It’s hard to believe the Northside Festival just celebrated its first decade. Despite enduring some growing pains over the years—venues that didn’t fit, too many no-names, aversion to press—it has evolved into a destination event. Perhaps not as big in scope as SXSW or CMJ or as concentrated with talent like a Coachella or Bonnaroo, the Northside Festival is more a showcase of musical diversity, not to mention an innovation contingent connecting tech visionaries from around the country. It certainly posits Williamsburg as a sovereign neighborhood of the ultimate hip and a different world than the rest of Brooklyn (hence Northside). For this 10th anniversary edition, at least, that hood was the center of the universe and the Northside, an event where Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors is a legitimate celebrity and artists like Tony Molina and Big Thief become instant superstars. This past weekend was not a rush, race, nor scavenger hunt. Instead it was a casual drift, and as such I only saw a handful of sets, but the quality of each was exceptional.
The diversity of Northside was expressed from the start, directly from the mouth of Jay Som (pictured top), who described her opening slot with Kamasi Washington and Longstreth at McCarren Park as the most “surreal” line-up she’s ever witnessed. While a disciple of ’90s buzz, the humble and noticeably nervous Som, doesn’t wallow in nostalgia and instead gives it an indiscriminately big hug, without much pizzazz or angst. There was no wow factor in her shoegazing pop, but with a very competent band there to flesh out the sonically lush songs of her self-made recordings, it was wholly satisfying.
But the subsequent set by Kamasi Washington’s octet was perhaps the most transcendent of the weekend. Kind of like riding the best rollercoaster in the park first, Washington placed the bar very high, despite playing instrumental jazz and nothing even slightly familiar. Washington is the perfect example of a festival set that turns heads and prompts internet searches for the uninitiated. He and his band plowed through an intense fusion of dark purple, paisley, funk and post-modern jazz. Washington and his saxophone should be headlining every fest in America, as the lack of a voice is filled with intense melodies that say more about freedom than any words could.
Striking out on his own search for autonomous stardom, Dave Longstreth (pictured above) performed without any recognizable Dirty Projectors in tow, despite being billed as such. His performance was majestic, in a pure Beck-sian showman mold, sometimes as crooner, sometimes as weirdo folkie, and yet other times as a polyrhythmic bandleader. Surrounded by a near orchestra, Longstreth took the opportunity to show that the experimental pop of Dirty Projectors is finally ready for large scale festival crowds.
Nonetheless, I had to leave early to ensure I caught Mary Timony of Helium play the songs of her former band in celebration of its 20th anniversary reissue campaign. As guitar god on Rough Trade’s stage, Timony showed that the songs of Helium have only gotten better with age. Compared to its contemporaries of the day, Helium’s oeuvre was more mysterious, sexier, sultrier, and downright more gnarly. With barbwired come-ons and witty push-back, the fuzz was encapsulating and Timony’s return as Helium was well worth the wait.
Friday most of my time was spent among the dark, dank, Satanic vibes of St. Vitus, the most Northern of Northside’s venues. I started the night with Brooklyn’s Flesh World (pictured above), a nervy up-and-coming quartet that balanced on an edge of jangly pop and thrifty post-punk. While none of the songs were particularly memorable, their show was sharply resonant. It was like REM as played by Wire (as opposed to the opposite), though looking for hooks throughout.
Returning to Rough Trade to see local darlings, Big Thief on the night their latest album, Capacity, was named Best New Music by Pitchfork, I got shut out. The venue was at “capacity,” and the general public, the ticket buyers, were preferred over badge holders, a confounding trend I would again encounter next night when I tried to see Tony Molina play Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me.
That rejection turned out to be a blessing, as I returned to St. Vitus to finish the night with Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys. I’ve been a huge fan of the “bi-bilingual communist” band since the beginning, but have never been witness to their live show. Though we live in times that call for political punk, few can pull off the kind of stuff that was happening during the Reagan era. Downtown Boys’ leader, Victoria Ruiz, made it look easy, though. In between spasms and fits of rage, Ruiz would get on her soapbox and rant against the patriarchal administration, white supremacy, and “toxic masculinity.” The crowd was hanging on her every word as she sucked the oxygen from the room. It was breathtaking and assured that Downtown Boys are the only political band that matters at the moment.
Being run ragged in the city for three straight days, Saturday night was as chill as they come. Miguel (pictured above) proved to be a perfect artist to headline such a diverse festival. He brought along a full band to drift through his cadre of radio hits and explore the jam that exists in his headier material. As a consummate performer, Miguel danced and sang and romped around the stage with an ear-to-ear smile. And though I was denied entry to see some of my favorites, Miguel’s enthusiasm made up for any disappointment.
As it grows, Northside will likely have to add venues, maybe some day shows, and grasp onto new sponsors to fund expansion. As it stands, it has become a destination fest, and this year’s presentation has few peers among American music showcases. Well done.