Summer in New York Is Musical Heaven

The New York summer music and arts scene defies easy characterization. On the one hand, the city rapidly depopulates on weekends, and during the dog days, as much of the urban professionals take flight, while much of the artistic community that forms the city’s creative base heads out on tour, or avails themselves of opportunities to participate in summer stock. Yet the laid back vibe and ready access to the city’s considerable outdoor public spaces seems to allow the population to collectively exhale, and experience the arts in a much more relaxed setting.

Not surprisingly, city residents that have ample opportunity throughout the year to experience a band, a play, or a gallery avail themselves in the arts with a renewed energy. With the sheer breadth and diversity of interests, compounded by a community that is in the know, yet is reluctant to “cross a bridge”, not one, but at least three major arts organizations make it their mission to make the arts readily accessible to the community.

Against the backdrop is a competitive landscape of promoters, event organizers, and DIY entrepreneurs engaged in programming. Two mainstays of the New York summer arts and entertainment scene, the City Parks Foundation — which stages the SummerStage concert and performing arts festival in Central Park and city parks across the five brought, and BRIC, which stages the Celebrate Brooklyn! arts series at Prospect Park and other Brooklyn venues, have deep roots in the community and a well-defined mission.

BRIC, the older of the two organizations, has been curating its Celebrate Brooklyn! festival of music, theatre, and dance for over 30 years, and is committed to the mission of building and maintain community in Brooklyn, while fostering within said community an appreciation for the arts. The City Parks foundation has been involved in programming events city wide for just over 20 years, as part of its mission to foster the preservation and utilization of the city’s parks, enhancing community. What this means for the arts lover is a diverse quilt of performances, much of it free! BRIC and the City Parks Foundation enjoy a friendly relationship, in communication and in some cases jointly commissioning works, but pursuing separate missions. This is reflected in their respective creative offerings and reach.

The City Parks Foundation, through a network of relationships with community based friends of parks associations, and direct ties to artists and arts organizations, curates a creative mix of performances that reflects the diversity of each of the communities, and places them into these communities. The net impact has been nothing short of phenomenal in raising community consciousness of local talent, while creating a critical mass of activity that attracts additional resources to stimulate even more artistic activity.

City Parks Foundation director David Axel points to the example of the amphitheater at Marcus Garvey park in Harlem which, due to the bookings placed by the SummerStage festival, generated local interest for local Harlem-based performances at the venue, to the point where the demand for park enhancements led to a substantial private grant, facilitated by City Parks, that resulted in substantial renovation of the park, which broke ground just last week. City Parks utilizes mainly private funding, which despite the tough economic times, has rebounded, and has actually increased its level of free and community based programming, which extends beyond the arts to education and sports, reaching a projected 600,000, in response to increased demand for such services.

This summer’s schedule is a mix of ticketed benefit shows, such as Nas/Damian Marley, Lykke Li, and Florence and the Machines that help subsidize the large number of free shows, which shed light on the diverse makeup of each of the boroughs. Highlights include:

  • Rumsey Playfield (Central Park): Hugh Maskela, Naked and Famous, Friendly Fires. Rakim/EPMD, Wanda Jackson/Imelda May

  • Bronx: Slick Rick (Crotona Park), Funkmaster Flex (Soundview park)

  • Manhattan: Wavves (East River Park); Sugar Hill Gang, Budos Band (Lower Manhattan)

  • Harlem/Marcus Garvey Park: Henry V by Harlem Theatre Festival; Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Rob Base

  • Brooklyn: Talib Kweli, We are Scientists (Red Hook Park)

  • Queens: Kool Moo Dee, Harold Melvin

  • Metropolitan Opera recitals (all five boroughs)

BRIC, which focuses its activities on Brooklyn, promotes arts awareness and education through its Celebrate Brooklyn! program. BRIC is very ambitious in raising the bar on its civilizing mission, generating some good spirited ribbings on social media sites for its paternalistic approach to programming. Like City Parks, it uses high demand paid admission shows to help cross subsidize the free shows. In many instances, the show’s lineup reads like a validation of Brooklyn’s place as a cultural touchstone, with recent shows featuring local heroes like TV on the Radio and Animal Collective.

In fact, Celebrate Brooklyn’s recent lineup of artists reads like a time capsule of cultural literacy in the music industry: Metric, Sharon Jones, National, Dead Weather, and Passion Pit. Fundraisers started with Decemberists, Best Coast on 14 June and include Animal Collective (12 July), Sufjan Stevens (2 August), Bon Iver (10 August) and Cut Copy (11 August).

This year’s schedule features a number of marquee paid shows, including Decemberists, Best Coast, Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Cut Copy supporting fee shows by the likes of Andrew Bird, the Books, Justin Townes Earle, Roy Hargrove, Steel Pulse, Court Yard Hounds, Raekwon, Los Lobos, Femi Kuti, Feelies, Dr John, and Ra Ra Riot.

The festival also features theatre, dance, and some ambitious musical programming ideas. Music producer Hal Willner continues a practice of commissioning concerts based on a common theme with a concert dedicated to the Civil Rights movement, on the 50th anniversary of the first freedom rights. The range of contributing artists is expected to include the likes of Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash, and Toshi Reagon.

The third major arts programming collective is the most recent, and yet, has arguably had the greatest impact on the image of creative New York. Around the world, cutting edge New York music and fashion is linked to Brooklyn, and more specifically the North Brooklyn enclave of Williamsburg. Fueling the DIY spirit of independent artist community, and feeding into the newly arriviste hipster notion of individualism and self-expression, even if this community, like similar movements was ultimately doomed to co-opt the tribal manners and costumes of the self-selecting group.

The touchstone moment for the main frontal assault of the Williamsburg hordes were the McCarren Park pool parties, a series of free shows that over a three year stretch from 2006-8 featured a who’s who: Sonic Youth, Band of horses, TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Hold Steady. The facility itself was not aesthetically pleasing. Concertgoers often baked in the pool’s concrete, with only the slip and slide to keep one cool. The acoustics were not great. But the beauty of McCarren Park lay in its tribal sense of community, the underground feel of seeing bands who were about to hit it big. Or, as Sarah Hooper of Jelly NYC one of the organizers described the vibe: it’s like creating a backyard BBQ with all of your closest friends, where the coolest bands in the business just happen to show up. Over eight or nine consecutive Sunday during the dog days of summer, McCarren would put on these free shows, drawing up to the pool capacity of a projected 5,000 fans.

Oddly enough, the flourishing of this culture, playing into notions of self-discovery, plays into the “herding cat” challenge of steering a well-informed public into the arts. It’s why behind the scenes organizers, often some of the most savvy and experienced in the industry, painstakingly develop a DIY approach to marketing that gives the event street cred. The global image of the McCarren park pool parties was one of inspired anarchy. Slip and slide and dodgeball, DIY food and fashion. Never mind that the venue was created and funded by Live Nation.

The Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn, are the newest group of programmers, who as the spiritual descendants of the McCarren parties. Last year, the concerts were moved without incident to the Williamsburg waterfront, although the character of the shows changed, with paid shows drawing increasingly big and unwieldy crowds, who spilled over into the adjoining jungle jim of new condo developments. The Open Share Alliance shares a goal similar to the Parks Foundation and BRIC in raising money for the preservation of open spaces in North Brooklyn.

At present, the OSA is locked into a potential controversy with the Williamsburg community board. Namely the minor irritant that the community board has voted to ban all outdoor concerts on the Williamsburg waterfront. The community’s battle with itself perhaps reflects the ultimate unraveling of the hipster image — mix of nouveau arrivistes and gentrifying residents (who years ago thought themselves the first movers), frustrated at the grim reality of trashy concertgoers.

At press time, OSA was rumored to have made steps to address concerns raised by the community board. The summer schedule for the Williamsburg waterfront is scheduled to include Sonic Youth, Kid Cudi, Thievery Corporation, They Might Be Giants, Death Cab for Cutie, Death from Above 1979, Bright Eyes. September will feature TV on the Radio, Broken Social Scene, Fleet Foxes, the Walkmen, and Widespread Panic. Most of these shows, however boast ticket admission prices ranging from $40-50, a departure from the golden age of free poll shows.

Nevertheless, McCarren Park continues to thrive, even as plans evolve for the pool to one day become a pool. The Park will be host the third edition of the highly successful Northside Music Festival, a South by Southwest style feature of small venues in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Last year, Liars and Fucked Up delivered incendiary outdoor sets, while the intimacy of shows like Neutral Milk Hotel playing before a couple dozen fans was the norm. This year’s lineup features a who’s who of buzz artists: Beirut, Sharon Van Etten, Wavves, Surfer Blood, Deer Tick, Frankie Rose and the Outs; a satellite radio live telecast of Guided by Voices, and a DIY film fest.

While the summer concertgoing experience consists of a series of curated lineups, New York has largely resisted the tribal festival phenomena in other major markets. With the blogosphere, YouTube, and satellite radio accelerating the life cycle of emerging bands, the large festivals still make sense for many to cost-effectively test drive large bundles of new artists. As a Chicagoan, I can attest to feeling that a combination of good fortune and geography has blessed our corner with a critical mass, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork staged their mid-summer festivals in our city.

Since then, the events have grown larger and more unwieldy, but still an opportunity to see bands in a tribal setting with a couple hundred thousand of one’s closest friends. The resulting degradation in performance is palpable. While bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Arcade Fire have their stadium A-game moves down, critic darling acts like the xx and Animal Collective seem to wilt in the mid-afternoon open sky.

It’s perhaps for the reason that a New York concertgoer, who might have had the foresight to catch MGMT at McCarren or relatively late, saw the xx when they maxed out at the Bowery or Webster Hall, is not likely to go to festivals, and why All Points West, which in its two years, was a smartly curated (mixing forefathers like Echo and My Bloody Valentine with of the moment St Vincent and MGMT) well executed (spacious layout, stunning version of lower Manhattan from Liberty State version of the festival by Coachella organizers AEG Live, withered on the vine after its second year. To wit, AEG organizer Randy Phillips mused: “It’s hard to get New Yorkers to cross the river.” His statement speaks volumes, not only in terms of the willingness of New Yorkers to cross into Jersey, but extends to the territorial notion that encourages promoters to literally view the East Village and Williamsburg as separate markets, in scheduling markets to play at locations there, back-to-back.

In sum, it’s the scavenger spirit of self-discovery, with the relative high frequency of opportunities to catch bands at small venues, early on, that makes the summer in New York a joy. Where else can one check out the latest band, artist, or exhibit and later dish that one was there, weeks or months ahead of the herd. In any event, the best approach is perhaps not to overthink it. One of the most recent darlings of the underground scene were dance parties that sat adjacent to the highly polluted Gowanus canal. A simple idea. Sunday afternoon dance party coordinated by social media, known simply as Sunday’s Best, who brought in the occasional celebrity DJ.

After a successful year, the event is forced to move, a liquor license snafu that paralleled concerns of an EPA designation of the adjoining pond as a Superfund site. A year later, they are back in business at their original address, billing themselves as a place to dance where unlike Saturday nights, you can see your kids and dogs (encouraged). Begging off publicity, the organizers note, simply list our address and the name of our event. ‘We’re getting really good crowds, and don’t want to get too big. Just mention the address.”

Sometimes all one ever wanted was a Pepsi. The summer awaits!