Thus begin the first day of All Points West, hereafter known as Mudstock ’09. Much has been made of the curse of the New York music festival and this one, only in its second year, didn’t have a promising start. A steady rain fell all afternoon, quickly turning the grassy field into a mud pit from which there could be no recovery. The views of the skyline and Statue of Liberty from Liberty State Park are magnificent, but looking through them while ankle-deep in sewage dulls the appeal.
Nevertheless, the music soldiered on. First up was indie heroes The National, playing for a small but devoted crowd of raincoat-clad followers leaning on every word of Matt Berninger’s famed baritone to provide shelter from the storm. The five-piece focused largely on songs from their highly acclaimed albums Boxer and Alligator, eliciting elated cries upon the opening notes of “Fake Empire” and “Squalor Victoria.” Berninger swayed around the stage while the band gently recreated the songs’ layers behind him, exuding focus if not energy. The crowd was rarely acknowledged until the finale of “Mr. November” when Berninger joined us in drenched solidarity, climbing into the packed pit to deliver the closing verses. This isn’t a band that blows minds live, but distracting a cold and wet crowd from their misery for fifty minutes is no small feat.
The fest had two stages and one tent, but the tent was set so far away from everything else few realized that an opportunity to watch live music out of the rain existed. Those who did drifted towards Carolina Liar’s southern rock jams, tight tunes packing boozy hooks like early Kings of Leon. Vocalist Chad Wolf (great Lynyrd Skynyrd-ey name there) tried his best to keep a bedraggled crowd focused, leading the audience in half-hearted fist-pumping. Keyboard player Johan Carlsson provided the best reason to pay attention though, looking wholly out of place rocking one hand per keyboard like a lost member of Duran Duran. His blond mane waved as he nodded his head, eyes closed in ‘80s solo style so much I was tempted to yell a request for “The Final Countdown.” The rest of the band paid him little attention though, and the music took just as little heed.
Up next was DJ and Adult Swim composer Flying Lotus. The first visually-inclined act of the day, he mixed video collages to match his beats, colors and shapes morphing like a way-advanced iTunes visualizer. Given that the wet afternoon atmosphere was no place for a dance party, the images gave the crowd something to focus on while listening to the music.
The rain began to abate as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs conjured a storm of their own. The three-piece melded garage-punk with new wave, guitarist Nick Zinner thrashing around behind his jagged riffs as Brian Chase snapped out drum machine-precision beats and Karen O swayed, swooned and stalked around the stage. All of this happened, incidentally, in front of a giant eyeball. Tracks from their most recent It’s Blitz dominated the set, but the crowd response to new songs like “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” confirmed they were already band classics. Karen’s forest-nymph ramblings did nothing to kill the momentum and her inexplicable cowering under a knit blanket for several songs only added an air of mystery. Like all great frontwomen, you’re never sure if she’s incredibly theatrical or moderately psychotic (probably both), but you can’t look away.
The big news before the weekend even began was the Beastie Boys’ surprise cancellation of this and all other dates due to MCA’s (thankfully treatable) cancer. Where Lollapalooza bunted with the Yeahs as their replacement headliner – a band that, while excellent, has not achieved a level of popularity to deserve the honor – All Points West knocked it out of the park by booking a last-minute Jay-Z. In current popular culture at least, Jay is arguably an even bigger name than the Beasties, so few missed the brat rappers.
Always the gentleman though, Jay did not let their absence go unmentioned. Just the opposite in fact; he hit the stage running with a cover of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” as images of the city flashed on the enormous screen behind him (video here). That naturally segued into his own “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” the thematic appropriateness of the transition compensating for the fact that we were in fact not in Brooklyn, nor New York state at all technically. The crowd went hard regardless.
The Jigga man slammed at breakneck pace through a wide range of tracks, from new single “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” (already featured on his merch) to old-school material like “Can I Live,” played in honor of Michael Jackson after a prelude of a bit of “I Want You Back.” A man with quite a few hits, he managed to play just about all of them at such rapid-fire pace he avoided the nostalgia feel, ripping from “99 Problems” to “Big Pimpin’” to “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” so professionally in the encore it never seemed obligatory.
All the credit cannot go to Jay however. His ace ten-piece backing band rendered the onstage DJ all but irrelevant, hitting every bump and grind in the beats to let Jay’s delivery flow naturally of its own accord. They dropped loud Linkin Park riffs for closing “Encore” and funky keyboard swirls for “Big Pimpin’,” but stepped back when necessary, such as when Jay premiered an impromptu a cappella verse off his upcoming Blueprint 3. Admittedly, most of the crowd probably didn’t care as much as he thought we did about that hard-to-hear teaser, but after two decades at the top of the game Jay-Z has earned the right to be cocky about his appeal. Confidence needn't lead to complacency though, and Jay played a man with something to prove. What? Perhaps he was proving simply that he has nothing left to prove.