NOTHING breaks the spell of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s distortion-soaked Spector-pop like an afternoon-long barrage of advertisements from house-sized television screens. Sunday’s Download Festival, a daylong venture into blog-rock and electro-pop headlined by the Scottish group at the Gibson Amphitheatre, was a largely joyless occasion for pummeling fans with pitches for products as diverse as car insurance, chewing gum and portable hard drives between in-and-out sets on the rotating stage.
While the music festival circuit is certainly no stranger to wanton product placement, the Download Festival seemed like something the grand- children of the wily ad execs in “Mad Men” might have dreamed up to separate the Echo Park illuminati from the remainder of their student loans. A few bands managed to eke out exciting sets, but there seemed a general suspicion at the Download Festival that everyone involved should have known better. Judging by the seas of empty seats throughout the show, many people did.
Even beyond the ad blitz, the Download Festival’s first problem was the sheer randomness of the bill. The lineup read like a hastily-assembled list of artists topping the MP3 blog aggregator charts, and no matter what flavor of indie-leaning music one came for, there was guaranteed to be at least a few bands they absolutely loathed.
Fans of the tuneless, Pixies-ripping Tapes ‘n Tapes were likely mortified that some of their ticket money went to fund the career of Mute Math, the exceedingly earnest rockers who had a YouTube hit with the video-in-reverse for their single “Typical.” Download’s frat contingent -- there for the Austin electro duo Ghostland Observatory -- probably wanted to throw bottles at Brand New, the prog-emo ensemble whose two drummers and battalion of guitarists lent extra heft to singer Jesse Lacey’s hoarse tales of deception by sex-crazed female dates.
The day’s better bands found ways to stand out from the cavalcade of booking missteps. The Duke Spirit had obviously paid close attention to the headlining act’s early records, as their swaggering garage-pop hit like a drunk, smoky kiss on the mouth. Brooklyn’s Yeasayer conjured one of last year’s most compelling new sounds -- a freaky cross-section of North African blues, jam-band instrumental pyrotechnics and washed-out Eno ambience and pulled it off with a goofy charm.
The old-guard punk-funkers Gang of Four had the best set of the night. Now that the indie world is a few years removed from the early-aughts rush of sound-alike revival acts, the veteran group’s blend of politically charged, serrated disco-punk seemed even more singular and relevant.
At the end of the night, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s inauspicious start -- someone left the interstitial music playing as the band walked onstage -- made singer Jim Reid smirk and gesture sarcastically to the speakers. The band, which had so much excitement and goodwill left over from their Coachella reunion set and successful theater tours, here seemed a bit sheepish about the whole day. They dutifully ripped through the hits off era-defining albums “Psychocandy” and “Darklands,” but every time the house lights flashed on the painfully under-capacity audience, the band’s druggy abandon fell awkward and flat.
One can only hope that, with all that sponsorship money, at least everybody involved got paid well.