Germany’s Oktoberfest is well known as the world’s premiere beer festival, by the world’s premiere beer drinkers, and it has been copied many times in many places, because beer is universal (and one can’t trademark a month). Premiere hipster music website Pitchfork and beer website October teamed up to bring it to New York, music very much included, Saturday & Sunday, September 8th & 9th, on Governors Island.
Yes, OctFest was in September, but that’s because it was outdoors and October is too cold (at least until global warming turns it into July). That was proven with the cloudy skies on Saturday, and rainy skies on Sunday. And while growing from a one-day fest the year prior, it moved outdoors and onto Governors Island.
Saturday began with relatively unknown new acts, clearly booked by Pitchfork buzz. Madison McFerrin had a nice story about being a finalist for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, four out of 6,000 for New York, but it was tough being alone up there to open the festival. Flasher brought some fuzzy D.C. indie-rock, while Hatchie leaned into the brighter indie pop/rock.
You knew that Pitchfork would book one act that ‘you just didn’t get’ – i.e. art-weird, and generally unwanted by almost everyone. That would be the loud free jazz of Standing On the Corner, and even they didn’t know why they were playing the festival. They did get better, or at least more bearable, as they went on – or maybe the volume was just turned down.
For better art, there was Vagabon, a real frontwoman. However, the “labyrinthine post-punk” of Preoccupations (the Canadian group formerly known as Viet Cong) was a little much for an outdoor beer fest, with their brighter songs better as it got colder. The wet, cloudy skies finally turned to a light rain for the smooth R&B from Saba and sweet female electro-R&B of NAO.
Musically, Saturday was about two very different solo names: Jeff Tweedy and Vince Staples. Jeff Tweedy is, of course, the main man behind the definition of alt-country, Wilco, but for this he was playing completely solo (not even his son on drums, like in their band Tweedy). That made for a performance that at first felt a little budget (like the festival wanted a big name, but didn’t want to pay for the rest of his stuff), but Tweedy has the chops not just musically but also in his banter. Yes, the best received pieces were the Wilco classics such as “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, “Hummingbird” “Jesus, Etc.”, “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, and “Shot In the Arm”. But Tweedy also joked with the crowd, noting that he doesn’t drink beer anymore, but “What goes best with Xanax?…”
With the free beer samples having ended as Tweedy began, and the weather only getting worse, the attendance had already started to shrink, so the only ones there for headliner Vince Staples were those who’d come to the event to see Vince Staples. Maybe not as large a crowd as other shows, it was still enough to see a strong solo rapper.
While the music was what drew QRO to OctFest, the event was primarily a beer festival. There were over eighty breweries represented, with booths roughly organized by region: Africa, Asia, and Oceania to the left of the entrance (next to the smaller Island Stage), Latin America to the right, Europe on the far end to the left, Western United States to the far end on the right (each flanking the larger Skyline Stage), and Eastern United States & Canada in a circle in the middle. Even noted beer writer Joshua Bernstein said that it was an impressive array.
Your correspondent is no beer writer, and has even been criticized for drinking the cheapest, lightest, most commercial stuff, but that’s because he has to stretch out his drinking at events like OctFest. He tried to hit up as many beer booths as possible, and tried to stay organized, but he couldn’t make them all (particularly missing out on Latin American beers).
His clear favorite was Cape Brewing, and not just because it was right next to the Island Stage, and a park bench to sit down on. Founded by a German who ran Oktoberfest before moving to Capetown, South Africa, it had straightforward beer that didn’t try to be weird and fancy like many others at OctFest, making it an easy one to return to for multiple times, while others were mostly just good for one go.
Other notable breweries included Hawaii’s Kona Brewing (who gave out leas, a canny advertisement) and New Zealand’s Good George (who had a popular cider-like Kiwi Sour). Had to try the Pitchfork at Arizona’s Four Peaks and the Mango Cart from California’s Golden Road (named after The Grateful Dead song). Austin Eastcider’s Blood Orange is already getting known, as is the grapefruit beer from Germany’s Radeberger. Italy’s La Casa Di Cura had three different beers with high alcohol content that didn’t taste it. There seemed to always be a massive line for Taiwan’s Taihu Brewery and their plum-based beers (but your correspondent wasn’t going to wait on no massive line…).
There was a system for the festival, where each person got a wristband to be scanned for every three-ounce pour (one would use the same glass, but the booth would usually wash it out before pouring), limited to fifteen scans per day before one had to pay, though that system only worked some of the time, creating a constant search for booths that wouldn’t scan. Late on Saturday a number of people had their amount of scans left cut. But it’s not alcohol if you’re not trying to scam your way into (more) free alcohol.
The beer booths closed at 8:00 PM, leading to a scrum at that hour of people trying to find ones that were still open (often not scanning, just trying to get rid of what beer that they had left – even pouring out into foamy pitcher). Then people finally went to the paid can booths, which looked very forlorn throughout the day – but also closed at 9:30 PM, in this case without warning.
Whereas the overcast skies on Saturday just threatened to rain, those on Sunday actually did. It was never a torrential downpour, and never risked cancelling the festival (this was no Randall’s Island Panorama – QRO recap); it was just cold and wet. At least it proved why they didn’t wait until October for the event.
The unenviable task of opening this day fell to The Courtneys, followed by Julie Byrne and Shopping. Kamaiyah, the sole rapper on the second day (in the possibly too diverse line-up), stopped after only twenty minutes, apparently because there was a scheduling error and the next stage was already going. And that stage was the loud guitar-and-drums duo No Age.
But the audience really got moving for someone who’s enjoying a whole new wave of popularity, Nile Rodgers & CHIC. Rodgers had his disco heyday in the seventies, working with others in the eighties, but only more recently returned to prominence, as everything disco has come back. And the set with his band CHIC showed why he’s back & big, as it was impossible not to boogie to his music – literally, even people heading away or just passing by on their route to another beer or visit to a port-a-pottie couldn’t help but dance. And Rodgers was more than willing to do ‘the hits,’ such as CHIC’s own “Le Freak” and “We Are Family” to a medley of material that he helped make for others, from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to Daft Punk to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.
OctFest was booked by music critics, so of course Yo La Tengo were there. The Hoboken legends couldn’t quite give the full YTL experience, such as deep cuts from their back catalog and random covers by the greatest cover band since The Replacements, but they are professionals. And it was pretty close to full YTL, including expertly crafted jamming and instrumentals – singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan even wished the crowd a Happy (Jewish) New Year. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips even made sure that they were done before starting their headline set.
Despite the rain, The Flaming Lips did not skimp on their well-known spectacle. There were their giant balloons (even if they were quickly blown away by the wind – though that created great moments of people walking up to the audience facing a giant balloon barreling down towards them like a scene out of Indiana Jones). They had their own “FUCK YEAH OCTFEST” balloon, and inflatable rainbow above Wayne Coyne (QRO interview). Coyne got into the band’s trademark plastic bubble, but didn’t crowd-surf – probably a good idea, given the wet conditions. And he did bring out laser gloves for the most psychedelic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” this side of Jimi Hendrix.
This isn’t to get away from the music. Admittedly, The Flaming Lips’ visual spectacle always risks overshadowing their songs, but by this point the group knows how to balance. Coyne mentioned that classic “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is not just about, “Some Asian woman fighting robots,” but about your friend fighting the impossible. There was the more recent “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”, as well as a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (that was when Coyne was in his bubble), marking the second time that the always welcome late icon graced that stage.
Like any festival, beer or music, OctFest had to deal with the weather, which was far less than ideal, but didn’t force any cancellation or even much mud. Much more unique was the combo of two different types of festivals, which can easily go wrong, not drawing in enough fans of either, but beer and music go well together, complimenting rather than competing. It did mean that the festival never felt packed, not just because of the weather, but because people there for the beer didn’t pack the stages, and often left early, while those for the music arrived later and just hit up whatever beer booth was free.
The Governors Island location was less than ideal as well – even if the actual ferry ride is only five minutes, one has to go to/leave from all the way at the end of Manhattan (on the 1 train, passed the new World Trade Center stop, as well as the Franklin stop with its “RESPECT” signs put up after people were tagging it “ARETHA”), not to mention the wait for the ferry. Indeed, the large crowds after the final act ended seemed to overwhelm the old guys who were security for the ferry, who even referred to the relatively polite post-Flaming Lips crowd as “animals” – and trying to sneak forward in the massive line/scrum was rewarded by getting on an earlier ferry, and not waiting forever. But it’s always hard to find a big space in the Big Apple.
There were too many breweries to properly hit up each & every, but that’s just too much of a good thing. The line-up was perhaps too ‘Pitchfork-y eclectic,’ like trying to fit all of the website’s diverse and wide music into too small an event, and taking advantage of that the acts didn’t have to be the main draw, so pulling out some more obscure favorites and cheaper-to-book solo artists.
However, all of this made for a memorable event. There are so many musical festivals in America, and they’ve all started to resemble each other, with the same acts, same sets, same vendors, same everything. And beer festivals can get too highfaluting, nose-in-the-air experts who act like they’re at a wine tasting. But combining the two made OctFest special, whether you were there for the beer, the music, or just to get out of the house.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Derek Klevitz