The Northside Festival: Beauty, Banality, and Brooklyn As a Brand

As the festival market shifts, and media companies struggle to find their identities in an increasingly perilous environment, Northside is a convenient window through which to view both industries.

On one hand, the Northside Festival is just another festival, a weekend of bookings at various clubs in North Brooklyn that seemingly represent the brand that puts it on. And it is just that, in a way. But as the festival market shifts, and media companies struggle to find their identities in an increasingly perilous environment, Northside is a convenient window through which to view both industries.

Northside Festival is the child of The L Magazine, the now-online-only publication that used to distribute a print edition around the westernmost stops of New York City’s L subway line. They added a monthly glossy, Brooklyn Magazine, in 2011, and then BAMbill, their version of Broadway’s Playbill magazine for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Northside Festival was founded in 2009, and has since expanded from about 50 acts to a couple hundred. They’ve also added both “Content” and “Innovation” portions to the festival, taking cues from South by Southwest, and bloating up to eight full days of #content.

We were mostly interested in the music portion, as the newly consolidated Northside Media Group has done a good job in the past of booking a who’s who of ascendant independent and underground talent. This year’s lineup promised to be a collection of known entities (Brian Wilson, Wolf Parade, Conor Oberst) with a smattering of forward-thinking underground showcases (like Pitchfork’s experimental noise-heavy showcase at St. Vitus) and explorations into influential genres (like AdHoc’s “Fathers of Footwork”). At its best, it was fresh and exciting; at its worst, it was regressive and sad. Here’s what we saw.

We spent most of our Thursday with Diarrhea Planet; the Nashville six-piece brought their four guitars to an early taping of Late Night with Seth Meyers (with superfans Diet Cig in attendance), before trekking over to play what was essentially its record release show at Brooklyn Bowl (their third LP, Turn to Gold, dropped June 10). They had the packed house jumping and screaming along to songs old and new, acknowledging that New York felt like their home away from home.

In the first of the big tentpole shows in McCarren Park’s asphalt lot, Wolf Parade returned to Brooklyn for the first time in more than five years. They have only been back in action for about a month now (the band released an EP back in May), but already sold out a string of shows at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. They opened with “You Are A Runner and I Am My Father’s Son,” Apologies to the Queen Mary‘s opening track, and likely the first Wolf Parade track anyone ever heard. The band fought the typically detrimental elements of the outdoor show — in this case, mostly wind, an early curfew, and a condo building Dan Boeckner kept referring to as “the Eye of Sauron” — and when they closed with “I’ll Believe in Anything,” it was almost magical.

On Friday night, The New Yorker’s favorite DIY venue Palisades got shut down during a raucous set from Celestial Trax; Juliana Huxtable and Mikeq never made it to the stage. After police — responding to a noise complaint — kicked everyone out, its remaining shows were rescheduled. AdHoc Presents’ “Fathers of Footwork Vol. 2” showcase, featuring DJ Spinn, TRAXMAN, DJ Clent, Machinedrum and Tripletrain, got moved to Market Hotel, and the artists in question were likely grateful for the venue’s new HVAC system.

Colleen Green performs at Baby's All Right during the Northside Festival. Photo by Chona Kasinger.
Colleen Green performs at Baby’s All Right during the Northside Festival. Photo by Chona Kasinger.

D∆WN and her recent collborator Kingdom’s show, originally scheduled for Market Hotel, was moved to Rough Trade, and while the record-store venue has exponentially less character than the newly legal DIY space, that didn’t keep D∆WN from tearing it down. The cuts from her Kingdom EP Infrared were well-received, but the crowd went absolutely batshit for “Wake Up,” from her upcoming LP Redemptionheart. At a late show at Baby’s All Right, Colleen Green, Childbirth, and Diet Cig proved that women with guitars playing the same old chords is just inherently more interesting than a bunch of dudes doing the same thing. It’s all about perspective.

Saturday evening, The Felice Brothers opened for Conor Oberst and Kacey Musgraves, then served as Oberst’s backing band. The weirdly grown-up looking Oberst played some old folk-leaning Bright Eyes songs as well as some new joints off his latest LP, Upside Down Mountain. The Felice Bros.-arrangement of “First Day of My Life” was particularly painful, however, as were Kacey Musgraves’ pro-gun tweets later in the night, after news of the massacre on Latin night at a gay club in Orlando, Florida.

Pitchfork’s noise-heavy showcase at Saint Vitus had one of the more interesting lineups all weekend, with sets billed from Rabit, Lotic, Marshstepper, Priests, Breadwoman, Dan Vassalotti, and Bichkraft. The show at the increasingly notorious Saint Vitus (which, despite a subpar soundsystem, awkward layout and isolated location, is proving to be one of the best-booked bars in New York), served to help to re-establish the publication’s legacy of promoting underexposed talent. It might have been a bit difficult to reconcile the fact that the newly Condé Nast-owned property was hosting Breadwoman and Marshstepper, two little-known acts that are as much performance art as anything else. But by the show’s end there was little reason to feel anything other than appreciation for the brand and the fact they gave this art a platform — the show was that good.

The Breadwoman performance, a collaboration between producer Steve Moshier and performance artist Anna Homler, played out as a chilled-out noise-scape to soundtrack to the titular, bread-adorned dancer, who at one point gave birth to a sourdough round. Marshstepper, on the other hand, was a trip to hell. Frontman Nick Nappa paraded two chained and masked women to the stage, where they sat silent and still as he trounced around, swallowing the microphone and slapping the aforementioned chain against some homemade noise box. It was a lot of fun, and when paired with DC punks Priests, and the less abrasive closing acts of Rabit and Lotic, made a case for the essential qualities of the live show, and Northside Festival in general.

We didn’t catch the 33 1/3 Book Series event, which saw Frankie Cosmos perform songs from Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, Ava Luna perform songs from Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, and Deradoorian perform songs from Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality at Rough Trade, but it might have been interesting, and they certainly score points for precociousness. Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds was about as sad as you can imagine. An old man being pushed out onstage at the behest of people who stand to gain financially from such a spectacle, it was a bittersweet coda to a weekend of otherwise pleasant experiences.