Instead of Budweiser and chicken tenders, artisanal Stillwater ale and veggie burgers by James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber fueled the crowd on May 30 at Sweetlife, a two-day music-meets-gastronomy festival held at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.
Pockets of gourmet food trucks and tents that looked straight off of a Pinterest board offered cuisine like beefsteak tomato sandwiches by chef Jose Andres and b’day cake truffles from Momofuku Milk Bar to the crowd.
“Usually when you go to a festival it’s one of the most fun days of the year, but it’s not the healthiest. There’s no reason why those two can’t be the same,” says co-founder Nicolas Jammet, who helped launch the festival in 2007 through his culinary lifestyle brand Sweetgreen. “We want Sweetlife to have an intimate feel, it’s truly about creating an experience.”
An experience, that for $175-350, also included fashion lounges, body painting, photo booths and even a place to get a haircut.
Though the founders say the festival isn’t just about the music, day one’s lineup — which included Kendrick Lamar, Billy Idol, The Pixies, Tove Lo, SZA and Lucius — arguably proved to be as eclectic as the cuisine.
“The two strongest memories that people have are about food and music,” Lucius’ Holly Laessig told Billboard backstage. “Lyrics to a song and the experience of cooking can both take you back to a moment in time.”
Here are the highlights from day one on Saturday, May 30:
1:45 p.m.: Though Los Angeles-based garage punk duo The Bots struggled with feedback and muffled vocals throughout their 35-minute set, the group’s closing song “5:17” remained among the most high-energy moments of the entire day. After slinging a six-string around his head like a lasso, 21 year-old singer-guitarist Mikaiah Lei fell to the ground, ripped off his shoe and used it to hit the hi-hat on his brother Anaih’s drum kit. “Billy Idol is going to be on this stage,” Mikaiah told the crowd during their set. Adding, “Maybe he’ll say hi to me backstage.” And while it never actually played out that way, the brothers did see a whole lot of Tove Lo at her set a few hours later. “Her boobs were the highlight of the day for me,” Mikaiah told Billboard. “She flashed the crowd three or four songs in!”
3:25 p.m.: “In case you didn’t get the memo, you’re all f–king amazing!” shouted MisterWives percussionist Etienne Bowler before launching into a twinkleing, saxophone-laden cover of Mark Ronson‘s “Uptown Funk” that got the crowd on their feet. “It was our first main stage show at a festival,” Bowler later told Billboard, “And we were all looking around at each other like, ‘What the hell are we doing up here?!'”
4:10 p.m.: “I’m hot as f–k! It’s so hot, my face is on the ground. I just want to take my shorts off so bad,” said SZA, who donned a skimpy halter and low-slung board-shorts. With torrid 89 degree temperatures and a 60 percent humidity, the soul chanteuse continued to bump and sway through songs like “Aftermath” and “Child’s Play” but not without having her team bring out an inhaler at one point. “Before I got signed, I was writing this song and I was working retail and bartending and super shy,” she told the crowd breathlessly of the song “Babylon” as her set neared an end. “And now I’m here sweating and naked with all of you.”
6:21 p.m.: Running through songs like “How Loud Your Heart Gets” and “Go Home” from their 2013 debut, Wildewoman, Lucius brought their signature unconventional stage setup (scattered percussion and bi-directional microphones), to the Treehouse stage. Though they’ll be touring with My Morning Jacket for part of the summer, the band plans to stay put in L.A. “We’re in the studio recording and about halfway done with the next album,” co-frontwoman Jess Wolfe told Billboard. And as for keeping cool in their matching black, long-sleeved dresses and knee-high boots? “It’s all in the head,” joked Jess Wolfe. “We’re in an igloo right now,” laughed Laessig.
8:20 p.m.: There was no denying that Billy Idol, as he put it, was “having the time of my life.” With his back faced to the audience the bleach-blonde, punk-rock icon engaged in a strip-tease of sorts, shaking his bum as his leather jacket fell to the ground, then his leather button down and then his black muscle shirt while the opening notes for 1983’s “Flesh For Fantasy” hit. Though the crowd went wild as the 59-year old played old hits like “White Wedding” and newer tunes like “Can’t Bring Me Down,” perhaps the real star of the show was guitarist Steve Stevens. Solo after solo, the longtime collaborator moved his black-polished fingers along more than half-a-dozen guitars — a cherry red, a silver glitter, a glossy white. “Steve, thank you for making my life so f–king great,” Idol shouted. “Let’s show them what a hit song looks like, shall we?”
9:24 p.m.: While Idol closed his set, the Pixies‘ Black Francis, Joey Santiago, David Lovering and touring bassist Paz Lenchain walked onto the Treehouse stage to run through a medley of songs including “U Mass,” “Cactus” and “Caribou” for a diverse crowd of grey-mustached men, teenage girls and middle-aged parents with their toddlers in tow. “Before it was all young guys, now it’s the gamut,” Santiago, who spoke to Billboard in the band’s trailer before the show, said of the change in their fanbase since the ’80s. “The thing that’s steady from 2004 until now is that there are kids in the audience who weren’t even born when we were around initially — and they know all the words and are singing along. There is still that younger age group coming to our shows; I think it’s surprising that we’ve been able to keep that age here with us.” He paused. “And then, of course, there are the people my age who wish it were a seated venue rather than standing.”
9:45 p.m.: Though Top Dawg labelmate SZA joined headliner Kendrick Lamar on stage during his hour-and-fifteen-minute set, a fan by the name of Ayana unexpectedly brought the house down. “You know it’s been a long time since I was on this stage in front of you all,” Lamar told the crowd. “I want to go back to day one and see who’s been rocking with me.” The Compton-native, who paced along the edge of the stage staring intently into the crowd, planned to bring a fan onstage with him but had one condition: “They gotta know every single word to ‘Mad City.’ I mean really know it.” Festival co-founder Jonathan Neman was initially called up but Lamar said “nahhh” after Neman muddled through the first verse. “For some reason any time I bring a young lady up here, they out do the man,” Lamar said, giving it one more try. And when a woman by the name of Ayana took the stage, she slayed the performance — pausing midway through, hand over heart, to mouth the words “Oh My God.” The crowd went wild as Lamar hugged her at the end of the song. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “She represents all of you out there.”