Northside Music Festival
Brooklyn, June 16–19
by Kevin J. Elliott

Maybe it’s because Brooklyn’s Northside Festival is still in its infancy (this past weekend was only the third year of the fest) and still a relatively small affair, but mega-music gatherings of similar ilk could learn a thing or two about efficacy and intimacy from Northside’s organizing team. For one, everything was nestled in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods of Brooklyn. There wasn’t a venue too far off the beaten path. Secondly, those neighborhoods weren’t inundated with outsiders, industry types, and kids collecting exclusive wristbands for exclusive shows: the fest folded nicely into the already bustling atmosphere crowding the streets. Sponsorships were slim (so no nauseating marketing blitz), buzz was at a minimum, and nothing seemed to be so packed that comfort became an issue.

A perfect example of the easy-going flow that defined Northside came as early as Thursday night. Like many of these fests, the first night is always more a settling in for participants than anything else and the line-up for Thursday wasn’t exactly brimming with household names. Rising retro-futurist Com Truise was fortunately affixed to the roster at Cameo Gallery at the last minute. While I didn’t expect much from his stage show, I was impressed with how much the man actual does behind the console. He could’ve have just been playing his latest blast of saw-synths and pre-Sega beats, Galactic Melt, through his laptop and it wouldn’t have made a difference. But the man (who closely resembles Big Pun) was furtively mashing out live electronic drums where necessary, exploring the depths of his sample bank, and weaving transcendent melodies with a series of knobs and oscillators. Even though I’ve seen the man behind such an anonymous and outright goofy moniker, his magic was still hidden. It’s nice, though, to know he’s making more an effort in the live setting than his pasty chillwave peers.

Friday was probably where any anticipation brought about by the announcement of Northside came to a head. Public Assembly was the site of the Sacred Bones showcase and most importantly, especially for the 21 and under crowd allowed to bear witness, the North American debut of Denmark’s Iceage. Before that would occur though, there was torture in the form of sets from Pop. 1280 and the now infamous Yellow Tears. It’s not that Pop. 1280 were that awful, but the skewered post-punk they were wringing out on stage didn’t come from a passion as much as it comes from fashion. It was skeletal and meager and catering to a crowd that was either clad as Crystal Gayle goth or extras in a mid-80s Troma movie. I know secondhand that the band have played incendiary sets in the past, but this was not one of them. Yellow Tears on the other hand, fared much worse. I understand performance art and have seen some questionable forms of it in the past, but Yellow Tears take the (urinal) cake. I feel giving them too much ink would also give their “show” credence, so I’ll spare you the details of their pee party. Minus the bodily fluids and shock-and-ugh theatrics, the sounds they were making were not that far removed from Wolf Eyes nether-sludge sub-stratum-electronics. It’s too bad they seemed more concerned with giving the crowd cringe-inducing story to write home about. Please don’t justify the trio’s antics by buying their records or attending their shows in the future—this is not art and this is not music.

The one absolute truth that can be taken from my weekend at Northside is that all the Iceage hype that has built up in the months following the discovery of New Brigade is completely warranted. You want a punk revolution? With Iceage, all looking somewhat indifferent and nonplussed about playing to their first American audience, you have a punk revolution—and it’s over and done with in an untidy, nihilistic 20-some-minute explosion of visceral fury. When the barely legal quartet took to the stage, I don’t think they realized the power their music has held for a crowd clamoring for any scrap of something new and invigorating. They seemed to just play as if it was a normal night at the all-ages warehouse of suburban Copenhagen. Barreling through what sounded like most of the debut, there was a split reaction from the crowd. Half were caught up in the buzz, snapping too many pictures of themselves while caught in the obligatory mosh, while the other half stood stunned that there was a band on stage that could play this loose and heavy and simultaneously look so unaffected by the hipster culture that was giving them accolades. It was refreshing, almost life-affirming. So much so it eclipsed stellar performances by hometown neu-psych chooglers the Men and the crust-punk meets Sisters of Mercy smokescreen of Lost Tribe.

Iceage’s show for the ages was such a revelation it even sparked a pilgrimage to the wilds of Brooklyn on Saturday to see an unofficial second performance. But that wasn’t before Northside’s marquee show in McCarren Park, featuring the Babies, Surfer Blood, Wavves, and a reformed Guided By Voices. The only misstep in this line-up comes with trying to match the witless Wavves with the real deal, namely Robert Pollard and his two-hour set of non-stop hits. As our photographer quipped, Wavves’ pile of new songs is an inch away from being They Might Be Giants tunes. Of course, I’m guilty of touting his once melodic lo-fi tumult, but Nathan Williams has devolved into a cartoon of himself and his voice obviously can’t withstand the rigors of touring. It was a relief when he announced his final song, knowing King Shit and the Golden Boys were waiting in the wings.

By now the Guided By Voices classic line-up reunion is old hat (this was my fourth show this year), but that hasn’t stopped Pollard and company from adding B-sides, singles and obscure cuts from the era to the ever-growing setlist. In comparison to earlier this year, he’s managed a return to form even while becoming increasingly drunk with each song announcement. His slurred banter and topical observations (the New York vs. Philadelphia story was particularly memorable) just add to the magic a reformed GBV can bring—even among celebrity gawkers (Courtney Love was in attendance) atop blacktop in the middle of Brooklyn. Every music festival in the world this summer should be knocking at Pollard’s door with a sack full of money. Instant hits equal instant party.

Perhaps the organizers of Northside have ambitions for the festival to become as ubiquitous a music destination as SXSW or the inferior CMJ Music Marathon. If so, elements like location and hipster cache are already in their corner. But as experienced this past weekend, I’d quite prefer they keep it as quaint and cuddly as it has been the last three years. Either way, if not already, it’s soon to become a staple on the short list of must-attend summer events.