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Three Tales from Northside Festival 2013

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Three tales of Northside Festival 2013 in Brooklyn, NY , by Dale Eisinger, Jeremy D. Larson, and Zach Schonfeld,

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It was late on Saturday and I was exhausted, having run from Williamsburg to Greenpoint and back and all I really wanted was to use a bathroom and then hit the sack. On my walk home, I decided I could duck into the venue Public Assembly to relieve myself—a Northside badge should at least guarantee that, right? But all plans were derailed when, at like two in the morning, as I was washing my hands, an astounding performance by the band Marshstepper began. And then Lust For Youth took the stage. And then Pharmakon performed. And I had simply stumbled in. And I went home at 6 a.m.

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See, as great as it is, something like Northside Festival might pass right by if you aren’t aware of its happenings. Save the midsized stage set up in McCarren Park, it’s not that different from a typical weekend in Brooklyn: a grip of great bands playing the dozen or so venues spread across the north side. It’s just the consistent quality of the acts happens to be incredibly ramped up. Great pairings abounded, on stage and on the bills. Of the best was drone-minimalism idol Rhys Chatham performing with hometown psych heroes Oneida. It was beneficial for both sides. Having someone in their ranks who has largely informed their sound kept Oneida’s bash-and-brawl experimentalism more subdued than I’ve seen it in the past. Rhys visibly takes joy simply from sound, including his explanation that “this guitar tuning is based on a pre-Socratic philosopher.”

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But there was a resounding kind of joy throughout the whole weekend. Even the dark pummel of Swans’ opening night slot had a kind of purgatory bliss. Michael Gira’s humility and flailing arms made me smile, though I was stuck right in front of the speakers for one of the loudest shows I’ve ever seen. It was troublesome that my ears were not ringing the next day. It was even more troublesome that Swans brought terrible weather yet again. They truly might be cursed.

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Between the few dozen sets I watched, the most outstanding was Chance the Rapper at Greenpoint’s Europa. Yes, Chancellor Bennett is an electrifying performer, but the enthusiasm, energy, and youth of the crowd was also very refreshing—a few kids used high school student IDs to pick up will call tickets. I showed up two hours early to get a spot at the front of the stage, where I met Brandon and Dante who had done the same. They were 19 and 20, from the South Bronx, and all they wanted to do was talk shit about rap music. (Yes, Pusha T actually does still sling coke, Drake is better than Kanye, Chitty Bang sucks, “hurry up with my damn croissants.”) Dante told me that Brandon had made him steal My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from a Wal-Mart by shoving it down his pants when it came out in 2010. He said they did this three times. This surprised me because Dante mentioned he was waiting to buy Yeezus when it comes out on Tuesday, though Brandon was trying to get him to listen to the leak.

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By the time Mr. Bennett took the stage around 9:30 p.m., the club was packed to the gills. It seemed like a warm up to this Thursday’s SOB’s show, which will be more of a signal moment for Chance. Though that storied venue marks a certain kind of arrival for the young rapper, he didn’t pare back at all for this Europa set. From the minute he popped onto the stage, he looked like he was made of springs. His anger, his heart, his desire all came through with ease. And his dancing is fascinating—only Solange on the main stage Sunday could match him in a derby.

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Though Northside essentially happened on my doorstep and at venues I frequent more times than I can count, just the mindset of stepping up to make this weekend something special made every moment feel remarkable. There was a heightened sense of community, of respect, and of occasion. Put a lanyard around anyone and they’re wont to feel special. Thanks, Northside, for that right there. It felt like a family vacation, but in the place I live.

Photos and words by Dale W. Eisinger

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I live in the Southside of Brooklyn next to an above-average jerk chicken place and a West-Indian market. Northside Festival goes down on the Northside of Brooklyn, between the Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, and the pasteurized neighborhood of Williamsburg. It was New York City’s second major music festival in as many weeks, this one thankfully unhindered by a tropical storm and a field of mud. Its arteries stretch out to venus across the Northside, from the DIY warehouse space 285 Kent to a Polish community center Warsaw (where they served up Zywiec hot pierogis during Swans), but they all lead back to McCarren Park.

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That’s where Phosphorescent played “The Quotidian Beasts” somewhere near sunset on Saturday. A couple hundred people in sunglasses stood among the wafts of weed and nodded their head to Matthew Houck’s rambling, road-weary songs. Phosphorescent’s clamor and sustain makes them an ideal outdoor staple, like Neil Young or Tom Petty or rye whiskey in the summer. Their classic rock with a southern bent would be fit for stadiums — for the bearded CCR shirt-wearers and Dead Heads — if they were a little less rambly-tambly, and a little more tight. They don’t want that, though, and neither did I. The sloppy keyboards, Houck’s understated solos, the charismatic rhythm section that refused to just sit back and watch — they still sound like your friend’s band that plays drunk on back porches on warm nights.

Then I saw KEN mode.

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At 285 Kent, a repurposed warehouse space covered with black & white scribbles and sweat stains, the Northside Festival skeleton started to get some blood and muscle. The boon to Northside having venues across the city is, like the best music festivals, pairing the right band with the right atmosphere. Friday’s loosely-defined metal lineup first featured the great but regrettably missed Inter Arma, the weedy, bearded, southern Lo-Pan.

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Lo-Pan were great. Lo-Pan’s singer, a beefy guy in the Action Bronson weight class, stood upstage and howled bluesy metal lyrics about whatever while his equally-country-fried-looking band worked the front, riffing then shredding then riffing some more. Don’t know if people were more impressed by the unison fretwork between the guitarist and the drummer or that lead singer abdicated center stage based to Lo-Pan’s strongest suit: the band. I want to give this note to a lot of metal bands, but maybe I’m just that four-eyed nerd who likes to ogle guitarists and their solos.

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And then I saw KEN mode and they destroyed, but mostly they destroyed themselves. It’s not their fault, I don’t think. There’s a sort of recalibration that has to happen at a festival, moving from harmonies to hardcore, and to get from even Lo-Pan to KEN mode is a leap, not to mention, say, Tempers’ lazy set next door at Glasslands. Skip ahead to one of the last acts I saw, Lambchop, at the Greenpoint club Europa. The words that come out of Kurt Wagner’s mouth redefine delicate. They are fragile and apprenhensive, prone to being blown away by the slightest hint of a breeze (a good thing, too, being indoors for his set). He had a guy playing a contra-alto clarinet, and as for the rest of his band they tip-toed behind Wagner’s lyrics careful not to raise the volume level over a soft, country whisper.

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It was a beautiful set, filled with many tunes from the jazzy Mr. M and a few bon mots between songs from Wagner. “I know there’s noise ordinance or something around here, so just be sure you keep it down,” he quipped. For his encore he played a new song “Fuck You”, which was “a singalong” and we were sort of thinking that was obviously another joke. No, he was serious, and the chorus was a nice, long, easy “fuh” that ended on a nice, hard, plosive “cue.” With Torche’s fantastic doom pop still ringing in my ear from the day before, it really is a something to come from a sweaty hardcore show where you’re fortified against the music to see Wagner where to even hear his words you have to drop all defenses and distractions and use just your ears. Or what’s left of them after a Destruction Unit show.

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Arizona band Destruction Unit subscribe to the idea that what you build you must also then destroy. They layer kraut grooves, noise jams, hardcore razor guitars, and a jittery vocalist who sounds (and kind of looks) like Ian Curtis especially from that live “Transmission” video. Maybe Destruction Unit is the musical conclusion to what Joy Division could’ve been — fits of rage and noise all musick-ified into a circus of feedback and pedal tricks and holding guitars aloft and kicking down amp-heads. If you watch the band you won’t stop watching the band until the band is done. You don’t check in with your friend who’s next to you doing the same thing. You just sort of stare and hope no one gets electrocuted or that their blood and sweat doesn’t land in your mouth.

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Okay, seriously and then I saw KEN mode, the Canadian hardcore metal trio that, if more people would have been familiar with their songs, they would have engulfed 285 Kent into a pit. Culling mostly from their new one Entrenched, KEN mode (named after a Henry Rollins mantra “Kill Everything Now”) is, well, really about killing everything now. There’s no waiting for KEN mode to build to something — there’s just slaughter, constant and widespread. Whereas Destruction Unit was sort of fun to watch fall apart into noise, KEN mode is difficult to watch them barely hang on. Singer Jesse Matthewson, in a Cursed shirt (HINT) pulls from equal parts Rites of Spring, Articles of Faith, and Converge to just play to the limits of technique and emotion. So hard did they go, 285 Kent attendees mostly just gaped in awe.

When there was nothing left to give, and the set closed, and the fury in Matthewson’s eyes finally gave way to a sinister and relieved smile to the bassist as he dialed down a knob on his pedal, it was one of the greatest bows I’ve ever seen.  Thanks, Northside, for that right there. I’ll bring you up some above average jerk chicken from my hood next time.

Photos and words by Jeremy D. Larson

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While Swans enmeshed themselves in a reportedly 50-minute rendition of The Seer’s title track, I made my exit, hoping to catch A Place To Bury Strangers and Iceage at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Greenpoint was abandoned, and I was caught in cold, pouring rain — fitting weather for a Swans show, at least. By the next block, Leonard Street, I could still hear the band’s dull roar. I was already at North 7th Street — and soaked — when I realized my earplugs were still in. By then, I was close enough to another aural assault. Why remove them now?

“What a horrible night to be out covering shows,” laughed a bystander at the MHoW door. I smiled and shivered. Inside, the main floor was still largely vacant, and APTBS was setting up, with drummer Robi Gonzalez sporting a Metz t-shirt. While drying myself off in the men’s room, I heard the band launch into the twisted surf riff that opens “Dead Beat”. It’s an excellent opening track — and a hint at how the band would sound if they roll back some of the industrial flourishes of 2012’s Worship and let the melodies ring out.

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While variation isn’t their forte, APTBS remains a formidable live act, stalking the stage and tossing guitars around like toys amidst a sensory overload of strobe lights, smoke machines, and white-hot bursts of expertly processed guitar noise. Where Swans’ show feeds on tension and catharsis, APTBS is one dense sheen of noise. Still, the deliberate and hummable melodies bubbling underneath felt like a respite. It was a similar relief to sense how much fun Oliver Ackermann and Dion Lunadon have onstage (the former leapt off the stage and crowdsurfed with guitar in hand at one point) compared to Swans’ grim severity.

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Copenhagen punks Iceage have only grown tighter as a live unit since releasing You’re Nothing over the winter. The moody “Morals” is a particular treat live. Still, the four-piece’s obvious youthfulness made them an awkward fit as the headliner, and their stage show — or lack thereof, since they still mostly perform in the dark — couldn’t compare to A Place To Bury Strangers’ aural and visual assault. Buzziness won out over seniority in the billing schedule (and that’s not to suggest You’re Nothing doesn’t warrant the buzz), but what if it had been reversed?

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On Friday night I returned to Warsaw for The Men and a recently reunited (err, sort of) Black Flag, but the venue looked different. A mandatory bag check greeted me at the door (“there are gonna be a thousand people in here,” the security guard explained), and the walls were plastered with signs warning “NO MOSHING, NO CROWDSURFING.” A metal barrier now blocked the crowd from the stage, and behind it were three beefy security guards, one of whom was kind enough to dispense free water bottles and unsolicited romantic advice to me and fellow photographers as we waited for the first act.

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As the floor filled up with aging punks dusting off their faded Black Flag tees, I realized the venue had rightfully predicted its crowd. I felt suddenly self-conscious, but chatting with a fellow photographer, I was gratified to find I wasn’t the only scrawny twenty-something who’d shown up mostly to see The Men, whose New Moon will easily be one of the year’s best rock discs. A Black Flag show was cool, I supposed, but I blamed my indifference on having been born nine years after Damaged came out — and was it really a reunion if Henry Rollins wasn’t involved? I wasn’t the intended audience — I couldn’t name one song Ron Reyes, the performing vocalist, had sung on.

The Men then emerged in ripped jeans and flannel, appearing as stoned and good-timey as New Moon sounds. I wondered if whoever decided to place them on a bill with Black Flag had even heard the surprisingly jammy new record, which takes more cues from Tom Petty and Crazy Horse than hardcore. But as the band revved up their amps all the way, the campfire vibes were toned way down in favor of straight rockers like “Electric” and “Freaky,” and the two-guitar attack overwhelmed much dynamic range. Eclectic turns like “Open the Door” and “Candy” were nowhere to be found, but I held out for a fantastic, extended take on “I Saw Her Face”, when the group finally slowed down the tempos and let the Neil Young solos ring out. They closed an all-too-brief set on “Open Your Heart”, but most of the crowd buzzed in indifference.

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Finally, Black Flag emerged, and I realized why the Good For You’s guitarist looked familiar: it was Greg Ginn performing with current Black Flag bandmates Gregory Moore (drums) and Dave Klein (bass), neither of whom had had anything to do with the band’s various 1980s iterations. The vocalist was Mike Vallely, who’d performed as Black Flag’s vocalist at reunion shows in 2003; this time he was replaced by a sweaty, energized Ron Reyes, who — I suppose by necessity — didn’t shy away from performing tracks like “Rise Above”, “Nervous Breakdown”, and others marked by Rollins’ or Keith Morris’ vocals. With Ginn onstage, the tracks kept some semblance of authenticity.

But the crowd immediately began to mosh, despite Reyes’ pointless efforts to the contrary, and a particularly hefty security guard was soon dispatched to keep order. The guard didn’t shy away from climbing onstage and getting in Reyes’ way, and after getting kicked to the ground by one overzealous crowdsurfer, I pushed to the back of the venue to protect my camera.

* * *

Saturday finally brought sunny weather to Brooklyn, and I made my way to McCarren Park to catch the festival’s free, headlining showcase, starring The Walkmen. After a full year touring 2012’s surprisingly comfortable Heaven, it was to be the former’s only New York show of 2013 — and performing to a park full of adoring fans, it was a triumphant one. Plus, with the weather so nice, McCarren’s full sponsored festival apparatus sprung into gear: food tables dispensing homemade salsa samples and Brooklyn-happy items like “quinoa falafel,” a cart offering ice cream sandwiches to anyone who signed up for some “hipster curation app” or another, Vitamin Water hand-outs.

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“This is a hometown show,” frontman Hamilton Leithauser declared not long after The Walkmen took to the stage in typically business-casual attire. “Well, a hometown show for our band, and that’s always the best for us.”

Though too brief (as is often the case in a festival setting), the band’s excellent, Lisbon– and Heaven-heavy performance felt like a final victory lap for the Heaven tour and the critical and commercial admiration they’ve gradually, deservedly achieved over the past decade. Leithauser seemed genuinely humbled by the crowd that had assembled for his band, gripping the mic stand with easeful swagger on standout rockers “The Rat” and “Heaven” and welcoming out his wife Anna and others on horns for “Canadian Girl” and “Stranded”.

There was room in the set for oldies, too — Leithauser drew cheers with an unplugged take on Bows + Arrows “138th Street” and introduced encore “Louisiana” as “one that we’re dying to play for you.” His bandmates seemed comfortable playing a supporting role, drummer Matt Barrick drawing eyeballs with his skill on “Angela Surf City”. All throughout, the members’ kids were visible frolicking beside the stage, drawing to mind Heaven’s notably domestic themes. Thankfully, Leithauser’s two-year-old daughter is too young to blush when the singer joked onstage about playing “We Can’t Be Beat” in the car to her, but we’ll see when the band presumably tours again in 2014. Thanks Northside, for that right there. I’ll see you again in 2014, too.

Photos and words by Zach Schonfeld

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