Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Siren Festival 7/18/09

In the gypsy carnival chaos that is Coney Island, locating the stages where the live music was coming from proved a challenge. Those that steered clear of the Island’s typical distractions like the Two-Headed Man and "Shoot the Freak" enjoyed a full day of free indie rock, courtesy of the Village Voice. Siren Festival started in 2001 - yes, that makes it older than Bonnaroo - and has become a summer staple for hipsters and families alike.

First up for me: Frightened Rabbit. This Scottish quartet kept their heritage clear with lots of checkered flannel and thick beards on three of the four (I'm guessing being clean-shaven is some sort of hazing rite). The display wasn't necessary; their country of origin from the moment they opened their mouths. Their set focused heavily on last year's much-acclaimed The Midnight Organ Flight, covering topics from religion ("Head Rolls Off") to diseased love ("The Modern Leper"), all amped up in volume to energize the crowd. Grant Hutchinson's pounding drums and brother Scott's brogue-ey yelps offset these charming little tunes, making this band sound significantly less than their namesake than they do on record.


Grand Duchy came on the main stage next. If you don't recognize that name, try this one on: Frank Black. Yes, the Pixies mastermind has a new band, and this one's about as "vanity project" as they come, being fronted by his wife and all. Her voice dug in with more edge than most indie groups, but the songs sounded like 4/4 plods that couldn't decide whether to be pop or rock and settled for some generic middle ground. Frank seemed a bit bored. When he could be playing "Gouge Away" or "Debaser," can you really blame him?


Luckily A Place to Bury Strangers soon arrived on the second stage and were well worth ditching a legend early to see. I already wrote about this set for Spin here so suffice to say I didn't know beauty could be so loud. Their rolling waves of noise cemented their nickname "the loudest band in New York” – they even threatened to top My Bloody Valentine as loudest in the world.


Back to the main stage for a band not quite as loud, but just as good: The Raveonettes. Their ’08 Chicago show was one of the best I’ve ever seen, so I had high expectations. Were they met? Ehhh… Their fifties fuzz was as tight as ever with the addition of a bass player, but the cute melodies Sune and Sharin produced seemed a bit lost in the afternoon heat. A small bar, like where I saw them last, proves an ideal spot for these Danes to get their Buddy Holly (Rave-on-) meets Motown (-ettes) tunes. A huge outdoor festival? Not as much.


That said, what was happening on the side stage was even more pointless. Every paper and blog had already decided that Monotonix was the breakout performance of the fest before Saturday even began, so expectations were high and the stage was packed.


Needless to say I was surprised when I got there and saw no band. I heard the band alright, blasting forth their Israeli “cock rock,” but the stage was filled with photographers.

I followed their lenses to the middle of the pit where the band had set up camp.

Again, in a tiny club this would be a great strategy. Down on the floor with your audience, rocking while mingling. At Siren I’m sure the two dozen people within ten feet of the band witnessed a show they’ll talk about for years. For the other thousand plus though, it wasn’t a bad show, it was a non-show. Not only couldn’t anyone see the band in the pit, no one could even see where the band was. A truly stupid move on their part. They compensated a bit by excessively crowd-surfing, but too little too late. Guys, the stage was there for a reason.


Spank Rock too bucked festival convention, but at least was more fan-friendly about it. A large VIP-only gulf separated the fans from the stage and Spank made it clear he was not a fan. It didn’t take him long to encourage fans to jump the barrier which they were more than happy to do. Security was less than thrilled, but allowed it. Their patience would soon wear thin.


Hipster kids went nuts for Spank Rock’s indie-friendly hip-hop, the tongue-in-cheek filth spitting from his mouth like an inside joke they were all a part of. Two DJs back him up as well as a percussionist and thing were going along well until the rest of the Spank Rock crew came in.


For Spank Rock isn’t just a person, it’s a collective. The Wikipedia entry gets so confused it switches back and forth between “him” and “they.” Technically the guy I’ve been referring to as Spank goes by Xxxchange. He just seemed so in charge everyone seemed content to consider him Spank Rock. When the others started rhyming though, he seemed to check out. He wandered around grinning while they rhymed and desperately tried to hype up a flagging crowd, but barely made a sound until he lay down on the floor and started trying to kick the amplifiers onto the audience.


This is when it became clear something was wrong. Security manhandled him away from the speakers, but he then proceeded to leap over the turntables and lie down behind them. Lie down or pass out, we couldn’t see. Regardless, he stayed there for twenty minutes while everyone onstage kept one eye on him to see if he was just wasted (I assume) or actually in trouble. The other eye drifted towards pixie rapper Amanda Blank, and up-and-coming Lady Sovereign type who, while undoubtedly as talented as Spank himself, faced the unenviable task of killing time until he got (or woke) up. The crowd grew bored, the performers grew bored, and boos began to ring out. I left at this point. Apparently Spank did eventually rally, only to be carried off stage by security after more misbehavior.


A bizarre end indeed to Siren 2009.


Photos by Chris La Putt (via BrooklynVegan)

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