Northside Festival Report: Day 1

    So, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Two Brooklyn neighborhoods that have produced equal amounts of agony and inspiration over the course of the last decade. I’m not going to debate the merits (or otherwise) of these communities here. Needless to say, they make the perfect location for the first incarnation of the L Magazine’s Northside Festival, which utilizes the preponderance of venues in both neighborhoods. Ticket holders get a badge, which allows them access to each venue, where a crop of old and new bands play over the course of four days.

    My evening begins at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where, due to my inability to read plain English, I’m not watching the post-rock influenced group Hope of the States (who actually broke up in 2006). Instead, I’m watching Hype of the States, who claim to be influenced by Broken Social Scene and Les Savy Fav, but actually sound like entrants in a Battle of the Bands competition in suburban New Jersey. Female singer Jezrael does her best to muster some enthusiasm from the crowd as they deliver their stultifying corporate rock, but everyone in the room is here to see the Hold Steady, who are finishing up four consecutive nights of sold-out shows in the city.

    The Hold Steady is about as far removed from accepted notions of Brooklyn cool as you can get, and all the better for it. They attract a wide audience, all admirably committed to the cause—there’s barely anyone in the venue not mouthing along to “Stay Positive” as the set begins. Craig Finn is an utterly charming and endearing frontman. His face is puffed up and puce, his dance moves mirror those of an excitable child, his performance is bereft of any self-consciousness. The band members are as close as contemporary Brooklyn gets to having its very own E-Street Band, with Franz Nicolay filling the Clarence Clemons role and the others exchanging winks and knowing glances with the faithful out front. Seeing the Hold Steady is a highly inclusive, all-encompassing experience. It feels like most of this crowd were present for all four concerts, and their unabashed enthusiasm makes every Hold Steady show feel like a bona fide event.

    I slip away from the Hold Steady to bike up to Studio B in Greenpoint, where a big free-beer party opened the festival earlier today. It’s foggy and rainy outside (in mid June? Yep, go figure) and the streets are strewn with badge wearers, some of them awaiting entrance to the Modular showcase at Public Assembly. Studio B is half empty and Zomes—essentially one guy slumped over a keyboard—is unleashing a heady one-note drone on the crowd. One guy sits cross-legged with his back to the stage, his eyes tight shut. He’s either asleep or utterly blissed out.

    Brightblack Morning Light are up shortly afterwards, looking like refuges from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and supplemented by a two-man horn section. They’re probably sick of the Jason Pierce comparisons by now, but seeing the members of Brightblack shifting slowly through their singular aesthetic is akin to witnessing the looped circuity of a Spirtualized show. Pierce and Nathan Shineywater undoubtedly share a common love of Dr. John—this is music rooted in blues, not the folk or freak folk (or whatever) tag that is usually foisted upon them. Their music inhabits a space somewhere between improvisation (nods between the band members indicate when a song is coming to a close) and hyper-focused control; their live set is comprised of remarkably similar songs constructed from a tightly constrained range of notes and chords. 

    It feels good to use the aimless serenity of Brighblack’s sound as a comedown to the Hold Steady’s brusque punk, but the repetitive nature of their music makes it easy to leave, so I hit the road mid way through their set. And besides, I’m eager to get to the Strength in Numbers showcase at new Brooklyn DIY venue, Shea Stadium. After cycling around in circles for a while, I finally find the Shea, where Marnie Stern and Magik Markers are headlining. Stern’s set is over by the time I get there and I can hear Magik Markers from the street. Unfortunately, a guy greets me on the door, claiming the show is not connected to the Northside Festival despite all the publicity.

    He hands me a flyer outlining their reasons (see below) but lets me in anyway as the band is almost at the end of its set. I see about five songs, including a raucous reworking of “Taste” from Boss. Singer Elisa Ambrogio seems subdued in comparison to past howling-at-the-moon performances. This new incarnation of Magik Markers is controlled and studied, with Ambrogio sweeping away the improvisation of yore, replacing it with a barely curtailed tension that suits them just fine. The “kids” at Shea Stadium may have reclaimed 20% of their space from Northside, and Ambrogio won’t be wearing any free KangaROOS shoes anytime soon, but the festival continues unabated today with performances from Sunset Rubdown, the Beets, Screaming Females, and many others.