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Sunset Junction Day 1: Conor Oberst, Miss Derringer, Ollin and more

August 23, 2009 | 12:23 pm

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Even as Sunset Junction has swelled from a neighborhood-only street fest to one that can attract a Coachella-sized headliner in Conor Oberst, Ollin’s Scott Rodarte revealed in the midafternoon Saturday sun that there are continued benefits to being a local, although it helps if you have a guitar. 

Had the East L.A. six-piece not been on the bill, Rodarte said, the band would have done what it’s done in years past: show up with instruments and become “sneakers-in,” avoiding the $20 entrance fee by pretending to be a part of the lineup. One of more than 25 artists performing on the first day of the two-day affair, Ollin, in many ways, felt like the quintessential Los Angeles act. 

On a day in which seemingly 1 out of every 2 bands mentioned the proximity in which they lived to the Silver Lake event, Ollin, a Latin-heavy melting pot of ethnic sounds, did them all one better by actually performing songs about the area. Melding Mexican folk with a punk attitude, as well as a flash of an Irish whistle, Ollin’s odes to the long-since-displaced residents of Chavez Ravine were as fit for a fiesta or a pub. With its megaphone-enhanced beer vendors, Sunset Junction is a bit of a middle ground. 

Sunset Junction is the first of what will be three late-summer outdoor fests in Los Angeles, with the underground rock-focused FYF Fest tabled for Sept. 5 in Chinatown and the more mainstream, three-day Sunset Strip Music Festival set to conclude with a street fair Sept. 12. As Ollin illustrated, one of the Sunset Junction’s main selling points remains its diversity. 

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Reggae stalwarts Sly & Robbie brought Saturday to a close with a crux of dancers bottlenecked at Sunset Boulevard and Sanborn Avenue. Earlier, the Boogaloo Assassins promised a “little bit of Latin, a little bit of soul,” and delivered elegant salsa with an array of rhythmic tones. Les Nubians offered chill-out, globe-trotting pop, and Sa-Ra’s take on hip-hop included gospel backing vocals, light jazz and raunchy dancers. 

On the fest’s largest stage, it was the women who turned in some of the day’s most impressive sets. The hard-rock band Nico Vega has a potent weapon in vocalist Aja Volkman, who moved from angelic swoons to devilish growls without warning. The Submarines struck a more genial vibe -- the act is more apt to finger-snap than headbang -- and decorate its love-letter-like songs with pleasing electronic flourishes.

Miss Derringer had one of the day’s earliest sets -- a shame as the act brought more showmanship and hooks than much of the afternoon fare spread among four stages. Singer Liz McGrath looked like a glam-rock pirate and sounded like a barroom country vixen, spinning tales of death and booze over searing country-rock riffs.

The best of the boys also went with a roots-rock feel. Rumspringa showed the trend of blues-rock duos isn’t played out yet, playing into the party atmosphere of the fest with a groove-heavy drive. San Diego’s Delta Spirit channeled Creedence Clearwater Revival as tension-filled rock ‘n’ roll rhythms threatened to wreak havoc with the band’s Southwestern guitar licks.

Headliner Oberst, performing with his country-rock outfit the Mystic Valley Band, brought more fire to his Sunset Junction set than he did at his recent Coachella performance. The band can still use a bit of fine-tuning -- songs such as “Air Mattress” sound like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers throwaways -- but with the devastating take on broken ideals that is “Milk Thistle,” the band turned the ballad into a showstopper. 

When coming back for an encore, Oberst introduced one song as nothing but “sad, mean and bitter.” The Mystic Valley Band is at its best when offering those emotions in their most distilled form. Such a moment was found in a acoustic rave-up, “I Don’t Want to Die (In the Hospital),” in which Oberst and band packed enough energy to control even the largest of outdoor barbecues. 

-- Todd Martens

Top photo: Miss Derringer. Credit: Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times. Middle photo: Christopher Yates walks on stilts at Sunset Junction. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times
 

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