Sounds a bit familiar

Times Staff Writer

Given the Dodgers, USC and UCLA games, a Neil Diamond concert at Staples Center, a fundraiser for Barack Obama featuring Hillary Clinton at the Edison, and the third annual L.A. Weekly Detour Festival, the traffic advisory for downtown on Saturday was somewhere between “suicidal” and “apocalyptic.” One was probably better off at home stocking up on canned goods and waiting for “Mad Max” to seem like a documentary.

The market for music festivals of late feels a bit like that too. Coachella has its litany of pricey peers, and the Greater L.A. orbit sports all-day neighborhood music festivals in downtown, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock (also held Saturday), the Sunset Strip, Joshua Tree and the La Brea Tar Pits. The Detour Festival is among the largest, but no matter the quality of its lineup, festival fatigue could make the heartiest hipster feel wan. Unfortunately for Detour, headlined this year by the Mars Volta and Gogol Bordello, the festival remains largely unable to curate acts both interesting and unavailable elsewhere.

First, however, are a few logistical bones to pick with Detour. Replacing cash concessions with rechargeable debit cards was obnoxious, especially after a $45 entrance ticket. And a no-ins-and-outs policy ensured that if you wanted to catch, say, the richly baroque mod-pop of Afternoons and some of the Mars Volta’s epic noodling, you had an eight-hour day on the City Hall lawn ahead of you.

Both could be forgiven if the bands delivered, but by and large there was little appointment viewing. Norwegian dance-punkers Datarock, for instance, have seemingly performed almost a dozen times in Los Angeles this year. There were some fine turns by local acts, such as the Portishead-gone-samba ensemble Bitter: Sweet and noise weirdos the Mae Shi, but each was soon trumped by the likes of Costa Mesa surf-punks Japanese Motors.


Detour’s highlight was a trifecta of disco-inspired electronica bands that complemented the nighttime cityscape. Hercules and Love Affair played the live equivalent of a slaying DJ set, never stopping between songs and pairing Harlem jump-rope anthems with expert and tenderhearted house beats. Australia’s Cut Copy had the set of the festival, with bubbly New Order synths and ELO-extravagant melodies whipping the Wayfarer-bedecked kids into a tizzy. Their countrymen the Presets also had a strong outing, with a minimalist drums-and-synth setup providing a big return on party noir.

Gogol Bordello, however, seemed a bit under the weather, as the usually reliable Balkan-punk troupe lacked some of the madcap revelry for which it’s notorious. Frontman Eugene Hutz did his best to keep spirits high on “Start Wearing Purple,” but when you’re used to him walking on a crowd’s outstretched palms for a big chorus, anything less seems like an off night.

The Mars Volta’s general philosophy on music is that Led Zeppelin would have been much more interesting with twice the drum fills, half the melody and a generous helping of inscrutable free-associative poetry. Sometimes, the relentless shredding of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and the howl of singer Cedric Bixler Zavala settled into something fiercely strange. Mostly, though, it came off as a particularly cohesive 2 1/2 -hour trip to the Guitar Center showroom: a dozen virtuoso musicians playing fiery riffs that have absolutely nothing to do with anything going on around them.

After a long and expensive day traipsing around the Civic Center, it was almost enough to make one swear off music festivals for a good while. But markets eventually correct, and hopefully Detour will soon get the bailout of consistently fresh talent it needs.