Brooklyn Belongs to Me

This past weekend, L Magazine’s Northside Festival highlighted Brooklyn’s high saturation of culture and its surrounding enthusiasm.  Armed with a press badge, Nathan Albert, CC ‘13 reports:

Sharon Van Etten - photo: Allison Kaye

On Friday evening, June 17, I arrived at the bandshell set up in McCarren Park and managed to catch the last few songs that sad-folk songstress Sharon Van Etten played.  Van Etten, a revelation to the oft-stagnant singer-songwriter mold, played “Don’t Do It” off of 2010’s awesome Epic as I filed in with a sold-out, rain-weary crowd.  For a few new songs, her band was joined by cultural purveyor of all-things-Brooklyn, Aaron Dessner of The National, who will also be producing her upcoming LP.  I really love her – for all the literal sadness her songs are supposed to convey, her presence on stage is warm and pleasant.  Beirut followed, and I managed to hear several hits like “Elephant Gun” and “Postcards from Italy” as well as some new songs that seem to continue in the same vein of his previous line of “Balkanized” indie-pop.

However, I left Beirut quite early to walk some short blocks south to a showcase at Public Assembly, a neat two-stage club on North 6th that often plays host to unique dance and punk shows.  Friday night’s sold-out showcase there, put together by Stereogum and Sacred Bones Records, was one of the more anticipated showcases of this year’s Northside Festival.  The lineup was packed with great bands off the Sacred Bones roster like Pop. 1280 and The Men – highlighting Sacred Bones’s rise over the past few years to becoming a foremost voice in New York’s “dark vibe”.

Pop. 1280’s set ran through a good deal of their 2010 cyberpunk opus to the dark side of the Internet, The Grid.  This is one of my favorite bands in New York right now – often their bassist relinquishes his strings and lays down fuzzed basslines on a microKorg synth while the guitar, drums, and vocals continue to churn away punk phrases.  (check out “Step into the Grid”)

I then caught Lost Tribe’s set on the main stage – the foggy and backlit stage provided a surreal backdrop for the Virginia band’s anthemic horror-punk (check out “Forever”).  Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the second half of the showcase, which featured headlining sets by noise-goth king Prurient and the US debut of Danish punks Iceage.

Ruiz and Russom of the Crystal Ark - photo: Veronica Ibarra

I made an early exit from Public Assembly and the north side of Brooklyn (and the jurisdiction of Northside Festival) due to a very special show by Gavin Russom’s Crystal Ark in Bed-Stuy.  (Disclaimer: The Crystal Ark headlined Columbia’s own WBAR-B-Q this past April, put on by Barnard College Radio) Kept under wraps for many months, the show brought around 400 people to Sugarhill Disco at the empty corner of Dekalb and Nostrand Avenues.  The band is fronted by Mr. Russom, a longtime New York electronic musician, and Viva Ruiz, a longtime New York artist and choreographer.  The live band included two backup singers, a percussionist, two dancers, and bass-and-synth-mavens Tyler Pope and Matt Thornley, who along with Russom were the backbone for LCD Soundsystem’s touring band over the past two years.  Live visuals were projected on the band as well, all creating a maximalist electro-disco experience that I probably will never experience again in my life.  The band spent about an hour jamming out their three singles.  Following that was a 5-minute live percussion interlude that was an explicit nod to their performance at WBAR-B-Q this past April, where a fuse blew and they were forced to improvise acoustically until power returned.  Although the band temporarily forsook their electronics, the crowd remained rapt and enthusiastic.

This was one of the first live performances by the band, yet they have already mastered a mix of mechanics and emotion to create a defining sound.  The Crystal Ark take a palette of mechanical and brutal electronic dance sounds using acid synths and drum machines, and fuse them together with Latin and Disco vocals, bass, and acoustic percussion.  They have also displayed rapid and exciting improvement – not only was this show a major improvement from their more toned-down Barnard show in April, they also closed with an unreleased track entitled “We Came To”, which refines their sound into a throbbing and sprawling stomper; we were told this song was written as a tribute to “those who came before” the band.  Hopefully we’ll be hearing more from The Crystal Ark soon.

The gathering read like a tribute to New York’s dance scenes past and present.  The venue was packed with friends and contemporaries of the band – prominent DJs, musicians, and promoters filed in and out of the doors of Sugarhill Disco all throughout the night.  Sugarhill Disco is probably one of the strangest places to see a show in 2011 NYC.  The place is tastelessly retro – everything seemed to be in perfect shape, but nothing was probably changed in 30 or 40 years.  The only reminder of the 21st century was a cardboard cutout of Barack and Michelle Obama on the upper floor (don’t ask!).  The ceilings are low, the wood is bright, there are strange statues everywhere, and there is a turf backyard that inexcusably has an antique Volkswagen Beetle parked in it.  It felt like more like a “disco”, and less like a “club”.  If the acts of DFA Records (The Crystal Ark, LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture, Holy Ghost!) are viewed as the next chapter in New York’s illustrious dance history, perhaps they should move more of their activities away from downtown receptacles and out to places like Sugarhill.  There are few venues in Manhattan or Brooklyn that can not only boast an authentic connection to the past but also serve its guests with a unique and comfortable experience – not to mention an amazing sound system.

In one night, Brooklyn managed to host three trademark events for wildly different New York City scenes – indie-folk, punk, and techno.  Each show was packed.  And most importantly, each act exhibited a great deal of promise, all of whom will keep me excitedly tuned-in for the months and years to follow.

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