I don’t usually work on Saturdays, but then again, work doesn’t usually involve sharing the fruits—grains?—of corporate sponsorship by Budweiser, King of Beers. What did it read inside calendar squares across the city? Siren, Village Voice indie rock festival. While imbibing the royal brew served free behind the cordoned-off main stage, I mingle with such celebrities as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, professional funnyman David Cross, and Bob Christgau, who needs no introduction. I make frequent and imperative use of the portable “potties” provided backstage.
There’s a Death Cab for Cutie song, “Coney Island,” which those main-stage headliners almost definitely play: “Sitting on a carousel ride/without any music or lights,” Benjamin Gibbard sings, stretching out a sigh, especially sad and pretty even for him. “Everything was closed at Coney Island/and I could not keep from smiling.” Dude’s from Bellingham, Washington—what’s he know about it? Sure, the boardwalk is busy enough without the train spilling crowds of rock fans onto Stillwell Avenue, and I do almost have to kick the asses of three senior citizens making lewd gestures at my girlfriend. (I let them off with a warning.) But a deserted Coney Island would just be creepy: Gibbard imagines “roller coaster screams from summers past”—you feel me? And what are the screams you actually hear, if not, in their universal unchanging screaminess, a meeting of memory and utter in-the-now, a familiar but still transformative rush?
In its four years, Siren has entered Coney Island’s history, become one of those summer noises, a racket in friendly competition with all the others: the screams of teens and gulls, the carny announcements, the bells and whistles, the waves, the mermaids. There is no higher compliment, may I remind the Voice‘s charming publicist. When not standing in a great crush before the stages, the thousands of people there to see the bands become part of the larger scene, clumps among other clumps, families, crews, couples, and loners you’re unlikely to spot at the next Fever show. (Me, for instance.) It’s where segregated NYC meets, and I don’t even see any fights. (Not that those old horndogs weren’t about to go down.) Like everyone else, I stick with friends even when they want to see the less excellent bands, fail to find who I mean to meet up with, and run into many others. The two stages are just far enough apart that strolling between them communicates Coney Island’s scope while encouraging random encounters.
Why, when Lollapalooza can’t attract fans, does Siren succeed? Well, because like the Voice itself, it’s free! (What has Time Out done for you lately? Besides entertain and inform you with Howard Halle’s—curmudgeonly but charming!—”And Another Thing . . . ” column, I mean.) Besides subway fare, beer, and fried food, you don’t have to buy a thing. I am, however, a little disturbed by what you can purchase: In “Shoot the Freak,” paying customers spray a black man in a fenced-off area with paint balls. My day’s highlight doesn’t cost diddly. Passing a circle of onlookers on the boardwalk, behind the main stage, my girlfriend and I discover folks dancing to a DJ, and the two of us squeeze through and get down to some B-52’s remix while the sun shines and everyone watches.
Which brings us, finally, to the small matter of who played the festival. Considering that it’s called Siren, and compared to other years, there are very few women. Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino—who coolly focuses the audience’s collective energy into tense, impressionistic tunes—is a rare exception. Little Har Mar Superstar, self-perceived ladies’ man, is a puke. While watching another band, he gives a hard time to a perfectly nice guard asking him to move a couple feet, and once onstage, he launches into an insulting (not to mention revolting) faux-r&b shtick that involves him stripping to his undies.
TV on the Radio, the day’s heppest, most hotly tipped act, look cooler than just about all of the other rockers. The Constantines (Canadian) and Vue (Californian) play loud, earnestly, and while wearing neat thrift-store T-shirts. While they turn fierce at set’s end, Death Cab for Cutie manage, like Blonde Redhead, to capture the ocean breeziness of a ghostly Coney Island. Under a pale near-dusk sky, an inebriated guy from . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead says, referring to George Bush, “Let’s kill ‘im!” It was that sort of thing, just what you’d want from an annual urban beach thingy: music you or your friends like blaring, attractive people in warm-weather clothes wandering around, cool drinks drunk.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2004