Holding a music festival is, in general, a bad idea. The logistics on either end are hellish— you’re handling the specific needs of four or more performers and their accompanying entourages and stage sets, or wrangling thousands of people in various stages of coherence and intoxication as they loiter for hours waiting for headlining acts or in bathroom lines. Organizing a festival is a fate I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.
Holding a music festival in the rain sounds even worse, for reasons that should be fairly obvious (have you ever thought about the process of ordering 4,000 ponchos?). Despite all of this, though, Stanford Concert Network (SCN) pulled off the implausible on Saturday night, and orchestrated a magnificent return to the Frost Amphitheater in the seventh annual Frost Music Festival, headlined by R&B singers Jorja Smith and Kali Uchis.
The evening started out inauspiciously, though not for lack of valiant effort by SCN or the student openers. Through a combination of rain and the natural lateness of the Stanford student, the amphitheater was slightly less than half full for the student openers. But those attendees who did make it out in time to catch Mammoth and VII’s sets, the two lesser-known acts made a strong first impression.
Mammoth was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening— the five-piece group, which plays southern-tinged blues rock, has not yet released any music on traditional platforms like Soundcloud or Spotify, and have mostly stuck to small shows on the Stanford party circuit. Yet their music, which mixes original compositions and classic rock covers, is compelling in its good-naturedness. It’s the kind of music that feels impossible to actively dislike, even though Mammoth’s songs sometimes feel like charming rough drafts rather than full compositions.
At their best, though, Mammoth revealed a vast potential for joy and fun. That was the case with their closing one-two punch of original “An Old Story,” an Allman Brothers-influenced barnburner, and a surprisingly lively cover of Beatles obscurity “Rocky Raccoon” that swung on a charming interplay between lead singer Jack Seigenthaler ’19, keyboardist Trent Peltz ’18 and a walking bass line provided by Ben Josie ’19.
VII, the other student opener, was more accustomed to the large stages of Stanford music festivals, and performed with an ease and confidence that spoke to that fact. If you haven’t seen Gabriel Townsell ’20 and his crew (drummer Johnny Weger ’18 and DJ Noah Anderson ’20, also known as “Big White”) perform at the past two Blackfests or at a score of other gigs across Stanford over the past few years, you’ve been missing out on the most thrilling live show on campus.
By now, the formula is clear: Townsell (who The Daily profiled in April) raps and sings with control and intensity through a set of original tracks, occasionally stopping to shout out his hometown of Chicago and banter. Townsell’s skills are as evident on the big stage at Frost as they are at Kairos or Haus Mitt, and his performance Saturday was perhaps his best yet.
After the student openers, and a DJ set from Los Angeles-based DJ Mia Carucci, who kept energy high with a keen eye for out-there transitions (going from punk rapper Rico Nasty into synth pop artist Grimes into Reggaeton singer Ozuna was my personal highlight) and a choice distribution of teddy bears into the crowd, the rain lifted, and, almost as if blessed by the weather gods, Jorja Smith was there.
And to the early evening crowd, she was heavenly. The British singer’s 2018 debut album “Lost & Found” received praise from critics for its “gentle vocals” and “downtempo, backbeat-laced grooves,” but in a live setting she turned up the intensity of her performance by several degrees. That intensity was noticeable both in her vocals, which filled the open air of the amphitheater whether Smith was singing or rapping, and in her band. Performing with a four-piece accompaniment, Smith allowed her songs to sprawl out into jazzy works of luxury, expanding beyond the trip-hop sketches they stand as on record. In her performance she staked out a claim as a true live performer, enlivening her sleepy studio tracks into something altogether more fun. At times it seemed she was purposefully playing with the audience’s expectations of her as a “chill,” loungey R&B artist by starting songs slow and letting them climax into furious jams. On penultimate track “Blue Lights,” her debut single, the atmosphere seemed to follow suit, with rain crashing down again as police car-like lights shone and Smith’s own performance peaked.
If Smith’s set was focused on allowing her jazzy artistry to shine through, her co-headliner instead made her case as a full-on show woman. Kali Uchis’ set was shock and awe from the first beat, as the Colombian-American singer appeared center stage on a rotating, multi-tiered platform, all surrounded by smoke and a band playing proggy, portentous funk. Throughout her set, Uchis played up her charm and bravado — lounging over her stage decorations, making use of a prop chair, and drinking from a champagne bottle that she opened onto the front rows of the venue. The difference in performance styles between the two was clear, and so was the audience response. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers on-stage for Jorja; someone threw their bra to Kali.
Yet even as Uchis moved around stage, her vocals did not flag one bit, still carrying a range that matched Smith’s. As she performed, she seemed overjoyed to be there — at one point, early in her set, she remarked that she “did not know Stanford fucked with” her to the extent that the enraptured amphitheater, now full, clearly did. And her set showed that joy, working in both tracks from her 2018 debut album “Isolation” but also her earlier projects and a few covers, including a left-field take on Radiohead’s “Creep.”
The night’s high point, though, came in the two artists’ shared encore. Starting with a medley of tracks, including two Destiny’s Child covers, the two tore up the stage with aplomb. Together, Uchis and Smith complement each other perfectly, with a chemistry that explained their co-headlining tour as not just an exercise in music industry synergy but a true artistic partnership. They finished the night with “Tyrant,” their collaboration off of Kali’s album, and as they traded verses over that unstoppable groove, I could only think that the rechristening of the newly renovated Frost Amphitheater couldn’t have been done more gloriously.
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.