Northside Festival
Brooklyn, June 14–17
by Kevin J. Elliott

Another year and another Northside Festival has passed with little attention from the outside world, which should never be that much of a problem because Brooklyn truly is a universe of its own. On paper, with very few marquee names, Northside looked more barren than the previous year, but again, there were little pockets among the venues and bars that comprise the fest to provide enough compelling evidence that this is a gathering that will survive and likely thrive in the years to come. At first, though, it was beginning to look like a wasted effort for both myself and the Northside organizers. Attempts to see Niki and the Dove and Kitty Pryde were thwarted by a similar refrain, “no more press badges.” We were almost given the same boot at Public Assembly Thursday night in our attempt to see Dope Body, but plead our case and were allowed in only to find maybe 20 or so people milling about to watch opener Dustin Wong. Defeated, it was beginning to feel like Northside was a bust. A quick email to organizers, though, remedied the situation and the rest of our time floating from show to show proved fruitful.

Still, the first night was more than underwhelming, encountering former Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong, who for all intents and purposes is now Brooklyn’s own Keller Williams. At first there were tiny fireworks to be found in Wong’s one-man orchestra of looped guitar arpeggios. When layered and layered, they even became similar to Jim O’Rourke’s calculated ascensions, but ultimately the melodies became lackluster, homogenous, and then quite grating. Wong made the mistake of opening his mouth in the finale to add insult to his overstayed injury. Dope Body, who appeared in the adjoining room of Public Assembly fared much better. The Baltimore quartet managed to work up a sizable groove in all their pre-grunge, post-rock frenzy, mostly on the massive chops of guitarist Zach Utz. Though aided by an arsenal of pedals, Utz seemed in harmony with the subtleties and extremes of each one. He was the only glue keeping their mammoth sound intact. I’m never against lead singers who go out of their boundaries, and even if howler Andrew Laumann (pictured right) had his shirt off by the third song, his half-Iggy, half-Lizard King writhing gave the show a honest debauchery that the music needed to keep it from becoming unfashionably funky and rote. Be on the lookout for this crew.

Friday was perhaps the most revelatory night of the evening, initiated with a Jameson-sponsored acoustic session with the Olivia Tremor Control (pictured above). Free whiskey aside, I was amazed at the small crowd who came to see this band, especially considering it’s rare and seemingly impossible for the band to play acoustically given their penchant for wild sounds and tape trails. They pulled if off beautifully, playing through a handful of some of the finest psych-pop songs written in the last 20 years. Even Jeff Mangum was there to support his Athens bros, maybe realizing they were the real genius and most overlooked of the Elephant Six contingent. Other highlights from Friday included a set from the newly christened Ice Choir (pictured below left), a Brooklyn-based band led by Kurt Feldman of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. At first, the group’s ultra-fey approach to soft romantic pop was derivative of Scritti Politti and Level 42, with plenty of faux-drums, horns, strings and overtly lovelorn lyrics getting a unified sigh from the crowd. Soon, though, it became a highly enjoyable display, as Feldman and company were not just choreographing their output via Macbooks and pirated filters from those ’80s aesthetics. These were actually seamlessly arranged tributes to that time, forgoing fashion for genuine sentiment towards their obvious inspirations. Nostalgically plastic as Ice Choir appear on the surface, their passion is palpable and more than welcomed in my playlists.

Saturday was a night of discovery for sure. After seeing a shoddy but hilarious live production of a Beverly Hills 90210 episode (the one in which Kelly tells Brenda she’s been banging Dylan all summer), we spent most of the evening surveying the new Brooklyn elite at Union Pool. Pampers impressed, even if their whole power anti-rock was taken to diminishing extremes. There were no hooks, just barbs and meat-hooks, something similar to the lamented nihilism of Clockcleaner. Call of the Wild, on the other hand, were amazingly adept at injecting their songs with not only nihilism and white-hot energy, but melodic crescendos. What they do is speed-psych rooted in the velocity of Motörhead, the leads of Thin Lizzy, and the crushing dexterity of early Metallica. That was exactly how they were described to me prior to this show, and I’d say that’s about right. It was by far my favorite performance of the weekend.

By Sunday, patience wears thin and so does the wallet in Brooklyn. Even if Vår was the most hyped act of Northside (the band includes members of Iceage—last year’s most hyped act—and other burgeoning Danish punk crews), they left a little to be desired, in-your-face as they were. The sonics were there in blasts of chromatic dissonance, but the show likely overshadowed such mastery of the dark-wave wobble. There were veiled pagan symbols, solidarity through blaring national anthems and stoic uniformed stances, and ultimately a make-out session between the two male leads. Not that there’s anything shocking about the abundance of homoeroticism or the cultish haze of their actions, it just seemed to steer the music into corner, when in fact the music is what should be focused upon. That said, Vår prompted plenty of conversation afterwards and definitely made me look forward to what comes next. So despite initial ideas to bag the whole event in favor of day-drinking, Northside eventually won me over again. I’ll be back next year, just make sure to let me in.

Destroyer and Wintersleep
Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, Cleveland, June 15
by Matt Slaybaugh

The Beachland in Cleveland (Collinwood, actually) is a pair of venues (the Ballroom and the Tavern) housed in one attractive building. Last Friday night, Destroyer and Wintersleep (pictured above) were playing in the adjacent rooms. So, I spent the night walking back and forth to check out all the available sounds.

First up, in the Ballroom, Toronto experimenter Sandro Perri gave the early arrivals a compelling intro to his decidedly outre modes. The singeing guitar solos over buzzing synths, the lackadaisical tempos, the sense of foreboding—all evoked Brian Eno’s mid-70s work more than anything else. Perri’s voice can be quite lovely when he lets it, but he usually doesn’t. Instead his songs of bruised hearts and vengeful intentions, showcasing his edgy paranoia, made for some very eerie listening.

I high-stepped it back through the entrance hall, past the merch tables, through the This Way Out Vintage Shoppe, and into the Tavern, where Mikey Machine, who the internet says is kind of a big deal in the Cleveland scene, was working-out his new group The Safeties. I’m ignorant of Mr. Machine’s past oeuvre, but this band seems molded in the early Weezer tradition: chirpy choruses, fast guitar riffs, and ably shredded vocal chords.

Back to the Ballroom where Dan Bejar nondescriptly took the stage accompanied by a seven-piece band, including one guy on both keys and trumpet, and a woodwind player with one eye on his laptop. They rolled right into “English Music” (from Streethawk: A Seduction), and the band found the groove easily enough. Bejar, though, acted pretty shy, and spent most of his time either stationary, clutching the mic cable in one hand, or crouched, disappearing from sight to slug a beer.

From there, the band launched into a really fast version of “Savage Night of the Opera,” the first of four songs in a row off Kaputt. About halfway through, the song hit an instrumental section and the band’s work took center stage for the first time. Of course, half the discussion of Kaputt always has to do with the copious saxophone and flute on the record. But in this live setting, the appeal was undeniable. On record, they can be weird little songs, but in-person they’re anthems of atmosphere, with a sound that was well-suited to the Ballroom’s constantly spinning disco ball, but forceful too. Later on, they eased into “European Oils” from Rubies, and the winds fit so naturally with that song they made plain the connections between that album and Kaputt’s seemingly disparate sounds. Throughout the set, the band’s interactions drove the tunes to peak after peak, and they were constantly remarkable in their ability to crescendo and hush as a single organism. Even Bejar seemed egged-on by the energy, as he loosened-up (ever so slightly) and showed some real passion as the night went on, stretching his syllables and playing with the vocal sounds in all those abstruse lyrics.

After a quick stop in the Tavern during which I was not drawn in by Hallejuah the Hill’s trumpet, guitars, and cello act, it was back to the Ballroom, where Bejar and friends were ripping into an abbreviated version of the title track from Rubies. A good portion of the crowd knew those lyrics and Bejar responded with his first big show of excitement, enthusiastically yelling out, “It is now or it is never,” with his fans. Then the band waved goodbye to take a quick break. Re-entering for the encore, Bejar produced his first bit of crowd banter, “Here’s one that went over super-well last time we were here. About 10 years ago. They fucking ate it up.” He may not have been exaggerating, since the song, “Self-Portrait With Thing (Tonight Is Not Your Night),” is from the decade-old This Night. It was a really fun choice and had Bejar and others singing na-na-na’s in falsetto while the band let it all hang out, veering from powerful soul stylings to complete chaos before the song was over. Like so many of Bejar’s most ambitious moments on vinyl and in person, it was a surprising choice with a huge pay-off.

On the way out of the Ballroom, patrons were beckoned to wander into the Tavern to check out Wintersleep, another Canadian band in the process of emerging. Despite the tiny crowd, they were sincerely happy to be playing out in Cleveland, though singer Paul Murphy seemed unable to wipe the dour look off his face, even during a song as fun as “Unzipper.” The band kicked things off with a couple of tracks from their newest LP, Hello Hum, including the undeniably catchy “In Came the Flood.” It’s not hard to imagine that song stopping more than a few people in their tracks at some outdoor festival. The band was really exuberant during “Archaeologist,” a.k.a. the “belly of a whale” song, and Murphy may even have cracked a smile when some of the crowd sang along during that one and their amped-up version of “Weighty Ghost.” The band gave off that vibe of being ready to breakout. They played really loose but locked-in, and their live sound retained the heart of the songwriting while still being slick enough to carry over in much larger settings. I expect the next time I see them there’ll be far more fans singing along.