Sweetlife Festival 2016: The 1975 Rescues Fans From the Rain, Debbie Harry Talks New Blondie & More

Matthew Healy of 1975 performs during 2016 Sweetlife Festival
Kris Connor/Getty Images

Matthew Healy of 1975 performs during 2016 Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather Post Pavillon on May 14, 2016 in Columbia, Md. 

At Sweetlife Festival, last year's accessory of choice was the flower crown; this year, it was all about the poncho. An extended downpour and gusts of wind sent festivalgoers searching for trash bags they could wrap themselves in and blankets they could burrow beneath. 

“The magic of Sweetlife has a lot to do with Merriweather," festival co-founder Jonathan Neman told Billboard of the 40 acre Columbia, Md., venue whose theater was designed by Frank Gehry. "It has unparalleled sound quality but it also has the beauty of the woods." 

Maybe it was the weather this year, or maybe it was that the festival scaled back from two days to one -- but the overall energy was a little more damp than usual. 

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Phone and photo fatigue could be felt by bands throughout the day. There was no photography allowed for Blondie and Grimes' sets, and bands like Wolf Alice expressed a sense of exhaustion from smartphones. "It's one thing to take a photo and have a memento from the show, but if you want to watch the whole thing through filming it -- that's such a shame," Wolf Alice bassist Theo Ellis told Billboard after the band's set. "Bad angles, bad sound," frontwoman Ellie Rowsell added.  

An extension of Sweetgreen, the company founded in 2007 that seeks to bring high quality and locally sourced healthy meals to communities, the festival offered up dishes like yellow-fin tuna sashimi rolls with pickled fennel and a Blondie-inspired "One Grain or Another" salad instead of the greasy pizza and hot dogs that are typically served on the grounds. There was Budweiser, yes, but there was also fresh pressed juice. Some of the festival goers who embraced the underlying theme could even be spotted wearing cheeky baseball caps that read "Make America Healthy Again." 

Here are the Sweetlife Festival highlights from Saturday, May 14:

1:49 p.m.: Wolf Alice, the British grunge-meets-psych rock band currently on tour with The 1975, ran through tracks including "Bros" and "Your Loves Whore" from their 2015 debut, My Love Is Cool. Ultimately, though, it was "Blush" that elicited the greatest fan response -- including some head-bobbing from a silver-crowned Shamir Bailey, who would perform a few hours later on the treehouse stage. "We love Shamir. We're going to see his set later," Ellis told Billboard. "We'd also like to see Mac DeMarco and Bernie Sanders. Is Bernie playing? Everyone should listen to him, he's the true legend." 

4:02 p.m.: Three words: joie de vivre. From the moment Jesse Hughes -- the mustachioed Eagles of Death Metal frontman who also happens to be an ordained priest -- set foot on stage, he was exuberant. "I happen to love Grimes very much and I'm not ashamed to let the world know it," he yelled, while donning a Grimes T-shirt beneath his suspenders (hours later he would change into a Blondie shirt). He bolted from stage left to stage right while bouncing up and down through "I Only Want You." At one point he shouted "Vive La France," but it wasn't just the band's survival of the terrorist attack on Le Bataclan in Paris last November that spurred the happiness. "I have my sister and my niece back here on stage with me!" he shouted. "And my niece just defeated cancer! So you can imagine how I feel!" Looking at life through rose-colored glasses? It didn't hurt that he literally had a pair on, too. 

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5:18 p.m.: No one rocked harder than 70-year-old Debbie Harry, who sent fans rushing across the lawn to catch her hour-long set the moment the guitars for "One Way or Another" kicked-in. Playing through a string of Blondie hits with a five-person backing band comprised of old and new members, the iconic frontwoman -- who donned a bleach blonde wig ("my octopus hair") -- teased the band's upcoming album. "I'm really happy to announce we've been recording again," she told the audience before launching into "Call Me." Though her vocals could have been cranked up and were often overshadowed by the guitar volume, the crowd sang almost every word along with her. By the time she closed with the 1980 hit "Heart of Glass" with an Andy Warhol image of herself projected on the big screen, every hand was up in the air.

6:35 p.m.: Grimes opened with "Realiti" and closed with "Kill V Maim," and the production on nearly every one of the backing tracks for her recently released Art Angels album had been impressively re-done for her live setup. Perhaps most mesmerizing was the rendition of "Ave Maria" that then gave way to the artist born Claire Boucher's 2012 breakthrough "Oblivion." In between it all, the Canadian chanteuse offered some narration: She said "Go," the 2014 track she originally wrote for Rihanna, was "her favorite to perform live because it's the most controversial," while "Venus Fly" was another one she loved "because I get to f--- around with some 808s." It didn't matter that Janelle Monae wasn't there to accompany her, or that Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes wasn't there to assist on the vocals for "SCREAM." Boucher sang, banged the drum kit harder and danced harder until there was no void left to fill.

8:07 p.m.: The main stage, which sits beneath a covered pavilion, was little more than half-full when The 1975 started its headlining set. Those who hadn't paid for access to seating had weathered the rain and continued dancing on the lawn in the background. "Hello, people in the back," frontman Matt Healy, his shirt unbuttoned down low, shouted. "I've spoken to security and if you don't rush, you can queue up and fill the rest of the seats. Don't. Go. Crazy," he said as the rush of hundreds began. "Oh god, what have I done," he said, laughing. Though the crowd on the lawn had been acknowledged all day -- "I see you out there, grass people!" Blondie shouted -- it was Healy's move that was one of direct inclusion and kindness. As the seats filled out, so did the energy -- making the group's hour and 15 minute-long set one of the day's most inspired. 


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