Yoko Ono tops Noise Pop

Growing Bay Area fest delivers a focused shot of SXSW themes

Those daunted by Austin, Texas, soon-approaching South by Southwest music festival and its unwieldy 2,000-band lineup might consider a smaller, more intimate indie music showcase where some artists headed for SXSW (such as !!! of Brooklyn) and Coachella (Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros) also will plug in their amps: the Noise Pop Music Fest, taking place Feb. 23-March 1 in San Francisco.

Like SXSW, Noise Pop — its name inspired by the atonal, feedback-laden sounds of such bands as the Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth — features a film component and a commitment to championing music for music’s sake. Now in its 18th year, the fest has taken credit for giving early exposure to bands like the White Stripes, Modest Mouse and the Flaming Lips, and it continues to be a vital — if relatively unheralded — part of the music circuit.

Co-headliners this February include Yoko Ono and the reconstituted Plastic Ono Band, featuring Ono’s son, Sean Lennon, while early synth-pop pioneers the Magnetic Fields, led by Stephin Merritt, also will hold court at the top of a bill that touts almost 100 bands spread out over several San Francisco venues. Last year, Stephen Malkmus, who is reuniting with Pavement for the upcoming Coachella fest, and Antony and the Johnsons were among the headliners.

Despite tough economic times, anticipated attendance, based on advance online sales and several sold-out shows, is expected to reach 19,000 for 2010, “which is 2,000 more than last year,” says Noise Pop spokeswoman Katherine Kirby.

Stacy Horne, producer of the fest, credits increased awareness to a marketing campaign that includes social networking sites and such varied outlets as IFC, Yelp, Hype Machine and Tripwire. Horne also points to a Noise Pop iPhone application that will include the fest’s schedule and allow users to make their own custom itineraries.

Still, it’s the event’s indie cred and a more recognizable roster of names that Horne cites for Noise Pop’s increasing profile. “Yoko Ono hasn’t played in the Bay Area in over 10 years,” she says. “I think (she’s) certainly one of the bigger names to play the festival.”

Unlike SXSW, Noise Pop’s films are all music-centric. As part of the bill, rocker Maynard James Keenan (late of Tool and a Perfect Circle) will play a starring role in the documentary “Blood and Wine,” which chronicles Keenan and his Stronghold Vineyards partner Eric Glomski’s plunge into winemaking in Arizona’s arid if optimistically named Verde Valley. The film is co-produced by Christopher Pomerenke, whose “The Heart Is a Drum Machine” — which probes why people create and listen to music, and features appearances by Jason Schwartzman, Juliette Lewis and Elijah Wood — unspools at the fest.

“I think it’s just a matter of self-discovering,” says Keenan of his foray into wine-making. “You’re trying to notice things in the world, and when someone else notices the same thing, as subtle as it might be, it’s just part of the expression.”

Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields will be a keynote speaker in Noise Pop’s yearly conference Industry Noise, which addresses the business of indie music, technology and the changing face of the music biz.

And while Noise Pop’s menu of docs addresses such topics such as Austin being the live music capital of the world and Gotham’s rich music tradition, San Francisco has its own pop legacy as the jam-oriented birthplace of psychedelia and the wellspring of such bands as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Noise Pop organizers considers its spirit an extension of that period of the late ’60s when the city’s Haight-Ashbury district represented Ground Zero of the counterculture movement.

Dent May, of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele, recalls appearing at the fest in 2009. “Noise Pop was my first trip to San Francisco,” says the Mississippi-based musician, who will make a return engagement this year, “and it was a fitting introduction to the city. I’d always maintained a romantic idea of San Francisco’s creative spirit.”