Coney Island is a place like no other—an alternate reality where the old, the new, the seedy, and the innocent combine in one small strip of oceanfront. Its proximity to New York City (an hour ride by subway, more or less), as well as its notoriety, makes it a popular summer destination. The sights and sounds and smells, coupled with a salty ocean breeze, make for an experience that precariously borders on over stimulation. All this chaos makes it a perfect venue for the annual Siren Festival—hours and hours of free music and a line-up that features local bands as well as big names. With dual stages blocks apart, it takes a lot of planning and maneuvering to navigate through the swarms of people while not being distracted by the oppressive heat, roller coasters, and cheesy carnival games. With a little dedication, however, and a plan of attack (and maybe a cool beverage), musical magic can happen.
Headlined by indie mainstays Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks on the Main Stage and Broken Social Scene on the Stillwell Stage, this year’s festival was solidly stacked with bands worth seeing, including two in particular that have released incredibly, wonderfully strong albums in 2008—Beach House and The Helio Sequence. Luckily, both played the same stage, minimizing the need to move in temperatures bordering on 100 degrees—a very, very nice thing.
“It’s going to be okay—we’re not going to die,” lead singer Victoria Legrand proclaimed halfway through Beach House’s set. Drawing mainly from their newest album, Devotion, every note seemed to hang in the hazy afternoon air. Along with guitarist Alex Scally (and an unknown third member on drums), she led the crowd through a minimalist, stately set that seemed to counteract the frenetic energy of earlier performers. Victoria and Alex function as a cohesive unit—the combination of her commanding presence and sultry voice and his ethereal guitar and vocal backing is otherworldly. Is it more suited to a small club setting rather than a large outdoor venue with an impatient, sweaty mass of hipsters numbering in the thousands? Most definitely, but if one were lucky enough to be close to the front of the stage, the effect was often breathtaking, especially a sweet, upbeat version of “Master of None” that had the crowd swaying.
Immediately following Beach House were Portland duo The Helio Sequence, supporting their excellent (and underrated) fourth album Keep Your Eyes Ahead, out on Sub Pop. Brandon Summers and drummer Benjamin Weikel specialize in lush, catchy synth-pop with soaring shoegaze melodies layered with electronic beats and the stuttery explosiveness of Weikel’s live drums. (Weikel is so fascinatingly and endearingly methodical to watch and plays his drums in a way that resembles a human “drum machine.”) Their sound is so dynamic and large for such a little band, and their set showcased that, to the surprise of the crowd. Mixing driving anthems from the new record, like “Lately” and “Can’t Say No”, with extended versions of older tracks such as “Blood Bleeds”, The Helio Sequence delivered one of the best sets of the festival.
Ending the evening with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks was an easy decision to make, as watching a Malkmus set is the aural equivalent of comfort food—as listeners, we know what to expect, but the results are always strangely satisfying. With his newest album, Real Emotional Trash, it almost feels like he’s accepted his role as elder statesman of indie rock and has embraced it, creating songs that are endearingly self-indulgent, just like the man himself. With roller coasters clacking and clattering in the background, and the sun setting over the Wonder Wheel as backdrop, Malkmus and the Jicks led the crowd through a set that was equal parts jammy, jazzy, and spastic, covering a broad stretch of ground from his first solo album (including an awesome rendition of “Phantasies”) all the way through to the newest effort. The band threw two new songs into the mix before finally closing with an unexpected and goofy cover of Eddie Money’s summer classic “Two Tickets to Paradise”.
The future of the Siren Festival is uncertain; in fact, the last two years have promised to be the “last year” as Coney Island is constantly under the threat of being re-developed and replaced with condominiums and soulless shopping malls. For people residing in the area, however, Siren is a quirky, quintessential part of summer that brings the community at large together, regardless of the bands playing. That alone is enough reason to hope this year truly isn’t the end.