Live Concert Review: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Northside Festival 2015: North Brooklyn’s SXSW Offers Thrills and Chills and What The Hell Was Thats

The Good, The
Bad, and The Ugly of Northside Festival 2015: North Brooklyn’s SXSW Offers
Thrills and Chills and What The Hell Was Thats

Founded by sibling duo Scott and Denny Stedman, the Northside Festival started under rather humble beginnings from their one-bedroom apartment as an offshoot of The L Magazine. But over the last two or three years, the festival has grown to become Brooklyn’s version of SXSW as Northside added film and innovation and tech/components, essentially emphasizing North Brooklyn’s role as a creative hotbed.  And it’s all done in a relatively friendly fashion for fans, bloggers, startups and curious onlookers  as festival badges and individual concert tickets were reasonably affordable — i.e., a music badge, which allowed you access to the music portion’s curated 400 bands and artists at over 100 showcases and 30 stages over four days cost about $95.  (As a fair comparison, buying a SXSW music badge can cost you within the range of $650-$895 depending on when you buy the badge. Plus once you consider your travel costs, which naturallywill include your flight, room and board and a possibly a rental car, you’re talking about forking over close to a month’s rent for 5 days of music. And interestingly enough, a number of the acts who take the trip to Austin often play Northside.)

Of course, it’s physically impossible to try to catch all 400 bands but if you’re fairly adventurous and have an unlimited MetroCard, the Northside Festival does allow music fans to see a favorite artist or two, catch artists that the blogosphere has been big on over the past couple of months or so, and to discover up-and-coming artists that you’d likely hear about over the course of the summer. As the festival organizers proudly note, the music portion of the festival is carefully curated by many of my colleagues across the blogosphere, radio stations, record labels and the artists themselves, and as you can imagine that curation is part of Northside’s strength. After all, the thinking is that they know more about what’s up-and-coming and worthy of attention than the average person –- and in some way, that’s true. And yet simultaneously, this curation can also be seen as one of Northside’s weaknesses.

I can tell you that over the decade or so that I’ve been a freelance music journalist and photographer, a number of my colleagues don’t know music as well as they claim, and that they actually have extremely narrow tastes. Perhaps worse yet, there are a number of my colleagues who either have horrible taste, or are afraid to buck a trend and have a unique opinion or assessment. What good are critics who are afraid to be critical – or don’t know how to actually be critical?

Granted, this year’s Northside Festival possessed one of the strongest lineups of the past couple of years and it may arguably be one of the more diverse lineups they’ve ever had as bloggers and music fans could catch Afrobeat, indie rock, punk, hip-hop, pop, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, industrial electronica, synth pop, jam bands, alt country and quite a bit more. Unfortunately, that much-needed diversity was sadly superficial at best. Let me give you a bit of breakdown, just based on what I saw. Out of the 17 sets I caught, 6 of those acts featured someone Black. Three of those sets featured a Black woman either as a frontperson, a featured vocalist or a backing vocalist. Two of those sets were hip-hop acts. One of them was an industrial/electronica act. Out of the 11 remaining sets, three featured women in some fashion, and the rest were all-male bands or were male artists. And with the exception of Afrobeat, which interestingly enough draws influences from Western music, most notably jazz, funk and soul, the music selection was decidedly North American in focus. How can you have a music festival in Brooklyn and not feature any of the music that many lifelong New Yorkers and Brooklynites have loved forever –- i.e., salsa, boogaloo, funk, reggae, dub, and so on? Honestly, I can’t believe that the organizers couldn’t find a reggae artist or a salsa artist to play Northside; in fact, I suspect that the lack of other musical genres is a direct result of the curators’ shamefully limited musical knowledge. As a native New Yorker, who grew up and still resides in one of the most wildly diverse places in the entire world, the lack of real diversity when it came to the festival’s music selection and crowds was deeply disconcerting. And it certainly doesn’t represent the New York or the Brooklyn that I know and love so much -– so much that I can never leave. I strongly believe that Northside’s organizers can, should and must do better. One of the reasons why New York –- and in turn, Brooklyn -– is a creative hotbed and will remain so for some time to come is the fact that there’s a constant clashing of diverse ideas, cultural norms, food, music, art, behaviors, and people, and that there’s
instant access to that same diversity.

FRIDAY, JUNE 12th: NEKO CASE
WITH MAJICAL CLOUDZ AND RHYE at THE INLET

If you’ve been following JOVM’s extensive Northside Festival here, on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere, you may recall that my dear colleague and friend Natalie Hamingson and I covered the festival’s first night jointly –- with Natalie contributing her thoughts and me contributing photos. So my first night of solo Northside Festival coverage began on Friday with arguably one of the longest and diverse nights of music
I’ve covered in several years.

Montreal, QC-based synth pop duo Majical Cloudz started off the night with a set featuring material off their debut full-length Impersonator, which was released to critical praise last year. Sonically, their material pairs the aching, baritone, croon of singer/songwriter/vocalist Devon Welsh with the eerily sparse, synth-based
production of Matthew Otto, who joined the project full-time as the Welsh was
writing the material that would comprise their debut EP, Turns, Turns, Turns. Thematically, the sparseness is absolutely fitting as the material focuses on the irrevocable loss of death, the unceasing and relentless passing of time, uncertainty, regret and other deeply adult subjects – the material is meant for meditation and rumination and perhaps some gentle swaying back and forth. But throughout their set, I had the distinct sense that their sound and their overall aesthetic would have been better served in a much more intimate setting, where the listener could easily recognize and feel the material’s aching sincerity.

Interestingly, just before the set started, Welsh sheepishly admitted that he and his collaborator Otto were overwhelmed and nervous, as they were playing on one of the largest stages and in front of one of the larger crowds they’ve played in front of. I think that Welsh’s sheepish admission and his awkward stage presence may have won a few people over – or at the very least, even the most cynical concertgoer would have seen the duo as being sweetly, ridiculously Canadian, as they seemed to apologize for their very presence. But their set provided one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen a live show at some time, as a woman, who was standing behind me in the photo pit shouted “Go on, boo!” when Walsh admitted being nervous and other folks in the audience nodded their heads empathetically. It was as though the folks who were paying attention to the Canadian duo could picture themselves up on the stage and were individually saying to Walsh and Otto, “I’d be so afraid up there, I’d probably stammer like an idiot, just before I fainted and hit my head.”

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(Enthusiastic concertgoers during Majical Cloudz’s set at The Inlet)

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(Majical Clouds at The Inlet)

Los Angeles, CA-based R&B and pop act Rhye followed. Featuring Canadian vocalist and electronic musician Michael Milosh, who has had a lengthy musical career, releasing two solo efforts, You Make Me Feel and Meme under the moniker Milosh, and Danish producer and multi-instrumentalist Robin Hannibal, who was a member of Danish duo Quadron, the duo of Milosh and Hannibal specialize in a lush, pop sound that’s reminiscent of Bonobo and others but with a simmering and palpable sensuality. Naturally, the expectation would be that sensual material would require having a frontperson who radiates and oozes a raw, seductiveness; however, Milosh came off strangely aloof – so much so that I felt it was off-putting and detracted from how good the band actually sounded. It was personally one of the strangest sets of the entire Northside Festival in the sense that I didn’t quite know what to really make of it, beyond being a bit confused.

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(Rhye at The Inlet)

Originally known for being a member of The New Pornographers, Neko Case has developed a reputation as renowned and critically applauded singer/songwriter in her own right with her 2009 release, Middle Cyclone being a commercial success, as it landed at number 3 on the Billboard Charts; in fact, at the time, no other record released by an independent label debuted at a higher position. Live, Case is brassy and beguiling and her songs come from hard-fought personal experience – and it shouldn’t be surprising that as a result, her fans absolutely adore her. And I can’t blame them, as Case has a stunningly gorgeous voice that conveys vulnerability, strength, wisdom and humor within a turn of a phrase.

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(Neko Case at The Inlet)

FRIDAY, JUNE 12th:
SLONK DONKERSON AND DEAD STARS at THE GUTTER

Once Neko Case’s set finished, I had to make a difficult decision – try to rush over to Palisades in Bushwick (which, would have taken me at least 30 minutes to get to from North Williamsburg) to try to catch Nick Hakim, whose set started when Case started
her encore or head over to The Gutter across the street to catch Dead Stars, who I had seemingly missed every single time they’ve played for the better part of 18 months. (I even missed their set when they played at the 4 Knots Festival at South Street Seaport last year; however, I did wind up catching the Canadian band Viet Cong, just before they started to dominate the blogosphere, so there’s that, right?)

When I arrived at The Gutter, I was grateful to have air conditioning blowing on me, after spending 4 hours standing in the sun and the heat. Unsurprisingly, sets were starting behind; in fact, Slonk Donkerson’s set was about 40 minutes behind, which was painfully annoying since I had wanted to try to stop at Brooklyn Bowl to catch up with my friend and drinking buddy, Matt, who was there to catch Electron – and at the time, I didn’t know if I would make the late night set.

The art punk collective Slonk Donkerson crammed themselves onto The Gutter’s tiny stage about 40 minutes after they were scheduled and to be frank, their set was among the worst I’ve seen this year. Both musically and thematically, the band’s set was flawed. Musically speaking, in a live setting, the band seemed barely competent at their instruments. Granted, it’s punk rock so it’s not like I expect to hear classically trained musicians but even the most untrained ear could hear that their sound was a mess with the assistance of a sound engineer. But worse yet was the fact that their material thematically fell short. To me, they were desperately attempting to be incisively witty and poke fun at society’s ills and absurdities – but their targets were too clichéd and way too easy. One song poked fun at consumerism and commodification but there was nothing terribly original to say there. Certainly, when we live in a world of constant racial and socioeconomic divides that seem to be growing with every passing hour, day, week, month and year, of increasing threat of annihilation through warfare or natural disaster, the world needs “message music” with an actual message.

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(Slonk Donkerson at The Gutter)

The Brooklyn-based trio Dead Stars has won attention across the blogosphere for a sound that channels the 90s grunge sound; in fact, their material is reminiscent of Dinosaur, Jr. and Nirvana as it possesses anthemic hooks and an uncanny pop sensibility at its core. But live, I have to admit that there was something that was off. Perhaps, because I grew up listening to Nirvana and Dinosaur, Jr., Dead Stars’ material seemed to lack the spark of originality that it needed to have, and felt more like a
tribute band. It’s a shame because I wanted to like them more and wanted to be
impressed by them.

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 (Dead Stars at The Gutter)

FRIDAY, JUNE 12TH/SATURDAY,
JUNE 13th: ELECTRON at BROOKLYN BOWL (LATE NIGHT SET)

After Dead Stars’ set, I was at Brooklyn Bowl to catch up with my friend Matt, who had been at Brooklyn Bowl for about four hours when I finally arrived close to midnight. Matt is a big fan of jam bands and over the past year or so, our friends have started to intersect, thanks to the six degrees of separation. (Honestly, at a certain point, the six degrees diminishes to two – and if you’ve covered music in NYC long enough, it seems that everyone in the scene knows you, even if it’s in passing.)

Before the set, Matt had told me briefly given me some background on the band, noting that the band had been together for quite some time, developed a fanbase through playing a ton of shows early on, and although the members now had all of their various side projects, when they did get together, it was treated as a big deal among some folks who had followed jam bands. Live, their sound possessed elements of Pink Floyd, The Octopus Project, Rush and electronica in a heady, trippy and funky mesh. I wish I could have stayed for the end of their set but what began to be a regular
theme for me during Northside, my feet were in unbearable pain about half way
through their set, and the only thing I wanted to do was sit down, so I left.

SATURDAY, JUNE 13th: DJ PREMIER WITH LIVE BAND WITH ORCHESTRA HOLISTIC at BROOKLYN BOWL

After shooting a show at Summerstage earlier that afternoon, I met up with my colleague Natalie Hamingson for dinner at Yola’s Café, and we parted ways with Hamingson heading towards Rough Trade, as I was heading back to Brooklyn Bowl to catch the legendary and iconic DJ Premier, who’s best known for his time in Gang Starr with GURU, and for his production work with Nas, Jeru the Damaja, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, KRS One and Mos Def, among others.

I managed to only catch the last few minutes of Orchestra Holistic’s set and although the band had a lot of high energy, I wasn’t impressed with their sound – there was something about their overall sound that seemed cheesy and reminded me of the type of bands that frequently played at Club Groove in the West Village; in other words, crowd pleasing but sadly not overly challenging or original, and as a result I found myself looking at my watch in boredom until their set ended.

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(Orchestra Holistic at Brooklyn Bowl)

DJ Premier’s live set featured the DJ playing many of his most famous and beloved tracks featuring a backing band comprised of members of The Lesson a week before their monthly residency was set to move from Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side to Brooklyn Bowl.  And although having a hip-hop artist backed with a live band isn’t an original idea – a number of artists over the past 20 years or so have teamed up with a live band to give their sets a more dynamic, arena-friendly feel and their overall live sound some added muscle. With DJ Premier’s extensive catalog and selections of contemporary songs, the set felt much like an extensive look at both Premier’s prolific and influential career and hip-hop history over the past 25 years or so.

A couple of years ago, I saw DJ Premier in his annual DJ show/DJ battle with the equally legendary and influential Pete Rock and I can tell you that Premier is a charismatic presence, who leads a number of call and response sections, shouting out many of the genre’s great and sadly departed artists including his collaborator and friend GURU, Notorious B.I.G., Big L, and others. The backing band was incredibly tight and featured one of the best bassists and multi-instrumentalists in town, and it gave the songs Premier played a forceful funkiness and a healthy dynamism. Certainly, when the set ended, the Brooklyn Bowl crowd wanted more, more and more!

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DJ Premier wants you!

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(DJ Premier at Brooklyn Bowl)

SATURDAY JUNE 13th/SUNDAY,
JUNE 14th: ROOM 8 at BROOKLYN BOWL (LATE NIGHT SET)

Initially, I was thinking of catching Buscabulla’s midnight set at The Living Room, but I wound up chatting with a group of people and running into a colleague. As you can imagine, it quickly became obvious I wasn’t going to make it anywhere on time, and as a result I wound up catching the first set of Brooklyn Bowl’s late night set – Room 8. Room 8 is a Brooklyn-based electronic production duo featuring a guest vocalist. Sonically, their sound channeled slick and plaintive 80s synth pop – think Depeche ModeThe Human League and others. As Natalie Hamingson, noted in her Northside
piece, one of the overall themes of the festival was recurring sound issues in
which vocals were garbled to the point of sounding like old MTA conductor announcements. This was another case where it would have been nice to actually
be able to hear what the vocals were saying but the material was sexy, danceable and absolutely contemporary.

SATURDAY, JUNE 13th/SUNDAY,
JUNE 14th: BLANCK MASS at SAINT VITUS (LATE NIGHT SET)

Right after Room 8’s Brooklyn Bowl set, I went to catch Blanck Mass at Saint Vitus in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and as I was walking towards the B62 stop at North 12th Street and Bedford Avenue, it occurred to me that I needed to get another monthly Metrocard as mine had just expired. I walked to the Bedford Avenue L train station to buy a
Metrocard and on my way to the North 9th Street and Bedford Avenue B62 stop, I ran into my buddy Abdul, who was on his way back uptown. After a brief conversation I continued on my way – and just missed the B62. So I got on the subway and took eventually took the G train into Greenpoint.

Now, if you follow me on Facebook, this will be a familiar anecdote. I’m a native New Yorker and native New Yorkers are used to shrugging off strange behaviors and people. If I’m doing a second take, you’re doing something bizarre. But I managed to see something that I’ve never seen before. I get off the G train at India Street and Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. And as soon as I’m on the street, I see a guy who’s busily sweeping something in the street. Considering that it was 2:15 in the morning, it was odd – so odd that I was warily approaching. And as I get a little closer, and am about to pass the man in the intersection, I see that he’s sweeping at something –- two rubbery looking sharks. Both sharks are roughly half a yard long and look as though they weigh maybe 15 pounds. Other than seeing sharks at the aquarium, I’ve never seen them in person and initially I thought, “Oh, come on! That shit is fake!”

Apparently, my diligently sweeping friend picked up on my disbelief and said, as though he were responding to my thoughts, “They’re real, my nigga. They’re real.” If they were real, it means they’re really dead.  And if they’re real, what are sharks doing in Brooklyn?

Strangely enough, after Blanck Mass’ set, I was walking down Manhattan Avenue towards India Street to board a Queens-bound G train. At the same intersection, I was approaching a man, who stopped and was staring at what appeared to be a dead shark that had been run over by a car. As I passed by the curious onlooker, he asked me if it was real. And I told him about my street sweeping friend. We both sighed and I then said,“Oh, New York. This place manages to get weird every single day.” Yes, that happened and weeks after it happened, it’s still something I can’t get over.

Blanck Mass’ the solo recording project of Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power had one of Northside’s most unique sets in my opinion.  And although Power didn’t announce a song or had any stage banter, his sprawling compositions were dark and percussive and meshed abrasive and anxious industrial electronica with sensual, hard house complete with punishing, room-rocking beats – all while nodding towards psychedelia. Shimmering synths occasionally bubbled from a molten iron surface and seemingly arched upward, allowing for brief bursts of ethereal beauty that would quickly dissipate.

At some point, my feet were killing me and I sat down next to the sound engineer but I looked and saw that most of the crowd at St. Vitus was dancing and swaying to one of the most interesting electronic artists I’ve heard in some time.

SUNDAY, JUNE 14th: RUN THE
JEWELS (AND SPECIAL GUESTS) WITH VINCE STAPLES AND SLEIGH BELLS at THE INLET

On Northside’s final day, I shot Light Asylum’s impressive set at the UO Stage on the Williamsburg Art Walk and rushed my way up Bedford Avenue to catch festival headliners Run the Jewels at The Inlet. I knew that almost every single one of my colleagues would be at The Inlet to shoot Run the Jewels, and I wanted to ensure that I had the best opportunity possible to shoot them for this piece. But honestly, I have to admit that this Northside showcase was one of the more uneven showcases I’ve seen in some time.

Up-and-coming emcee Vince Staples has received quite a bit of attention for his work in Cutthroat Boyz with Joey Fatts and Aston Matthews and for collaborations with the members of Odd Future and Mac Miller. Staples’ Northside set included songs from his then-forthcoming debut solo effort, Summertime 06. Live, Staples set was comprised of the big, room-rocking trap house that Hot 97 and Power 105.1 play almost all the time. And in a concert/festival/club setting, the material is fun and will make you fist pump like a coke-fueled moron. But it’s not the sort of hip-hop that I’d normally listen to because honestly, I find it vapid and meaningless, and on another level listening to it makes me feel old. I mean like the “back in my day,” “get off my lawn with your hippity hop” old. And although Staples had an infectiously high energy, I just felt like there was something I was missing and throughout his set, I was admittedly bored. As much as I wanted to like the young brother, I just couldn’t.

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Concertgoers cheesing it up during Vince Staples’ set.

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Throw your hands in the air, and wave ‘em like you just don’t care!

(Vince Staples at The Inlet)

Brooklyn-based noise pop/power pop duo Sleigh Bells, performing with a full backing band got on followed with an anthemic, arena-rock friendly sound, complete with pop-orientated hooks and a result, there was a period of time that the blogosphere was nuts about them. But after catching the duo live, I just couldn’t understand what the hubbub was about. For a band that features members, who were in punk bands, their music is incredibly vapid. And although their set was comprised of the prototypical concert heroics of jumping around, looking intense, frenzied guitar playing and making sure that they “connected” with the audience, it felt and looked phony, as though the entire band was trying way too hard to be cool. Nor did it convey a sense of actual urgency.  As a colleague said to me during the set “there’s no there, there” and I agreed.

Worse yet, Sleigh Bells’ material started to all sound exactly the same and it made the set feel unendurable. It was one of the worst sets I saw at Northside and arguably one of the worst sets I’ve seen this year.

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(Sleigh Bells at The Inlet)

Luckily, the night was saved by Run the Jewels featuring two of hip-hop’s most criminally underrated emcees, Killer Mike and EL P. Although they may arguably be one of indie hip-hop’s – or shouldI just say hip-hop’s? – biggest contemporary acts, they are among the most political acts around, as their material incisively comments on the consumerism and greed that underpins American business and polictics on “Lie, Cheat, Steal, Kill.” And they pair their social message with incredibly modern, festival-rocking production.

Throughout their set, they pulled out a number of guests including Gangsta Boo and the biggest guest of the night, Nas -– with whom they did a homage of “Made You Look” and had the concertgoers at The Inlet lose their minds. By far, that was an incredible highlight of the four days.

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(Run the Jewels at The Inlet)

SUNDAY, JUNE 14th: SUN RA
ARKESTRA at ROUGH TRADE

While at The Inlet, I ran into a Twitter follower and fellow hip-hop fan Lenny and we went to Rough Trade to catch the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra. Founded by the legendary and eccentric Sun Ra, best known as the forefather of Afrofuturusim, the Sun Ra Arkestra has been Sun Ra’s backing band with since the 1950s. The ensemble has long been known for an extremely flexible lineup and constantly changing name, which reflected Sun Ra’s prolific and constantly changing music, which is well – long been known to be incredibly weird, challenging and downright mind expanding. Luckily, some of the core members of the Arkestra, namely maestro Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, June Tyson and a few others have continued pushing Sun Ra’s eccentric and far reaching vision to contemporary audiences, more than 20 years after Sun Ra’s death.

Sonically, the ensemble’s extraterrestrial sound meshes electronics, samples and practically every single period of jazz – sometimes simultaneously, other times with playful nods to a particular song or a particular period. And as profound weird and
mind-expanding as the material manages to be, there’s a wit and humor to it that’s irresistible. Plus seeing a collective of musicians of various ages having so much fun makes me wish I could do what they do forever.

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(The legendary Sun Ra Arekstra at Rough Trade)

Northside Festival Winners: EMEFE, Femi
Kuti and Positive Force
, DJ Premier, Blanck Mass, Light Asylum, Run the Jewels
and Sun Ra Arkestra.

Northside Festival Losers: Slonk
Donkerson, Dead Stars, Vince Staples, and Sleigh Bells

Check out the following links for more
photos from each of these Northside Festival showcases on Flickr:

FRIDAY, JUNE 12th: NEKO CASE
WITH MAJICAL CLOUDS AND RHYE at THE INLET: https://flic.kr/s/aHskeodqfM

FRIDAY, JUNE 12th: SLONK
DONKERSON AND DEAD STARS at THE GUTTER: https://flic.kr/s/aHskf9D13s

SATURDAY, JUNE 13th: ORCHESTRA
HOLISTIC AND DJ PREMIER W/ LIVE BAND at BROOKLYN BOWL: https://flic.kr/s/aHskf6CJvY

SUNDAY, JUNE 14th: RUN THE
JEWELS (AND SPECIAL GUESTS) WITH VINCE STAPLES AND SLEIGH BELLS at THE INLET: https://flic.kr/s/aHskeCf6m7

SUNDAY, JUNE 14th: SUN RA
ARKESTRA at ROUGH TRADE:

https://flic.kr/s/aHskeCNESE