For maximum poetic impact at the otherwise sodden, mudsoaked trench-fight of All Points West 2009’s first night, let’s go straightaway to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose luck it was to climb onstage at the precise moment the sun fought back, through the clouds, and then commenced immediately to set. The igloo-sized inflatable eyeballs that the YYYs have evidently taken as their insignia in the year of It’s Blitz formed weird, bouncing punctuation to a New York skyline that was suddenly visible again, if briefly. And the band looked dry–enough, basically, to turn Karen O into more of a goddess than she usually is, diaphanous multi-print robes and spiked leather jackets and wooly alien ponchos evoking, for the first time, not just awe but envy, since after all she looked warm, unlike the rest of us. Have I mentioned yet that it rained for most of the day yesterday?
Thus a Friday festivalgoer could see not just the Fleet Foxes or Organized Konfusion but the heretofore unknown act Where did you get that fucking poncho, who last night opened for Is that a heatlamp you’re standing next to?. It was somewhere in the 80-degree range and bitterly humid on the ferry ride over, apocalyptically cloudy around the time the Fleet Foxes began unfurling their beards on the Blue Comet stage, and pouring rain by the time they’d finished in a torrent of Lord of the Rings references. “We look like a guild of wizards here to deliver some ominous warning to the people,” said Robin Pecknold, who does not look like a wizard. By 4:30pm the terrain at Liberty Stage Park was starting to resemble some of the darker, more infamous corners of New York’s Woodstock, circa ’99.
Moody, threatening atmospherics are of course what you make of them. The National go over something like prophets in this setting, all uneven facial hair and Berninger baritone, their stately progression through “Mistaken for Strangers” and screaming Alligator jam “Abel” picking up an extra bit of pathos from the fact that we are all, at this moment, quite sad, basically, and so are they. In this miserable downpour, the efforts of one crowdmember to get his bowl lit in the pouring rain–in vain, as it turns out; no lighter can contend with what’s happening outside right now–take on a heroic sheen. We will not be defeated on this grassy plain, not including a reluctantly reunited Organized Konfusion, whose “Stray Bullet” is washed out in the worst of a bad storm, the tenuous remeeting of Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry taking on more water than it can probably bear. Out in the rain somewhere, Vampire Weekend is fighting through a version of “Walcott,” with its tailormade references to New Jersey and hitting the road, which if the road wasn’t a ferry in this case, and Jay-Z was not looming on the immediate horizon, a lot of people would probably be doing.
Ah, and here comes Jay-Z now, equilibrium having been restored by an end to the rain and a beautiful sunset and an ace, larger than life set by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which Karen O pulled off while sporting an arm-patch reading, in case you’d forgotten who’d been forced to drop off of this bill, “Get Well MCA.” Jay-Z knows a thing or two about this type of gesture: He greets the crowd with “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” to sheer pandemonium. Jay-Z knows the words to both the first and second verses, and a few ten thousand people are happy to handle the chorus, and if you hate this moment there is something incurably wrong with you. May someone have already delivered a high quality video version of these three minutes to Adam Yauch’s house by now.
As for the rest of it, it’s Jay-Z in full Sinatra mode: “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” becomes “Brooklyn We Go Hard,” which is smart, and then “Say Hello to the Bad Guy,” at which point you realize for the one-thousandth time that Jay is one of a handful of artists with a catalogue so deep and formidable that he’s got a song for pretty much possible statement he might need to make, and after “DOA” it’s “U Don’t Know,” Bleek sprinting out onstage to join Jay’s band, who will not sound better than they do right now, this song standing forty or fifty feet high in the New Jersey air, as people silently congratulate themselves for having, improbably, waited this one out. It doesn’t quite last–for every “Izzo”-turned-MJ homage there’s “Encore (The Suspect Linkin Park Version)” pandering, for every “Where I’m From” or “Can I Live” an aborted, suspect-sounding couple bars from the anxiety-inducing and forthcoming Blueprint 3–but it’s certainly better than whatever you were pining for just an hour or two ago, which was a shower and a clean set of clothes and a chance to lie down. “I appreciate ya’ll dealing with the rain and shit,” says Jay, “and fucking up your new sneakers.” Off to grab a new pair now.