Food & Drink

Sweetlife Festival 2016 defined by rain, rising talent

In recent years, and in the absence of the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, the Sweetlife Festival has become the premier area music event, especially to see a wide range of up-and-coming artists on a single bill.
But Saturday’s seventh annual festival, which once again took over Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, will be remembered for its weather just as much as the music. As Long Beach, Calif., rapper Vince Staples performed songs from his “Summertime ‘06” album at around 3 p.m., the rain came -- and only grew stronger over two hours. The crowd of mostly teenagers and college aged-students scrambled to throw ponchos over their summertime outfits (wishful thinking, no doubt).
The weather dampened the mood, but most persevered, determined to make the most out of the day. They were eventually rewarded when the sun returned as Toronto R&B singer Partynextdoor drew a crowd to the Treehouse Stage just after 6 p.m.
We’ll remember the rain, too, because the Sweetlife lineup seemed lacking compared to last year’s two-day event that boasted A-list star-power like Kendrick Lamar, the Weeknd and Calvin Harris. No performances from Saturday reached the dizzying heights those three did a year ago.
Many still charmed, though, as the bill offered a glimpse of many artists on the cusp of stardom. Some highlights:
Vince Staples, an excellent rapper known for his vivid storytelling, pointed out a deficiency early on: He was the only rapper on the bill. He made the most of it, ripping through tracks from his debut album, “Summertime ‘06.” Songs like “Senorita” and “Birds & Bees” -- with their abundance of bass and well-placed drops -- seemed tailored to the easy-to-please festival crowd. Staples rapped confidently, and balanced out his stark verses with tongue-in-cheek banter that would have fit perfectly on his acidic Twitter feed.   
The best dance party of the day was hosted by Shamir, the 21-year-old singer/songwriter from Las Vegas. Wearing a silver crown, Shamir had the entire Treehouse Stage audience bopping up and down to his updated take on uplifting disco-pop. The set hit its apex during “On the Regular,” a sassy, quick-witted declaration that Shamir was born to perform: “Ever since I was 8, I was attached to the mic / Wanted a guitar before I wanted a bike.” Shamir’s confidence was obvious, and could be summed in the song’s hook: “This is me on the regular, just so you know.”
The two oldest acts on the bill -- Eagles of Death Metal and Blondie -- weren’t naturally fits, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, especially when the latter played recognizable hits like “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.”
PartyNextDoor, a frequent collaborator of Drake and the writer behind Rihanna’s “Work,” announced this would be the last time he performed songs from his 2013 debut release because he’s done “so much work in the past year and a half.” It’s a good decision, as his brand of slow-and-syrupy R&B has grown better and more nuanced over time. The soft-spoken singer performed early tracks like “Break from Toronto” and “Wus Good” but newer songs like “Come and See Me” and “Recognize” made the strongest impressions. Still, his songs can start to feel sleepy, which explains why Party left the stage for a brief break to let his DJ play more hyped-up songs by Desiigner and Kendrick Lamar. The crowd loved it, which illustrated how badly the festival could have used more hip-hop.  
Of all the artists, the critically acclaimed Grimes delivered the performance that demanded the most attention. In constant motion, the Canadian singer/songwriter performed songs from sprawling pop project, 2015’s “Art Angels.” Grimes, a.k.a. Claire Boucher, appeared to be a perfectionist, too, frequently telling the sound technicians which speakers needed more vocals. The constant energy was infectious and full of life, but it was all driven by a taut and disciplined artist.
Kudos to the 1975 for owning its role as the headliner. When the Manchester quartet took the stage just after the sun went down, their set design, aglow in tall purple shapes and inspired by “The Sound” music video, announced the night’s brightest stars had arrived. Charismatic frontman Matty Healy led the band through faithful, fantastic-sounding renditions of “Love Me,” “Change of Heart” and other tracks from the band’s recent sophomore album.
Early on, Healy told the still-soaked crowd on the lawn they could fill the rest of the empty seats in the pavilion, if they didn’t cause a scene. The kids came running, with Healy asking, “Oh no, what have I done?” He was being facetious, as there were no problems. It even felt fitting, like a reward to those who stuck out the rain. After those conditions, few would argue they didn’t deserve it.