I saw the light on the second day. Here, in a nutshell, is the gospel according to the Basilica Block Party: If you want to pay $80 to people-watch and eat fair food and load up your handheld mobile device with photos of your friends posing with their sunglasses on over two nights, then this is the event for you. If you want to actually enjoy live music, then you’re pretty well screwed -- unless your bands of choice are performing over on the secondary stage out in front of the church (the Walser Auto Stage this year). That’s where the magic always seems to happen. The main stage under the freeway in a giant, fry-an-egg-on-it parking lot (Sun Country Stage) is mostly god-forsaken as far as the live music goes. Case in point…
MAIN STAGE with RAY LAMONTAGNE & AMOS LEE: “Something is wrong with the sound,” my plus-one companion said halfway through Lee’s playful set at sunset. No, I explained, it’s not the sound system, it’s all the people talking over the music. Unless the group has a fully electric sound – which Gomez did, but Lee and LaMontagne only had part of the time – then fans either need to be pressed up close to the stage (and sweating all the more) or settled on hearing the acts at half volume.
Not only did LaMontagne’s set suffer from all the chatter, it was even less engaging because the giant video screen was turned off the whole time – reportedly at the singer’s request. Geez, Ray, have you been cooking meth and are missing half your teeth, or what are you afraid of? Despite all that, LaMontagne’s glorious sandy voice and his top-notch band shined through the din. The high point came when the soulful Maine folkie and his ace pedal-steel player Greg Leisz breezed through “Blue Canadian Rockies” (crediting it to the Byrds instead of Texas songwriting great Cindy Walker), which blended beautifully into a twangy spin through “Trouble.” LaMontagne also ended on a high note with a solo/acoustic “Like Rock & Roll & Radio.” Too bad it sounded like it was coming from a muted radio.
Lee also offered up a lovely twangy cover in his set: John Prine’s “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.” It was a sharp contrast to the silly sex-you-up rendition of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn Off the Lights,” which a good chunk of the crowd knew from the Reese Witherspoon rom-com “How Do You Know.” It was pretty lame slapstick white-boy R&B until somebody in Lee’s crew came out in a white suit and proceeded to hilariously improvised a local spin on the song, in which cheese curds became sexual favors.
GOMEZ: The members of Gomez had trouble localizing themselves: Singer/guitarist Ian Ball said something about how great it was being in St. Paul. Once corrected, he quipped, “They tell that to English people just to make us look stupid." The British boys came off better on the big stage, in part because of their louder guitars, but also because the crowd was smaller and more attentive. They showed off their poppy side most of all with songs such as “See the World” and “Whatever’s on Your Mind.” The highlights, though, were “Here Comes the Breeze” and “Ruff Stuff,” two hazier, druggier tunes filled with psychedelic guitar work and sharp three-man harmonies.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: Like Spoon and the Hold Steady before them, the Drive-By Truckers played to a smaller but more rabid crowd over on the churchside stage – a First Ave-sized crowd that essentially turned up just for them. Pity that some of them had to sit through the one-note, drum-track-accompanied hippie soulster Citizen Cope beforehand (who literally did play a single note for an entire song). Had he not been sandwiched in between, local boys the 4onthefloor would have been the perfect DBT opener. At least the 4-kickers had the perfect accompaniment to their howling rocker "Junkie:" The bells in the Basilica tower started tolling mid-song.
The Truckers hilariously picked Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as their walk-on music -- likely a nod to the controversy surrounding this block party over the church’s stance against gay marriage (singer Patterson Hood also wore the “I support marriage equality” sticker that many concertgoers also had on). They proceeded to do their usual thing with full gusto, tearing through “Putting People on the Moon,” “Gravity’s Gone,” “Used to Be a Cop and “Where the Devil Won’t Stay” right off the bat without a break. The new single “Everybody Needs Love,” a cover by late Alabama cult figure Eddie Hinton, came off like a gospel rave-up outside the church. Lest you think the band was on its best behavior, though, Patterson dropped an F-bomb right away into “Putting People at the Moon,” and then he still pulled out the Jack Daniels bottle mid-set. And like a molotov cocktail, he and the devlish crew even dropped in a surprising choice of a rarity: “Too Much Sex, Too Little Jesus.” Oh my!