There are some things you should probably know going in.
Terrastock 4 is, unsurprisingly, the fourth in a series of concerts. This and the previous three-day festivals (held in Rhode Island, England, and California) were all benefits for a fanzine called Ptolemaic Terrascope. Its focus is, as with any fanzine, whatever the editor likes, but can generally be condensed into the phrase "psychedelic music" without too much loss of intention.
Terrastock 4 was held in Seattle on the first weekend of November, with 32 acts scheduled over three days. Held at the Showbox from 5 pm to 2 am each night, every act got a 45-minute set (unless you got screwed because you were playing last, like Ghost did). Two stages facilitated the easy switching from one band to another with minimal downtime.
The lineup: Abunai!, The Alchemysts, Amber Asylum, Bardo Pond, Martyn Bates, The Bevis Frond, Charalambides, Children of the Rainbow, Country Joe McDonald & the Fish-Frond, Crome Syrcus, Damon & Naomi, Delicate AWOL, Donovan's Brain, Ethereal Counterbalance, Ghost, Green Pajamas, Kinski, Linus Pauling Quartet, The Lothars, Major Stars, The Minus Five, The Monkeywrench, Pat Orchard, Six Organs of Admittance, Stone Breath, Subarachnoid Space, Tarantel, Moe Tucker, Voyager One, Wellwater Conspiracy, Windy & Carl, and Doug Yule.
This lineup was, to my mind, weaker than previous years (none of which I attended) -- previous performers have included Olivia Tremor Control, Pelt, Flying Saucer Attack, The Mountain Goats, Mudhoney, Neutral Milk Hotel, Roy Montgomery, and others. The venue was also less desirable in many ways; it was difficult to escape the music to talk with folks, and next to impossible to see what wares various bands had for sale (one vendor placed candles over his stacks of CDs, which seemed somewhat dangerous to me, but was really the only quasi-practical solution). The schedule was also unrelenting -- nine hours of consecutive music is a lot for anyone to swallow, particularly in a venue that doesn't offer food.
On to the specifics. Originally, I had intended (in the selfless service of Space City Rock) to provide a checklist of thirty to forty attributes for all the bands in attendance, ranging from describing their sound ("spacy" and "slow" being very recurrent typologies, unsurprisingly) to their appearance (most bands fitting into the "old poorly groomed long haired people" or "young well groomed short haired people," with only a few deviations) to their membership ("all male" far outweighing "all female," of course, and "members playing in other bands at Terrastock" also occuring quite frequently). Very quickly, I abandoned this, but the spirit of the exercise -- that many of the acts were retreading the same space and can easily be described via a checklist and typology -- is telling, nonetheless.
Highlights? There were a few; unfortunately, most of them were acts I was already familiar with. Frankly, the two standouts in my book were both from Texas. Friday night presented the Charalambides, who I hadn't seen for years; performing as a three piece, I was dumbstruck at the powerfully singular sound at which they've arrived. Meanwhile, Saturday night brought the awesomely silly Linus Pauling Quartet, which was a welcome breath of fresh air amidst the psychedelic pretentions of so many of the other artists. If you've seen the 7 person LP4 before, you know what to expect -- heavy guitar jabs that are undoubtedly derivative but vastly entertaining nonetheless. And, of course, many of the "big names" lived up to their expectations, including Bardo Pond, Damon and Naomi (performing with Ghost), and Major Stars. Of the "unknowns," Voyager One stuck out to be the most interesting, even though they worked the loud space-thrum sound you've no doubt heard from others before. (I missed Kinski, but I've seen them before, so I'll stick up for them, too. They're good people.)
But for every pleasant surprise or good performance by a well-respected favorite, there was an unpleasant surprise. Frankly, this got so frequent that I didn't feel bad about skipping most of the unfamiliar acts on Sunday. I hesitate to point too many fingers, but Crome Syrcus (some '60s psych band who hadn't played together for twenty-five years) really didn't need to reunite at this show, and I fail to see the enthusiasm the Terrascope has for singer/songwriter Pat Orchards. Most disappointing to me was the Velvet Underground two-fer: Doug Yule was unremarkable at best, while Moe Tucker was actively annoying (although some responded better than I did to the tunes against Spam and other similarly deep topics; frankly, I think their estimation was clouded both by her pedigree and the fact that a 50-something year old woman is able to "rock," regardless of how uninteresting and/or annoying that rock may be.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the festival was its failure to take advantage of more of the great local fare (and instead putting in some pretty lousy local fare, with admittedly a few good bands). Off the top of my head, Portland bands like Hochenkeit, Smegma, Beds, Braille Stars, Bering Sea, and Yume Bitsu would have all fit in well with the show and provided a higher quality than many of the bands that did play. (Built to Spill or Death Cab for Cutie, to name some higher-profile bands, would probably fit equally well as well, and again would have been very welcome.) I don't know if my tastes just differ dramatically from other people's (in this case, probably not -- this was the first Terrastock to not sell out), but replacing some of the Terrastock dead wood with some of the above names would have really accentuated the show for me.
The memory I'll take with me of Terrastock as symptomatic of the whole problem with the festival was enduring ten minutes of Children of the Rainbow. Billed as a surprise super-group, it turned out to be Kate and Wayne of Major Stars and Damon and Naomi of, um, Damon and Naomi. Some of you may recognize this as the lineup of Magic Hour. However, they didn't play Magic Hour songs -- they wore robes and grey wigs and played dippy songs about sunshine on four acoustic guitars, out of tune and out of time. It's not entirely clear to me if they were making fun of Terrastock, the audience, or themselves -- or if they actually had convinced themselves that what they were doing was interesting. As I left, disgusted, I remembered Kate's words from the Major Stars set, comparing Terrastock to a family reunion. Exactly. Only it's at the point where the reunion has lost its novelty and the more interesting family members have stopped showing up, leaving behind those people who desperately need the attention of others, and who spend their time coming up with more and more annoying ways to become that center of attention. I'm sure the family will get together next year somewhere. I plan, however, on having other things to do. (Doug Dillaman)