Friday, June 12, 2009

Northside Festival Day One: Strange Rumblings in the Press Lounge; Holding Steady

Photo courtesy of the redoubtable L Magazine.

Sponsored by DUMBO-based L Magazine, the ongoing Northside Music and Art Festival is, depending upon your view, either a callow attempt to cash in on the burgeoning north Williamsburg music scene or a genuine celebration thereof. With many local bands enjoying a modicum of mainstream success and many people compelled to go out at least one to three times per week, there is an air of frivolity in applying the "festival" appellation to what is essentially just another weekend of concerts and dance parties. (And, while this is nominally an art showcase as well, that aspect seems to be sorely deemphasized... unless your definition of "fine artist" extends to obsequious concert photographers.) Aside from the media circus enveloping the de facto entertainment district of Public Assembly and the Music Hall of Williamsburg on North Sixth Street, it seemed to be just another evening in the neighborhood. A gaggle of much-loathed "trustafarian" indie chicks drank wine on a N. 7th fire escape as skater kids eyed each other with menacing glares, while Doo-Wop Guy (a portly neighborhood legend with a vaguely Mafiosi ardor) circled around the various thoroughfares in his sedan, blasting The Orioles and "Earth Angel" in defiance of quality of life laws. Thank God for genuine eccentrics like him; otherwise, the Bedford corridor would be virtually interchangeable with the decidedly un-New York environs of Haight Street or Sixth Street in Austin.

The first evening of the festival was by far the most important, with the Hold Steady wrapping up a four-night engagement at the aforementioned Music Hall and psychedelic freak-folkies Brightback Morning Light headlining Studio B.

Although Brightback are more my pace, I opted to cover the concurrent Hold Steady show, seeing as virtually none of my coverage has ever included these local (if not native) sons. Enjoying a certain panache and level of visibility as the most commercially successful Brooklyn ensemble until the recent TV on the Radio/Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective trifecta, the Hold Steady's relationship with the borough could be likened to Creedence Clearwater Revival's role in the San Francisco scene -- despite some facile similarities in fashion, influence, and lyricism, they are indebted to a different pantheon of heroes than most of the contemporary Brooklyn bands. For one thing, they employ roadies and equipment techs, old-school anachronisms in an era where the musicians themselves often set up at club shows. (Seriously, when was the last time you saw equipment techs set levels and test a flotilla of guitars and basses before a show?) Moreover, as you can see in the photo, drummer Bobby Drake's set-up includes a gong, that Chinese percussion instrument virtually metonymous with overblown excess in 70s rock; ironically, Drake is the punk of the band fashion-wise. Aside from the natural quirkiness added by criminally underutilized keyboardist Franz Nicolay (you may know him in his other incarnation as the garrulous, liquor-swilling pianist of cabaret-punk ensemble World Inferno Friendship Society, arguably a better forum for his talents), they almost belong in an Akron bar. (More on the almost later.)

Opening for the Steady were Hype of the States, a five-piece from Greenpoint whose refreshingly unpretentious pop-rock -- a cross-pollination of the pre-"Summer Feeling" Modern Lovers, Shibuya pop keyboards, and the feral stagecraft of Patti Smith -- gradually won over a crowd that, judging from its demographic diversity, was only assembled for the headliner. Lead singer Jezrael (yes, she's ready for the ubiquity of stardom) brought an insouciance to the proceedings that many female musicians have shunned as of late in the name of ponderousness. Rocking an outfit that would have seemed gauche on anyone else and probably elicited snarls from the trendoid contingent, she ably demonstrated that stagecraft needn't be sacrificed in the name of hipness -- or a good melody, for that matter. Guitarist Austin Raukus may well be the Ricky Wilson of his generation, an understated guitarist whose distinct style makes this band half as interesting as they are (the rock-solid rhythm section ain't so bad either). Keep an eye out for this bunch -- they're really good, and may presage a turn back to a more dance-oriented rock sound.

Since the Hold Steady really aren't my thing, recusing myself here would probably be the best option. Nevertheless, much as Roger Ebert once gave a three-star review to a film (some gross-out comedy, as I recall) that he loathed by virtue of the fact that it accomplished what the filmmakers set out to do, I fear I must do the same thing here. If you have a penchant for raucous Springsteen-style rock, overwrought Dylanesque lyrics, a frontman who goes through ten guitars per show and yet only plays in the "spare" (i.e. an occasional strum) style of Waylon and Johnny Cash, getting felt up by the American equivalent of boorish football hooligans (women only), and just obliviously bad taste... run, don't walk, to a Hold Steady show. That said, quite a few people out there appreciate their atavism and yeasty Middle Western/Rust Belt authenticity, and only the Dropkick Murphys -- another group you'll probably never read about in these pages -- rival them for the dubious honor as masters of the "fratster" subgenre. What I can tell you is that every song except for the opening "Stay Positive" and an ode to Stevie Nicks with interesting dynamics basically sounded the same, while Craig Finn's spasmodic Jaggerisms grew repetitious after about fifteen minutes. But the sheer energy of the crowd, unmatched at every event I've gone to as of late save for the tribal rites at those semi-illicit Refuge parties in Bushwick, was a testament to the emotive power of this band. It's difficult to muster much excitement about an electric organ, two guitars, a bass, and elaborate drum sets these days, but the Hold Steady somehow manage to do it.

More Northside reports to follow over the next few days.

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