Friday, June 15th at McCarren Park, Brooklyn
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume Ah, Brooklyn. I cherish your self-indulgence.
Last summer, I benefited from the many benefits thrown by Celebrate Brooklyn, particularly at Prospect Park (the Decemberists, Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver), and this summer I’ve sampled from the Northside Festival.
It’s a pretty easy trek into New York City from my home in suburbia. A train ride to Grand Central, a tube ride to Brooklyn. That’s complicated, however, when you’re trying to find a native Manhattanite while your phone is on the fritz. I got a nice view of McCarren Park during my aimless walk in vain hope of running into her. (There was another summer festival, presumably for little kids, going on with karaoke that definitely was not of Montreal. As a last resort, I was prepared to use some of their electricity to reboot my ailing phone.)
Such was this diversion that my friend and I missed the first few songs in Beach Fossil’s set. Ah well. Their hazy sound, reminiscent of Real Estate, doesn’t change much between songs. There’s a certain sunny melancholia that their music exudes, with chiming guitars weaving through wistful vocals. (I guess in this sense they’re also similar to early Beach House—in more than appellation.) I was none too familiar with their songs, but my friend appreciatively clapped hard for their closer “Daydream.” As Brooklyn natives, Beach Fossils were probably expecting the lukewarm reception of their music to the sun-drowned hipsters in the crowd. Despite encouraging initial reviews of their debut album and EP, Beach Fossils have yet to amass a large following. Although I remember Real Estate played a free Celebrate Brooklyn show last summer that I was not tempted to attend and, after they released Days, they became a must-see. So there’s hope yet!
The Thermals also seemed victims of Brooklyn apathy. Following the loose, lazy set Beach Fossils played, the aggressive punk energy that the Thermals play with was not reciprocated by the crowd. Indeed, it was painful to watch bassist Kathy Foster (a complete badass) try to will the audience into clapping along to some of their songs. Not that I was out there causing a ruckus either—I was sitting down off to the side of the stage, where my friend lamented the lack of energy, saying “it’s because it’s New York.” Which is undoubtedly true, given that CBGB’s is now closed and even post-punk seems trite. No one told the Portland, OR-based Thermals, evidently. They closed with “A Pillar of Salt” from The Body, The Blood, The Machine and I overheard one woman exclaiming how the Thermals were all she listened to back in high school.
Which is funny—both of the next performers were featured on mixtapes my sister gave to me as I entered high school, sparking my enthusiasm for music. Jens Lekman had fallen off my radar since freshman year, however. He’s been busy getting his heartbroken, which unfortunately is great news for us fans. He ambled onstage, looking like a perfect Swedish gentleman in an unassuming denim outfit and baseball cap, kicking off with the initially plaintive, eventually hilarious guitar-pluck ballad “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name.” Such is his lyrical prowess that he had the crowd hanging onto every word of this new song, careful as we all were to not miss a punchline. He sung about hating going to concerts because all couples did at them was spoon (a spooning couple promptly, ashamedly, awkwardly, broke apart). He sung about not being able to write love songs because they’d all be for her; he sung about not being able to pluck chords, because all the chords scream her name. (“F sharp seven” ::strum::)
So it was the boyish charm and quick wit of Jens Lekman, not punk-aggression or hometown pride, that caught Brooklyn’s attention at last. In that cute accent that somehow seems both sly and sorrowful, he announced that his band was going to be with them, but had run into visa troubles (whatever that can be) so he wouldn’t be able to debut all the new songs he’d hope. “So that means I’ll have to do more classics and you guys can be my band.” Hey, could be worse, I thought as Jens launched into “A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill,” the audience buoyantly shouting the bompa-bompa-bompa-bompa-bom! hook. Now there was the kind of summer anthem we had been waiting all afternoon for!
He continued to regale the audience with hilarious anecdotes chock full of Jenisms, such as when he had read about Kirsten Dunst liking his music in some magazine, “possibly on February 12th…on page 43…” The story bloomed into “Waiting for Kirsten,” which he said was about the egalitarian nature of Swedish bars (a celebrity has an equal chance of getting in as someone who “grew up in the shadow of a potato chips factory”). Jens is a true troubadour, completely self-effacing but able to paint compelling portraits of places, people, and feelings. He told us all how he was about to marry his best friend so he could become a citizen of Australia, but realized that he’d never be able to tell anyone about his experience, and not writing songs about that is very hard if your name is Jens Lekman. He’s a storyteller, and tells story of imaginative, ridiculous, hilarious situations. Case in point: acting as a beard to his friend Nina in front of her intimidating German father, just as the father puts on Jens’ record to listen to. “Because I love hearing myself sing when I’m petrified by fear.”
Eventually, a bassist and drummer joined Jens, brought in for a great punchline involving the lyrics “you couldn’t even hear the sound of a great bass/drum solo.” But really, he needed no backup, so self-composed and clearly loved by the audience (and the drunk Swedes behind me). So when Jens warmly bowed after “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar,” we all cheered him on for an encore, but he only reappeared to take away his instruments and cheerfully wave one last time.
Although of Montreal don’t share much in common with Jens, they still had a lot to live up to after such a great opening set like that. And I’m not sure they really topped Jens. Opener “Suffer for Fashion” lacked the weird energy that makes it so great on Hissing Fauna. I know it must be difficult to recreate all those sonic moments live, but Kevin Barnes seemed bored up there, just going through the motions. Indeed, the most interesting part of the first half of the set was the mildly amusing actions of stagehands decked out in freaky costumes, pantomiming to the song. Cows, luchadores, sexual predators, and monsters were all onstage that night, battling each other between the musicians. The mind-flipping visual spectacle might complement the wack-o lyrics of of Montreal, but it got old fast, not making up for the band’s ennui.
That is, until they changed things up. The drummer blasted a few cracks on his tom and suddenly a new riff wrenched the night open: something familiar to my ears, but foreign coming from this band. “Immigrant Song,” really? But Kevin Barnes nailed the shrieks and while this cover may not be able to touch Trent Reznor’s and Karen O’s, it gave the band a much-needed energy boost. From there, they launched into “She’s a Rejector,” once again getting the audience on board. With their new found vigor, the show was more enjoyable. Some of the stagehands, in capes, dived into the crowd, and started swimming across the sea of people, getting impressively far before turning back. The band had enough momentum by this point that Kevin could afford to pause it for a brief moment to admire the sunset that only the band could see.
Regardless, it was only really when of Montreal played from Hissing Fauna that they really seemed locked in a groove. “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” was met with the expected shudder of excitement as the biggest singalong, and “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” became an unearthly jam out of a ancient mystic ritual of transmogrification. When Georgie Fruit walked back onstage for the encore, there was a manic glint in his eye as they barely stopped for applause, going through four songs before starting their final song “Gronlandic Edit.” They may not have brought it all, and maybe an outdoor concert doesn’t become the dancy funk rhythms of their music, but I still left of Montreal’s show feeling satisfied. Seeing a seminal band just does that sometimes.