QRO returned to Coney Island for what was once again billed as the possibly the last Siren Music Festival ever.
Broken Social Scene, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Helio Sequence, Islands, Beach House, Ra Ra Riot, Jaguar Love, Times New Viking, Annuals, The Dodos, Film School, Parts & Labor, These Are Powers, and Dragons of Zynth formed perhaps the best line-up to-date for The Village Voice’s free, all-day festival at the still-yet-to-be-‘redeveloped’ Coney Island. The skies were clear as the sun beat down on the record-setting 100,000+ turnout on Saturday, July 19th.
Last year’s Siren (QRO 2007 recap) was rumored to be the ‘last ever’ or at least ‘last for a while’, as Coney Island – including the historic Astroland Amusement Park (click for photos) – had been sold & cleared for redevelopment, which, to many ears, sounded like, ‘tear it down and build expensive condos’. Some plan is still in the works, but nothing has happened to Astroland since last summer – thank you very much, property market bust… So the run-down but still one-of-a-kind amusement park remains standing, the boardwalk still opens up onto the packed beach, families and young people still flock, the Freaks are still there for a Show or to Shoot at, and The Village Voice once again threw its Siren Music Festival, now in its eighth year, on two stages, at the ends of West 10th Street and Stillwell Avenue.
Like last year, like every year, Siren was a packed event, with the audience-goers ranging from old to young. Yet the whole day seemed more smoothly run, with even the longer-than-they-are-wide street stage floors not as much of a tight, unmanageable cluster, and the lanes up the sides of the street-floors not as maddeningly slow. What’s more, nearly all the shows started on time, unlike last year, when a late start at one stage, early start at the other, meant that the staggered show times (one the hour at the Main Stage, on the odd half-hour at the Stillwell Stage) converged and competed. This year, it was much easier to catch acts at both stages – and thank goodness, as there was hardly a weak spot in the whole day:
(click band’s name for all their Siren photos in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery)
Coney Island’s own borough of Brooklyn (or, rather, “Brooklyn!”) started Siren off, with the first three acts hailing from nearby. Leading things off at the Main Stage was Dragons of Zynth, fronted by the City-born (albeit The Bronx…) twins Aku & Akwetey O.T. The hype on this band has been burning for a while, but they really came into their own with last year’s Coronation Thieves (QRO review), which they showed off at Siren, along with new bassist Fon Lin.
Next up out of the Borough of Homes & Churches was the three-word three-piece, These Are Powers, who opened up the Stillwell Stage. Something of a divisive band, they certainly had lots of friends in the crowd. They’d also really changed up their act since playing outdoors almost exactly a year ago at CitySol in Manhattan (QRO photos), with a new drummer, who also served as tech/turntable maven. But it was still the oh-so-tall Anna Barie who played frontwoman.
Returning home to Brooklyn was Parts & Labor at the Main Stage. They were just back from Europe, and at some time since last summer (QRO photos), the band got themselves yet another new drummer in James Wong, not to mention a brand new guitarist, Sarah Lispstate (Noveller). They mixed in new material alongside last year’s excellent Mapmaker (QRO review), and topped their great set off with one of Siren’s most fun moments: Singer/bassist BJ Warsaw ended things by first throwing his bass up in the air on stage, and then, after it crashed down, chucking it into the photo pit. Not split in two but clearly now in need of repair, the instrument was still a sought-after commodity by the large contingent of early-riser fans. But what was most amazing was that the security guard in the pit actually picked the bass up and handed it to a young man in the crowd. He held it aloft in cheer, then proceeded to brandish it while making rocker faces to the sudden herd of photographers who converged upon him – cheering in a pitch-perfect irony, “Woo-hoo! I’m the center of attention!”
Siren finally left the borough – only to head streaming into the first of many acts on the Beggar’s Banquet/Matador recording group, Film School. Originally a Pavement side-project, Film School has grown out and away from that, most recently with last year’s Hideout (QRO review). Singer/guitarist (and only remaining founding member) Greg Behrens was in good spirits, joking, “I wish this [photo pit] barrier wasn’t here – break down the barrier!” before quickly adding that he was kidding, while guitarist Dave Dupuis played rockin’ axe-man. There might have been a bit too many shirtless mooks in front of new bassist Lorelai Plotczyk at the Stillwell Stage, but the band delivered a nice mix of crashing rock and haunting atmosphere (though the setting did probably compel them to favor the former over the latter).
The crowds were getting bigger & bigger as the day went on, and The Dodos had a packed pit when they graced the Main Stage. At first, the psychedelic folk from the San Francisco three piece seemed too low in volume, especially with singer/guitarist Meric Long sitting as he played a (plugged-in) acoustic. However, the freak-drum-folk began to work more and more, especially when the xylophone player joined in. And Long saved the best for last, when he stood up to ‘play’ a trashcan, fulfilling Eric Cartman’s advice on drumming – “You gotta beat the shit out of it!”
Things got only wilder at the Stillwell Stage with Annuals. A major favorite here at the Q (QRO spotlight), the North Carolina sextet had originally started as a spin-off from Sedona by keyboardist Adam Baker (QRO interview) in 2006 with Be He Me, but they’ve only gotten bigger and bolder. No, there were no costumes like at their Halloween show in New York last year (QRO photos), but the band once again delivered another great live set (QRO live review in Boston). Baker seemed particularly out-of-control (especially with his ‘singer faces’), even exceeding the always-wild bassist Mike Robinson, and singer/keyboardist Anna Spence was still alluring. The band returns to New York City in only a week as their new configuration, Sunfold (getting around the Siren prohibition on playing New York again a month before or after). As Sedona morphed into Annuals, so do Annuals seem to be morphing into Sunfold, first with their split 7”, Wet Zoo (QRO review), and now with the upcoming Sunfold full-length, Toy Tugboats. But considering how well they’ve performed outdoors in Brooklyn (QRO outdoor photos from last year), here’s hoping Annuals aren’t left in last year.
Beggar’s/Matador returned at the Main Stage with the up-and-coming Times New Viking. Another three piece, singer/keyboardist Beth Murphy was less the frontperson than drummer Adam Elliot, perched right up at the lip of the stage, sweat careening off him as he head-banged. Their lo-fi craziness wasn’t toned down when they signed to Matador with this year’s Rip It Off, and the same was the case live & outside.
Keeping up the red cape of Matador, over at the Stillwell Stage, was the brand-new Jaguar Love. Formed out of the Pacific Northwest’s Blood Brothers & Pretty Girls Make Graves, this threesome were boosted by a new touring bassist & keyboardist. Another act just back from Europe (and having had lost/damaged all of their equipment on the flight back…), drummer Jay Clark and guitarist Cody Votolato (QRO interview with both) formed the backbone, while singer Johnny Whitney went absolutely 110% (even if he did look – but not sound – like an emo kid while doing it), even saying, “If I pass out, will you catch me, so I don’t smash my skull on the [photo pit] pavement?” (adding that it still would make a good photo…). They also brought about Siren’s first mosh pit & crowd surfing. Their first LP, Take Me To the Sea, comes out in exactly one month from Siren (and they’re playing that night at Southpaw – QRO concert listing – but missing opening for The Faint at Terminal 5 the night before – QRO concert listing – thanks to Siren’s prohibition…), but one has to wonder if the wild sound of such live favorites as “Georgia” and “Antoine and Birdskull” could ever match such a performance.
Over at the Main Stage, there was another young band with a new label & first LP out in exactly a month, the many person Ra Ra Riot. A major QRO favorite (QRO spotlight), had called them early on, from the outdoors (QRO live review from over a year ago), even before they blew up off their self-titled EP (QRO review). Recent tours (QRO live review in New York – QRO live review in Boston) saw the sextet burning through the great new material (including “St. Peter’s Day Festival”, written by late drummer John Pike) from the upcoming The Rhumb Line, but they still pulled out all the stops in the wide outside – including singer Wesley Miles (QRO interview) getting up close & personal with the crowd. Less surprising was that the pit was absolutely packed right in front of the oh-so-beautiful singer/cellist/keyboardist Alexandra Lawn – but who can blame fans for wanting to get as close as they can to her (QRO photos of a very close time)? Just don’t get your hopes up, fellas – rumor is she’s dating bassist Mathieu Santos…
Meanwhile, at the Stillwell Stage, the less numerous (in number of bandmates) duo Beach House did feature the addition of a drummer, as the dream-pop sounds of their latest, Devotion (QRO review) were a little airy for the setting. Victoria Legrand & Alex Scally really simmered things down after the preceding craziness, delivering an artful performance (QRO photos from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art).
The Main Stage also cooled off a bit as the sun got lower and lower, thanks to Islands. The Montreal act has persevered since the 2006 departure of founding Islander Jamie Thompson, with singer/guitarist Nick Thorburn taking more of a leading role on the recently released Arm’s Way (QRO review). And while Thorburn did utilize The Dodos’ trashcan in his own way, the real heroes might have been the brothers Chow on violins & synthesizers, as Alex & Sebastian really helped take the fitting tropical sounds to the next level.
While the Main Stage followed up one large act with another, Stillwell followed up one duo with another in The Helio Sequence. But the Oregon drums-and-guitar group was anything but restrained as they rocked one track after another from this year’s excellent Keep Your Eyes Ahead (QRO review) and more. While guitarist Brandon Summers served as singer, one’s eyes couldn’t help but wander over to the funny faces drummer Benjamin Weikel (Modest Mouse) always makes (QRO photos). With a whole lotta energy, the pair really revved up the crowd and kept them there.
Headlining (and closing out) the Main Stage was the one-and-only alt-rock legend Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks. Sticking almost entirely to their latest, Real Emotional Trash (QRO review) – and no, they didn’t play any Pavement songs (though Pavement bassist – and current Sonic Youth bassist (QRO photos) – Mark Ibold was in the pit…) – the band still found time for early classic “Jenny & The Ess-Dog” and even a segue into Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets To Paradise”. Even more so than in their indoor shows (QRO live review from Austin – QRO live review from New Jersey), Malkmus took advantage of the outdoor festival setting (QRO photos from last year’s Langerado Festival) to really extend his guitar solos (especially after turning down his mike after “Ess-Dog” – “I just really wanted to hear my voice on that one…). However, it might have been guitarist & keyboardist Mike Clarke who was the most enthused – and Malkmus even remarked on how quiet bassist Joanna Bolme was, but “you’re wearing that dress, and that really says it all…” These Matador all-stars earned their headlining slot.
The one problem with Malkmus’ extended guitar solos was that it made his set bleed over that of Broken Social Scene (he even ended things by saying, “Let’s see if we can catch any of Broken Social Scene” – unfortunately, that was not possible, as they ended at virtually the exact same time). The Canadian all-star collective had a new ecord Tuesday, ‘Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning’s Something For All Of Us…’ (QRO review), the second ‘Presents’ record, after last year’s ‘Kevin Drew’s Spirit If…’ (QRO review). However, they stuck mostly to well-known & -loved tracks from their ‘regular’ records, Broken Social Scene and the amazing You Forgot It In People, as those are “the hits”, and the band is apparently only still learning many of singer/bassist Brendan Canning’s (QRO interview) songs. The ever-massive, ever-changing line-up included Canning, Drew, Charles Spearin (Do Make Say Think), Andrew Whiteman (Apostle of Hustle), Justin Peroff (who only joined in halfway through, the drummer having to overcome heatstroke), and more – and when the night called for a female vocalist, Drew opened the floor to all takers, challenging them, “Do you have enough guts? Do you have enough bravery?” The band took up on stage some here-to-fore unknown woman, who they’d met only an hour before their set, to step into shoes previously filled by such indie-rock Sirens as Leslie Feist and Metric’s Emily Haines. After delivering an amazing ‘warm-up’ set two nights before at the far smaller Mercury Lounge (QRO live review), things only got hotter with such classics as “7/4 Shoreline” and “Ibi Dreams of Pavement”, along with Canning’s great new single, “Hit the Wall”, before finishing out with the ecstatic “It’s All Gonna Break”. And it did…
An interesting side-story to the Siren Music Festival was that nearly every band featured at least one female member (only the two-man Helio Sequence, three-man Dodos, temporarily larger Jaguar Love and actually large Islands were entirely XY – if one counts Broken Social Scene’s random guest female singer…), with Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks and Ra Ra Riot even doubling up on the girl power. Many within and without indie-rock have criticized the scene for the fact that, if you’ve got a girl in your band, you’re bound to get more press and attention (as opposed to those millions of other still-male-dominated fields where a woman never draws extra interest…) – and that’s doubly true at hot, sweaty, sun-drenched festivals. But whether fronting or guesting, singing or drumming, the ladies more than held their own – and the only cure for their undue uniqueness in alternative music is for them to be less unique, and more common in both bands & fans.
No one knows what the future will bring, and perhaps redevelopment will improve the admittedly worn-out and worn-down Coney Island – or maybe redevelopment won’t happen at all. But it seems like the Siren Music Festivals has made a place for itself no matter what happens, turning into a veritable institution in this new millennium, to go alongside the Cyclone, Mermaid Parade, Freak Show, and Shoot the Freak. And please, don’t give The Village Voice something new to bitch about…