Dirty Dancing w/Vaz, Prince Rama, Telepathe
McCarren Park basketball court
Wednesday, July 25
Better than: Watching at home.
Somebody finally figured out how to get people to show up and sit through opening bands: just make the headlining act a free outdoor screening of a beloved movie. “I see a couple of new faces in the crowd,” Vaz guitarist Paul Erickson remarked early in their set, the McCarren Park basketball court already filled with a not-insigificant amount of people staking down blankets and chairs for the sundown showing of Dirty Dancing. The trio leaned into their instruments—two guitars and a drum set—delivering Sonic Youthy, ecstatic-sludgey, brainy, thrashy rockisms that were probably pretty awesome. But it was also rather hard to tell. As is tradition, the opening acts were also mixed at a far lower volume than the headliner.
At a precarious time when any L-train passenger might spontaneously combust into a @NYTOnIt-lambasted trend piece, the decision to have local promoter Todd P. book music for Summerscreen‘s weekly series in Williamsburg is a profoundly sane one. After all, he’s already been in many a trend piece for his ambitious DIY repurposing of spaces into concert venues. By that standard, his Summerscreen bookings in a major public park might be his most legit venture ever, but possibly also his most bare bones. A performance on the blacktop of a basketball court in the blasting sun of a July evening, through a tiny PA at a vastly reduced volume and without a stage, is probably not the best place and method for a band to get themselves across to even a captive audience. Plus—at least during Vaz’s set—the PA kept crapping out.
Even thirty feet from the musicians, the music evaporated almost instantly into its surroundings, so lo-fi it was invisible. Prince Rama were next, and fared a little bit better, but only a little. The sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson—Hare Krishnas turned art students turned Brooklynite hipster-mystics—showed all their usual signs of ecstasy and transcendence, and Nimai’s pounded tom-toms (and tossed hair) cut through and translated as real despite the face makeup and costumes. But their yoga-inspired dance moves seemed like just another way to use the park. Ten feet behind the Larsons, on the other side of a chain-link fence, tennis balls ponged with soft crispness during early evening singles matches. Food lines started to snake wildly. People talked on their phones. A girl reclined on a gold lamé pillow and read the new issue of Self. Nearby, a guy kept his earbuds in while the band performed.
Larson and Larson played songs written since last year’s Trust Now, but the unflattering mix and unsympathetic surroundings made one want to unhear the indecipherable chants and save them for a more proper listen. By the end, though, there was a small pack of dancers and the yoga moves engaged a line of would-be blogarazzi. When Telepathe started after a properly quick changeover, I’d finally made it to the front of the food line, and the switch from African Beatles covers on the PA in the background to a live electro-noise duo was almost unnoticeable. When I sat back down, a friend joining me for the movie arrived at the basketball court and called. “I’m by the band,” I told her. There was a pause on the other end as she realized she was looking at the band and hadn’t even registered that there was one. When we finished making with the hi-how-are-yous and the crackers-and-cheese, their 20-minute set was done. It didn’t feel like a loss, and not because of Telepathe’s music.
All considered, McCarren Park proved a more attractive outdoor reality—and genuine part of the neighborhood—than the new WIlliamsburg Park, nominally the replacement for McCarren Pool/East River Park, but actually a lifeless cement slab mere yards from the East River with, astoundingly, neither a water nor skyline view. And the Summerscreen series was a fine platform for Dirty Dancing, which—in turn—actually turned in a far more revelatory musical performance than any of the bands. With the full array of speakers switched on, the Hollywood-mastered rendition of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) over the opening credits sounded glorious.
Even more, though, Dirty Dancing managed to make an emotional connection with the large audience far more effectively than its openers. Nostalgia played a large part, surely. But it held up just fine for this first-time viewer a quarter-century after its release—certainly far better than any class of ’87 pop bands recreating a classic album ever could. The movie’s pop-as-dance-as-transgression-as-meaning progression resonated with a nearly mythical power in a time and a place where music has almost literally been subsumed into the landscape. Even if that thought was the furthest thing from most viewers’ minds (and it likely was), one could also see the music’s effect ripple outwards when it crossed back over into their consciousness.
By the (spoiler alert!!) final dance sequence, the entire crowd was on its feet. Nostalgia might have gotten them through the gate, but the film did the rest. And when the movie stopped cold in the middle of Patrick Swayze’s triumphant swagger to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the masses—bumping in joy only seconds before—booed with equal lust. Was it a curfew? Did everybody have to sit down? Did a sudden edict by the condo-owners’ association mean that Williamsburg had banned fun altogether? After a stunned few moments, it became apparent that the Mac laptop playing the film had simply crashed. The film restarted at the beginning of the musical number, and the group dancing continued, right on through the copyright warning about public screenings somethingsomething at the end of the credits, the music fading back into the mix.
Critical bias: Sitting on cement without a pillow suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.
Random notebook dump: Most captive audience short of Todd P. booking DIY shows on cross-country flights.
Overheard: “The mini-bar was curated. It was, like, artisanal.”