11:49 am Jul. 19, 2011
This past weekend at South Street Seaport, a throng of fans of "emerging" rock and pop acts crowded the pier, between the big black Dutch cargo ship Peking and the giant, hulking suburban-style mall that takes up Pier 17.
The dock does not feel like a dock, it just happens to be made of wood; the whole environment seems contrived for tourists and class trips rather than a raucous showcase for challenging, loud, difficult, erudite new music. At first, the crowd seemed, to me, to be reserving its judgment on the event, called 4Knots, in its first year under that name and at South Street Seaport.
The real reason this event could even be staged here was 10 years of growing success under another name—Siren Fest—and at another location—Coney Island.
Siren Fest was adored. It was a yearly celebration of everything summer. It took place in a summer extreme, Coney Island. The New York beach and boardwalk area that constantly smells of beer, motor oil, sweat, and the sea; an equation that still makes it seem as gritty as the 1979 cult-flick The Warriors made it seem.
And yet it was curated intelligently enough to find the "emerging" bands that would, before very long, actually emerge. One year M.I.A. played, another Matt and Kim, and along with the headliners you could see bands like Ponytail, Black Lips, and Spank Rock. You came back sweaty and tired but you had seen everything the music world had to offer.
To those of us who had come to look forward to it every year, the event and its surroundings seemed somehow inextricably linked.
Since the early days of Siren Fest—back before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—New York’s free summer music scene has changed, become more central to city life. It's treasured. It’s also grown from a sort-of backyard show on steroids, with $2 beers and a couple of no-name bands you wanted to support, to Bud Light wanting to fund each and every Midwestern surf-pop band to make their way here. I called Ted Leo, whose act opened the showcase, and asked whether he thought of himself still as an "up and coming" artist; he said really he was "on the fall," noting steadily-dropping record sales over the last few years.
You couldn't classify this sweaty mass that took over the Seaport, not as hipsters, not as Indie kids; they were from everywhere. There was the scowling Puerto-Rican gentleman in the grey A-shirt, taking pictures. The girl who looked like she just wandered out of her dank tattoo parlor ready to kick someone’s face in. A random assortment of suburban kids who paid thirty dollars to New Jersey Transit to come to New York for a free show. Plus, there was the father and son from Park Slope who are always at these things and you wonder why. Everyone seemingly checking their cell phones and wondering, “Is there anything better I could be doing right now?” Even while I sat back and watched Davilla 666, a Puerto-Rican garage punk band, I imagined I could hear my many fellow concertgoers debating whether they'd come back to this thing next year—just as though it was year 1, and not year 10, of this festival.
The show's been put on by The Village Voice, since before the 2005 takeover of the company by a massive altweekly corporation based in Denver that thought of the Voice as the jewel in the crown of its empire really; even the name of the corporate parent changed to Village Voice Media.
To Dick Zigun, the unofficial Mayor of the Coney Island boardwalk, it was the change in ownership that, after a few years of work, moved the concert to the arguably more accessible—both in terms of mass transit and sensibility—Seaport.
His group Coney Island USA, he wrote to me in an email, “helped introduce them to the neighborhood and steer them through the permit process.” But then, “Siren developed into a MAJOR special event for Coney Island... Voice has new owners... and pulled out without any explanation or apology…”
Siren Fest had been Coney’s second-largest annual event, the other being the Mermaid Parade that has been celebrated for the past thirty years. And they have no backup plan, for now.
This comes at a time when Coney Island is about to go under massive and controversial redevelopment, itself to remove some measure of the quirkiness that made Zigun's Coney Island so special—and, arguably, specialized.
The Voice’s Events Director, Rosemary Rapaso, told me that reimagining the thing completely was part of the point.
“We came together and thought of something completely different we could do," she said. "We were trying to do a completely new event. The point was to try to keep free outdoor fun for New York.”
A smaller event with only six bands on one stage that would symbolize the up and coming. Along with this there would five D.J.’s in an indoor venue a few blocks away, spinning tracks for the 21-and-up.
Emerging bands don't stay that way: It's a transitory state of being. M.I.A. is no longer an "emerging" artist. Nor by his own admission is Ted Leo, though the reasons are different.
So one question that you're left with is whether a music festival can be any different. If the SirenFest picks enough "winners," can they really stay where they are?
When local darlings Titus Andronicus, the new and unlikely emulators of perhaps the Northeast's greatest underdog-turned-superstar Bruce Springsteen, took the stage at 4Knots everyone went wild. It suddenly seemed alright, that none of this mattered. The band launched into its pro-New Jersey anthem, “A More Perfect Union” and the crowd sang along and danced to it. Lead singer Patrick Stickles ventured off the stage and into the crowd. It was powerful, enough of a performance to send shivers up your spine.
This showcase didn't feel “authentic,” but I was sweaty, tired, and could feel the first twinges of a sunburn. It was a familiar scene. Authenticity takes time. I'll check in again, next year.