I didn’t do cocaine last night.
So what, right? I mean, most people didn’t do cocaine last night but most people weren’t swigging Buds for hours with their spirit animal talking art and commerce and the fashionable premise of the seeking abyss while a respectable anthill of prime grade shit (my spirit animal not being one to fuck around) sat there on the coffee table just BEGGING to be hoovered.
And, I mean, I’ve always had such a fine time on the stuff but I know well enough that even a small bump can turn all-consumer right quick and a pinned-up Charly, though epic by evening, is a fraudulent tomb come the next day.
So, yeah. No cocainated wasteland for me. Just the blurred line of a dim, unobtrusive hangover couched in late morning rain and snoring animals. A little sick, sure, but that seems to be the norm when I try and get my ass to greet festivals. No bother. No worries. I’ll just take a slow walk and some ephedrine with my coffee. Make a nice turkey, Swiss and vitamin sandwich. Suck it up, right. Play lazy a few hours then jack psyched and shuffle out in a hoodie and No Fun as always.
And when I do, the day’s turned glorious on Central Park. Clear skies. Manhattan highs. No grim countenance in sight. The air is crisp enough to enliven, the sun is low enough to let rip.
I fucking got this.
I wade through a mass of young, smoking Asians to the tented bar where I meet Reg (pronounced ‘REEJ’ “like to rejoice,” she says “or like Regis Philbin” I counter to crickets), an adorable orange tint redhead who’ll be slinging me Magic Hat from here on out and cluing me in on the significance of some artists whose language and culture escapes me.
Deserts Zhang Xuan
“She’s actually from Taiwan,” Reg politely corrects me when I referred to all the non-Western artists as Chinese “but she’s actually very popular in the Mainland.”
I can understand why or, at least, I understand why the sullen smokers would find her inescapable. She is a lovely whisp of a thing with a soft acoustic countenance and a voice torn from the collage of a lonely teenage bedroom. She also appears to have a fondness for Neil Young (the only words I understand) and a band (who arrive several songs into her set) that complements her dream poetess stature with loose phrasing and occasional post rock emphatics.
Rebuilding the Rights of Statues
This band really needs no translation though I think they might be singing something in English but the lyrics (though, I’ve read, of a anti-authoritarian political bent which strikes my American ignorance as HUGELY significant but which I failed to explore with Reg lest I offend my bartender) are disappeared by the hair-whippingly infectious post-punk synth yelp nocturne they churn out like a lost child of the NYC Gang of Four fraught aughts collective unconscience but with more cowbell and fewer friends in couture. I fucking love ‘em.
The Blood Brothers
I really, really, REALLY fucking loved The Blood Brothers back in their time as a barn-burning bunch of Beefheartian dual-throated after the punk dyed the 3rd Mind Technicolor nightmares upsurge but in the years since they’ve dissipated into their own respective wildernesses, I’ve really come to accept them as one of the most significant artists of my (somehow) still burning life to the extent that it is difficult for me to experience them in any capacity that doesn’t melt into eye-rolling hyperbole.
That being said, this is the band’s return to the big, dumb city after nearly a decade and their form is as pointed and manic as it was when we were younger and more easily unhinged and though it is a very different experience for me to see them in a professional capacity (I am the only photographer in the pit old enough to have experienced them “in the day”) I kinda don’t give a shit. My hat’s off. My neck’s swinging.
The albatross is cast off, baby. Honor the melee.
Speaking of the fraught aughts, of all the bands that burned their bread at the Knitting Factory, Leonard (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Erase Erratta, Black Dice, Animal Collective, Parts & Labor, etc.) Liars are the only band I’ve never seen. Not sure why. It just never happened and nowadays it seems silly to pay more than eight bucks and a few brews to get in on the art punk experience of an evolutionary experiment that, at any minute, could get all Document and Eyewitness which is EXACTLY what I fear when the front man comes out all Forcefield masked and they’ve got Depeche Mode man on the keys and all schizopsych visualizations behind and a drummer seeming solid and human, but whatever…German something something.
But, they’re actually pretty fucking great. Nervous and weird and artfully degraded, the band slithers and grifts through a breadth of sonic experiments that seem to be centered solely around frontman Angus’ hair and a yen for urbane discomfort that reads more Gaddis than Copeland which is good because that dude’s oeuvre is a dick.
Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor
I don’t much care for Afrobeat or the weird wild synth funk of a reclusive now Christian legend (among some and so many) no matter what David Byrne tells me (I’m also not a big fan of the Talking Heads and the man’s review of Sunn O))) made me want to punch myself in the dick) but I know when a party’s started and this epic mash of talent (including Money Mark and Peaking Lights) turned the work of Mr. Onyeabor into an all out groundswell of ass-shaking wonderment. Even the pandas were getting down.
Did I mention there were pandas in the audience?
Fucking pandas, man.
Modern Sky Festival – Day 1 Pictures
The second day of the fest comes earlier (2pm) and easier as it’s a perfectly crisp whisp in the city. All crystalline dreams and bowing green foliage. It occurs to me when I get to Rumsey that this is much less a festival in the classical sense of massive, sprawling events and much more a long and well-considered gig, like the Sunday matinees of my youth only infinitely less sweaty and with zero likelihood of catching a boot in my face.
Also, Wetlands never gave me big, steaming piles of delicious fried chicken.
Omnipotent Youth Society
“I wish you knew what they were saying,” Reg explains. “A lot of what makes that band special is in their lyrics.”
“Yeah, people seem to REALLY fucking like them.”
“Oh, people love them…and they only have one record out.”
People DO love Omnipotent Youth Society’s sweater-bred post-rock emo styling. It is a gentle, swollen sentiment, punctuated by horns and stoic determination that speaks to the barren youth of any tongue. Sad smarts, sound profound.
Lenka is neon friggin’ bespoke adorable. Total Zooey only much less manic bang insufferable swooning. She has a simpler surround and doesn’t sound like she’s trying to live her life as an anthropomorphic doily idly fallen from Fitzgerald’s couch. She flirts a little close to precious when she sings a love song about bees to a bee hand puppet but redeems herself with a closing track about making out at the apocalypse. Who am I kidding? From bedroom dance pop smash to ballads this little Aussie is a polka dot apple for your wandering eye.
Queen Sea Big Shark
Oh, man. This band is boss as fuck. Total post-punk skin pants dance, dance, DANCE! to the future pop fun with a frontwoman as dynamic and charismatic as Karen O when she finally stopped slathering her fashion in Coronas and a band that is a tight and delighted revelry. Were I not such a slavish admirer of The Blood Brothers, I would easily call these kids as the tops of this festival so far. As I stand, however indebted, they make me want to learn Mandarin and buy leather pants for the party pit which is more than I can say about pretty much anything.
It is a funny thing, after all this time feverishly devouring sounds and syntactic styles, to come upon a band that just says “No!” to me. Shuh Tou is such a band. They play a heavy-handed groaning tap riddle, centered around a slap virtuoso bass player and a series of consummate players (including a growl/groan singer, in distance) and so find themselves falling into the murky abyss of style crushed by substance which is just the kind of thing that killed metal’s everyman liberty. I’m STILL looking at you, Mastodon (Primus has left the building).
Second Hand Rose
While drinking by Reg, I start chatting up a dude whose sole aim is to expose Western audiences to the vitality of the Chinese indie scene. He’s a nice guy but doesn’t really recognize the epic nature of the New York Dolls which is cool, it’s cool. Max’s Kansas City was a LONG time ago.
He tells me Second Hand Rose are a riot, a rock and roll explosion that utilizes classical Chinese instruments and liberal use of drag and they are. They’re fucking fantastic. Bright, bold goofball prowess that doesn’t occlude their talent in the slightest. They do a totally balls out, no bullshit cover of “Smooth Criminal” (I think. The riff is there but again with the language barrier) and, throughout their set, alternate the Western/Sino rhythm and melody with a deftness I didn’t expect from such wide eyes and radiant dress.
Aimee Mann is great and Ted Leo is pretty much the fucking best and together they produce some of the most delightfully charming pop music you’re likely to hear this side of the Brill but they are decidedly anticlimactic after our trip to the weird wild world of Second Hand Rose and, though Mr. Leo makes a point to address the audience in Mandarin (which they appreciate), their set, though well-crafted and welcoming as a Teddy Bear picnic under a gumball tree does not keep the people present.
It isn’t their fault.
It really isn’t.
Sure, there performance wasn’t the most dynamic thing I’d ever seen but it was decent and catchy but it was NOT what most people had travelled to Central Park to see. They’d come for the Asian performances, the artists who’d traversed the globe to offer rare showings on Western shores and didn’t seem so very interested in what North Americans had to play. I’d noticed this yesterday but didn’t give a shit (see, Blood Brothers) but today the decline in bodies is glaring and will only increase as the show continues.
So, I guess I like Stars? I adore one or two tracks whose choruses I know but I rarely listen to them as Stars are a band I equate readily with a pale, simpering reflection I don’t need to dwell in on the regular lest I fall for the fading face of teen angst melodramatics again but HOLY SHIT! are they good live. Like, smash the bong on the state we’re already too high, mofos now let’s get naked and dance in the streets ‘til the dawn comes or cops but not hippie.
We don’t trifle with hippie shit here.
Just good, good times sold hard and with just enough drama to levy the weight of sincerity without ever threatening to overbear. The band is a joy. The pipes on Torquil and Amy are enormous and their interplay is a heart-melting pleasure. I am so goddamn glad I saw this band that I actually let loose an audible sigh when their set comes to a close.
I’ve never really cared for Cat Power but, after all these years, I wonder if, perhaps, my bias is based more in the frantic loyalty of her (sometimes violent) fanbase and less in her actual music so I stay to see her culminate this new NYC event.
And she is breathtaking. Her voice is haunting, stunned and terrifying as an avalanche and though there is nothing about her somber, grueling set that would ever mark it wise to book her as a headliner, I feel right being present. Learned, even. I get why people love her, LOVE HER! and why each new work she produces is met with frothing worship and critical acclaim. She is the ringing talent of uncertain damage, the wonder of guilt and shame and the heresy against the impossible monolith of the patriarchy.
She’s also just a really good songwriter, dreaming for herself and the many shadowed somebodies who need her here and now.
Unfortunately her set ends short. Curfew issues, etc. She only plays a handful of songs before mumbling apologies and leading the audience left in a drab, earnest “Happy Birthday” for her little brother (keyboards, guitar) before donning her flannel and disappearing back into the wilderness.
Modern Sky Festival – Day 2 Pictures