Another year, another ‘last ever’ Siren Music Festival on Coney Island. After last year’s oh-so-indie line-up (QRO 2008 Siren recap), The Village Voice returned to 2007’s more varied collection of acts (QRO 2007 Siren recap), with Spank Rock, Built To Spill, Monotonix, The Raveonettes, A Place To Bury Strangers, Grand Duchy, Future of the Left, Frightened Rabbit, Thee Oh Sees, Japandroids, Bear Hands, Micachu & The Shapes, The Blue Van, and Tiny Masters of Today. Maybe not the strongest set of bands Siren’s ever had, but there was certainly something for everyone at the free, all-day festival on Saturday, July 18th.
Considering this was the third ‘last Siren ever’ in a row, it wasn’t surprising that this year’s festival didn’t have that same sense of impending doom/redevelopment of 2007 & 2008. But that wasn’t just boy who cried wolf, as the economic/property market collapse has put a damper on any talk of turning Coney Island (click for photos) into something else. Moreover, the actual removal of Astroland’s games & rides (QRO photos of Astroland last year) didn’t take away a lot: The Cyclone’s still there, Shoot the Freak’s still there, the Wonderwheel’s still there, that big, red, looks-like-the-frame-of the Space Needle is still there – even The Freak Show’s still there. That Astroland was replaced by ‘Flea By the Sea’, a large flea market, is a little depressing – somehow managed to go even further down-market – but doesn’t exactly make you think Coney Island, or Siren, is going anywhere.
Though after how this year’s Siren ended, maybe The Village Voice & Coney Island will be having second thoughts. After your usual mix of lesser-known openers in the early afternoon, running the gamut from nice surprise to sad disappointment, the two stages really began to diverge. The Main Stage, in the shadow of The Cyclone, went for skill over excitement, while the Stillwell Stage, wedged between flea markets, did the opposite. While this meant that there was little running from one stage to another for the packed-as-always crowd in the boiling-as-always-heat, and Siren maybe reached more people in total than last year, the contrast seemed to only heighten. The Main Stage brought beauty, but could be a little dull, while Stillwell was a wild ‘event’ more than music, which saw a heavier & heavier hand from security.
(click band’s name or image for all their Siren photos in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery)
The youngest set kicked things off at the Main Stage with Tiny Masters of Today, made up fifteen- and thirteen-year-old siblings Ivan & Ada – and on drums, is that Your Nature’s (QRO photos) Jackson Pollis? The younger Pollis (one of two in the-band-formerly-known-as-Frankpollis – QRO live review) finally found a group that made him look like the old one (and Ivan seems to share his hairstyle…). Unfortunately, TMOT’s new record, Skeletons (QRO review), while good for a pair entering high school, ain’t that great for a band at Siren (even the 1:00 PM band), and outdoors it seemed that Ivan’s guitars were turned too far up, and Ada’s vocals too far down.
The Blue Van’s seventies party-rock The Man Up EP isn’t that inspired either, but at least these boys know how to put on a show. The Danes all looked like seventies guitar-rockers opening up the Stillwell Stage, but showed some nice wit, joking about Siren’s port-a-potties, pleading with the fellas to put the seat up when they pee, in deference to the ladies, “But Danes all pee sitting down anyway…” (no accents, though). A lot of the early bands at Siren can be a bit overwhelmed, playing to such a huge crowd (and in New York, if you’re not from the big city…). It’s a little tough to get on Tiny Master’s case for that (see above), but it was very nice to see The Blue Van fully embrace festival rock, from their ultra-active bassist, wielding his axe in the air, to the pianist lifting his instrument in the air, or at least tilting his stand-up piano every which way but loose.
From an unheralded, over-delivering North Sea import to an overhyped, under-delivering one: Micachu & The Shapes. Already possessing an annoying moniker, Mica Levi (a.k.a. ‘Micachu’) was pretty much just as annoying live at the Main Stage, no matter how much she’s supposedly loved back in her native Great Britain (note: everyone just looks stupid doing a sneer, unless they’re Johnny Rotten, Billy Idol, undead Sid Vicious, or Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer…). The experimental music she played with The Shapes was like a poor attempt at the don’t-try-this-at-home Xiu Xiu (QRO album review), or arrhythmic Dirty Projectors (QRO album review) without their needed harmony, using weird-for-the-sake-of-weird instruments like wine bottles, tiny guitar, and cowbells – oh, the cowbells! Even Christopher Walken would have said there was too much cowbell…
Forget the furners; let’s get back to Brooklyn with Bear Hands! In past years, Brooklyn bands like White Rabbits (QRO spotlight on) or Dragons of Zynth (QRO album review) have been relegated to opening a stage at Siren, but the odd scheduling this year made the borough’s own Bear Hands the second act up on the Stillwell Stage. Working in the studio on fourteen new songs, the band did play a lot of new material live, and while they skipped great oldie “Long Lean Queen” (QRO video), it gave them a chance to test out new songs like the rockin’ “Buried Treasure”, or a slower, quieter number right before (which they still seem to be struggling to find a place for in the set list). Not as explosive as when they’re indoors (QRO photos), the outdoors (QRO photos outdoors) does seem to intimidate them a bit: bassist Val Lopez is not quite as active, and singer/guitarist Dylan Rau is not quite as talkative (QRO interview with both). The long, massive Stillwell Stage takes away from Lopez’s up-front standing drum percussion & guitarist Ted Feldman’s nice overlays – and Rau should let his long locks flow in the seaside breeze.
Hopefully, Bear Hands will be a little more sun-seasoned when they play Reading & Leeds festivals in the U.K. later this year, and they were still strong – plus Rau did get in one good sound bite: after saying how great it was to play Siren, because he’d been going to it for so many years, “But feel free to piss on [Siren] if you want – it’s a free show…” However, there was also an odd moment when Rau promised a “gift”, and out came a very drunk Das Racist. The hip-hop pair (with some other guy doing goofy dances behind them) attempted to cover Jay-Z, but “nobody got it” (as Lopez later admitted). Really, all they managed to do was confuse the crowd, not to mention annoy security/staff by trying to stand on a monitor and, instead, just knocking it over – a harbinger of things to come at Stillwell… (see below)
With the upswing in garage-rock party bands these days, especially in Brooklyn, it’s no surprise that Siren had some – though they reached out to the West Coast to do so, starting with Vancouver’s Japandroids at the Main Stage. Just as there are too many garage-rock outfits in indie-rock today, so too are there too many guitar-and-drums duos, but Japandroids made the cut. They were certainly helped by sharing the singing duty, allowing the guitarist to truly rip his energy – but did he save any for the next day at Pitchfork Festival in Chicago (QRO photos)?
Orange County’s Thee Oh Sees (get it?…) were even wilder over at Stillwell. Though their garage-rock was nothing to write home about, the band kept up the antics on stage (reminiscent of The Black Lips – QRO album review), most notably in singer/guitarist/songwriter John Dwyer not only often putting his mike in his mouth, but also once clamping his chompers down on his guitar-neck (and impressively being able to lift it with just his jaw). The rest of the band tried their best, but this was Dwyer’s show – and someone should tell him & the other guitarist they wear their guitars too high; also, it’s really impossible for a woman in a band to sing back-up and play tambourine without looking like an extra, even if she’s also got a keyboard…
Siren took a major step forward in skill when Frightened Rabbit took the Main Stage. Like Japandroids before them (see above), right after playing the Main Stage, Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit were off to Chicago to play Pitchfork Festival the next day (QRO photos), which maybe explained why FR weren’t playing as late in the day as they should have been (though it was only a scant two years ago that friends/labelmates/tourmates/countrymen The Twilight Sad – QRO live review – opened the Main Stage – QRO photos). And there is something about Frightened Rabbit that’s more conducive to a later hour, if not indoors (QRO live review indoors), as their heart-wrenching sound needs the closer confines to balance the intimate & the expansive. They’re also best known as acoustic, from their live Liver! Lung! FR! album (QRO review). But maybe that’s all just because, outdoors (QRO photos outdoors), you want to hear more of their Scottish brogue, when they joke in between great songs like “The Twist” and “Keep Yourself Warm”.
Stillwell Stage hosted a band from the other Celtic part of Great Britain, in Wales’ Future of the Left . Probably no band at Siren so well-balanced wild action & actual skill, from killing it with tunes off of their new Travels With Myself and Another to bassist Kelson Mathias joking about eating too much nacho cheese in the States (“I could just sit under that [nacho cheese dispenser] for weeks…”). FoL also brought out Siren’s first real mosh-pit – and Mathias strode from the stage, across the photo well, over the photo barrier, and into the mosh! And he did all of this while still carrying his bass, though did hand it over to security/staff (who’d been handling his long cord, stretching all the way from the stage) so that he could more fully rock with the fans, including doing something while kneeling down amongst them – was hard to tell exactly what…
Grand Duchy might have been playing pretty late in the day for a new band doing perhaps their first-ever festival, but when one-half of a new band is the legendary Frank Black/Black Francis (or “Charles”, as those in the know call him…) of The Pixies & solo (QRO solo album review), they get bumped up. However, it was FBF’s wife Violet Clark, the other half of the Duchy, who played frontwoman (including asking everyone if they had their swimsuits on, like her) – about all you ever heard out of her husband was he introducing her. Great musician-and-his-wife duos usually don’t come out well, but Grand Duchy held it up on debut Petit Fours (QRO review), though live with a backing band (including a particularly into it keyboardist/guitarist Silver Sorensen – it’s great to see backing musicians so into playing other people’s music), they played a little less electronic. But that was all they played, and it’s hard, when ‘Frank Black Francis’ is up on stage, not to want a little “Holiday Song” (QRO video of Pela covering it) or “Brackish Boy” (though word is there’s another Pixies reunion tour coming up, where they play all of the seminal Come On Pilgrim, including “Holiday”) – and the Duchy’s own “Break the Angels” still sounds a lot like “Gigantic”, especially the opening bass line, which is a little cruel…
Special note: there was somebody’s kid on stage, next to the roadie – Violet & Charles’? He was hanging out by the guitar-tech, who encouraged the boy to join in when Grand Duchy’s drummer tossed away his tambourine, landing right at the kid’s feet. Unfortunately, the kid had seemingly no rhythm – so maybe not an heir to the Ducal throne…
If anyone will ever challenge Spinal Tap for the label ‘Loudest Band in the World’, it’ll be A Place To Bury Strangers. In addition to running their own pedal effects company/DIY venue, Death By Audio (QRO venue review), AP2BS are also New York’s loudest band, at least. While on their self-titled debut (QRO review) one can adjust the volume to your liking, no such luck at Siren, and outdoors (QRO photos outdoors) they’re even louder – there were remarkably few people in the photo pit for such a late-playing band, and that’s why. Still, nothing discourages the band from playing hard & playing loud – singer/guitarist Oliver Ackerman even swung his axe around by its strap, before crashing it to the ground and just playing it there. And when he got a new guitar, he put his singing mike to his amp – just in case anyone couldn’t hear…
Unlike previous Sirens, the 2009 festival had been going pretty much on time – until The Raveonettes, who started twenty-five minutes late (or just late enough to throw off the half-hour-off staggering between stages…). The Danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner & Sharin Foo followed the American one (see above) at the Main Stage. Though they’ve been working together longer, their recorded output has slid since 2002’s all-in-the-key-of-b-flat minor Whip It On and the following year’s b-flat major Chain Gang of Love, and despite returning to that minimalist sound (though in multiple keys) with last year’s Lust Lust Lust (QRO review), it still under-delivered. Live at Siren, their haunting garage was good, but not great, and not fit for when the sun was still shining.
The Raveonettes’ late start (see above) would have kept a lot of press from catching a lot of Monotonix over at Stillwell, but it didn’t matter, since security, suddenly & without any warning, didn’t let any photographers into the photo pit for the Israeli band. It wasn’t because of some outsized threat of terrorism, but because Monotonix played not on Stillwell’s stage, but right in the Stillwell crowd. Leading up to Siren, many had been wondering how the band, who were known not just for playing in the crowd (QRO live review), but having a crowd-surfing drummer and drum set (QRO photo), would do things at a festival – and there’s your answer. They also dressed for the sweaty day’s sweaty crowd, ‘singer’ Ami Shalev in only a Speedo – and he pulled that down to not only moon the crowd, but also spread his cheeks (thankfully, not photo of that…). But what did they actually sound like? As one person in the crowd said afterwards, “We saw Monotonix – whatever that was…”
The Main Stage-Stillwell Stage sonic split came to its biggest divide in the headliners, as Stillwell went its wildest with Spank Rock (see below), while the Main Stage brought out the alt-mainstays Built To Spill . It is kind of amazing that Boise, Idaho’s own (and one fella in the band was sportin’ his state on his t-shirt) is still around (and still on Warner Bros.…), and still putting out new music – There Is No Enemy drops later this year. The festival circuit (QRO photos at a festival) has kept them going, including playing Chicago’s Pitchfork only the night before (QRO photos), but live, they’re more of a sweet sound than a jam. Like The Raveonettes that came before them (see above), Built To Spill were nice, but a bit boring.
Neither nice nor boring was co-headliner Spank Rock, back at Stillwell. While Siren’s had hip-hop in the past, like Saul Williams & M.I.A. (QRO photos), they’ve never had it headline until this year (though M.I.A. was supposed to, two years ago, before her name-checking of the now-defeated Tamil Tigers terrorist group gave her visa issues, which prompted Siren not to rely on her as headliner). And perhaps, after Spank Rock, they never will again, considering all the headaches he brought, along with his electric show.
(it was all presaged not just by security conflicts during earlier Stillwell bands, but by security dragging a drunk member of Das Racist – see above – out of the photo pit when Spank Rock started, saying, “Alright – that’s enough!”)
While he looks like Erkel, Spank Rock raps more like 2 Live Crew, about as filthy & sexual as he can, and didn’t hold back at Siren – though it was tough to make out rhymes beyond chorus lines like “Shoot the Laser”. But that’s really not what you go to a Spank Rock show for – you go to it for the spectacle, of booty-shakings and stage-rushing, which Spank Rock kicked off by telling – no, demanding that the crowd storm the photo pit (and, when he saw a camera up close, “Get that photo shit out of here!”). Many did, though surprisingly they didn’t fill the pit, and even more surprisingly, security let them in – though fought mightily whenever someone ‘tried’ to crowd-surf their way over & in, even when Spank Rock & fellow rappers Ninjasonik (QRO photos, on the bill with Spank Rock) led the crowd in a chant of “Let him be!”
While Spank Rock (QRO photos, on the bill with Ninjasonik) may officially just be him & beat-maker Armani XXXChange, they certainly know how to invite the guests, like Ninjasonik (QRO photos) and Amanda Blank (QRO photos) – in fact, the whole show really took a step up when Blank took the stage, clad only in what looked like a long, tight plastic shirt with a hoodie, which stretched down to serve as a short skit (not even shoes or socks…). Busting her own rhymes & moves, she kind of outshone the boys (QRO photos of Spank Rock, with Amanda Blank) – if only she’d come on earlier.
Early on, after the crowds entered the photo pit, Spank Rock did his standard ‘scan the front row, pick out the most willing-looking girl, invite her on stage and bootie-dance’. And while security didn’t have a problem with that, they did have one with all the other girls coming on stage, uninvited – even if they took their shirt off to show off to the crowd. One big, bearded security fella had the unenviable task of escorting the ladies off stage (which was actually all done relatively politely & smoothly on both ends), and even keeping them from coming on stage. As the set went on, more & more VIPs were on stage as well – even Spank Rock joked that there were a ton of people on stage.
It all got to be too much for security, and they ended up pretty much just shutting the show down. The crowd was having none of that (“Fuck you, Santa!” one fan rather cleverly shouted), and neither was Spank Rock (who was eventually hustled off stage by security), his DJ (who flipped off seemingly everyone), or Ninjasonik (one of whom mooned everybody). The crowd shouted for “One more song!”, but when the fireworks came up, it was time to go…
The best Siren ever? No, probably not – probably not even in the top half, though last year’s really set the bar too high. But that’s only if you’re an indie-rock-head, as this year, Siren had something(s) for everyone, from hip-hop to experimental to indie to guitar-rock to party-rock to heavy metal to more (are there two more different bands you could see headlining Siren than Built To Spill & Spank Rock?…). Sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, but you were bound to find something you were looking for, and something you didn’t know you were – and what more can you ask of from a free day on Coney Island?