Two years, millennial news site ozy.com started ‘Ozy Fest’, combining music, comedy, politics, and particularly TED Talk-like events at New York’s Central Park SummerStage (QRO venue review). The event has been criticized for being all over the place (Hillary Clinton and Grouplove?!?); it’s been praised for breaking the mold. It’s been called a progressive activist’s wet dream (yes, Cynthia Nixon was there – couldn’t get Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez?…), but also has conservatives like Karl Rove and controversial apolitical figures like Alex Rodriguez. It’s the future of festivals (there were six panels titled ‘Future of…’); it’s the biggest symbol of the festival bubble since Fyre.
In the end, July 21st & 22nd really couldn’t be any of those hyperboles and exaggerations, because what could? But it did make for an interesting weekend.
First things first, before getting to the names and what-have-you, it must be mentioned that it did rain during the festival, hitting during the biggest musical acts. But Ozy Fest was prepared, handing out free ponchos on both days. Indeed, the festival certainly had its act together from top to bottom, carefully organized from free handouts to highlighting sponsors, catering to the various levels of VIP, and definitely security.
No one should have been expecting Coachella or Burning Man blocks from the Upper East Side, and security is going to be tight when you’ve got the woman who should be President. And, while not exorbitantly expensive like some other festivals (such as Coachella), it definitely attracted the more affluent end of the left. Maybe that’s why it was scheduled the same weekend as construction on the 4/5/6 subway line used to get there (then again, no one can schedule around the MTA…).
[note: Most importantly, your correspondent got into VIP area for the festival, with its free food, free drinks, and even free candy. It was too much of the last of those that caused him to feel queasy the next day…]
While billed as mixing different types of acts, speakers, comedians, musicians, and more, each day was roughly broken into speakers early on, musicians and comedians later. This was for the best – if you were there to catch the likes of state pols Cynthia Nixon or Kirsten Gillibrand, you could get there at noon and leave before dinner. If you wanted alt-rock like Young the Giant and Passion Pit, you roll in & out later (but not that late, as there’s always a curfew at Central Park SummerStage). And greasing the wheels were performances with wide acceptance, whether a children’s choir or late night stand-up.
QRO Magazine is a music mag, not The New Republic, and doesn’t get up early in the day for anybody, so our exposure to the talks was limited. On Saturday, Cynthia Nixon kicked things off because of course she was going to there, in her quest for the Democratic nomination for governor (or just to push current governor Andrew Cuomo to the left). There was ‘How To Succeed in Business Without a Rulebook’ talk that included the likes of Alex Rodriguez (we know how much he hates rules – and is a great businessman?…). Eureka O’Hara of RuPaul’s Drag Race hosted a Dating Game that thankfully punctured some of the self-seriousness in the air. And there was a ‘Future of Fashion’ talk, because god knows that’s important.
But there were some important speakers, who got the biggest billing. Rose McGowan spoke on the #MeToo movement, coming to near tears at times. It wasn’t just a retelling of the Harvey Weinstein stories that we’ve all heard in their awful details by now, but looking at how the movement has evolved in its still short time around, and where it will be going. But what is her opinion on The CW’s Charmed reboot?…
And of course, everyone knew the main star at Ozy Fest, Hilary Clinton. The should-have-been-president was a huge get for the festival, added after most of the rest of the line-up had already been announced. However, her talk was kind of what you’d expect from one of the most well known people in the country, interviewed by Laurene Powell Jobs (both the widow of Steve Jobs and one of the main financial backers of Ozy.com). There were some neat new aspects, such as noting that corporate power should be checked and balanced like all power is in this country, but for many it was probably just to say that they saw Hillary Clinton speak. It ended with a video detailing the marches this year, across all fifty states and Washington, D.C. – and Puerto Rico.
Sunday didn’t have the big names like Clinton & McGowan, but did feature Chelsea Handler interviewing Clinton’s successor in the U.S. Senate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the ‘Ladies of Liberty’ talk (when Handler wasn’t arguing with Karl Rove over impeachment). For the more apolitical, there was the tasty appearance by a celebrity chef who hasn’t disgraced himself, Roy Choi.
Sort of in-between the early talks and later music were the comedians. Stand-up comedy has an at best mixed record at festivals – indeed, comedians often dread doing them, particularly when they’re on the same stages as musical acts. The crowd isn’t usually there for them, and isn’t quiet or attentive enough, too easily distracted. But the talks-to-music turnover meant that the Ozy Fest crowd was a better festival audience than most for stand-up – helped by recruiting two big names.
Saturday featured Hasan Minhaj, scheduled “Hillary Clinton, Common, and a brown comedian – the GOP’s worst nightmare.” The Daily Show correspondent’s star has very much been on the rise, and not just because of the recent rise in South Asian artists in general (he did joke about “Indians taking over,” in that everyone’s doing yoga and drinking chai tea – which, as he pointed out, is just the word for tea, so sort of like “aqua water”). He did do some political material, detailing a Daily Show trip to the South to buy guns, then making a funny analogy about being bigoted against Samsung Galaxy users (“I know not all Samsung Galaxy phones explode, but whenever you see a phone explode, it’s a Samsung Galaxy…”). But his strongest material was more personal, about his wife, from her recent pregnancy to his super-cheap hot air balloon proposal.
On Sunday, it was former Daily Show correspondent and Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Michelle Wolf. She’s seen her own star rise, or at least become much better known, after her controversial White House Correspondent’s Dinner gig, but now she has her own weekly late night show on Netflix, The Break (indeed, an episode aired that very night). She acknowledged the horrible set-up for comedy that any festival is – in her case, the wind caused her backdrop to collapse, showing the set-up for Passion Pit, up following (“My band!”). She also admitted that she was trying out some new material so asked people not to tell all her jokes, so your correspondent will try to just list some of the concepts: lying socks, “A blog is a conversation no one wants to have with you,” Isis flag designer, early dildos, harmless robots will be the ones to turn on us, and even jokes about her own abortion, which she admitted was probably pushing it, comedy-wise, but she wanted to point out that she did it because she did a “nice thing” with a sex partner, a throwback to her comedy special last year, Nice Lady.
Also doing comedy was her warm-up, Joe List, who easily had the hardest job on stage at Ozy Fest ’18. He wasn’t on the schedule, no one had heard of him, and when he came on some people thought that he was replacing Wolf, not warming up for her. He accepted that he was just an unfamiliar warm-up, “As if it wasn’t warm enough already.” Even Wolf pointed out that all had no idea how difficult what he just did was, but he did get in some good jokes, about more mainstream topics like flying and anxiety.
While the literati undoubtedly focused on the politicians and celebrities at Ozy Fest, it was the musicians who had the big sets. Instead of just sitting there and talking, or standing there and talking, the musicians had instruments and performances. They were largely closer in age to the millennial demographic Ozy.com reaches for, rather than baby boomer politicos & celebs. The musicians also faced the worst of the rain, particularly during the headliners.
Saturday featured Common, because of course the “TED Talk put to music” (as described by Kenan Thompson as Steve Harvey on Saturday Night Live) would be at Ozy Fest. Indeed, he had an ‘Incarnation Nation’ talk before Clinton, and then also followed her with music. It was actually kind of surprising that he wasn’t headlining, considering that he was the most famous musician at the festival, and maybe the second-most famous person there in general.
His musical performance featured a strong open, telling his story starting with his Chicago origins, name-checking without name-dropping inspirations like Fela Kuti and friends like Black Thought. He invited fan “Rachel from Jersey” on stage for some freestyle, and even did “The Day Women Took Over” (whose utopia includes keeping the toilet seats down, “That’s no-brainer!” – and nice reminder to those men using the facilities at Ozy Fest).
Headlining Saturday was Young the Giant, as singer Sameer Gadhia seemed to mention more than a few times. Never considered the most political of indie-rock bands, they do have their moments, particularly recently with 2016’s Home of the Strange (QRO review) and opener “Amerika”, which also opened their set (as it had when they played a regular show at Central Park SummerStage last year – QRO review). Gadhia did talk a bit about being the child of immigrants (and he is a brown face in the still quite white indie-rock scene).
Young the Giant did have to deal with the rain coming down, but actually a good amount of people stayed despite the weather, as they are an easy band to like. Of course there was a sing-along to their breakthrough single “Cough Syrup”, and the group also played the new single off their upcoming record, “Simplify”. However, there was no “Your Apartment”, their follow-up to “Cough”, perhaps due to the set being cut for rain, at only 9:30 PM, while the band still had energy to spare.
Another not-very-political-on-their-face popular indie rock artist, Grouplove, played on Sunday (indeed, early in their career Grouplove opened for Young the Giant – QRO photos). It’s always been tricky for the band to balance between their instantly accessible singles and pieces that they really want to play; for Ozy Fest, yes, they did the likes early hits “Itchin’ On a Photograph”, “Tongue Tied”, and closer “Colours”, but also their cover of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (which has become something of a live staple for them), and brand new, “vulnerable” song “Oxygen Swimming”.
The group bounced around on the stage, particularly singers Hannah Hooper and Christian Zucconi (QRO interview together), though shorn of his long, colorful locks, Zucconi couldn’t quite match his pink-haired wife. The rain came down quite suddenly, just before “Raspberry” and its early reference to “rain,” but did let up.
Finishing up Ozy Fest ’18 was Passion Pit – and lots of rain. [So much rain that your correspondent’s photographer had to flee to protect himself & his gear, over shooting – the photo is from your correspondent’s iPhone under VIP tent] Indeed, it seemed like the band was frontloading their hits, to get in as many before getting closed due to the weather. Or Passion Pit just have a lot of hits. The rain did let up, and those there were pretty enthused. Singer Michael Angelakos talked about playing their breakthrough single “Sleepyhead” properly for the first time just a decade ago, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom (QRO photos at Bowery). And of course the band closed with their immigrant song “Take a Walk” (that also references “socialists and all their damn taxes”).
So what was Ozy Fest 2018? Well, it wasn’t the ridiculous millennial pat-ourselves-on-our-backs-together-palooza that the sarcastic elites labeled it without even attending. It also wasn’t the multi-spectrum meeting of the minds that its promoters undoubtedly hoped it would be. The set-up and brands were all on-point. The mix of talks/comedy/music/more was still somewhat ungainly, but not as off as it could have been.
It had some people you really wanted to see, and some that you were less interested. The biggest problem was the rain. So a real festival.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Howard Shiau