By David LaGaccia
“And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.” Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
If there ever will be a distinct Brooklyn sound, it just played last weekend in one big blast.
Brooklyn is a songwriter whose voice barely resonates over the sound of her guitar amp with twenty fans watching. Brooklyn is a flugelhorn, a trumpet, an accordion, a trombone and a tuba blowing notes about old Santa Fe. Brooklyn is a chorus in blue, surrounding a sea of people. Brooklyn is a black leather skirt in two-inch heels climbing over plush seats and singing into a microphone in an opera house full of screaming fans.
From May 3rd through May 5th the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) hosted over 35 local bands in its first-ever music festival titled Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and included such bands as The Walkmen, St. Vincent, Sharon Van Etten, Beirut, and The Antlers. Special appearances included Talking Heads’ David Byrne, a late night performance by members of the Grammy award-winning band Arcade Fire, and a DJ set by LCD Soundsystem members Pat Mahoney and Nancy Whang.
For three days, bands played in the three venues provided by BAM Peter Jay Sharp Building in Park Slope, Brooklyn, filling the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, the BAMcafe, and the BAM Rose Cinemas, with a variety of music and music lovers.
Named after the Walt Whitman poem, the festival was curated by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the band The National, and was meant to reflect the many musical and cultural tastes of Brooklyn, giving both local and nationally recognized bands a chance to perform in front of their hometown fans.
Folk was there, and so was electronic jazz, cabaret, rock, bubu, chamber pop, stage performance, religious, classical, choral, folk jazz and any mixture of those styles of music.
No genre was discriminated, with the sole criteria to get on the bill being you had to call Brooklyn home.
“They liked my first record, and they asked me to play,” said Heather Woods Broderick, during her solo set in the BAM Rose Cinemas. After she gave thanks to the two brothers for this and previous invitations to play at shows, she picked up her Gibson SG guitar and started into a pop rock arrangement of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” with Zeke Hutchins and Doug Keith backing up on drums and bass.
Later that evening, Heather, Zeke, Doug, and as well as Aaron Dessner, backed up Thursday night headliner Sharon Van Etten in the Howard Gilman Opera House. Before each song, Heather and Sharon faced each other, held up their guitars, and smiled with excitement, acknowledging that they were ready to begin.
This spirit of musical collaboration held throughout the three days.
yMusic, the classical sextet played a piece during it’s opening day set titled “Proven Badlands,” written by St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. Throughout the weekend, the acclaimed group went on to back up such acts as Jherek Bischoff, and My Brightest Diamond, with individual members playing with still even more bands such as the NOW Ensemble.
Bryce and Aaron Dessner also both performed in the festival, supporting musicians as spectators in the crowd and joining them on stage.
One highlight on Saturday included Bryce playing guitar with 45 girls and boys from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The children, all dressed in blue, began their set with a hymn, surrounding the sitting crowd of parents and the curious. After three minutes, the chorus transitioned into a choral performance composed by Bryce, titled, “To The Sea.” Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond later accompanied him, performing as a soloist for the set.
Praise and thanks for the brothers were heard from many if not all of the acts that played.
“A lot of thanks has to go to Bryce and Aaron and the kind people at BAM,” said Bradford Cox, during the middle of his great performance, playing under the name Atlas Sound. “I’d say this is one of the best places I’ve played.”
Despite having great crowds for all three nights, several of the headlining acts had trouble connecting with the audience. If fact, many of the bands barely interacted with audience, instead going from one song to the other.
Sharon Van Etten had such a mixed response during her set that in between songs she asked, “Are you guys all right, because I’m getting a weird vibe.” The Brooklyn singer songwriter, who was supporting the release of her new album, “Tramp” looked uncomfortable on the big stage of the Howard Gilman Opera House, but nonetheless put on a good show.
Tyondai Braxton also put on a good performance, creating and mixing on the spot, loops that ranged from space rock synthesizers to fuzz guitar riffs that would fit in with the glam rock of T. Rex or Gary Glitter. But again, he received a mixed response from the crowd who may have just been unfamiliar with his work or of that genre of music.
These reactions may have been caused by the diversity of the acts at the festival rather than the performance of the musicians. It would be hard to expect fans who came to see the religious themed band The Yehundim to show the same enthusiastic reaction to the hard rocking drums of Caveman just an hour later.
Aaron and Bryce may have had good intentions to try to represent an entire musical sound of the community, but in doing so, the whole show felt less cohesive than it should have. Many of the acts felt more like individual parts than a great Brooklyn musical invention.
Another problem was with the scheduling of the acts. Many of the smaller bands had to play during the same time slots of the more nationally recognized bands; in consequence they drew fewer crowds. In particular, the Yellowbirds and Hubble played in the cramped Rose Cinemas movie theatre during same time The Walkmen and St. Vincent were playing to full capacity crowds in the opera house.
Even so, many of the headliners lived up to and exceeded expectations. St. Vincent and Beirut in particular stood out not only playing to the crowd, but energizing them as well.
The best musicians know how to conduct their audience like a separate instrument, tuning them and strumming them as easily as a guitar, creating a unique arrangement for their songs; they perform an unseen voodoo ritual that forces all to rise and all to clap and all to sing and all to stomp and all to dance even in seats designed for black ties and ivory opera glasses.
Annie Clark, or St. Vincent as she is known on stage had crowds flowing into the aisles of the opera house. She performed hard rocking arrangements of her songs “Cheerleader;” “Dilettante;” “Actor Out Of Work;” “Cruel;” and “Black Rainbow.” Her performance included a theremin solo, and for her last song, with microphone in hand and 2-inch heels strapped on, jumped into the crowded orchestra pit, climbed up the railings to the first rows of the theatre, climbed over several chairs stumbling and crowd surfed back towards the stage.
Beirut had a similar energetic performance thanks to the passionate flugelhorn and ukulele playing of Zach Condon and fellow bandmates Perrin Cloutier, Nick Petree, Paul Collins, Kelly Pratt, and Ben Lanz. After seeing them live and play a song like “Santa Fe,” you’ll have the urge to run to the closest music store, and start blowing on the nearest trumpet.
Aside from a few problems regarding scheduling, the whole festival played great, and will be welcomed if it becomes an annual event complimenting Williamsburg’s waterfront concerts. Considering this was BAM’s first time ever holding a festival of this size, it should be seen as a wonderful first time effort will hopefully more to come.