Underground, properly tilled

Special to The Times

There are a lot of awkward names being tossed around for the various intersecting spheres of the music underground these days: post-rock, weird folk, wyrd folk, weird Americana. Well, the beautiful Barnsdall Art Park on an East Hollywood hilltop was Weird World Headquarters over the weekend.

That was the site of the inaugural ArthurFest, a two-day event featuring some of the artists most prized by fans of these evolving sub-genres, as championed by the Los Angeles-based monthly Arthur magazine.

How weird? Some people waited in line Sunday for as long as a couple of hours to watch Japanese sound manipulator Merzbow sit stone-faced at a table creating sheets of tonality-free white noise from two laptop computers.


How wyrd? Quaint singer-songwriter Josephine Foster’s set took on a Renaissance Faire quality when several fans were invited on stage to dance a la a May Day fete.

How post? Sonic Youth, once the poster figures of rock’s most avant-garde edges, sounded positively conservative in the context of its Sunday headlining appearance on the largest of the event’s three stages.

But the ultimate validation of ArthurFest’s assemblage of such contrasting and distinctively non-mainstream scenes came with the very last piece of the very last performance, when Monday’s headliner, Yoko Ono, chose her encore slot to be the first time she has performed her quintessential “Don’t Worry, Kyoko” since 1972.

The song, written in 1969 as a raw, anguished cry from the soul to Ono’s young daughter, who had been taken into hiding by Ono’s ex-husband, was Monday turned into a guttural ode to survival. The bleats and squalls for which Ono became famous/infamous were now expressions of a wide range of emotions as her band, led by her son Sean Lennon, pounded out primal art-blues.

The pure, unfiltered quality was even more profound coming just minutes after her performance of “Walking on Thin Ice,” the song she and John Lennon had been recording the night he was murdered. During the song, Ono suddenly screamed, “You killed my man, you bastard!” Appearing shaken, she turned first away from the audience and then back to face it, as fans started blinking small flashlights that had been handed out, in a code that had been explained in a film before the set: one blink for “I,” two for “love” and three for “you”

“Thank you, I feel much better,” said Ono, 72, who has given music performances only rarely in recent years.

It was a perfect demonstration of the underlying nature of Ono’s public persona, one that can be summed up as “Be your art.” That could well serve as the motto for ArthurFest itself, one lived out thoroughly by the most striking of the 42 musical acts spread out over Sunday and Monday. It was a roster encompassing rousing blues (Mississippi octogenarian T-Model Ford), neo-hippie folk-pop (a joyous performance by Devandra Banhart), buoyantly melodic rock (Spoon), fragile confessions (Cat Power) and various approaches to noise assaults (the psychedelic freakouts of Comets on Fire, the glacial chording of Earth).


Barefoot hippies, arty bohemians and grizzled post-punkers alike (with capacity attendance of 2,000 each day) moved from the genteel folkiness of Foster of Marissa Nadler to the stun-level garage blues of Modey Lemon without blinking an eye.

Arthur founder and editor Jay Babcock sported a look of equal parts delight, disbelieving wonder and utter exhaustion as he moved from stage to stage on the grounds of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed center. There were a few glitches (perpetually long lines to get into the small theater and at the food concessions), but nothing that spoiled the overall experience.

Among the Sunday highlights: On the indoor Gallery Theatre stage, Six Organs of Admittance (a.k.a. guitarist Ben Chasny) showed that delicate folk-blues beauty can share space with harrowing dissonance. On the outdoor Lawn Stage, the Black Keys crafted earthy garage blues, followed by the trio Sleater-Kinney, whose mix of stinging guitars and humanist declamations has toughened into one of the most bracing sounds in rock today.

Monday’s most notable sets included Jack Rose’s John Fahey-inspired folk-blues guitar work on the outdoor Pine Stage, Modey Lemon’s Hendrix-and-beyond blast in the Gallery Theatre and Comets on Fire’s Fillmore-meets-free-jazz explosions on the Lawn Stage.

And one more highlight: Before walking off stage, Ono cheerily said, “So, I’ll see you next year.”