Catalpa NYC: Snoop Dogg, Black Keys, Matt & Kim, Matisyahu, A$AP Rocky, Hercules & Love Affair, TV On The Radio, Girl Talk, et al.
Saturday and Sunday, July 28 and 29
Better than: Arguing over an iPod’s shuffle function.
Music festivals without a historical following or a known brand identity can employ many strategies in their inaugural year, one of which is “Appeal to as many prospective demographics as possible.” Catalpa NYC, which debuted this weekend at Randall’s Island, decided to combat this problem by throwing together a bunch of popular-ish acts and some quirky attractions—art, fire, a chance to “elope” with a fellow Snoop Dogg fan.
Results were mixed; the lineup succeeded in having a broad appeal, but lacked a coherent musical aesthetic. Many of the non-musical attractions were spoiled by rain on Saturday and, faced with the prospect of surviving on its artists alone, Catalpa became a referendum on its performers’ current positions within the musical landscape. Many attendees claimed to like “everything,” so Catalpa became a chance to find out what the new “everything” is.
The musicians played across three stages, with a whole host of corporate sponsorships filling the gaps between the performance spaces. Vodka was hawked in what looked like a sprawling series of igloos; a car company set up an obstacle course to demonstrate the trunk space and cool factor of its new trucks; a web site handed out face paint and animal masks. My personal favorite booth promoted a kind of guarana/caffeine pill that is supposed to be dropped into water, making it turn all fizzy and orange like an Alka-Seltzer from Hell—half an hour after it’s imbibed, your heart is doing high-speed interval training inside your chest.
There were other, less corporate, uningestable attractions, many of which failed to reach their full potential due to Saturday’s rain. A fire demonstration was canceled; the bumper cars were nowhere to be found; one operations employee informed me that it took nine hours to set up the bounce castle that would serve as the “house of sham marriages.” Catalpa didn’t quite deliver on its admittedly ambitious extramusical plans, but it provided a great opportunity to investigate those artists operating at the borders of the mainstream.
Matthew Paul Miller, better known as the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, was almost too perfect an artistic choice for a festival struggling to forge an identity. After all, the man is a particularly well-traveled cultural tourist, having chosen not one but two “exotic,” appropriation-ready regions (Jamaica and Israel). When Miller first became popular back in 2004, he still wore the yarmulke, side curls and beard of the religion he chose when he was 15. Eight years later, he’s traded in his Orthodox accessories for turquoise Nikes and a denim jacket.
It’s difficult to be open-minded about this progression—especially when Miller sings lyrics like “Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do” and the hand holding the microphone isn’t smote by the wrath of a betrayed God, or when he says that he’s going to use the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av as an occasion for rejoicing. (It’s actually a commemoration of the destruction of the holy temples, as well as a day of remembrance for a bunch of other bad stuff that’s happened to Jews over the years.)
Matisyahu does win points for taking a firm stand against the heinous, mammarian beach balls that made appearances intermittently all weekend. There is nothing redeeming about them; they smell like wet condoms, they provoke every drunkard in the crowd to lunge blindly skywards frequently knocking meek counterparts over in the process and if you don’t look up, one will inevitably plow into your head.
These horrible balls made an unfortunate appearance during TV On the Radio’s set; the Brooklyn rock outfit was one of three New York City representatives that didn’t quite possess the populist vibe of the other big acts. TVOTR’s live show is, in this critic’s opinion, relatively spectacular—lead singer Tunde Adebimpe and his band slowly built tension for their opening song “Young Liars,” then performed selections from their two most recent albums and gave a heartfelt shoutout to Adam Yauch. Though I found the band enthralling, the group next to me was distracted from the songs about hubris and general self-absorption by the overwhelming need to snap pictures of themselves. (“Yo, I need a picture of you in that headband for my background,” one particularly vehement photographer insisted repeatedly.)
The disco/house group Hercules and Love Affair had an easier time roping in initially uninterested Catalpans, thanks in large part to relatively new vocalists Gustaph and Whitney Marston Pierce. Pierce, a statuesque blonde in vampy makeup, was particularly effective, commanding the stage with a burlesque performance that convinced a couple of male Umphrey’s McGee fans to stay put and watch the strange, half-naked lady campily mime sex. During the group’s performance, a cheerful, tiny woman from the New York Parks and Recreation Department materialized to pick up disposed bottles and torn wristbands, dancing the entire time as she moved her trash-grabber rhythmically from ground to bag.
A$AP Rocky was the last of the idiosyncratically New York acts to perform; he was competing directly with Girl Talk’s mainstage set, and he was extremely grateful for the crowd that showed up. After letting his crew the A$AP Mob run the stage for the first ten minutes of his set, he appeared to shoo them away, claiming that it was “time to start the show” in earnest. He was plagued by relatively poor sound quality, but the Harlem MC’s earnest appreciation for the crowd went over well, and his desire to “fuck a jiggy bitch” was received with raucous laughter and a succession of enthusiastic candidates who were clearly confident about their inherent jigginess. (Rocky was one of only three rap acts, all of whom were slotted in on Sunday.)
Matt Johnson and Kim Schilfino’s brand of joyous, keyboard-driven dance-pop was more in line with festivalgoers’ tastes. It also helped that after a six-month hiatus, Matt and Kim were grinning like fools on laughing gas and kicking into each and every song with abandon. Kim volunteered to the crowd that she had been aggressively Kegeling because she wanted “to fuck the shit out of you tonight.” Matt demanded that she booty-dance on top of her drum kit; both performed exuberant acrobatics that left the crowd whooping, cheering and trying desperately to catch up through the power of stomp-and-shout dancing.
The Black Keys and Snoop Dogg headlined, and the similarities between these two acts go a long way toward explaining Catalpa’s underlying aesthetic.
The current incarnation of The Black Keys is a pop band, although that fact remains unspoken. At this point, Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach are consummate professionals, used to playing for very large and enthusiastic crowds in huge venues. They’ve tailored their music to match their newly sizeable audience, toning down their blues noodling, tightening their song structures, and adding lyrics about relationships and chant-along choruses. This transformation hasn’t gotten in the way of quality—an important distinction between The Keys and a band like the Cold War Kids, who tried to go “full mainstream” and lost the edge of their first, most popular singles.
The Keys were professional as always on Saturday night; Auerbach occasionally shouted encouragements like “let’s keep this moving right along” and “just a few more, guys.” Though they mostly stuck with crowd favorites from their last two albums, a couple of songs from their Chulahoma EP, where they covered compositions by the late Junior Kimbrough, snuck into the middle of their set. There’s no denying the fun of a gut-busting turn from competent rockers and the Black Keys—though they may have lost a little spontaneity on their road to commercial darlinghood—are nothing if not competent.
Sunday’s headliner, Snoop Dogg, has quietly transformed into a new-school American icon with a long career and a safe persona that combines Huggy Bear with Willie Nelson. But even though he’d clearly been chosen for his relative mass appeal, Snoop played the entirety of his 1993 classic Doggystyle. Though Snoop’s set was practiced and smooth, aided by pulpy videos which furthered Tha Doggfather’s myth, it was funny to see the crowd bemused by such classic rap tracks as “Murder was the Case that They Gave Me” or “Stranded on Death Row” (from Dr. Dre’s magnum opus The Chronic). G funk is fast approaching its thirties and aging well, but the crowd responded most to the two songs Snoop played last: “Drop it Like it’s Hot” and “Young, Wild, And Free,” the latter of which has as its chorus the defiant proclamation “So what we get drunk, so what we smoke weed, so what we have fun… we’re young and wild and free.” It’s probably the least divisive chorus that could be performed at a music festival.
Araabmuzik is an MPC wizard who splices trance, rap and R&B into a bass-heavy hybrid. His set made use of two equally effective elements: his sense of pure mechanical showmanship and the way he provokes the crowd into a frenzy by teasing traces of samples farther and farther until he finally lets songs play out in their entirety. This treat-dangling stokes the desire to hear the songs in full; even a single undistorted syllable ends up sounding heavenly. When the former Dipset producer finally let a whole song float on its own, like he did with Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop” and Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” the crowd (particularly the two women behind me who insisted on referring to the artist as Mr. Araabmuzik for the length of his performance) went absolutely nuts.
Girl Talk also uses samples to incite a fever in the crowd, though he doesn’t tease them out slowly; he introduces bushels of familiar singles to the crowd, tossing off old pop songs and rap hooks like so many grapes. He’s passé in the strict definitive sense of the word; he’s been making danceable music from the same idea for the last ten years. He’s not on the cutting edge, and to those for whom “safety” in a musical artist is a pejorative, he’s no longer worthwhile.
But very few people at Catalpa minded. The move toward the main stage when Gillis started whipping his hair back and forth was by far the festival’s biggest migration, and that’s because Gillis is really good at what he does. He knows the songs that make a certain group of people go “ooo!” He knows surface-level pop in nearly every genre. For a festival without a solid identity, where no one could really decide exactly what they wanted to hear, Girl Talk was a perfect fit. After all, he played everything.
Critical bias: The employee who proffered me the fizz-inducing pill told me, “It’ll make you turn into the Hulk.” This person clearly knew what I was looking for.
Overheard: “It looks like a regular concert in a field.”—someone on Facebook asking after the wherabouts some of the promised attractions.
Random notebook dump: Weed feels more legal than stuff that is currently OK for consumption at the moment (though the Hulkamania-inducing substance I ingested is not endorsed as medicine by the FDA). There were two head shops side by side at the festival, one of which had an actual glassblower on duty to make pipes. The general necessities store sold rolling papers and blunts beside the socks and condoms, as well as baggies and scales for all the forgetful dealers who were slated to show up.