Every city in America, it seems, can currently lay claim to some sort of annual hyped-up music festival. The latest metropolis to sneak onto the scene is Pittsburgh, which recently played host to the slightly bafflingly titled, New American Union Festival. While the name elicited question marks from concert goers, the price and line-up prompted many punctuation points. Curated by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the festival brought together ten bands—including headliners The Roots and Bob Dylan—for a price that, outside of this festival environment, wouldn’t have covered seeing either headliner on the regular touring circuit. For just $25 a day, attendees also received a t-shirt, as well as a re-usable plastic water bottle and free H2O fill-up stations.
Like the festival’s bill, which included acts as diverse as Gnarls Barkley and Black Mountain, Pittsburgh is similarly eclectic. Walking up East Carson Street to the festival site, the Hooters and Houlihan’s of Station Side gave way to momentary dereliction, which turned into a strip of eccentric stores, then bars, and then to a Disney-fied area known as SouthSide Works. A former steel mill that was raised and re-built upon, the SouthSide Works currently houses the headquarters of American Eagle Outfitters, the festival’s main sponsors. Alongside their offices are stores and restaurants. It’s part cool, part hip, and part suburban shopping mall in an urban setting; its central square is, after all, dominated by a giant Cheesecake Factory.
The development’s parking lot hosted the inaugural New American Union Festival, and much like this redevelopment, which breathed life into an abandoned area, each band playing the festival attempted their own peculiar brand of resuscitation: The blues for The Black Keys and The Raconteurs, hip-hop for The Roots, and his own songs for Bob Dylan. For some, the CPR proved fruitful, but others were left blowing in the wind.
Tiny Masters of Today
While the small, but swelling crowd gathered for Tiny Masters of Today wasn’t much older than the band members themselves, the security guard stood next to me was playing parent. “If he doesn’t keep that guitar away from that amp,” he intoned, referring to 14-year old guitarist, Ivan’s squalling, feedback-laced punk playing, “I am to go up there and do it for him.” He didn’t, of course, and the set continued with Ivan and his 12-year old sister, Ada, pounding out slacker-infused, student punk that veered from the rote and rudimentary to raw and raucous. Backed by 18-year old Jackson Pollis on drums (Rusell Simins of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fame recently left the group), the trio, like any good teenagers should, veered from apathy to angst and coated it all in a slacker infused Sonic Youth-like sheen. They finished with a barebones cover of the House of Pain’s “Jump Around” that towered over their own self-penned tunes as the crowd obeyed the song title to a tee.
Prior to viewing this festival bill, I’d never heard of the group NASA, and a quick Google search led me down more space-filled dark alleys than I was willing to traverse. As decks and a laptop were set up, I started to gain some inclination as to what they would sound like, and my initial thoughts weren’t too far off. The duo DJ’d a mash-up style set that ranged from classic rock (“Riders on the Storm” / “Magic Man”) to pop (Salt-n-Pepa), to modern day hits (at one point they meld Santogold’s “L.E.S Artistes” with Hot Chip). Accompanied by dancers dressed in silver bikinis, blue jumpsuits, and a gorilla outfit, NASA managed to captivate the audience despite the generic nature of the mash-up genre. And while it did have a tendency to delve into wedding party mega-mix territory, the constant blaring of recognizable riffs kept the crowd happy.
The Black Keys
It’s hard to believe that The Black Keys have stretched their amalgamation of garage rock and the blues over five albums. Heck, even Jack White was pulling out his marimba by then. But just one song into their stunning set and it’s suddenly very easy to see how this duo can continue to reinterpret these well-worn genres. Nixing the subtle nuances infused into their latest record by producer Danger Mouse, the band kept it raw and unrefined. Playing in front of a giant inflatable tire emblazoned with their moniker (in honor of their hometown, Akron, Ohio), the twosome—Dan Auerbach on guitar and Patrick Carney on drums—burnt rock and roll rubber and left us all standing in their smoke-filled wake.
And while their music seems better suited for the dank confines of small sweaty clubs, it worked surprisingly well in the larger, festival environment. Filling the arena with more noise than two people really have any right to make, riffs are wrought out and drum rolls are demolished. At times it sounds like the devil has died in Auerbach’s guitar, while Carney’s drumming is akin to a herd of elephants learning to tango; the percussion pounding off the asphalt below our feet like a thousand marathon runners.
What’s most satisfying though is the band’s obvious love of music and the act of playing it live. When Auerbach ends the show by saying, “Everybody stay safe so we can see you next time,” you have no doubt in your mind that he sincerely means it.
Introduced by Anthony Kiedis as the “funkiest band in the universe,” The Roots repay his confidence with a set that’s as much about musicianship as it is about the songs. Filing onto the stage one by one (the biggest cheer coming for drummer, Questlove,) the six-piece group slowly work their way into the poppy “Rising Up”, the opening track from their latest album, Rising Down. Mixing hip-hop and rap with soul, neo-soul and jazz (“Criminal” even throws a tinge of reggae into the mix), The Roots get the whole crowd grooving. And while they do have a tendency to devolve into moments of musical exploration that seems to serve themselves more than us (really, is there ever any need for a bass solo?), The Roots know when to reel a song back in. Propelled by Questlove’s on-point percussion and Black Thought’s lyrical expansiveness, the real star of the show is guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, who plays with the flair-filled precision of Prince. The Roots work best though, when they wrap their exemplary musicianship in a sheen of tightly wound claustrophia. “Long Time”, from 2006’s Game Theory, is a perfect example and proves that The Roots excel when mixing their own peculiar brand of funk with a very real sense foreboding.
The Duke Spirit
The Duke Spirit has been dallying with success ever since the release of their debut single back in 2003. But despite tours supporting Queens of the Stone Age and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that big break continues to elude them. It’s not too difficult to understand why; while the six-piece English band dresses dapperly and possess an enigmatic front woman in Liela Moss, their dirty, dirgey brand of rock seems slightly clinical, like expensive new jeans that have been pre-stained to look vintage. They may look the part, but are they worth the investment?
Whereas The Duke Spirit produces a sense of fabricated, vintage grime, Black Mountain is the real thing. From spacey, Moog-led explorations to blasts of guitar-infused bluesy psychedelia, Black Mountain created a catastrophic amount of sound that literally vibrated my ear plugs out of their snug resting place. They finish, surprisingly, with a folky little number that goes against everything they’ve played thus far. The fact that it is still stunning despite the stylistic 180 is proof that this musical mountain is pretty immovable.
Gnarls Barkely make soc hop music for the MySpace generation. Dressed in what can only be described as prep-school chic (white pants, bow ties, yellow blazers, and burgundy sweater vests), the group, led by Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, bust out a set that mixed blues and soul filtered through a psychedelic-pop haze. The seven-piece band was loose and their energy contagious, even on the tunes that fall short, and there were several. Running through tracks from both their releases, the melodies are so perennially upbeat that it’s easy to forget how downbeat the accompanying lyrics can be. Only “Neighbors” matches musically with the lyrics, and it’s a down point the band never really recovers from. By the end of the set, Cee-Lo has taken off his coat, ditched the bowtie, and unbuttoned his shirt. Now if he and Danger Mouse could ditch their mid-range filler as well, Gnarls Barkely might have something else to keep us interested in aside from their energy and the hits.
Spoon’s songs are so tight and taught they could be entered in body building contests. Ranging from the anthemic (“Underdog”) to the anemic (“The Ghost of You Lingers”), Spoon plays an exemplary, if slightly perfunctory, set aided by a three-piece horn section. Whereas the individual instruments of Gnarls Barkley blended together for a slightly irksome effect, Spoon uses the space in-between as an additional band member. The only time they sound muddy is on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off”, and I’m guessing that it was perhaps on purpose. At times they can be too economical on the instrumental front, as on “Stay Don’t Go”, but for the most part Britt Daniel’s nasally vocals go over well with the crowd, especially those who recognize the opening bars of “I Turn My Camera On” from its various television appearances on shows and commercials.
I’ve always thought that The Raconteurs’ records were endearing homage’s to the music that Jack White and Brendan Benson listened to while growing up—classic rock and the blues. But live, they explode all over the stage with a musical exuberance that’s pretty much unsurpassed. Sure, you can clearly pinpoint the references (Led Zep / ‘70s power ballads / the blues), but The Raconteurs make classic rock with a capital “C” for contemporary, as they manage to make it all sound so new. Kicking things off with the title track of their second album, The Raconteurs rocked and riffed with a searing ferocity that was matched by their voracious vocal abilities. As expected, “Steady as She Goes”, was rapturously received, but their best songs were actually covers. Charley Jordan’s “Keep it Clean” was as blues-y as it got, while Terry Reid’s “Rich Kid Blues” was operatic, much like the Who’s “Tommy”. If The Hold Steady is the bar band version of classic rock, The Raconteurs are their arena rock counterparts.
Bob Dylan began his set with a new song. Or so I thought. It’s only when he drawled out the line “Everybody must get stoned” in a Waitsian growl, that I realized it was “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. Standing sideways, and playing keyboard throughout, my first ever Dylan concert is, well, slightly disappointing. I understand his need, after 40-plus years, to re-work and rearrange songs, and I understand that, after singing for a similar length of time, his vocals might not sound the same, but my initial reaction is slight bemusement. As the set continues, though, things get better. Newer songs, such as “Spirit on the Water” and “Beyond the Horizon”, actually work within the confines of Dylan’s new vocal stylings and sound pretty great. By the time he ends with “Ballad of a Thin Man” and encores with “Like a Rolling Stone”, the audience members that stuck around are treated to two of Dylan’s greatest songs, albeit without the urgency of the originals. As anyone who saw I’m Not There can attest, there are several variations of Bob Dylan. On this particular evening we got bar band, boogie-woogie Bob, a fact that was emphasized by his five-piece backing band’s fondness for country and western styled hats. And while The Black Keys and The Raconteurs breathed new life into old genres, Bob Dylan took an old genre and managed to make it sound even older.