Even cultural revolutions have their ups and downs. And right now, indie rock is a merely dependable pop music genre, with much of value to offer, but little of surprise nearly a decade after the explosion of Nirvana into the mainstream.
On Sunday at Irvine's Oak Park Ranch, the "This Ain't No Picnic" festival gathered a solid cross-section of music rooted in punk, all in search of common ground in a world momentarily obsessed with romantic pop sung by actresses and teenagers. On Sunday, the band most likely to break that barrier was Sleater-Kinney, a trio from Olympia, Wash., that sets joyous and tortured vocals against the edgiest of guitars.
Singer-guitarist Corin Tucker wasn't stuck within some limiting antipop manifesto, and somehow inspired fans already wilting in the Fourth of July heat to dance and clap along to the urgent, raw pop of "Dig Me Out." For all its well-deserved indie credentials, Sleater-Kinney is unafraid to have fun with the genre, from the nursery-rhyme chorus of "Little Babies" to "Turn It On," which blended supercharged punk with 1960s bubble-gum pop.
Though Sleater-Kinney offered many of the day's brightest moments, they were still a club band working to fill an outdoor festival stage, an especially formidable task in the bright sunlight.
Headliner Sonic Youth benefited from cooler temperatures in the late afternoon but faced daunting hurdles of its own. Guitarist Thurston Moore announced that all of the band's guitars, drums and amplifiers had been stolen that morning, a particularly devastating blow for a group dependent on hot-rod guitars and obscure tunings.
Sonic Youth played on with borrowed gear (a Sleater-Kinney drum set here, a Scarnella guitar there), causing Moore to joke: "Now we know we can't play real instruments." But if the band struggled with the unfamiliar gear, it was far from obvious during a 90-minute set.
The New York quartet is still making some of the most challenging music of its career, which has its roots in the punk and avant-garde movements of late-1970s New York. Sonic Youth flirted briefly with the mainstream in the early 1990s, even scoring a modest modern-rock radio hit with "Kool Thing." But the group has wisely returned to the bold experimentation of its earliest days with last year's "A Thousand Leaves" album.
Yet on Sunday, the band didn't rage through some quick avant-garde noodlings. As the sun dropped behind the trees, Sonic Youth demonstrated grace under pressure and showed how a band with finesse could weave crackling guitars and feedback into something of beauty.
Also compelling was Scarnella, an experimental duo of singer Carla Bozulich and guitarist Nels Cline, both formerly of Geraldine Fibbers. The sound was unrelentingly personal and raw, as Cline sliced a wire egg-beater and a toy ray gun across his guitar strings to rumbling, spacey effect. Self-absorbed in the best way, all of Scarnella's sonic excesses remained focused against a tight rhythm.
Also appearing Sunday were the indie veterans of Guided by Voices, an Ohio band that has recently drifted into a bigger rock sound. It worked moderately well on the new guitar epic "Stitches," even as it lost some focus in the sludgy live set.
Superchunk filled its set with the usual fuzzy guitars and unpolished vocals, which worked well in the thrashy "New Bruises" or the new "Hello Ha." It was mostly tuneful punk, but with just enough moments of atonal noise to guarantee it will never be heard on commercial radio.
The indie-rock legacy was also heard Sunday in the likes of Orbit, a young Boston quartet that mixed atonal angst with pop hooks on the festival's third stage. It was loud and lively, but hardly something to call the future of a revolution.