Adapt or die, as the saying goes. Though change is often necessary, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when it comes unexpectedly. This year, change came to the Village Voice’s 4Knots music festival in a big way.
First things first, it should be noted that 4Knots, which I’ve attended both as a casual listener and a member of the press for several years now, is no stranger to change. It was only a few years ago, in 2011, that 4Knots kicked off as the new face of an old concept, Siren Music Festival, which the Village Voice put on in Coney Island from 2001 until 2010. Siren Music Festival, a.k.a. Sirenfest, was essentially the same concept: a free, day long event in mid-July featuring an impressive, but not overwhelmingly long, list of acts, mostly from the indie-rock roster. Looking back at past line-ups, impressive almost seems like an understatement, as the fest played host to the Shins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, M.I.A., the Black Lips, TV on the Radio, Spoon and many more. Even after the transformation to 4Knots, the line-ups have remained solid, with A-listers as well as up and coming talent gracing the stage, including Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile and Mac DeMarco.
Even amongst the changes of the past, however, this year was a doozy for the beloved fest. Not only did the location make a major geographic change, moving from Southstreet Seaport to Pier 84 in the Hudson River Park– ironic considering that the fest is reportedly named for the speed at which the east river passes the Seaport– it also switched from a historically free event to a ticketed one, with prices ranging $25 for a general admission day pass to $50 for a VIP access. Along with a few free drinks, VIP tickets also secured entry to one pretty incredible 4Knots Fest feature that thankfully didn’t change: the VIP section is on a boat, this time a swanky Hornblower Infinity Cruise Ship docked alongside the stage and decked out with private bars, bathrooms and sweet, glorious air conditioning.
I’m very wary now of sounding like a spoiled brat, but somehow, amidst the change, this year’s Fest didn’t feel quite like the slice of only-in-New York magic it’s become for me in past years. Though I never knew the event in its years as SirenFest, even down at the Seaport, the day would achieve the raucous, no-holds-barred feeling of a real happening, something that was not to missed at any cost. And this year, somehow, missed. Even the cruise ship, though luxurious indeed, was perhaps too distracting in its luxuries, and it was easy to hide inside the cool, glass-walled interior, camp out by the bar and miss the music entirely. Tiered above deck provided a killer view from above, but prime viewing areas were scarce.
Ok, boats, booze and ticketing troubles aside, the day is really about the music, and to that end, the Fest manages, even in as monstrously large of a city as we inhabit, to feel local. Part of that is just the aspect of tradition, but part of it stems from the fact that many of the acts are NYC based, or even staples of the scene, such as the Screaming Females, who played Sirenfest in its later years.
The earlier hours of the line-up featured a host of punk-leaning youngsters. The Meatbodies drew many of the shade-seeking festival-goers out from under the park’s patch of trees and towards the stage, where Chad Ubovich, also known for his work in Fuzz with Ty Segall, jumped into the crowd to get the mosh-pit started. “We’re Fugazi!” He yelled to start the guitar heavy set.
Happyness, from London, whose terrific, much buzzed about album Weird Little Birthday wasn’t officially released in the U.S. until a few months ago, took some time in between rounds of slathering on sunscreen to chat with me. Like their music, the young men were low-key and more than ready to poke fun at themselves. When I asked them about the festival culture in the U.K. versus the U.S., and how they liked playing festivals, they reinforced the idea of what the festival juggernaut has become. Frontman Jonny Allan told me, “There are bigger [festivals] where you feel slightly periphery on the lineups.” Further, he joked, “I would say about 70% of the time we got a really nice crowd to come out and see us, and 30% of the time people were more interested in getting naked and jumping in a lake.” 4Knots, though they had a smattering of food trucks and sponsor booths offering up samples of iced coffee and Perky Jerky, was clearly music-centric, and when Happyness took the stage to deliver fuzzy, mellow, witty as hell tunes, the crowd finally began to warm up and pile in.
Screaming Females were a perfect act to bridge the transition from day to night. “This chick shreds!” someone shouted from behind me. And shred Marissa Paternoster, lead vocalist and guitarist, did, as the sun slanted down on the slightly surreal scene, flanked by a bevy of kayakers on one side and a hovering NYPD police boat on the other.
The Festival was most crowded by the time indie rock God, Stephen Malkmus, and his band the Jicks– who performed at Siren in 2008 — took the stage, though the turnout was a seriously far cry from the close to 100,000 attendees of Sirenfest at its zenith. The Jicks turned out tunes from their older albums as well as their most recent release Wig Out At Jagbags. They also delivered two heavily instrumental covers of classics by fellow alt-rockers, “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins and “Age of Consent” by New Order. Sadly, when it became clear that the Jicks wouldn’t be performing an encore, there was a mass exodus, leaving a dwindling audience for the night’s final act.
Though Super Furry Animals may have left some fans, especially the younger crowd, scratching their heads, the festival has always committed themselves to the important project of pairing newcomers just cutting their teeth against indie-rock pioneers, like recent headliners Archers of Loaf and Dinosaur Jr., legends who forged the genre that’s so ubiquitous today. Super Furry Animals, an experimental, psych-rock band, is back on tour this year thanks to the 15th Anniversary reissue of their album, Mwng. Performing in what looked like Hazmat suits (which, fun fact, also made it hard to spot Rhys Ifans, the famous actor amongst their ranks) the Welsh rockers were a blistering, awesomely bizarre end to the Fest.
As an attendee but never an organizer, I can only begin to fathom the many headed beast that is a music festival, from financial troubles, to unexpected venue changes, to spoiled critics who are quick to find fault with what I’m sure was unavoidable change. So though there were hiccups, and though I look back fondly to Fests of yore, the bottom line remains simply that the Village Voice is doing their damnedest to keep New York City summer — or at least one long, sun-soaked, booze-soaked, music-soaked day — filled with great music.
I asked the trio what their music festival would look like if they had free reign of time and space. Bizarre, very English hilarity ensued.
Jonny Allan. It would probably be in the Billingsgate Fish Market.
Benji Compston: The old Billingsgate Fish Market.
Jonny: No, I think the new one. We could have Alex Chilton, Dusty Springfield. And, uh… let’s choose someone else who couldn’t possibly headline…
Ash Cooper: Dame Vera Lynn.
Jonny: Dame Vera Lynn would open.
Benji: We’d have Dame Vera Lynn making fresh ceviche on stage in the Billingsgate Fish Market in East London.
Jonny: “Alex, bring the lemons.”
Benji: “Alex, more limes!”
Ash: There’d be a finale and everyone would come out and do “We Are The World” or something.
Benji: It’d be like a cross between the Eurovision Song Contest and Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen
Jonny: I’d go.