2015 Northside Music Review

ex hex

The seventh Northside festival wrapped up on the 14th of June, with over 100,000 people spending time indulging either music, innovation, film, or a combination of the three. Free Williamsburg staff spent time at various shows from metal to pop acts, among thousands or sometimes only a dozen likeminded souls. The best sets and the ones that got away all feature below.

Best Set

Chris Quartly: Two sets spring to mind during this years Northside, the reunited Luna, who played a truly fantastic show on a humid evening in McCarren Park. Guitarists Dave Wareham and Sean Eden traded splitting guitar solos at will but the band also rolled out understated Velvet Underground-influenced tunes that can’t help but induce a lazy sway in the gripping heat; they smashed my expectations. However, I’ve got to give the honour to Ex Hex, who blew away all the cobwebs and were a real shot of adrenaline. After revisiting their record, Rips, I took the risk of missing my beloved Chileans, The Holydrug Couple, and thankfully the band justified that choice. Every song on the record sounds like it should be a hit single, and the trio bring all the high-kicks and rock poses they can muster. It was almost as if the more experienced musicians wanted to show the kids how it is done. Having said that, Ireland’s Girl Band have been a prior recommendation of mine and they absolutely delivered the goods supporting Viet Cong (who would have been a highlight, had their call-and-response guitars not been lost in a bad sound mix, unlike their show at Mercury Lounge earlier in the year), Girl Band played an uncompromisingly aggressive and creatively cacophonous set and I would urge everyone to catch them at Rough Trade on the 25th

Honourable mention: Built to Spill

Peter Rittweger: On Saturday night I was pretty torn between Blonde Redhead at the Warsaw, Ukiah Drag at Shea Stadium and Bell Witch at Saint Vitus, until a last minute announcement tipped the scales: “The special guest at Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy showcase is Prurient.”

Vitus it was, and my favorite set at this year’s Northside festival ended up being one that wasn’t even advertised. And how appropriate; the centerpiece of Dominick Fernow’s latest caustic magnum opus under the Prurient moniker, Frozen Niagara Falls, is a ten minute rumination on suicide called “Greenpoint.” I should have seen it coming.

Fernow is a figure who needs no introduction to any fans of extreme or experimental music. He’s almost peerless in stature in the contemporary scene; a notion that’s even more evident in a live setting. Noise is expressive and off-putting by nature. It exists to challenge our conceptions of music, so a noise show should also challenge our conceptions of what a concert should be. Sometimes it works and sometimes it feels like some dude frozen behind a folding table, twisting knobs for no apparent reason. Fortunately, Fernow is a showman whose stage presence is every bit as commanding as the music he makes as Prurient. He used the entire stage, throwing his body from left to right, collapsing over himself; almost as if the primal sounds he was pumping out of the amps were too much for him to handle. I didn’t see any other musician this this past weekend exude such tangible emotion.

Honorable mentions: Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Cayetana, Mannequin Pussy

Coleman Bentley: Just who and what Ed Schrader’s Music Beat are isn’t easy to put into words. Bass/drum duo? Vaudevillian comedy show? Fraiser-obssesed garage rock savants? Whatever you want to call them, the Baltimore twosome have always come off as something off a novelty act–good for a change of pace and a laugh–but Thursday night at Palisades did a great deal to change that. Tearing through a headlining set of past, present, and future tunes, Ed Schrader and his partner in petty crime, Devin Rice, had the crowd in on not the only the joke, but their dirtiest little secret: The fact they are actually one hell of a band. From the opening cries of “When I’m In A Car” to the final manic moments of “Rats”, Ed Schrader had the entire placing laughing, moshing, and buying up Florida swampland by the hectacre with a truly infectious (seriously, I can’t stop scratching) performance. Needless to say, the next time these dudes are in town, go see them.

Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch, Bell Witch, Prurient, did I say Bell Witch?

Best showcase

Chris Quartly: This particular Northside wasn’t so much about showcases for me as opposed to trying to get around and see as much as I could, as mentioned in our preview, the most enticing lineup was put together by locals Ad Hoc and Sacred Bones at Alphaville, for The Holydrug Couple and Hubble, but The Deli really excelled themselves this year with numerous showcases for new bands across multiple venues. I would like to add a special mention to Music Hall Williamsburg though, no venue could match their lineups over the four days: Viet Cong, Ex Hex, Lower Dens, Girl Band, Sannhet, TEEN, Spider Bags and more.

Peter Rittweger: As good as the aforementioned show at Saint Vitus was, I gotta give a shootout to the dudes down at Palisades for their Thursday night showcase. It was just all over the goddamn place in the best possible. It felt like an oddball Wednesday night show you’d stumble onto at Death By Audio. The night began with a very inebriated set from PC Worship, who were bordering on Frigid Stars territory at certain points. I could have sworn they cranked things up at least a few BPMs higher in previous performances. Slowcore on a hot, sticky night is a tough sell especially when there’s cheap beer. It worked, but it may have lulled some of crowd to sleep. Fortunately, Guerrilla Toss woke everyone up with a bouncy (literally) set complete with trippy Winamp Plugin-wave visuals, a small trampoline and an audio playbook chock full of Boredoms and Melt Banana hits.

Closing out the night was drum (literally, DRUM) and bass punk duo Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, who I’ve seen probably about a dozen times before, but HOLY SHIT have they come into their own. Their set is always one part punk show and one part stand-up, but man, they were ON. The jokes about Upstate New York and acapella sing-a-longs of Lion King tracks were certainly appreciated but their songs never sounded so good. Schrader’s smooth, Vegas lounge-quality baritone and his knife-edged yelps both sounded better than ever, whipping the crowd into the kind of frenzy usually reserved for his big bro Dan Deacon. They played a bunch of new tracks where the bassist played high up on the fret-board that were just outstanding; the faux-guitar added another dimension to their barebones setup. I’ve always had a soft spot for Ed Schrader, but before Thursday night they were sorta just a “fun” band to see whenever it was convenient. Now I’m comfortable calling ESMB a can’t miss act.

Honorable Mentions: Alberich, Prurient, Akitsa and Bell Witch at Saint Vitus, Cayetana, Mitski and Against Me! at McCarren Park

Coleman Bentley: Given my usual beat around these parts, it probably comes as little surprise that I was already prepared to grant Pitchfork’s Bell Witch/Akitsa/Alberich throwdown best showcase honors three weeks ago. Then I woke up Saturday morning to find Prurient occupying the special guest slot, and it was all over except for the mostly proverbial crying. Thankfully everything panned out and the show–a shape-shifting synthesis of blackened punk, high-decibel tantrums, and grave-rattling funeral doom–lived up to its massive (and diverse) billing, leaving little decision-making tennis left to be played. From a standpoint of musicianship, experimentation, and locale (Saint Vitus shout out!), there was simply nothing better.

Honorable Mentions: Wharf Cat Records Showcase at Shea Stadium, featuring Ukiah Drag, Ancient Sky, Gun Outfit, and more

The One That Got Away

Chris Quartly: It’s almost criminal that I missed The Holydrug Couple during their stay here, I’d just seen the band at Austin Psych Fest the month before, and as much as I love the band, I decided this was a chance to see some bands I’d never seen before. Still, in a perfect world I’d have gotten my fix of Chilean psych rock. I hope their sets at Alphaville and Baby’s All Right were well attended. I was also more than a little bummed out to duck out of Best Coast‘s set before the end and presumably miss them play Boyfriend (say what you want about the rest of their output, that is a great pop song), but I wanted to get over to Warsaw in time for some pierogies and Blonde Redhead!

Peter Rittweger: I didn’t have steam left to hoof it to the Warsaw after Bell Witch’s doom metal made me feel all existentially reflective on Saturday night, and I had family in town Sunday, so I missed out on both Blanck Mass sets. Hopefully these sets aren’t a one-time deal…

Coleman Bentley: The nature of any festival worth its salt, is that you will miss as much as you see, and such was the case with Northside this year. Blanking on Ex Hex (especially following Chris’s glowing feedback) and Viet Cong/Sannhet (the latter of which turned in one of our favorite LPs of the year thus far) certainly stung, but you move on and live your life, maybe even get married and settle down, trying all the while to not dwell on what could have been.

Final Thoughts

Chris Quartly: I always have fun at Northside and I think they strike a perfect balance between the larger acts and showcases with the DIY scene , which is no mean feat when you consider how far apart the scale can be, from artistic vision to work ethic. At least in terms of the shows I went to, everything was organised fairly well with things running on schedule (some McCarren Park logistics aside), which makes showhopping all the more easier. It always seems to mark the start of summer and I’m already looking forward to next year. Perhaps there weren’t any new acts that jumped out at me (that I hadn’t heard of before at least), but the festival feels like more a case Brooklyn condensed than anything else.

Peter Rittweger: With the exception of last year (I was at a wedding) I’ve been to every edition of the Northside Festival and it’s always one of my favorite times of the year. It seemed like the Northside brand was trending upwards over the last couple of years, but this edition seemed to scale things back a bit. I sorta like it that way. I don’t want to see Northside lose its focus and become SXSW junior. Of course, they DO have the film and interactive portions, but they still take a backseat to the music. SXSW has basically become a tech conference for startup geeks and venture capitalists, partially for survival purposes, so my big takeaway from the whole thing is: I hope Northside sticks around for a good long time and maintains its vision. Big tent festivals have become big business lifestyle brands and conference-style festivals for journalists like SXSW and CMJ have become less vital in the streaming age. Northside is a breath of fresh air. It’s a festival by and for us. It celebrates the eroding independent North Brooklyn music scene. Local businesses support it, local bands play it and local curators bring touring acts to Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick for our enjoyment. Brooklyn wouldn’t be the same without it anymore.

Coleman Bentley: Organized by locals, as opposed to faceless minions in DIY-gobbling office parks, and booked for music fans, not tag-alongs hoping to dump the maximum dosage of recreational chemicals into their systems before the next white-washed mega-band takes the porta-stage, Northside has always been my pick of the rapidly growing NYC fest litter. All is not well in Williamsburg in 2015, however, and some of that transitory tension seemingly rubbed off on the festival’s overall experience this year. Gone are the neighborhood’s gritty, pot-stirring venues, replaced instead by agreeable places for agreeable bands. Missing are the best-kept-secret vibes, replaced by Urban Outfitter’s stages and 5,000 capacity “concerts”. What’s left–and, funnily enough, what we unconsciously attended–is scattered to Bed Stuy in the south and the precipice of Queens to the north, a formless vapor of what was once highly-condensed wrecking ball of Williamsburg rad. Now, if this sounds like the typical fuck-gentrification “think”piece you’ve read half of one thousand times before, I’m sorry. I’m tired of that too. Unfortunately, the facts only serve to deepen my ambivalence: This weekend I saw two of the best shows I’ve seen all year, and Northside Festival, like the whole of Brooklyn around it, is changing faster than I can.

Additional photos

bestcoast
Best Coast

blonderedhead
Blonde Redhead

builttospill
Built to Spill

cayetana
Cayetana

girlband
Girl Band

Luna
Luna

Viet Cong
Viet Cong

yvette
Yvette

All photos by Chris Quartly

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