The Village Voice’s Siren Music Festival began in 2001—a time when free outdoor music shindigs were a little less common, indie was a little more indie, and Coney Island was a little less grimy (or was it grimier?). Even the Voice itself has changed from a dependable go-to guide for city-based culture, to spouting wistful weekly attempts at cultural commentary, while thousands of new media websites are doing the same exact thing. The difference is, however, that new media provides up-to-the-minute listings days in advance, and in the process has eaten the printed version of the Voice alive. Nonetheless, the Voice succeeds in throwing a fine festival for all every summer, even if it’s held in the much past its prime Coney Island.
A trip to Coney Island is not for the faint of heart… literally. In fact, every year the park’s organizers promise a renovation, but every summer the wooden Cyclone manages to creak on renovation-free overlooking a beach that is jam-packed with tanners. And while we think that the Astroland section of the park was closed this year, it was pretty impossible to tell. While strolling past the sideshow area, there is very little shade, and the attractions still insist upon hosting a variety of outdated and rather un-PC sideshows where little people with deformed arms are paraded on with the words “Everything you see here is real! The bearded lady! The torso man! The giant baby! The girl with lobster hands!” If you can stomach these things, you’ll probably be rewarded with a plethora of Coney Island’s best goodies, including Nathan’s Hot Dogs, enormous cups of ice cream, a creaky ride on the Cyclone, and maybe a burlesque show somewhere down the line.
This year, Siren did not fail in its attempt to round up about fourteen or so kid-tested, Pitchfork-approved indie acts. The smaller bands kicked off the day, including Bear Hands, the kid brother-and-sister duo Tiny Masters of Today (who for the record, are cooler than thou, no matter how old you are), and electro-quirk trio Micachu & the Shapes. The late afternoon hosted acts such as the rough and tumble rawness of Japandroids, Future of the Left, Thee Oh Sees, and Israeli longhaired sweat machines, Monotonix. The later acts, aka the most coveted performances, carried names like A Place to Bury Strangers, Frightened Rabbit, The Raveonettes, Spank Rock, and ‘90s tried and true alterative act Built to Spill.
Though the festival is free and the bands are good, Coney Island isn’t where you want to be on a crowded, hot, July day. If you can get past the heat, claustrophobic audiences and remember to wear comfy shoes, then Siren can be a pleasurable experience from start to finish. Thankfully, the musical performances held on the Main and Stillwell stages were energetic and ultimately satisfying. Scottish alt-act Frightened Rabbit were particularly impressive to watch. Frightened Rabbit are unusually good at focusing the magic of their recorded work to their live set. Scott Hutchison’s voice was thick with brogue, and his onstage demeanor felt lively and unpretentious. Although Frightened Rabbit mainly stuck to performing tracks off of their newer album, The Midnight Organ Fight, (understandable, given the 40 minutes of allotted stage time) the boys pulled off a solid, heartfelt performance given the hot sun’s prevalence.
After trekking through the festival space, past a sea of hipsters in gladiator sandals, cutoffs and wayfarers, I arrived at the Stillwell stage (the smaller of the two) for A Place To Bury Strangers’ set. Just minutes before, I could make out the strains of garage punkers Future of the Left while I leafed through cheap jewelry at the festival’s flea markets. Once I arrived at Stillwell, A Place to Bury Strangers looked just as sweaty and uncomfortable as their audience did, but their set did them some serious justice. APTBS’ guitar-work is their major selling point, obscuring the singer’s voice in ten layers of distortion.
Speaking of selling points, this year’s Siren Festival boasted seasoned alt-rockers and indie veterans Built To Spill as a headliner, and they don’t come out to play very often. Their early evening performance was just as solid as the other bands on Siren’s roster. Doug Martsch and Co. moved through newer songs like “Liar”, “Goin’ Against Your Mind”, and their 1994 classic “Distopian Dream Girl”, but “move through” is more or less all they did. Doug Martsch has time-stamped his quirky, nasal voice, enviable guitar talent, and has any number of special sing-a-long indie songs under his belt, but I did wonder if a Built to Spill performance would be a little more engaging back when free outdoor music shindigs were a little less common, indie was a little more indie, and Coney Island was a little less grimy.