[9 September 2008]
Even though I can turn around while standing at any of the three stages set up in Liberty State Park and see Lady Liberty in the distance, the jaded New Yorker in me never once forgets that I am in fact in New Jersey. And no matter how much fun I was having at any particular juncture of the inaugural All Points West Festival, I could not help but gaze along the East River at the Brooklyn Bridge, all too conscious of the long return trip ahead of me when each night came to a close.
There had been murmurs over the past year that the promotion company Goldenvoice (responsible for the highly successful Coachella Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California) would be bringing a counterpart festival to the East Coast. Coachella has deservedly earned a reputation for being a festival representative of the West Coast lifestyle. Sure, the festival draws plenty of So-Cal princesses and preppy rich surfer wannabe’s, but the weekend also exposes the audience to new music and different mediums of expression. If anything else it would be a fascinating anthropological experiment to see how the East Coast kids react to the suffocating heat and sore limbs of a summer music festival.
A handful of my peers still hammer on about the epic show Radiohead played the month before the September 11th attacks at Liberty State Park during their Kid A/Amnesiac tour as the Twin Towers glowed in the distance. When the lineup was announced for the All Points West Festival, many were surprised and ecstatic to see Radiohead headlining not one but two nights, with many other acts merely offered up as appetizers to the main course. While Coachella and Lollapalooza boast over 100 acts over a three-day weekend, APW had less than fifty, yet price-wise, weekend passes were on par with these other festivals. Tellingly, the third night’s headliner, Jack Johnson, did not sell nearly as many tickets as the days where Radiohead appeared.
Because it costs an outrageous amount of money for the round trip ferry back to Manhattan, my crew and I decide to travel by PATH train to Sinatra’s stomping grounds in Hoboken for a transfer to the light rail. We clearly weren’t the only concert goers to hatch this plan of attack and my first trip to the site found the blind following the blind through a handful of police inspection tables that quickly ruined a couple of unlucky souls’ festival experience before even entering the concert grounds. It is one thing to patrol campgrounds at a festival or check a person’s bag or body when entering a site, but it’s an entirely different moral issue when the cops are waiting for you with drug dogs before you even get on a train. It would seem this could potentially set the table for the entire weekend.
After a twenty-plus minute walk to the festival entrance, I realize that I have missed all of Grizzly Bear’s set and need a cold beer to put a smile on my face. When I go through the ID process and obtain my over 21 bracelet, I notice five numbered tablets dangling from my wrist. It is quickly explained to me that, because we are in a State Park that just happens to be putting on a music festival, each attendee is limited to five beers for the entire day. I am already missing how they do things on the other coast.
Arguably the toughest decision when staging a festival like this is organizing the set times for the various bands. It is inevitable that some bands will be completely mistreated with their time slots and Underworld is the first victim of such scheduling conflicts. A great band to see live, the British dance act is ideal for the cool shade of night but not the hot August sun. Instead I decide to go see Girl Talk and this mistake ends of being the best one I make all weekend.
Approaching the stage, I notice spectators have climbed some of the surrounding art installations to get a better view of Gregg Gillis. The Pittsburgh-based mash-up artist has a few thousand people in ecstasy as he blends Prince, Tone Loc, and hundreds of other samples to form his dance party. There are 100 people or so on stage with him. Some are dressed in drag. Others like ‘80s workout instructors. It looks like he took a school bus down Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and picked up a bunch of his friends. There are beach balls in the air and rolls of toilet paper are thrown across the sea of people as the energy in the air feels like the first day of summer vacation. The crowd responds favorably when Gillis tips his New Era hat in a sign of respect when mashing Jay Z’s “Roc Boys” with Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”.
As a fan of Animal Collective for a few years now, I had my reservations about how they would be received in an outdoor venue, playing in front of so many people during the day time. In damp, dark venues, an Animal Collective show is transcendent, but how would it fair today? The band open up with new song “Material Things”, as Avey Tare and Panda Bear alternate between vocal and percussive duty. A rollicking version of “Fireworks” is lit by the warmth of the sun and is the highlight of their set. There is no doubt that the sound was borderline atrocious for parts of their set, as their music is designed for the tight quarters of a smaller, enclosed venue whose walls can assist in the bands trademark reverb-laden sound. Nonetheless, many people walked away pleased with the discovery of a new band while those that were disappointed with the poor sound still found themselves dancing and discussing the band’s members and their history to the novices around them.
Kings of Leon continue their attempt to win over their native brothers after successfully becoming a sensation across the pond in the UK. A huge electronic banner stating the band’s name waives behind them on a video display, and many crowd members are ecstatic as the trio of brothers and a lone cousin take the stage. The band—who grew up in Oklahoma and Tennessee—appear clean cut rather than backwoods shaggy and, in turn, look more indie rock than Southern rock. But make no bones about it; they are here to play. I find it interesting that bands like the Drive by Truckers and My Morning Jacket—bands also stamped with the Southern garage rock tag—have a larger following then the Kings, but they make a real go at winning over those still sitting on the fence. Mixing songs from their last three albums with a sprinkling of new tracks from their soon to be released album Only By the Night, the band barrel through their set with the highlight coming via a blistering “Taper Jean Girl” that has the crowd clapping along.
When Chan Marshall comes out on stage on an overcast day she is confronted by a quiet and subdued audience. Her set is vintage Cat Power, mixing tracks mostly from her last two albums, The Greatest and Jukebox, and her performance came to life as it progressed with the clouds eventually parting to reveal the sun. The closing of her set found her clutching a piece of paper, singing a rendition of some unidentifiable Italian opera and looking striking as she purred before her captivated crowd.
Ben Harper’s set was delayed a good twenty minutes as he and the tech crew tried to sort out some sound issues. Several times he tuned his guitar and began playing only to stop immediately before whispering to a small group of tech guys nervously working around him. The crowd, for the most part, was patient and quickly forgave him after he finished a bombastic version of “Glory and Consequence”. Harper has long been a mainstay on the festival circuit, appealing to a wide demographic of musical tastes as he incoproporates everything from rock to soul to blues to country ballads from one album to the next. And because he is such a talented guitar player—especially the lap steel pedal slide he employed during one song—his performance jolts the crowd into a festive mood. Unfortunately, because of the delay, the set is limited to less than forty minutes and people are disappointed to not have more time to enjoy his vast catalogue, especially with two hours of the mellow acoustic rock offerings of Jack Johnson ahead.
Of course, this festival would have been nothing without Radiohead on the bill. With ticket pricing exceeding $100 per day, many people viewed the festival as back-to-back Radiohead concerts with a handful of supporting acts. So how would the biggest band in the world respond to headlining and anchoring a festival that is still finding its feet? Would they play it safe and give us two generic sets of new material and live favorites? Or would they take this as an opportunity to address those in the crowd that bought two days worth of tickets JUST to see them play, in hopes of getting a rare song played live or an epic performance in line with their 1997 Glastonbury set? After two nights of music, four encores, and almost five hours of stage time, they certainly did not disappoint.
Thom Yorke and company open up right where In Rainbows kicks into gear with “15 Step”. The band absolutely crushes this song in a live setting as Yorke probes the crowd suspiciously: “You used to be alright / What happened?” The New York Times described their stage design as something out of the “fortress of solitude” and I do not think there could be a more apt description. Long lights that resemble stalagmite formations or icicles after a fierce ice storm hang from the rafters. The ingenuity of their video set up was undoubtedly taken for granted as the band tends to do everything in a slightly more creative way and often times throughout the course of the evening I found myself watching the band on the screen in rotating images that spun into other shots taken from the multiple cameras set up on stage rather than observes them in the flesh as they played less than three hundred feet away from me.
As expected, the band drew heavily from their latest disc, playing nine songs from the album during Friday’s night set and all ten during Saturday’s performance. There was the beautiful sentimental nature of “All I Need” and the stirring percussion loop that welcomed in “Videotape” each night (which I personally found to be much more enjoyable live than on the album). It was quite the sight when Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood came out together shouldering acoustic guitars to play “Faust Arp” and a raucous cheer came from the masses when the band opened with the percussive swagger of “Reckoner” on the second night. Perhaps the nicest surprise from the new material is how tight the band performed each song, especially during the balls out performance of the oft-overlooked “Bodysnatchers”.
But where the band truly shined is how they gave each evening a very distinct feel. As mentioned earlier, each night was comprised of virtually the same In Rainbows material, but outside this, the band only carried over three of the same songs between both nights (“The Gloaming”, “Idioteque”, and “Everything in It’s Right Place”). The first night lent a bit heavier on Kid A/ Amnesiac material (with a nice surprise in “Dollar & Cents” and an epic version of “Optimistic” that many around me noted as the highlight of the evening) with the second evening balancing out with more from the OK Computer era, though “Paranoid Android” from the Friday set was absolutely blistering. As the song’s bridge came to a close with Thom Yorke commanding “rain down on me” the icicle like lighting around the diminutive singer gave the impression of rain trickling down a window. Greenwood’s guitar solo sent the song into a turret like explosion as a light show of red, white, and blue, subtly formed in the shape of an American flag that burned behind the band in quick hypnotic flashes.
I was one of the many who attended this festival primarily to see our generation’s best band perform two nights in a row and neither of these nights were anything less than spectacular. Friday night’s performance was not only the best show I have seen Radiohead play but it is secure as one of the top three performances I have ever witnessed live.
Twenty minutes before Jack Johnson is set to take the stage and I find myself rousing from a quick nap in a patch of grass by the main stage. As I take a last look at the Statue of Liberty and gaze across the Hudson toward New York City, I am mentally and physically exhausted. This is the first music festival I have attended where camping was not an option. I walk across the field past the various stages to see Trey Anastasio finish off his set and notice that the attendance is significantly smaller than the past two nights when Radiohead was performing. I also notice that most of those in attendance this evening are still in high school with the occasional parent on hand for chaperoning detail.
For their maiden voyage, All Points West hit relatively few snags. In the days after the concert most people complained about traffic congestion and the inability to carry a buzz because of the strict alcohol enforcement. My biggest complaint was my inability to get out of bed each morning after an exhaustive journey home therefore missing a handful of early afternoon sets I would have been able to catch had camping grounds been available. Next year will prove to be an interesting, as Radiohead certainly can’t be courted for a return performance. One must assume that the lineup will be beefed up with more acts next year and the commuting situation will be better addressed. Personally I hope they find a remote field somewhere to hold a larger festival, in the vein of what the original incarnation of Field Day attempted to be. Because there is not another band on this planet that can drag me from my Brooklyn borough for four hours of commuting to New Jersey on back to back days. Even if they give me those five beers for free.