“Shoot da freak! Shoot da freak! Come on down and shoot da freak! Aaaaanybody can shoot da freak!”
16 Jul 2005: Coney Island New York
When the word “skeevy” was coined, many grappled with its application. No, it wasn’t fashioned just to throw linguists into a tizzy; it was a trump card over its vernacular brethren, “sketchy.” Some situations necessitate a grotesque descriptor that registers both unique fascination and a sense of overwhelming disgust. When the mother of all alt-weeklies, The Village Voice, descends upon the mother of all boardwalks, Coney Island, it’s appropriate that the day’s musical highlight comes from a carny paid to run around while people shoot him with paintballs. Why? Because Coney Island is an unfathomably skeevy place.
As I walk the boardwalk, blinking lights and men on megaphones angrily implore my patronage. No thanks. I’ve braved the blistering heat—foolishly sans suntan lotion—for the Voice’s annual promise of 15 indie acts, not to rescue animatronic frogs in a spinning, metallic pond. It’s a yearly primer of the hit acts of the season, an event that’s always on the curve, if not ahead—past acts include Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Blonde Redhead. Of course I’m no newcomer to these proceedings. Years of attendance have given my kind the knowledge that there’s only one way to approach this over-crowded, always sweaty affair: drink early, arrive late…
...or not at all. Despite promises to meet me, no less than three of my buddies fail to make the long-haul out to Coney Island. Perhaps it’s because they took my creed too seriously or maybe the allure of the acts was just overshadowed by the sweltering heat. Still, I’m in good spirits as I arrive, smiling as each act comments on the oddity of playing a gig under the legendary Cyclone rollercoaster - quit your bitching; Woody Allen had to spend his entire childhood under that thing.
Q and Not U
And even if the idea of 45 minute sets in the sun holds little luster, I can’t miss Q and Not U: theyz my boyz, if not for much longer. This DC institution announced plans to separate earlier this month. Siren is one of New York’s last chances to shake ass with the dissonant dance trio and we intend to take it.
In front of driving beats, singer Chris Richards pumps quick, catchy lines into the microphone, shimmying back and forth as he kicks his legs into the air. His furious spasms cause his guitar strap to depart on several occasions, leaving him to uncomfortably press/grasp the instrument to his stomach. But he can handle it; he’s a rock star, no doubt about it. Of course, one might posit that this is one of the band’s problems. His antics elicit an icy response from his cohorts, who fix their eyes unwaveringly towards the crowd, maintaining an ever-solemn dignity. Even when Richards sidles up to keyboardist Harris Klahr, humping his leg, their energies do not intertwine. Richards doesn’t let this get him down, and indeed the band’s sound is unblemished by the lack of interaction. Richards’s energy is enough to carry the band. It’s a heartbreaking sendoff, and though the band’s vibe is slightly off-putting, the set is appropriately energetic and exciting. Their execution is flawless, and the power emanating from Richards alone is enough to whip the crowd into a last frantic frenzy.
Seeing Q and Not U depart may leave the crowd in distress but Swedish band Dungen are hardly teary types. Staring over the massive crowd, their faces register the conflicted emotions of excitement and utter disbelief. Plucked from obscurity, some would argue rather randomly, their brand of ‘70s psychedelic rock has garnered these Swedes a rather large stateside following. This is in spite of the fact that their songs lack English lyrics. Half-way through the set one of the members comments, “This is so weird. None of you understand what I’m saying.” Perhaps this is the allure, another notch on the belt of the ultra-obscurists. Regardless, Dungen do put on a powerful performance, long hair flailing and guitars banging out raucous riffs. And so, who cares how they got here, or if they’re just some Swedish bar band indiscriminately teleported to the States. They’ve got heart and energy and they seem genuinely excited and thankful for the chance to rise above their station. So I say let’em be. And if they can make a quick buck off this new-found, and I fear fleeting, exposure, good for them. They can use the cash to buy more Zeppelin bootlegs.
A stark contrast to the indie-oriented acts that come before, Saul Williams stands proudly, pushing his mic-stand forward to a lean. His words are fiery and empowered, staccato jabs over bass-ridden samples. Still, one can’t help thinking that his talent is as wordsmith and poet, not as rapper. It’s understandable that he would fall so headlong into the latter, but it does little service to his art. The actual flow of his rhyme is stilted, and while there may be something substantive in his words, the meanings are obscured by their angry delivery and the beats themselves. Here’s to hoping he finds his way back to the coffee house sometime soon.
Brendan Benson, by contrast, is completely at home on the big stage. The impossibly inoffensive singer doesn’t have as much to say as Williams, but with a festival crowd that’s more a virtue than a fault. His friendly mid-tempo rock tunes fill the day’s laid back singer-songwriter quota, and his sound is practiced and pristine. His performance is similarly pure: characterized by predictable though likable hooks and choruses and driving mid-range vocals. It’s hard to hate on Benson, he’s a gifted singer/songwriter with equally apt presence. One can’t help wishing that his backing band took, or was allowed, more initiative though. Their four-four rhythms and by-the-books basslines offer only minimal adornment, leaving large pockets of unexplored sound. Perhaps this is a result of Benson’s songwriting process, his presence, or just an uninventive supporting cast. In any case, the whole affair is likable, but rife with untapped potential.
Speaking of which, its always exciting to see Spoon reemerge from the woodwork to remind us that they are a deceptively underlauded act. This year’s Gimme Fiction was another critic’s darling and, indeed, it sees the band again on form, delivering pleasantly scathing pop gems. Lead singer Britt Daniel emerges, looming tall over the crowd, arms as lanky as ever, with his band in tow. They break immediately into the first track from their recent release, one of the best tunes the band has ever issued. Working methodically through a set of new material, peppered with old favorites from their 2002 release Kill the Moonlight, the band issues pleasant noise over simple rhythms, spreading a cool head bop across the crowd. These boys are always on form and as the set progresses the weary crowd sways in time with Daniel’s vocals.
Of course, exhaustion is a killer. While Spoon is an undeniable highlight, and a worthy act to cap the day, bones have become tired and many filter slowly towards the subway. This is of course Siren’s fatal flaw. In appealing so completely to college, and post-college crowd, they’re tapping a contingent with understandably diminished stamina. It’s true, I too have weakened with wear. As the band starts to rein in its set I make my own escape, legs aching from a long day in the sun.
It was an exciting event to be sure, but I’m covered in layers of dried sweat and am possessed with the strange, sinister spirit of my surroundings. It’s time to go wash away the skeeviness. Well almost: I’ve still got a freak to shoot.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.