worked hard to engage the crowd, doing so with sarcasm and one-on-one exchanges. Following Joywave’s opening number, he implored fans to congratulate themselves for making it through “the warm-up song.” He cracked wise about Bleachers’ superior popularity and the buzzing note he was hearing from what was probably his monitor. The one two punch closer of “Somebody New” and “Tongues,” both singles from How Do You Feel?, did that job just as well, setting the crowd aflame.
That crowd had begun to thicken by that point, roughly 7 p.m. The mean age also increased. Earlier, just before Saint Motel took the stage at 3:45 p.m., one 89.7 The River DJ addressed the crowd, asking, “Where my beer drinkers at?” A muted, repressed sigh rose from the audience. Many of them wouldn’t arrive until later. In doing so, they drove attendance past the 5,000 mark, highly admirable for a festival in its first year. For context, Maha Music Festival drew more than 7,000 last year.
That brings us to Bleachers, and if you had only half paid attention to that point, the increasing grandeur of performance hit like an anvil. The New York quintet’s set was thunderous at times, with three keyboards, two drummers and all five members singing. Rack and floor toms rumbled while the Bowie-like baritone vocal ensemble blasted “Shadow” from the stage. Bleachers seemed expertly built for anthemic pop, highly pronounced during its rather brave cover of “Go Your Own Way.” Keyboards (often, three total between two players) danced where acoustic guitar had before as the band somehow inflated the Fleetwood Mac classic.
If Joywave traded in hipness and sarcasm, the New York quintet laid the earnestness on thick. Instead of cracking jokes, Antonoff gestured wildly to parts of the crowd, feeding off their impassioned replies. He told stories. “Ever since I was 12 and saw the Allman Brothers Band, I wanted two drummers,” he explained. Antonoff emanated Springsteen-esque charisma during “Rollercoaster,” which even featured a wild saxophone solo from seemingly out of nowhere. A musician by musician roll-call followed, a 15-minute jam session punctuated by interaction between Antonoff’s guitar solos and the saxophonists echoing response.
When Cage the Elephant came on at 9 p.m., the crowd was pack in and ready to explode. They made sure of it with the fiery three-guitar attack of Brad Shultz, Daniel Tichenor and Nick Bockrath. The Pixies-like intro to “Back Stabbin’ Betty” gave way to hard blues rock and twangy vocals. Searing leads and gobs of dissonance gushed forth. Old favorite “Back Against The Wall” followed, temporarily smoothing things out and highlighting expert touch from drummer Jared Champion.
And don’t forget Shultz’s non-stop capering. He was so wild that, at various points, a crew member followed Shultz with his mic cord to make sure it wouldn’t tangle or tear. If it seemed impossible that he could make it through an entire set expending that much energy, he even nailed every note while doing it. But he managed in spectacular fashion, leaving little left.
Nearing the end of Cage The Elephant’s set, Shultz hung on the mic stand on the verge of collapse. “How are we doing?” he asked, as much of himself as of the crowd. Improbably, he sprang back into action, including for an encore that according to the band was not planned except for the crowd that was “so fucking awesome.” With that, it was one more dive from the stage.