The heat this Saturday was intense. Hot, suffocating air hung over New York. The metropolis prayed for relief; clouds, wind, a thunderstorm that never would come. This sweltering situation was the backdrop for the CBGB festival, and I spent the afternoon chugging literally gallons of water, searching for a sliver of shade, and chasing rock bands from my youth.
I'm not sure the reasons behind the creation of the CBGB festival. The rumor mill at the festival seemed to indicate that Hilly Kristal's daughter had been behind the idea as a way to increase the brand image, and perhaps someday relaunch the club. Despite the numerous important bands who played there on their way to the top (albeit of a niche market), not one single person seems to remember CBGB's being at all worthwhile during the last decade (if not more) of it's putrid, dive-y existence. You can find plenty of articles about CBGB's on the internet. None of this really concerned me on Saturday, it was a free chance to catch Superchunk and Guided By Voices on the same day, with a couple of good bands filling in between.
The day began at Times Square; the crossroads of the world. Sweaty, sticky, and swarming with tourists, my first goal was to figure out when exactly Superchunk was going on. There was no information posted on the festival's website other than the names of the participating acts (in no apparent order), and my attempts to tweet at the band were futile. I located the sound booth and saw a list next to the sound board. For sound man eyes only, it announced, "Superchunk - 2:30". Great. I glanced at my phone. It was almost one o'clock.
Duff McKagan's Loaded (not sure if the band is called "loaded" and belongs to Duff, or if Duff himself is actually loaded), played they other stage while I waited for Superchunk. Duff's band was tight and professional, but totally lacking any sort of artistic relevance. They closed with a cover of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog", and I jumped into Duane Reade for a pack of gum and a minute in AC. I exited the drug store to find Superchunk on stage and ready to go. Fittingly, even the line-up on the sound guy's board was wrong. I have no idea how these people got the paperwork done to close down Broadway on a summer afternoon and throw a festival. I wouldn't trust them to run an elementary school's talent show.
Anyway, Superchunk was great. For those of you who don't know, they are IMPORTANT. They are made out of pure indie cred. They dumped Matador when Matador signed a distribution deal with Atlantic. They founded Merge Records and have a hand in pretty much any good band you've heard that has come out of the Chapel Hill scene. If you don't know this band, you can't understand indie rock. It's as simple as that. Their newest album, Majesty Shredding (2010), is actually as good as there old stuff. And the crowd is like a high school reunion... if you went to the Thurston Moore Academy of the Arts and studied either fuzz pedal design or post-feminist polaroid art. Needless to say, a moderate sized group of chill people, including the one and only Matt Pinfield.
They played a short high energy set, closing with "Slack Motherfucker" and "Hyper Enough", while the thirty-something crowd screamed along. I thought the best song of the set was "Detroit Has A Skyline". Mac McCaughan is a pretty damn good guitarist, and you really hear it live more than on the recordings (the rest of the band is pretty good too). McCaughan still has the energy of a little kid opening a present on Christmas morning, jumping around the stage and singing his heart out, despite the heat. One of the most unintentionally funny moments I've ever witnessed at a show was watching Mac attempt to jump on the drum riser, totally whiff, and end up on the ground, somewhere behind his amp. He stood up quickly and returned to the mic, guitar out of tune, but pride intact.
After Superchunk finished, I pretty much ran over to Central Park, to catch Cloud Nothings. As I approached the Southeast corner of the park, somewhere on 5th Ave. between the rotating airplane sculpture and F.A.O. Schwarz, the sky seemed primed for rain. People were hustling down the street, looking for cover, and the wind kicked NYC dust into my eyes. Alas, the threat passed without a single drop of rain and the heat continued. By the time I arrived at Summer Stage, it was hotter and sunnier than it had been all day. The open space in the park provided little shade.
Cloud Nothings were ok. I've heard their album a couple of times, though I'm not gonna pretend to be able to name songs off of it. Honestly, I think Cloud Nothings, if they were my friend's band, and I saw them play that set at Matchless, or Cakeshop, I would have been blown away. They seemed like a really good band of that stature, though they couldn't yet command the attention of the large audience in Central Park. I'm excited to see them progress as a band, and I bet (as long as they keep working at it), they are gonna be able to record some incredible albums in the future. Their audience was mainly 16-22 year olds, and I wondered if someday they would mature into my crowd, propped up in Times Square, rocking out to CNs like we had just done with Superchunk.
The next band, The War on Drugs, was pretty good, though playing as a four piece, didn't really cover the deep textures of their recorded material. It was nice to get some mellow rock during what turned out to be the hottest part of the day. I zoned out to them while waiting in line to fill my water bottle for like, the 3rd time already that afternoon. They sound like an acid trip in a springtime field, but they came across pretty good to someone suffering dehydration delusions in a public park.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart followed, and again, were pretty decent. Not sure I would drop more than $10 to see any of these bands, but I'm happy I got to see them for free. The Pains are a kinda middle of the road modern indie band, which due to changing tastes means they owe as much to Joy Division/New Order as they do to The Velvet Underground and first wave punk. I happily observed their set from a distance, under what little shade I could elbow my way into. I was too excited for Guided By Voices to really pay attention anyway.
Ten minutes before 6 pm, GBV took the stage. The temperature had dropped by about 5 degrees and I had a fresh bottle of precious, life giving, water. GBV, is essentially Robert Pollard. The classic line-up, the band that recorded the best GBV albums with Pollard, got back together a couple years ago, and have since been touring, routinely playing two hour plus sets, which always included most of Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. However, in the past year GBV has released not one, but two, new studio albums. It turns out that they were committed to playing as much of this material as they could get away with.
Now, listen... I love this band. They basically release everything they have ever played. Prolific, almost to a fault, their catalog, along with Pollard's various side projects, contains literally days worth of material. Some of it is awful, some of it is genius. Unfortunately, the new stuff just isn't on par with the old. I think "Let's Eat the Factory" is ok, a good effort for an older band with a couple of keepers. It got a 6.9 from Pitchfork, which was probably 0.5 too high (but you gotta show respect, I suppose). And that's what the album is, an OK collection of songs by an older band, some hit, some miss. "Class Clown Spots a UFO" (yeah Mr. Pollard, I get it, you were a teacher, it's a tired theme at this point), is better, and is definitely worth a listen if you're a fan of rock music (which if you've read this far, I'm sure you are), but it's still not the album that the crowd wanted to hear.
I'm not faulting them for playing new stuff. I'm faulting them for playing stuff that didn't go over as well. Overall, the new songs are slower. Mitch Mitchell plays a lot of faux-metal riffs (note, NOT his strength), and the vocals are delivered in a darker way, more "Jill Hives" than "Echos Myron". It seemed as if Tobin Sprout may have a bigger role as a songwriter, and it seemed as if bassist Greg Demos was thoroughly disinterested. Demos spent most of the set in the background, almost next to the drum set, until the band burst into "Game of Pricks", about a dozen songs deep into the set. The low point of the set was a song called, "God Loves Us", which made me want to vomit. I glanced around and caught eyes with several other distraught concert goers. They looked helpless... lost. It was terrible. What had happened? I'm standing, drenched it sweat, hungry, tired, disappointed, and this washed up hack, Pollard, is telling the crowd that "God Loves Us"...
The set rebounded with more up-tempo songs and a couple more classics, and overall it was a good set, the best set of the day at Central Park. I realize I'm dead to some people because I called Robert Pollard a washed up hack, and he most definitely isn't; but for the duration of that song, he was. I am sure of it, and I'll take it to my grave. I don't know if a minimalist group like GBV can go through long patches of low energy and still enthrall an audience night in and night out. I understand all the reasons why GBV is a great band, hell, I'm one of their biggest fans, but I also know that every band is only as good as their last set, and if you strip away the cult of personality that surrounds Pollard, you have to admit that they played a pretty mediocre set. And yes, my expectations were high, but why should I be going to see a band that I love, and be repeating in my head, "they have new material/don't get your hopes up/they have new albums/they probably won't play Motor Away/etc. etc."?
Yes, I'll go see them again. I want to give them a chance to bring new material that moves the crowd, I want to get a chance to hear a couple of the classics again, and I just plain want a chance to like them more than I liked them on Saturday.
I don't know what the rest of CBGB Fest was like, and I really don't care. There was a stabbing at a hardcore show, which I though was perfectly fitting. It's nice to know that the wicked aura of CBGB's is somehow still alive. Maybe CBGB's and GBV have a lot in common. They are both remembered most fondly for their fucked up, anything goes glory days; the bad times being mostly forgotten by our collective conscious, which always tends to anoint heroes and build temples based on our selective memories. Guided By Voices will continue to make albums, and there will be good songs on them, even if they never capture lightning in a bottle again, like they did with Alien Lanes. If CBGB's opens up again, some good bands will play there. I'm tremendously curious to see what the future holds for both these institutions, and if we've learned anything from the past, it promises to be a roll of the dice and a kick in the head.