Five years ago, the folks behind Brooklyn Magazine and The L Magazine created what seemed at the time to be a CMJ Music Marathon exclusive to Williamsburg venues, dubbed Northside Festival. Over time, CMJ has deteriorated into a shell of itself: Lower East Side venues brimming with brand parties that wouldn’t even make the radar at SXSW and bills rounded out by major labels’ baby bands. With all due respect to what CMJ once was, the music portion of Northside — which now, in a SXSW-esque twist, includes innovation and film panels — has grown to be a much clearer representation of indie rock (at a time when the genre term has come to communicate very little) — and a cleaner go at music discovery.
Northside’s geographical concentration of venues — all located in Williamsburg or Greenpoint — cannot be understated. Finally, bopping from show to show without wasting money on cabs is actually feasible. Governors Ball may be the traditional festival experience in a New York setting, but Northside is the festival experience done Brooklyn style. Or, at least, 80,000 New Yorkers think so.
Here’s a small selection of what the Flavorwire crew saw at Northside Festival 2014.
Titus Andronicus: Don’t Call It a Comeback
Opinions can be what Titus Andronicus leader Patrick Stickles does best, as he showed Thursday night at Warsaw. After a set by the stone-faced melodramatists Eagulls, he offered a belief in respect for the physical space of concertgoers (“Punk shows are supposed to be a refuge, safer than the streets”), big-upped his new home in Queens (“Brooklyn is bunk, Queens is Number One… don’t move there”), pointed out the pointlessness of stage-diving (“I used to do that, when I was dumb kid”), and of course, updated us on the status of Titus Andronicus (“We’re getting too old for this punk rock shit!”).
A few Titus mainstays, like “My Time Outside the Womb,” seemed long in the tooth, coming off more as ballads than punk smashers. Stickles seemed happiest playing material from the band’s upcoming fourth LP. Two songs, “Look Alike” — which sounded like the heart-attack tempo of the band’s debut — and “Fatal Flaw” — which added the anthemic sounds of the best parts of 2012’s Local Business stood out. Stickles even seemed to smile!
Another source of joy for the wordiest man in indie: covers. He started off the show singing No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs,” dedicated “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to his momma, even a little Toby Keith while telling the crowd, “You hipsters don’t even know who this is!” But the night’s emotional resonance — and feelings always run high at a Titus shows, where fans sing back every verse and riff with a Taylor Swiftian loyalty — peaked with a cover of Semisonic’s beyond-schlock “Closing Time.” Stickles refused to go, “Remember the ’90s?” on the song, treating “I know who/ I want to take me home” with complete seriousness. “Every new beginning/ Is some other beginning’s end,” he said to himself over and over again. With a fourth album in the works and so many posts on social media one can feel buried in them, Stickles seems excited for a clean slate. — David Grossman
Couch Slut and Pharmakon Trade Anger for Terror
I’ve spent what perhaps qualifies as a weird amount of time thinking about the different ways women’s aggression manifests itself in music — and specifically the difference between Riot Grrrl-style anger and female performers who are just flat-out terrifying. Lydia Lunch is probably the ultimate example of the latter category, but two artists I saw at St. Vitus Saturday night as part of Pitchfork’s Northside showcase are among the most powerful recent examples.
Brooklyn metal quintet Couch Slut is fronted by a woman with the ability to flip from soft-spoken stage banter to a full-on “Fuck you” or (if I heard correctly) “I will fucking drink you” scream in the space of seconds — a dichotomy that’s complemented by her band mates’ sludge-to-speed range. She isn’t afraid to jump into the crowd, or set aside the mic for a moment to let her raw vocal chords speak for themselves. There’s frustratingly little information available online about the band, but it’s only a matter of time before they get the attention they deserve.
A bit later came Pharmakon, aka industrial noise prodigy Margaret Chardiet, an act I’d been trying, and failing, to catch live for a few years. Her short, punishing set found her building cacophonous soundscapes before wading into the audience to scream in men’s faces. I was particularly thrilled to see her invade the space of the tall dude who had pushed his way in front of me (and later, I’m pretty sure, farted). Here’s to terrifying women in music, a trend I’ll happily endorse. — Judy Berman
Pulling Pop-Punk Punches: Swearin’ and Radiator Hospital
Festival lineups can often present themselves as a bit of a mystery. This bar can be lowered when the set is sponsored/curated by a known entity, like PopGun Presents, the booking/PR unit based out of Brooklyn. When the bands in question work within the same genre, like pop-punk, things start to clarify even further, like a blurry perp image being zoomed in on and enhanced in a ’90s crime show. And finally, when the two bands share a drummer, like Radiator Hospital and Swearin’, the image becomes crystal clear.
Sunday night at Glasslands, Jeff Bolt worked double-duty for the bands, smashing his kit with equal intensity for the two. Radiator Hospital started off as Sam Cook-Parrot’s bedroom project; even with a third LP on the way, he still looks a little surprised that anyone is watching him play, full of nervous self-deprecation on stage. His voice, high-pitched and full of tension, is capable of slow beauty, like on “Detroit Diamonds.” But Radiator Hospital decided to keep in the spirit of the night and blast wiry, dance-y pop-punk.
It seemed fine until Salinas Record-mates Swearin’ churned out guitar chords that felt 50 feet tall. When talking about Swearin’, much is correctly made of singer/guitarist Alison Crutchfield’s lyrics and the talent she has delivering them, like the bite she showed on the band’s biggest single, “Kenosha.” But that takes away both from her guitar playing, knotty and powerful, as well as the acerbic voice of other the band’s other guitarist/lead singer, Kyle Gilbride, who delivered lyrics like, “The truth I know/ Is inside my head/ It goes where I go/ Always follows me!” in a way that was both intensely personal and yet filled up Glasslands. — David Grossman
CHVRCHES Go Small
The outdoor space located on N. 12th St. between Bedford and Berry cannot even fairly be called a venue, but Northside makes it work for their needs, setting up a small stage within one of McCarren Park’s fenced-in fields of blacktop. Every year this area seems to grow — not in size but in stuff. This year it was a TGI Friday’s truck giving out free samples of the chain’s frozen eats, Keurig offering up iced K-cups, Jameson handing out Kelso IPA soaked in their whiskey barrels, free plastic sunglasses and tote bags and the whole bit, really. The physical constraints and innate dinkiness of this outdoor space, though, cannot be altered. It is where many of Northside’s highest-profile shows take place — Solange last year and CHVRCHES this year, for example — and it’s a nice reminder of Northside’s niche aims despite booking artists as prominent as the aforementioned alt-pop stars.
Glasgow’s CHVRCHES were last summer’s secret; this summer, their cotton-candy brand of electropop will be blasted at BBQs by those who hardly keep up on music discovery. Their popularity was made clear by the acts of fandom seen at their Sunday Northside set, when a group of attendees donned homemade face masks replicating the members’ mugs. They were quite creepy and deeply flattering, and frontwoman Lauren Mayberry said as much. She also took a moment to discuss haggis, the savory sheep pudding that’s quite popular in her native Scotland, at which point I stopped listening because 80 degrees and several beers and oh god please stop talking about meat tapioca right now.
This kind of banter was pretty minimal, as was the general air of stage presence. CHVRCHES don’t do much besides play through their 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe, and for the most part that satiates the crowd. By this point the songs are familiar to them, especially the hits “Recover” and “The Mother We Share”; by the next album, I do hope CHVRCHES up the stage presence a little, as I found myself distractedly staring off at the man playing tennis at the court just behind the beer stands. — Jillian Mapes