QRO was lucky enough to cover what may be the last Siren Music Festival, in all of its Coney Island glory. But if this was Siren’s swan song, the event went off on a high note. Cursive, The New York Dolls, Voxtrot, M.I.A., Matt & Kim, We Are Scientists, Lavender Diamond, The Black Lips, The Detroit Cobras, Noisettes, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Dr. Dog, White Rabbits, and The Twilight Sad all hit the totally free, dual-staged event on Saturday, July 21st, 2007. It was a perfect day, maybe the best weather Siren has ever had, leading to perhaps the biggest turnout ever (especially when you add in all the regular folks, just there for the sun, surf, and games).
The high numbers and great acts meant that both the Main Stage (at the end of West 10th Street, with its back to the boardwalk) and the Stillwell Stage (similarly positioned at the end of Stillwell Avenue) were packed pretty much continuously throughout the day. People tended to flock to the front because the ‘dead end street-into-stage and venue’ meant that the crowd area was longer than it was wide, which made it easy to end up a ways away, especially as the entrances for both were effectively at the other, Surf Avenue, end. And the free nature of the daytime, weekend event meant you had lots and lots of people there, from middle-aged to under-age, with teens oftentimes particularly intent on getting up to the front (and sometimes the older folks, too). The thick crowds for this year’s Siren were also no doubt high due to the possibility that this could be the final Siren.
The future of The Village Voice’s annual alternative music event is in jeopardy thanks to last year’s purchase of most of the Astroland Amusement Park (click for photos) by Thor Properties. Thor plans to raise the admittedly very decaying, and kind of sad, Astroland, and has said it will build a new amusement park. But many in New York are skeptical, especially with Thor also planning more profitable condos on the site, and the company’s history of buying properties, getting them rezoned, then selling for a profit, with their promises just left behind in their wake. Astroland closes at the end of this summer for good, and many people fear that the Siren Music Festival will go with it.
Numerous acts complained about the possible death of Siren – and of Coney Island in general. Tim Kasher, guitarist/lead singer of Nebraska’s Cursive, compared it to his hometown, saying, “In Omaha, we tear down anything of historical importance, but I thought New York was cooler.” And Lavender Diamond’s lead singer, Becky Stark, talked up her idea of an eco-friendly amusement park in Oregon, where everything would be powered by solar and bio-fuel (shades of the Solar One-powered CitySol (click for photos) event at Stuyvesant Cove Park). Her working name for it is “Fantastic Pleasure Playland” or something, stolen from some mad Russian billionaire’s personal amusement park, though she opened up the field to alternate ideas from the crowd, most of which involved the word “awesome”.
But QRO came to praise Siren, not to bury it, and here is how the day unfolded:
(click band’s name for all their Siren photos in the QRO Concert Photo Gallery)
The Twilight Sad started things off at the Main Stage not long after 1:00 PM. The somber Highland post-rock of Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (QRO review) would seem to be a poor fit for the warm and bright Siren, especially starting things off with the sun high in the sky, but the boys from Glasgow added an energy to their performance that made it really spark. Plus, as the first band, they were the first to lay down the pure volume that would characterize the day, meaning everyone took notice. Singer James Graham provided a real stage presence, going from microphone stand gyrations reminiscent of Shawn Christensen of stellastarr* (QRO live review), to smashing one of the drum sets symbols while on his knees. And he did all of this while sporting the thickest Scottish brogue this side of Craig Ferguson impersonating Sean Connery.
Siren set up their schedule so that bands on the Main Stage started on the hour, and bands at the Stillwell Stage started on the half-hour. This was to make it that, when one stage was switching from one band to another, a band would still be playing on the other stage. Unfortunately, either the Main Stage started late or the Stillwell Stage started early (or both), and it ended up that opposite bands on either stage would pretty much start and end at the same time (and there would be time in between where no band would be performing). Caught off-guard by this at the beginning, QRO unfortunately missed White Rabbits (click for prior Bowery Ballroom photos), one of our favorite bands, touring on the back of one of our favorite new albums, Fort Nightly (QRO review). However, we’ve already caught them twice, once headlining at Bowery Ballroom (QRO live review), and once opening up for Art Brut at Highline (QRO photos) – not to mention their recent performance on Late Show with David Letterman – and hope to make up for this miss by seeing them on the next big gig, opening up for The Kaiser Chiefs on their American tour.
Back at the Main Stage, Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog strayed somewhat from the very sixties power-pop off their latest release, We All Belong. Instead, they delivered more of a seventies country-fied rock, evoking their impressive performance at Bonnaroo. While still good, this Doctor is a mite more suited for the baked mud and open fields of central Tennessee, and not the baking concrete and tight stages of Siren. Or maybe they just seemed overly rural because of their impressive assortment of beards (everyone but the drummer had one), including the keyboardist’s full-on muttonchops.
Over at Stillwell, Elvis Perkins in Dearland was likewise delivering a different, louder version of itself, but definitely for the better. Elvis Perkins is best known for his tragic parentage (his father played Norman Bates in Psycho and died of AIDS, while his mother was in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center), his debut full-length, Ash Wednesday, is a sad and heartbreaking piece of singer/songwriting that might work great when you’re moping around about a break-up, but would have trouble at an amusement park. But instead Perkins had really cranked things up, thanks to his supporting entourage, Dearland. His ‘backing band’ was possibly more interesting than Norman Bates Jr. himself, as they included a guitarist who also played accordion, a bassist rocking the upright, and a drummer who not only sported the Dylan-esque handless harmonica contraption (as did Perkins, making Elvis Perkins in Dearland one of the rare bands to have two handless harmonicists), but also came from behind his kit to rock out on a giant marching drum.
One band that was expected to be loud – and most certainly was – was the Noisettes, at the Main Stage. Living up to their impressive debut, What’s The Time Mr. Wolf? (QRO review), the Noisettes brought out some rollicking punk rock – with kick-ass guitar solos. In fact, Dan Smith’s guitar solos kind of stole the show from the seventies mash-up of Sex Pistols and blaxploitation that is singer/bassist Shingai Shoniwa. It even seemed, at times, that during Smith’s solos, Shoniwa would almost be trying to get the crowd’s attention back on her, by moving about and striking poses.
“Nothing like rocking out in the middle of the day.” That came from the Stillwell Stage’s Rachel Nagy, of The Detroit Cobras. Singing with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the garage rock covers of sixties/seventies Motown & pop that is The Detroit Cobras felt very much like it belonged in the dingiest dive bar in the dingiest dive town (i.e., Detroit). While they most definitely rocked (and none of their songs sounded like covers of anything you’ve ever heard), they were a little at odds with their family-friendly surroundings – Nagy even remarked, jokingly, “What is that big, fiery ball in the sky?”. But if you like to rock – and Cleveland likes to rock! (Nagy did thrown down the Spinal Tap staple, “Helloooooo, Cleveland!”) – then you couldn’t be disappointed.
When they took the stage, The Black Lips smiled quietly as they took the stage, reminiscent of the quote on their MySpace page, which reads: “it’s not IF, but when and how bad.” This was to be the case again today. Some may have characterized their show as heavy on showmanship and light on performance, it all came off without a hitch. The Lips had three singers who often were all singing at the same time – that is when they were not making out with each other, or trying to spit in the air and catch it again (thankfully there was no vomiting this time, as it was 4:30 in the afternoon, and 85°, and nothing would spoil faster in the hot sun than the vile contents of a Black Lip stomach). About two thirds of the way through their psychedelic garage rock set (or as they call it, flower punk) they took a brief respite from playing and dragged a cooler out into the middle of the stage, as one of them opened it, another reached in and plucked out, to everyone’s surprise, Popcorn the Chicken. Popcorn didn’t seem to happy about being in the cooler, or being on the stage, but however he consented to strutting around the stage while The Lips played odes to him and poured buckets of feathers onto an electric fan pointed at the audience. The Black Lips played a few more songs and then abruptly left the stage, it was over just a quietly as it had begun. As fans walked away, they were left thinking that ‘it’ had indeed happened, and it was a pretty good this time.
In kind of an odd break from the general “turn it up to eleven” nature of Siren 2007, out came the harmonized folk of Lavender Diamond at the Stillwell Stage. In between doing pieces off their debut, Imagine Our Love (QRO review), Becky Stark not only talked about her idea for a new theme park, but also celebrated what she perceived to be the beginning of peace on earth (“because it has to start somewhere”), and how it’s bad to “shit in water”, like we all apparently do (because it’s a practice that’s only a century or so old). If incredibly flighty and hard to take seriously, Stark was also quite funny, in her way. While their performance – and the crowd – lagged on their slower, sadder numbers (something Stark herself remarked upon), their brighter, more up-tempo songs really shone through, especially to the band’s main fan base, underage indie girls, of whom there were many at the free, all ages, Siren.
Originally meant to co-headline Siren, We Are Scientists were strangely knocked down to the third tier when two more acts were added late (M.I.A. and Cursive) – perhaps they just particularly wanted to be on the Main Stage. Whatever the reason, the California boys, now based in Coney Island’s own borough, Brooklyn, at around 5:00 PM were kind of the beginning of Siren’s ‘big name bands’. Live, their straightforward indie-rock felt a little like a throwback to nineties indie-grunge – in a good way. Playing in lead-up to the tentatively titled ‘Birds of a Pleather’, the crowd greeted their newer pieces kindly, but with some puzzlement. However, when W.A.S. cranked into With Love and Squalor hits like “Great Escape” and (obviously) “It’s A Hit”, the audience went nuts. Up close, one really notices singer/guitarist Keith Murray’s grey hair (let’s hope it’s just prematurely grey), and it was a bit disappointing that bassist Chris Cain no longer sports the mustache and ‘fro combo that once made him look like a Jewish seventies porn star.
In another strange bit of scheduling, the Brooklyn-based We Are Scientists were pretty much put up directly against the Stillwell Stage’s Brooklyn-born Matt & Kim. But even with that competition, the duo pretty much stole Siren – stole, that is, if you didn’t already know anything about Matt & Kim; otherwise, their incredible performance was pretty much par for the course. Super-hyper, even for them, playing their first festival really shifted the two of them into overdrive. This was doubtlessly helped by the fact that, despite both playing sitting instruments (Matt Johnson keyboards, Kim Schifino drums), they were right up at the front of the stage – and the photo/press well at the front was full of super-psyched fans (and more were trying to make it past the barrier and security to get into it). Playing an all-ages festival and not a drinking-age Todd P house party (QRO photos), their sugar-driven dance/punk naturally drew the minors, but really had the whole audience a-rockin’ and a-rollin’ (including crowd-surfing). One underage fan did run up on stage to hug Johnson – who actually semi-hugged him back, before security ‘escorted’ the young man off. Matt and Kim – though mostly singer Matt – did engage the crowd in other ways, usually by standing on their stools. Johnson stood on his stool to recount how, when a glowstick was thrown at him during their last show in Boston, he flashbacked to a camp experience, where his bunkmate chewed and broke open a glowstick while they were asleep, leaking ‘glow juice’ onto Johnson’s bottom bunk – which a young Matt initially took to be an infestation of glowing bugs on his bed (and in his bunkmate’s mouth). Both stood on stools at the end of their set, introducing themselves to a crowd that very clearly knew who they were (reminiscent of the hidden final track on their self-titled debut), and Johnson high-fived many a fan at the end – including the stage-hugger. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the show more, Matt & Kim, or their fans, but it was definitely a great time all around (QRO interview with Matt & Kim).
Siren switched from local to international when the Sri Lankan, by way of London, M.I.A. stepped out onto the Main Stage clad in black sequined spandex. She was joined by a back-up singer/dancer and a DJ as she launched into set filled with both familiar and new tracks. While M.I.A. moved about the stage, she told stories of the troubles that she had faced in the past year – everything from visa issues to breaking up with her boyfriend (Philly-based DJ/producer Diplo) – mixing in new tracks Kala such as “Boyz” (the first single), “Bird Flu” and “XR2” with old ones such as “Amazon”, “Sun showers”, and “Galang” (and even did a cover of The Pixies’ famed “Where Is My Mind?”). Easily one of the most anticipated performances at Siren, it was also one of the stronger ones, as she graced the stage with a mixture of bravado, earnestness and energy that is difficult to capture with words. There may be a certain magic that comes about from seeing M.I.A. perform in a more intimate space, but that being said, she most definitely ruled Siren.
Following up Matt & Kim on the Stillwell Stage were another young, just-came-out-of-nowhere band, Austin’s Voxtrot, who went in a few years from mailing out CD-R’s to breakthrough success with their self-titled debut. Perhaps too bright and sweet on Voxtrot, that cocktail went down far smoother at Siren, as it was well suited to the sun & fun atmosphere, not to mention that (again like Matt & Kim) Voxtrot is a band with a rabid, loyal, and certainly young fan base. Singer Ramesh Srivastava was jumping around whenever not playing guitar or keyboards, while bassist Jason Chronis only ever stopped hopping and moving when he would make particular ‘rocker poses’. Only a few months removed from the release of Voxtrot, they stuck mainly to their debut, something that seemingly everyone in the crowd knew by heart, and loved by heart as well.
In striking his rocker poses, Chronis almost felt like an understudy to the kings of rocker poses, Main Stage main act, The New York Dolls. Going into Siren, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the original seventies glam-punks had anything left in the tank, considering they were roughly twice as old as everyone else playing the festival (with the exception of Lavender Diamond’s keyboardist). So did they have it? Yes they did! The New York Dolls completely rocked Coney Island and the young, young crowd, ‘stealing’ the show in kind of the opposite way that Matt & Kim did (i.e., you wouldn’t be surprised if you knew little about The Dolls other than that they co-headlined, but you would be if you knew exactly how old these guys are). Throwing it down like The Rolling Stones meets The Stooges (two bands that, frankly, owe/stole a lot from The New York Dolls), they bridged the generation gap far better than those two bigger Me Decade groups: the hipster-and-proto-hipster crowd went mad for The Dolls in a way they almost certainly wouldn’t for The Stones or The Stooges. Yes, they all looked almost scarily old and worn, but they just threw on more make-up, glam gear, and attitude, and made it work like the 1986 Run D.M.C.-sponsored “Walk This Way” Aerosmith comeback (another band that totally ‘borrowed’ from The Dolls). The aged, decrepit-looking, ‘another layer of paint ain’t gonna gloss over the years of wear and tear’ New York Dolls might have been the most perfect fit for the similarly ‘once big and pretty, but now just pretty run-down’ Coney Island, but thank god no one’s flattening them, as these are the kind of shows The New York Dolls should be playing.
Closing out the Stillwell Stage was Omaha, Nebraska’s Cursive. Brought in and made co-headliners in case M.I.A.’s visa issues made her MIA, they delivered a solid mix of fun, seriousness, indie, and rock. The corn-fed Middle Americans might not have blown the (metaphorical) roof off the joint like The Dolls, but they were probably the most accurate summation of young and old, of sound and fury, at Siren. Nighttime had come about by the time they & The Dolls were on stage, and both benefited from it, and not just because of the cooler temperatures (though Siren this year was blessed with weather that was warm, but not scorching hot): the light might have revealed a few too many of the cracks in The New York Dolls’ faces, and Cursive’s powerful performance was amped up by not having to compete with the sun. While Cursive certainly rocked their more recent Happy Hollow pieces, like their excellent single, “Dorothy At Forty”, they also delved into their older work; more importantly, the crowd didn’t miss a beat.
With great weather, great bands, and great crowds, this had to rank as one of the greatest Sirens yet. So great, in fact, that QRO missed riding the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel, and even the Freak Show – though the word is that their newest attraction, a Wolfman, just does a lame tightrope act. The time-staggering and band order could have been done better, and audience circulation is always going to be a problem at huge, free, city festivals like this, but those are minor quibbles with what was one simply wonderful day out. Thor Properties has said that the traditionally untraditional Mermaid Parade will still go on every year, and the company has the support of Freak Show founder (and unofficial ‘Mayor of Coney Island’), Dick D. Zigun, so hopefully the fears and hatred directed towards Coney Island’s new landlords are just your typical New York City/Village Voice/indie scene knee-jerk anti-corporatism, and the Siren Music Festival will rock the Big Apple not just again in 2008, but for years to come.