Nobody Shows Up to Two-Day Alt-Rock Fest
One million scary happy people in Charlie Brown robes take a bow (courtesy of Waved Rumor)
Across the Narrows Festival Killers + New York Dolls + Interpol + British Sea Power + Tegan and Sara + Ordinary Boys Richmond County Ballpark October 1, 2005
Beck + Belle and Sebastian + Polyphonic Spree + Ravonettes + Dragonette + Gang Gang Dance KeySpan Park October 2, 2005
It's hard to believe that it actually happened: four big shows in two separate minor-league baseball stadiums, no easy way to get from one to the other, $55 tickets, no re-entry, no second stage, no Moveon.org booth, one little spot where you could play Playstation. The lineup: entirely unreconstructed alt-rock, no rap or frat-friendly Chili Peppers stuff or Warped Tour emo-punk. An outdoor festival happening after the summer festival season ends, featuring a lineup of bands that have mostly played more than a few recent New York shows, and splitting the potential audience right in half by having the show at two different venues simultaneously. None of it seems like a good idea, but then AmsterJam seemed like a terrible idea, too, and people showed up to that. But Across the Narrows did turn out to be a terrible idea. No one showed up. The stadiums, already small for festival venues, were almost completely empty for just about every set. The bumbling event security and unbelievably half-assed unfunny comedians who hosted shows in both locations weren't helping anything. There will be no Across the Narrows 2.
The day-one crowd in Staten Island was just pathetic, maybe 3000 people in a venue that could comfortably hold four times that many during the Killers' headlining set. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the bands lower down on the bill, playing to a couple hundred half-curious people in an empty stadium. But then, none of these bands were anything special. The Ordinary Boys are boilerplate Cockney Britpop. Tegan and Sara are pleasant-enough Sunday-afternoon crossword-puzzle music, inoffensive Lilith-Fair folk-pop (also the only band on the bill with any girls in it). British Sea Power attempted to mask a total lack of hooks or personality by jumping on each other's shoulders and making the keyboard player run through the crowd banging on a drum; I've seen about a hundred teenage hardcore bands with better jumping-around theatrics. Interpol walked out to the first real crowd response of the day, and they sounded cold and dark and heavy at first, big in a way that none of the other bands had managed. But then they did what they do: they just stood still and played their songs exactly the same way they play them on their records. The group of frat kids ironically cabbage-patching in the back of the venue was way, way more entertaining.
Up until the New York Dolls started olding all over the stage, every band was just sort of there. David Johansen seems to be under the mistaken impression that anyone wants to see a 55-year-old man in a belly-shirt and a buttflap squawking about "Ah said uh rawkwwwk, bay-beh!" while tooting on a harmonica and reading his lyrics from a music stand. (Best Johansen quote: "This is a new song we're going to play for you. Our manager said we shouldn't play a new song, and I said, 'This is Staten Island, man!'") I know the New York Dolls are punk originators and local legends and etc., but their live show is a truly grating specimen of fossil-rock cliche, embarrassing for anyone who witnesses it.
So it was up to the Killers to save the show, and the Killers aren't really a band equipped to save a show like that. If the Killers last another fifteen years, they'll put out an amazing greatest-hits album, but right now they're a singles band with four singles. Those four singles sounded great, huge and expansive and beautifully overblown in their arch, burnished, glamorous angst. And Brandon Flowers knows how to play frontman, filling up the glowing-blue stage with self-conscious flair, like the lead in a high-school musical. But they had a big spot to fill, and their album tracks sounded as insubstantial as they sound on the album. To say that the Killers were the best band on the bill on Saturday is to say virtually nothing at all, and it's certainly not enough give of those 3000 people their money's worth.
The crowd at Keyspan Park the next day was several times larger, and that's probably because of one band: Belle and Sebastian, the only festival band that doesn't seem to play New York every other weekend, the only one that has a cult following rabid and large enough to make a minor-league baseball stadium seem maybe sort of full. Keyspan Park still wasn't anywhere near packed, but it wasn't a total embarrassment either.
Not many people came early enough to see Gang Gang Dance's chirpily diffuse art-school drum-circle shenanigans or Dragonette's awkwardly glib and tentative sex-kitten synthpop (think Berlin minus the self-esteem), but there was a decent little crowd by the time the Ravonettes emerged to drop washed-out luded-up icy drone-pop science on us for an unwisely long 45 minutes. Despite the commendably girl-friendly lineup (most bands had at least one female member), the show wasn't much different from the previous day until the emergence of the Polyphonic Spree. The Spree were an impressive spectacle simply walking out onstage, 23 members in matching red robes, machines blowing huge volumes of bubbles out over the audience. The band's maniacally bright-faced Up With People spazz-gospel never moved me much on record, but in the middle of the day on a huge stage with the choir girls' hair whipping around and one guitarist constantly jumping off stuff and the singer guy endlessly nattering about the Thumbsucker soundtrack, they were pretty fucking special, the first band of the day that had any idea how to rock a festival crowd.
Another band that knew how to rock a festival crowd: Belle and Sebastian, who had the additional advantage of a crowd who'd come pretty much just to see them anyway. A nice touch: they opened with "Stars of Track and Field," the first B&S song most of us ever heard. They've got fluffily gorgeous baroque pop classics for days, and "Me and the Major" and "Judy and the Dream of Horses" sounded so great that it didn't really matter when Stuart Murdoch kept missing his cues (he would've been kicked off Rock Star: INXS) or when they unloaded a couple of boring newer songs on us. And the charm offensive was in full effect; when Murdoch showed off his Mets shirt and talked about bopping his way to Coney like the Warriors, even the rap dorks in the audience had to give in.
Speaking of rap dorks, Beck was easily the closest thing to hip-hop on any of the four bills, which is to say that nothing was remotely close to hip-hop. Beck has toned down his frantic irono-showmanship tremendously since the last time I saw him eight years ago (he had some other guy do all his dancing for him). He pumped out his old hits with a thorough, professional efficiency, but he seemed happier performing Sea Change material than funkier fare. In one inspired moment, he played a song acoustically while the members of his band pretended to eat dinner at a table behind him, eventually picking up their silverware and adding a few layers of fragile, rippling percussion. It was a rare thing: a flash of impractically inventive dorkery at a music festival with nearly as many corporate sponsors as paying attendees. Too band we didn't get a few more of those.
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