With the sun finally down on what was a picturesque Saturday at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, the fever pitch came to a head.
“Kendrick! Kendrick! Kendrick!” chanted a boisterous few to get the ball rolling. The voices of the Sweetlife Festival audience grew louder, from the pavilion seating by the main stage to the crowded lawn area. The previous 10 hours of the event’s opening day had been pleasant, and even invigorating and surprising at times, but it was hard not to feel like everyone was waiting in anticipation for 27-year-old rapper Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop’s reigning virtuoso.
As cinematic shots of the MC’s home, Compton, Calif., played on a widescreen behind the four-piece band, a sample of hazy guitar from “Silver Soul,” a 2010 song by Baltimore’s Beach House, played on a loop. Lamar strutted out to perform “Money Trees.” The drums, hitting like sledgehammers, mixed with Lamar’s complex rhymes to establish a visceral groove that never wavered throughout the headlining set. The crowd was his before he took the stage, and the star of the night realized it.
“I can tell the energy is going to be 10 times crazier than the last time I was here,” Lamar said after the technical wizardry of “Backseat Freestyle.” On paper it reads like typical stage banter, but the palpable energy from the crowd made you wonder if it was not.
He was not disappointed. The highlight of Lamar’s set -- aside from “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)” featuring his labelmate SZA -- illustrated the fervor fans feel for the rapper nicknamed K. Dot.
Lamar asked if anyone could recite the lyrics to “m.a.a.d. city,” a brutal account of growing up around gang banging and violence. A man who embarrassed himself by flubbing early lines was replaced by a young woman named Ayanna, who went nearly bar-for-bar with Lamar on the first verse. As the moment sunk in, Ayanna’s smile and disbelief grew. She thanked Lamar sincerely as they hugged goodbye, but the rapper seemed most moved.
“Every time I bring a lady up here, she always outdoes the man,” he said with a smirk.
Somewhat surprisingly, Lamar only played one song ("Alright") from his critically acclaimed new album, March’s dark and sprawling “To Pimp a Butterfly.” While it would have been exciting to hear “King Kunta” and poignant and timely to experience the searing “The Blacker the Berry” given the current temperature of race relations in Baltimore and the country, Lamar’s Sweetlife set was more of a victory lap. It would not be a surprise if he did the same thing for “Butterfly” a year from now. As a writer and effortless rapper, Lamar is that excellent, and he gives others time to catch up.
With two stages (and a DJ area), Sweetlife Festival -- like all other music festivals -- is an exercise (literally) in time management. It’s about knowing where you need to be and when, even if that means never seeing a set in its entirety. With that in mind, here are other highlights and observations from Day 1:
• With Virgin Mobile FreeFest gone, the Sweetlife Festival -- now in its sixth year, but first as a two-day event -- is the most relevant music festival in Maryland now. It also feels different from FreeFest and the aggressive Preakness’ InfieldFest. The vibe on Day 1 of Sweetlife was “young hippie” -- fans painting walls and each other, fashions you’d only see at a festival and an overall carefree and relaxed attitude to the day’s events. Stress was not welcome.
• While Sweetlife’s lineup and audience was noticeably young for the most part, there were still moments for music fans who remember life before iPods. Most encouraging? The veteran acts sounded great. Bringing the in-your-face energy he’s famous for, Billy Idol sounded only a few years removed from the heights of his MTV fame, especially on “Dancing With Myself.” Even better was Black Francis and the Pixies, who seemed too strong for the Treehouse Stage. No matter -- “Wave of Mutilation” sounded as vital as ever.
• The surprise of the day was Tove Lo, the 27-year-old Swedish indie-pop singer. Born Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson, the buzzing artist attracted the biggest Treehouse Stage crowd of the day. (Sorry Pixies!) I wrote in my notebook “unremarkable” after the first couple of songs, but it was a premature take. The more you watch and listen to Tove Lo, the more the appeal crystallizes. Her songs are darker than most pop stars’, and the singer is far from shy. (She quickly exposed herself to the crowd mid-song, and wrote on Instagram Saturday night, “#DC it was like making dirty love to you tonight!!!”) By the time she closed with her surprise hit “Habits (Stay High),” Tove Lo seemed like a star in the making. In the eyes of many, especially the captivated young women around me, she was already there.
• The hippie vibe was real, but this was still mostly a crowd of millennials, which meant only one thing: Selfies. They were taken everywhere -- by the bathrooms, in line for the food trucks, on the shoulders of attendees and in the middle of music sets. At Tove Lo, a group of seven or eight friends were more concerned with angles and duckfaces than watching the artist. For many, it’s an essential aspect of concert-going in 2015.
• Kudos to Bleachers, the Jack Antonoff-fronted pop-rock act that jumpstarted the main stage with songs from their debut, “Strange Desire.” Up until Bleachers’ 6:55 p.m. set, the main stage was an inoffensive mix of bar-band soul (Allen Stone) and folk-meets-synth-pop (MisterWives). Perhaps sensing a moment to inject a jolt, Antonoff attacked the stage with a determined zeal. Listening to Bleachers can feel like a game of “Name the Influence,” but Antonoff has the chops and talent to take familiar sounds and hooks and make them fresh. (There was even a saxophonist for Clarence Clemons-inspired solos.) As if nodding to the past, the band performed a fist-pumping cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” It’s a song that has never failed in a live setting, and the rule remained on Saturday.
• Some artists aren’t quite there, but the potential is apparent. SZA fit such a bill most on Saturday, with her sensual movements and matching voice. She’s the type of performer you can’t help but watch -- the highlight “Childs Play” made this most apparent -- but she does not yet have the songs to back up the presence. And that’s one of the best parts of attending these increasingly popular all-day music festivals: You can see artists at the forefront of their genre (Lamar), artists on the cusp of stardom (Tove Lo) and early indicators of something interesting happening. SZA falls in the latter, and that was exciting in itself.