Review: All Points West 2009, day one
Review: All Points West 2009, day one
Oh what a day.
Whether your musical poison of choice is hip-hop, indie rock, roots music, or something else entirely, it was all available for the listening for any tri-state area music fans willing to make the trek to Jersey City's Liberty State Park for the second annual All Points West Musical Festival, which ran from Friday (July 31) through Sunday (Aug. 2).
For my part, I was among the rain-soaked thousands who attending the festival's opening day, which was headlined by rap music titan Jay Z, and also featured performances by Jersey-connected acts Vampire Weekend and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Fleet Foxes, the Knux, Heartless Bastards, Seasick Steve and more.
But, before I get to the music -- and there was plenty of it to go around -- I'd like to take a second to voice my opinion on the logistics of the event.
Maybe I've been spoiled by spending a piece of my last three summers at the incredibly efficient and ridiculously fun Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival held annually in Manchester, Tenn., but from where I was standing on Friday, All Points West did not appear to be the most tightly-run ship in the increasingly crowded seas of the American festival scene.
There were little things about All Points West that could certainly be improved. Although this may not have been the case, many of the fenced-in portable toilets often appeared like they could only be accessed through the beer gardens, beer could only consumed in certain designated areas and the whole layout of the festival didn't seem to have a very strong flow to it.
These issues, combined with the relative lack of access to the festival site -- for my round trip, I employed the services of six train rides, three bus rides and what felt like a few miles of walking -- make me think that while bringing a festival of this size to the Garden State is certainly a worthy idea, Liberty State Park may not be the best of locations.
And while having the main stage face the Manhattan skyline provided a good bit of scenery, the biggest benefit of the festival's location was almost subconscious. Sitting in the shadow of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, a place where over the years millions of people came from countries around the world to start new lives in America, it felt fitting that performers from genres across the board had come together to entertain the teeming masses.
Kicking off the live proceedings early Friday afternoon were rootsy, Ohio-based garage rockers Heartless Bastards. Their daytime-friendly sound, which was reminiscent of Drive-By Truckers, showed early on that while there was cause to complain about the festival from a logistical standpoint, one factor All Points West had covered was good music.
After seeing a good portion of Heartless Bastards on APW's second stage, named the Bullet stage, I headed over to the main stage, code name Blue Comet, for the tail end of the performance by the Knux, a crowd-pleasing hip-hop outfit that utilized a live band and rock elements in a way that should surely appeal to fans of the Roots and make the Knux a festival staple in the near future.
After the Knux on the Blue Comet stage was one-man blues wrecking crew Seasick Steve. Really, the best words I can think of to describe this performer are "hot damn." He's been met in recent years with plenty of acclaim across the pond and has worked in the studio with everyone from Nick Cave to Modest Mouse. But, even if most of the folks who caught his midday set at All Points West had never heard of him before, they certainly left that performance as fans. A hard-livin', whiskey-drinkin', three-string guitar-pickin' force of nature, Seasick Steve, for my money, was Friday's must-see act.
Following Seasick Steve on the main stage, and setting up just as ominous storm clouds began to creep through the early-afternoon skies, were indie folk darlings Fleet Foxes. Now, I've never been shy about the fact that the band's debut album from last year did absolutely nothing for me. Live, however, it was a different story. Maybe it was the fact that there were two electric guitars and a drum kit employed, or the element of the impending storm, but I felt that the band rose to the occasion and delivered a dynamic and powerful set, albeit one which was greeted halfway through by a downpour.
Fortunately, the clouds opened up just long enough on Friday afternoon for Syracuse, New York-based indie rock ensemble Ra Ra Riot to take the second stage. For those unfamiliar with the band, their sound is similar to that of occasional touring partners Vampire Weekend, with the added bonus of a two-piece string section which brought an interesting extra level to the band's sound.
Speaking of Vampire Weekend, they brought their sunny, "Graceland"-era Paul Simon-like sounds to the main stage, and despite thunder, lightning and heavy rains, the crowd seemed reinvigorated by the band's winning performance.
The last time I caught Vampire Weekend live, at Bonnaroo 2008, my principle complaint was that the music sounded a bit too stiff; a year later, the same songs sound road-tested, lived-in and filled out. I've never tired of the band's debut LP from last year, and hearing tunes like "Mansard Roof" and "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" live reinforced my appreciation of them. A highlight of the day was lead singer and New Jersey native Ezra Koenig name-checking his home state on "Walcott." The band also showcased a couple of new tunes, showing great potential for their upcoming sophomore album.
Keeping the Garden State theme going, north Jersey native Karen O and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were up next on the main stage. The trio -- which expands to a quartet for live shows these days -- are on the road in support of their latest album, this year's synth-heavy "It's Blitz!" but their killer 60-minute set drew on material from each of their three studio LPs, including the savage "Fever to Tell" (2003) and the acoustic-leaning "Show Your Bones" (2006).
While Karen O is indeed a wonder of a live performer, combining raw energy with a flair for the theatrical, the key to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has always been the band's material, and their song selection on Friday was top-notch. High points included "It's Blitz!" cuts "Zero" and "Skeletons," as well as older gems such as "Cheated Hearts," "Turn Into" and "Date With the Night."
However, it was likely that the act many in attendance Friday night were the most curios about was Jay Z, and with good reason. The show was promoted as Jay Z's first American festival date, and the performance itself was only announced less than 10 days before the event due to the Beastie Boys being forced to bow out of the slot due to Adam "MCA" Yauch's diagnosis of throat cancer.
From the start of his bombastic set, Jay Z seemed determined to silence anyone who doubted whether or not he could pull it off. Backed by a tight and heavy backing band, Jay Z kicked off the proceedings with a reverent cover of the Beastie Boys' classic "No Sleep Til Brooklyn" and spent the bulk of his set plowing through guitar-heavy renditions of cuts such as "99 Problems" and "Can I Live" as well as a sampling of the massive amount of radio hits he's had over the years, including "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Big Pimpin'" and "Hard Rock Life (Ghetto Anthem)."
The emotional high-water mark of the set, and possibly of the entire day, came during Jay Z's performance of "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," a song based on a sample of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." After the MC and his band completed their part of the song, there was total silence except for one thing -- the solo vocal track of young Michael Jackson, his voice ringing out like it had when the track was recorded 40 years ago. When it came time for the chorus, the live band kicked back in to finish the song off, and Jay Z referred to Jackson as "the greatest entertainer of all time."
"If you take one thing from this concert, remember this," he told the crowd. "We don't mourn death; we celebrate life."