The great thing about festivals is that you hear a whole slew of acts all in one place. The downside is that you hear a whole slew of acts all in one place.
That paradox becomes more obvious as pop festivals proliferate--hardly a week has gone by this summer that didn't offer at least one somewhere in Southern California, making it ever more challenging for promoters and musicians to strike that ideal balance of musical variety and quality that can sustain interest and momentum for hours.
The Sprite Liquid Mix Tour on Saturday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine landed considerably short of that ideal by the time headliner Jay-Z stumbled across the finish line, seven hours after the 10-act, hip-hop-centered bill started.
But there were enough highlights--the bar-raising performance by N.E.R.D. at the top of the list--to give fans something worth talking about on their way home.
Jay-Z is one of the most celebrated figures in rap, but his set was too democratic. The Brooklyn rapper generously shared his stage time with other members of his Roc-A-Fella Records family, including rappers Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek. But his own performance lost any semblance of cohesiveness and direction, devolving into a rap jam session at which he was often observing on the sidelines. That the session was conducted over recorded backing tracks further drained it of spark.
Omaha-reared, L.A.-based rap-rock group 311 showed more focus and polish in an hourlong set that preceded Jay-Z. Having been around for a dozen years also helped 311. The group's experience and deep catalog gave it plenty of ammunition, from the early "Down" through the group's modern-rock hit "Amber" to a new song, "Reconsider Everything,"--about not taking life at face value.
The revelation of the day was N.E.R.D., the latest project of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. the red-hot production team the Neptunes. Williams and Hugo trotted out some high-powered pals to wave to the crowd, including 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake and skateboard star Tony Hawk, but their inspired blend of hip-hop, pop, R&B; balladry, space rock and jazz was all that really mattered.
The two were backed in songs from their debut album, "In Search of
Among the other main-stage performances, Calabasas-based Hoobastank, which played the same venue earlier this summer at the KROQ-FM Weenie Roast, cranked up the crowd with fairly conventional heavy rock tinged with punk thrash. Kentucky-based rural rap outfit Nappy Roots was less interesting live than on its critically praised debut album, "Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz," because the organic touches of guitar and organ that distinguish the album were mostly missing from the sextet's live set.
Of the acts on a second stage outside the amphitheater, Sacramento's veteran Blackalicious delivered a particularly invigorating set, spicing positive-minded raps--some dissing the gangsta mentality--with lively touches of reggae, old-school soul and Afro-pop.