Live: Handing Out Superlatives To Beirut, St. Vincent, And Other Stars Of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry


Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
Brooklyn Academy of Music
May 3 – May 5

Better than: NBC’s Thursday-night comedy, a Friday night in NYC, and Cinco de Mayo, combined.

When covering a festival, you’re bound to miss most of the festivities. It’s a fact of life, and one that I had to accept when attempting to summarize the three-night Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, which took place this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. To get it out of the way early, I missed Sufjan Stevens showing up at one of the cinemas, as well as an apparent David Byrne cameo. My plan of attack was to hit up the Howard Gillman Opera House for the “big-name acts,” whatever that means. I won’t say I regret my choice; after all, the seven acts that I saw in their entirety were all wonderful in their own ways. So much so, in fact, that the best way to write this review came to me sometime Friday night: Let’s take this back to high school and dole out some superlatives to the performers.

Thursday, May 3

Best Dancer: Twin Shadow
Playing the first big set of a three-day festival is a heavy responsibility, one that can set the mood for the entire weekend (at least for those brave concertgoers who will be there for the duration). One of the better ways to do it is to bust out a full-on dance party. Twin Shadow, George Lewis Jr.’s ’80s-soaked group, was down to get down, to say the least. Playing a mixture of songs from their debut album Forget and the new album coming out this year (Confess), Lewis and co. succeeded in getting the crowd to move, especially during the appropriately named “When We’re Dancing” and the duo of songs that had a drumline accompaniment. Yep, Lewis brought out a drumline just because he could. Needless to say, it was very well-received, a theme throughout the tight 45-minute set. If someone had walked in during without knowing who Twin Shadow was, they may have thought that they teleported to a new wave show sponsored by Prince, and isn’t that just the best praise you can get?

Class Clown: Sharon Van Etten
You wouldn’t think to call Sharon Van Etten funny, given the subject matter of most of her songs. As a singer, Van Etten deals with heartbreak, abusive relationships, and leaving it all behind to start anew. However, as a performer, she is swiftly mastering the art of engagement by using a classic tool: self-deprecating humor. Her easygoing nature on stage puts the crowd in a comfortable place, one where they know they’ll return to after the barrage of emotions that comes from songs like the gorgeous “Give Out” or the debut album cut “I Fold” (which Van Etten prefaced with a honest shoutout to her in-attendance parents).

Perhaps, however, the fans got a bit too comfortable, as a certain subset started almost heckling Van Etten. While annoying, the heckling was mostly good-natured, although that didn’t stop Van Etten from sassing back: “Stop talking shit, man. Seriously. It’s annoying as hell!” She laughed right after, showing that she was in on the joke as well, that she knows that her music allows her these moments of levity. This moment showed her dichotomy best, because after the crowd stopped laughing, she launched into Tramp‘s lead single “Serpents”—the singer’s hardest-edged composition, which rages against a previous abusive boyfriend. It’s heavy, but it was made more manageable because of the laughs shared beforehand.

Most Photogenic: The Walkmen
Looking dapper should not have an effect on how a band’s set is perceived; after all, even the homeliest of acts can put on shows that blow minds and rock faces. However, it sure doesn’t hurt to look the part, as The Walkmen proved during their set. The gentlemen who walk came out dressed in their Thursday best, led by lead singer Hamilton Leithauser in a sharp suit and bright smile. Throughout the hour-long set, it just seemed like the guys were thrilled to be playing, with no regard for whether they were changing lives. To put it another way, sometimes it’s guys that just wanna have fun. The loud songs were rocking, with special props reserved for the drummer’s rhythmic spasms. The band’s love of classical instruments paid off with the piano on stage being used to max effect throughout.

The Walkmen’s catalog is huge&30151;so huge that they were able to play a successful set without even so much as hinting at playing what has become their most popular song, “The Rat.” Indeed, the band seemed to shy away from that in order to play other, more obscure tunes, and some new ones as well. All of these, as you can expect, were well-received. The crowd was particularly lively during the second half of the set, perhaps sensing that it was almost over and that would do no one any good. One particularly… enthusiastic gentleman toppled over into a row of people who surely were not as amused as he was.

The encore was a peculiar choice for the lads, as they came out and played the first song they ever wrote as a band: “We’ve Been Had.” A stellar cut, surely, and one that really benefits from a live performance. It was simply alarming because, once again, most people were expecting “The Rat.” Oh well; no use crying over a great set.

Friday, May 4

Most Dramatic: The Antlers
Talk about a beautiful downer. The Antlers are well-known in these parts for their loud bursts of sound and their seriously depressing lyrics, aspects that combine for what can only be called a tear-jerking live show. This is a good thing. It’s hard to fight back your emotions when Peter Silberman starts crooning about one-night stands (“I Don’t Want Love”), isolation (“No Widows”), or whatever is going on in “Parentheses.” As has become obvious by now, the set leaned almost completely on last year’s excellent Burst Apart, with no songs from previous albums making an appearance. Understandable, given the band’s propensity to extend songs way beyond their normal runtimes, yet it was still a disappointment to not have the cathartic release of a song like “Wake” from their 2009 release, Hospice.

This was balanced, however, by the playing of two new songs from whatever project the Antlers have coming up, and it was a balance that we will accept given the quality of these new offerings. The new sound seems to be a refined version of Burst Apart, perhaps with a bit more of the raw energy that fueled previous releases. This reviewer will certainly be looking forward to the next record based on them. As the clock moved way too quickly towards the time when the set would end, the band launched into bonafide epic and de facto closer “Putting The Dog To Sleep,” which is perhaps the most beautiful plea that Silberman has ever written. I won’t say that tears were shed, but would you expect anything different from a song that begs a lover so well: “Prove to me/ I’m not gonna die alone.”

Most Likely To Succeed: St. Vincent
Another way to name this section would have been “Most Valuable Player: Annie Clark.” In a festival that leaned closer to the introspective, St. Vincent’s infusion of adrenaline was crucial. For the hour or so that Clark and her band were on stage, there were no dull or quiet moments; in fact, the softest parts of the set were the verses on “Cheerleader,” a development made moot by the absolute boom made by that song’s chorus. Other than that, however, there was a constant roar of drums, synths, and of course, the Dallas native’s famous guitar. That guitar sounds even more pissed off live than on record, channeling all of Clark’s frustrations and rage into power chords and solos.

The set leaned more towards St. Vincent’s most recent release, last year’s stunning Strange Mercy, with album highlights “Surgeon,” “Cruel,” and the aforementioned “Cheerleader” gaining new life when performed live. Deeper cuts like “Dilettante” and “Year of the Tiger” were even more impressive when compared to their album counterparts; the latter especially boomed and grew into a beast of a track, as Clark sang “Oh America, can I owe you one?” behind a steady blasting drum beat. Older tracks like “Marrow” and “Actor Out Of Work” also made appearances, and personal favorite “Black Rainbow” turned out to be one of the night’s top three songs.

The pacing was so perfect that the climax of the set, pre-encore, felt like the logical conclusion, despite how completely insane it was. During “Krokodil” she grabbed a mic and ran into the crowd, splitting it like a sweaty, punk-rock Red Sea. Clark was not done there, though: with help from the very willing audience, she propped up over the railing and into the seated area, providing those fans a closer look than they were expecting, before the grand finale of the song, which had her crowd surfing while yelling her heart out. It was visceral and bloody (literally: a few people got kicked, although they weren’t complaining) and it was the perfect ending… or at least until the encore. “Your Lips Are Red,” the only song from Marry Me played on the night, wrapped up the night with a slower burn that led the crowd into the cold Friday night.

Saturday, May 5

Loudest: Atlas Sound
I tweeted this right after Atlas Sound’s set, but it bears repeating: Bradford Cox is a national treasure. The Deerhunter singer’s solo project has always been my preferred method of Cox ingestion, and seeing him perform on such a huge stage by himself cemented that. Apparently, all one needs to completely capture an audience is a guitar, loop pedals, and a harmonica. Oh, and you must be one of the most talented songwriters of your time; that doesn’t hurt. Grabbing songs mostly from Parallax, his most recent endeavor, Cox blew up the venue, filling it with guitar loops, distortion, and his uniquely haunting voice. It’s quite the shock to alternate from his ghostly harmonizations to his Georgia-accented speaking voice between songs, but once accustomed, all one can do is hang on for the ride.

As it takes some time to set up the loops used for each song (the man is talented but he can’t play guitar and drums at the same time), the beginning of each track takes on a life of its own, sounding only like bits and pieces of the finished product. The best example of this was “Te Amo,” the bilingual love song that has a charmingly bright guitar line. However, as that is being set up, it takes on a vicious quality, keeping the love demonstrated in the song away from reach, leaving a disjointed, breathtaking chaos behind. Even more breathtaking was the light show throughout. I’m not one to be impressed by fancy lights and smoke machines, but I will make an exception for Atlas Sound: bathing Cox in every color of the rainbow, in their darkest hues, the lights infinitely multiplied the effect that the performance had on the dead-silent crowd. (I could have done without the minute-long strobe sequence at the end of one of the songs, however.)

Most Popular: Beirut
People really, really love Beirut. This was knowledge that I had before seeing them close out the Howard Gillman Opera House part of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, but it was driven home by the reception that the Zach Condon-led outfit got on the night. As admittedly not the most devoted fan of the Santa Fe band, I was looking forward to enjoying their set if not loving it. Boy, was I wrong. Perhaps it was because of the perfectly executed brass sections, or because Condon has the natural charisma of a lead singer, but the set took on new life and bathed the crowded (and boy was it crowded) venue into warmth.

One thing that became evident about two songs into the set is that Beirut is filled with “musicians” in the purest sense of the word. Swapping instruments, soloing, and general spot-on instrumentation were the status quo for the set, which lasted longer than either of the other two headliners (call it last night privilege if you must, but the fans were receptive). Condon himself switched from pure vocals to ukulele and then again to the trumpet, sometimes within the same song. His voice soared and fluttered as needed, never sounding strained despite the effort he was putting in. It was impressive, to say the least.

The three-piece brass section that came out for the latter part of the set sure didn’t hurt things, and neither did the brilliant lighting throughout (probably the second best after the aforementioned Atlas Sound). It was, to throw out a cliche, an experience that shouldn’t be missed in the future. As I overheard from a self-declared superfan on the way out, “it seemed like everyone was having the time of their lives.” It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment.

Critical bias: I have been listening to a playlist of only Crossing Brooklyn Ferry artists for about two weeks now.

Overheard: “We thank to thank Aaron and Bryce Dessner for setting this up.”—every single act (not that they don’t deserve all of our gratitude).

Random notebook dump: When Annie Clark runs into the crowd, FOLLOW HER AT ALL COSTS.