Brooklyn’s Northside has become quite massive, and its abundance of events is something we can either feast on with cranberry sauce or cower from with option anxiety. The weeklong festival, encompassing “Music, Innovation and Content” across a few coveted stops on the G and L trains, just turned eight, and with that history it’s in a place where it can attract some serious national and local talent. Yesterday we shared some of our favorite scenes from the weekend’s activities; Today we’re focusing on the music itself. Here are our picks for the best music of the fest, and some acts on the come up you should start paying attention to now.
The New York tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance (whose second album, Blade of Love, will be released in August) performed Friday night to a rapt Knitting Factory crowd. They’re one of the finest ensembles working today, and their strength lies in how their sheets of noise and sustained drones of pulsing rasps are balanced by a confident faith in the power of conventional prettiness and quiet. Their position on Northern Spy’s bill as openers to Brooklyn’s Zs made sense: think of Battle Trance as a high-minded palate stimulator, like a really thoughtful salad , and the jazz/punk onslaught of Zs as the meaty main.
With its indie focus, Northside proved an ideal setting for DIY-country-turned-pro. One-time New York subway buskers The Felice Brothers seemed equally at home on the McCarren Park main stage on Saturday, as did the Texan sensation Kacey Musgraves, who went from self-releasing albums to touring with Katy Perry and winning Grammys.
While the Felices played to the humidity of a swampy June afternoon, with their The Band-like accordion sound and festival-ready positive vibes swirling around the beef jerky tents, Musgraves’s sweetly modest high alto and songs of confident uncoolness happily floated out through the Williamsburg streets on the post-rain breeze of the evening.
Jack + Eliza ’s Friday night Shea Stadium set was a beacon of calm in a room that struggled to contain the noise from the stage and the warm bodies of the sizable twentysomething crowd. The New York duo, who began recording as college sophomores and released the full-length album Gentle Warnings in 2015, list the Mamas & The Papas and the Beatles as reference points, but also bring to mind the ethereal jazz-folk lilt of early Everything But the Girl.
In a different corner of 1980s revivalism, native Long Islander Michael Grace, Jr. and his recently rekindled band My Favorite elevated the unassuming Bar Matchless with the majesty and deep ache of John Hughes soundtracks and Depeche Mode. With at least three songs in their short set that mentioned dancing, it’s criminal no one in the audience was , but Morrissey wouldn’t have either.
Northside’s many sound engineers (and artists) mostly offered a sensible correlation between the loudness of the music and how big or small the respective venues were. At Bar Matchless on Saturday, Decorum performed their austere post-punk at levels that were downright considerate, a very English move for a New York band. Stylish like a French New Wave film but flirting with the dissonant looming dread of Joy Division, pre-1990 Sonic Youth, and forgotten locals Poem Rocket , everything about Decorum felt right for a clammy night in an uncertain city.
A louder volume did work for Brooklyn-based punk supergroup SAVAK (members of Obits, Holy Fuck, Nation of Ulysses and The Cops) at Saturday’s Union Pool gig, fortifying their already rock-solid American hardcore without bursting the eardrums. A common thread among Northside bands was a perceived willingness to go deep on genre, to excel within a specific idiom and be OK with not pushing boundaries. That genre here is “taut DC punk,” and though SAVAK’s bio presses the band’s eclecticism of influence, theirs is a form that has the astounding record collections of nerds like Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye pre-baked in.
Like the bar Gold Sounds, which hosted Jersey City’s Psychiatric Metaphors as part of a litany of Saturday bands, SAVAK’s show benefitted from the easy ability to change environments and experience the concert away from the discrete back room with the stage. That certainly helped with the latter act, who transmitted their sludgy psych at 200-capacity levels to an audience of maybe five in a room that held maybe 30. Context is everything. Still, Psychiatric Metaphors’ heady jam-band punk successfully recalled both SST Records’ wilder forays and the seeds of Pacific Northwest grunge, and with retromania showing no signs of ebbing, that audience can only increase.
THE POP LUMINARIES
Let’s not begrudge Brian Wilson any victory laps he wants to take, especially where the 50th anniversary of a towering achievement like Pet Sounds is concerned. He architected these enduring songs being performed at Sunday night’s headlining set, those enduring harmonies, that gorgeous, lonely weirdness. Let’s be very glad that his live arrangements of “You Still Believe In Me” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” can stop a sprawling McCarren Park crowd of harried parents and phone-wielding young’uns (almost) dead in their tracks in 2016. It’s fine if some of the musicianship and high-end gear sounds a little stiff and Brian needs friends to take the reins on a few songs while he handles piano duties and interstitial spiel.
It’s certainly fine that his opener, Rostam (Batmangli, the one-time Brian Wilson of Vampire Weekend and current pop-world dominator), had onstage help from indie celebrities Angel Deradoorian and Hamilton Leithauser and even some bearded dudebro dancers . Rostam’s set was nuanced and lovely, meandering in song structure but thoughtful with instrument and arrangement choices. His melodies are murkier than Wilson’s and he doesn’t have a classic tune under his belt just yet, but his rising fame is well-deserved and he and Wilson are an inspired pairing.