Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Siren Blaring

At Coney Island this past Saturday for the Village Voice’s annual Siren Festival, I had one of those H.L. Mencken--or maybe Yogi Berra--formulations pop into my head: "Most things that are free, aren’t worth the cost."

Okay, that’s probably a little harsh. I did get to hear two of my favorite bands going right now, and it was a good day to hang around outside. But crappy sound, the logistical mishegas of trying to alternate between two separate stages while naviaging general Coney Island crowding and teeming throngs of hipsters did dampen the experience somewhat. And that hour we spent in line at Nathan’s—I am not exaggerating here—was also somewhat less than cool.

All that aside, it was a worthwhile day overall. Brooklyn's own TV on the Radio probably aren’t best heard outdoors, where their dense sound would probably turn to mud with God Himself at the mixing board, but I’m dying to see them in a small venue, hopefully somewhere here in Brooklyn. They’re one of the most interesting bands around today, a compelling melange of Fishbone, doo-wop and a million lost FM radio bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Despite the fact that four of the five members are African-American, however, I don’t think they’ll be asked to play at next month’s Republican convention minstrelsy: after finishing their last song, the vocalist spoke of George W. Bush, asking almost plaintively, "Can’t we just fucking get rid of him already?"

We spent most of the 90 minutes or so between TV on the Radio and Mission of Burma in the aforementioned Nathan’s line, which undid my plan of getting up close for MoB’s set. They still sounded damn good where we were, despite the inevitable diminution of the great outdoors; if the band even bothered to deploy their trademark tape loops or anything else from the bag of sonic tricks, I didn’t notice. Bassist/singer Clint Conley’s voice was a little strained as well; he couldn’t quite carry the melody on classics like "Academy Fight Song" and "That’s When I Reach for my Revolver." On the other hand, the new songs all sounded great—and I noted with amazement that you really can’t tell what was written in 1981 and what they came up with in 2003. The whole set reminded me of that Simpsons episode where the family stumbles across Bachman-Turner Overdrive playing at some outdoor festival and Bart asks, "Who are those kindly old gentlemen?" If I’m in half as good shape when I hit my late 40s, I’ll be quite pleased.

We also stuck around for Death Cab for Cutie, one of those bands I’ve read tons about but heard little of. Here was where the bad sound really took its toll; through the hour or so that they played, we moved steadily forward through a crowd of some thousands, but never quite got to a place where anything but bass guitar, bass drum and high hat, and faint vocals were audible. What I heard sounded fine, and their cover of Julian Cope’s "World Shut Your Mouth" called back long-buried memories of watching MTV’s "120 Minutes" in eighth grade or so, but I’m not quite ready to buy into the Death Cab hype.

In other music doings, Guided by Voices has released info for their last-ever tour, the final 25 shows of a career largely defined by on-stage inebriation. I find it deeply satisfying that they’ve dubbed this the "Electrifying Conclusion" tour, referring back to a lyric on 1991’s "Same Place the Fly Got Smashed." GbV is doing a free outdoor show in Manhattan on August 19, then two last appearances at Irving Plaza this December. The band’s final album comes out in late August.

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