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Rockage Festival Proves It’s Not Just For Nerds

In Culture, Music
The Glowing Stars, featuring lead singer Lizzie Cuevas, were a Rockage highlight.

The Glowing Stars, featuring lead singer Lizzie Cuevas, were a Rockage highlight.

Many people would assume that any festival promising to combine old-school video games with experimental electronic music has one main target audience: nerds. Also, geeks. Personally, I was betting on plenty of hipster crossover, as well. But I was genuinely surprised at the diverse crowd that the new Rockage festival drew to downtown San Jose over the weekend.

Most of the arcade and pinball games assembled on the floor of the San Jose Woman’s Club for Rockage came out before 1985, so I wasn’t expecting so many teens and 20-somethings who hadn’t gotten around to being born when arcades were cool. Nor did I expect so many girls, who weren’t known for hanging out in actual arcades back in the day (or kicking so much ass on the games, like the woman who took second in the Guitar Hero tournament). But there was a democratic, united feel to the whole event. It was more like how people wished arcades were—cool music playing, cool people hanging around—then how they actually were.

Speaking of the music, I most wanted to see the Glowing Stars. Rockage primarily showcased video-game-inspired chiptune music, and to me the thing about this duo of Lizzie Cuevas and Matthew Payne is that they really humanize the genre for people, and to my mind have the best chance of crossover success. It’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their minds around the chip sound, which generally features at least one Game Bay or other piece of video-game equipment being played as an instrument. Try to explain how 8-bit processors play a role and even a lot of the cool kids shut down.

But thanks to the Glowing Stars mixing of electronics with the traditional band setup—Cuevas plays guitar and sings, Payne drums and does some vocals in addition to his programming duties—I think they bring out what’s interesting and new about chiptune while still being accessible to the rock crowd. Their set was a crazy sonic assault, but also melodic and engaging. Cuevas’ lyrics (like “I swear I’m not a stalker/And I don’t need a doctor/To analyze what’s going through my head”) are funny and relatable, and they’re both great at connecting with the audience live.

For those interested in learning more about the ones and zeros of chiptune, there was a panel on Saturday, featuring Payne, Doctor Popular (who had played an iPhone for the last song in his set a little while earlier) and Morgan “Crashfaster” Tucker bringing their Game Boys on stage and actually showing how they do it.

Organizer Eric Fanali was happy about the festival’s first showing and has already announced that Rockage will return next year. Whether Rockage 2.0 will see highlights like the fully costumed Rocky Horror fans rolling around in the hair that had just been shaved off of Gnarboots during their set, Vic Ruggerio and Kepi Ghoulie combining their set times for an hour and a half of playing together, or a “Panic Park” tournament that actually drew blood remains to be seen.

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