“If we don’t finish up by 10:30, we’re told the Eye of Sauron is going to open up and kill us. Not you guys; just the band.” So said Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner last night at the inaugural performance of the eighth annual Northside Festival, which took place in McCarren Park, the Williamsburg recreational space surrounded mostly by luxury residential buildings (one of which was, apparently, the aforementioned Eye of Sauron), as well as a few pre-Girls hangouts that have managed to hold on during the rollercoaster ride of Brooklyn’s gentrification. The indie-rock-veterans-versus-brightly-lit-condos made for an odd scenario, a juxtaposition that was heightened by the fact that Wolf Parade are themselves at this point kind of nostalgia act — and so, too, is the very idea of something like Northside Festival, which hopes to mine credibility from the legacy of a Brooklyn that no longer exists, and maybe never did.
That’s not to say the fest isn’t vital or the show wasn’t good. Wolf Parade, more than a decade removed from their breakout album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, are as sharp as ever, with frontmen Boeckner and Spencer Krug offering up a kind of fitful energy that is too raw to be manufactured. And the songs, new and old — they just released an EP in May — are good, too. The band performed in Manhattan a few weeks ago, and though their set was tight then, it’s only gotten better. To say nothing of the hour that preceded it, ATTQM highlight “I’ll Believe in Anything” just might be one of the strongest set-closers ever.
The fact that they pulled off anything close to transcendent is remarkable given the tremendous obstacles that face all outdoor shows, which are thanks to the simple truth that the shows are performed out of doors: wind was knocking over instruments and blowing wires loose, an unfortunate group of very tall imbeciles kept trying to climb into a VIP section, a lot of weed smoke, and, well, also that looming curfew, which is kind of representative of just how out of sync the ethos of Northside Festival is from the reality of Williamsburg, a suburb of Brooklyn that, at this point, has all of the authenticity of the Upper West Side.
The festival is described on its homepage as a place “to find your new favorite band, then see your all-time favorite band play down the block… to avoid having to go to a giant field and forego showers to immerse yourself in live music.” The text goes on, “To hang out in the coolest city in the world. To soak up Brooklyn.” These two statements are maybe contradictory: since when have music fans listed showers as a prerequisite for enjoying some live tunes? Well, the answer to that is probably: about the same time Brooklyn became a place known for refined authenticity rather than just straight-up roughness.
To chart the hipsterization of Williamsburg would be to chart something intangible, and the only real way to do so is to fall back on stereotypes of plaid and beards and L train ridership. There’s another way, of course, which would be to catalog all of the various New York Times pieces that make headlines of the coolness of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Greenpoint, and any of the other surrounding suburbs that now find themselves full of brunch spots, J.Crew, eat-in movie theaters, and very few DIY spaces. But these signifiers are easy, anecdotal, and rely on concretions that, in the way they’re so easily referenced, fail to capture the precarious spirit of a place in the midst of gentrification.
But Northside Festival is eight years old. It isn’t a holdout from that gentrification, but rather one of the few Brooklyn establishments that has managed to adapt along with the Brooklyn Brand. It’s good for those who ascribe to that brand, too, kind of like an opt-in amenity for those who can afford to live off of the first few L train stops. (For those further away, there is, in fact, a stage sponsored by Lyft.) As great as the festival is, and as great as it is to have an overabundance of live music in Williamsburg for a few days out of the summer — especially as New York’s other attempts at popular festivals have either mutated out of control (CMJ) or grown inaccessible (Governors Ball; Summer Jam) — it’s easy to approach cynically, especially when you’re there with a media badge and see all the other folks there who are also wearing (or hiding) the same badge.
It becomes, in the end, important to ask what this festival is trying to do. Cynicism colors everything, and through that lens it’s just a bunch of brands cashing in on Brooklyn’s legacy as a place to discover new music, especially as so much of the priority on guest lists is given to the media. But there is the chance that the festival has helped smaller bands make inroads and maybe get noticed by people who can help them get noticed by more people. And that makes the inclusion of acts like Wolf Parade, or Brian Wilson, or Conor Oberst, a little weird. Because as much as this writer loves Wolf Parade, they sold out a string of shows at Bowery Ballroom almost instantly; and they deserved it. But do they need the press, or the headlining slot at a local-leaning festival? Probably not. But do the wealthy residents of Brooklyn who wax nostalgic for the YouTube-as-review era of Pitchfork demand a band with Wolf Parade’s cachet in order to leave the house? Definitely.