This past weekend marked the sixth annual Downtown Music Festival — a miniature SXSW-style event featuring plenty of new, rising artists, scattered across multiple NYC venues, all within a one-mile radius. A seasoned festival goer knows there are two approaches to these types of festivals: choose a venue and watch all the artists playing there, or exert the most mental and physical energy possible by attempting to catch multiple sets at overlapping venues. Of course, we chose the latter, knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves into. Sort of. Racing to six or seven shows a night in air conditioned, quality Lower East Side venues is nothing compared to the three-day sweat lodge marathon that is Bonnaroo, or Coachella, or Lollapalooza. Soaking your thin, linen shirt in a rain shower while walking to Tammany Hall and then having see-through attire for 30 minutes is embarrassing, but it isn’t the same as losing your shoes in the Ohio River at Forecastle Festival. In all reality, we knew the weekend would probably be a breeze compared to most other festivals, and that was a true perk in attending.
The biggest problems we dealt with were how to not pay for expensive drinks, navigating from venue to venue when the sidewalks were crowded with drunk, entitled Manhattanites, and not stopping in Snack Dragon for a large nacharitos platter every time we walked by. There were also some unexpected scheduling issues and clerical errors that prevented us from seeing several shows we were eagerly anticipating, but that affair is best dealt with using a Comments & Concerns card. Who are we kidding? We’re not going to fill out one of those — we’re living in the digital age! All you have to do is whine about your problems on someone’s Facebook page if you really want to get the job done.
But our comments would mostly be to say kudos to Downtown Records for successfully actualizing their “big artists in small venues” mantra for the sixth year in a row, which has been the purpose of the festival since its inception. This idea was epitomized for me on Friday night when I spent 15 minutes standing next to Kendrick Lamar — and I wasn’t even backstage! At that point, I realized that life would probably only go down from there, so I vowed to return to the festival next year in hopes of standing next to more celebrities. Just kidding. But there were multiple occasions where the intimacy and classiness — yes, this festival was actually pretty swanky; (see entry for Andrew Wyatt) — were appreciated by Team Erinia, and the fact that a music festival could even be described using adjectives like intimate, classy and swayze (as in Patrick Swayze) says something.
Overall, the weekend was a hit, with the few misses coming from absences more than failures. So, in many ways, it was actually a home run. Let’s dump a cooler of Gatorade on ourselves and revisit our favorite experiences from this weekend.
Capitale – Friday
As the old Bowery Savings Bank-turned-event space, Capitale is elegance redefined with towering columns, high ceilings, and echoey marble walls — a lavish atmosphere perfect for a swanky reception, or a sophisticated performance by Andrew Wyatt of indie electro-pop trio Miike Snow. Wearing an exotic leopard patchwork shirt, Wyatt unveiled his new album Descender, which was comprised of enchanting tunes as whimsical as Kenny Loggins’ Return to Pooh Corner — like musical Jack Kerouac ramblings performed by a Rufus Wainwright caterpillar smoking a hookah. Judging by the little black tables around the room and lots of cocktail attire, there was some sort of reception that had taken place prior to his performance, which only encouraged people to talk.
In fact, there was so much talking that it was difficult to hear much of anything, which was a damn shame because Wyatt was primarily accompanied by a chamber orchestra. While he stood front and center with just a mic, resembling the guy from Collective Soul or Sully from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a hip conductor led the orchestra as Wyatt sang new selections like “In Paris They Know How to Build a Monument” and Descender single, “And Septimus”. His Miike Snow hit “Animal” was the crowd favorite, but we’ve already established that the audience contained too many bozos sipping $13 Dixie Cup-sized drinks who preferred to have cocktail chatter instead of soaking up Wyatt’s dose of high-class orchestral pop. For those that were there “for the music”, however, Wyatt definitely delivered. I spotted him later that evening walking down Delancey and gave him my most knowing glance.
Tammany Hall – Friday
Donning a bleached blond wig and a matching hombre’d denim jacket/mini short combo, this Brooklyn-based model/hip-hop chanteuse took a moment at the beginning of her set to announce that when the wig was on, her name was Champagne. Ballerrrr. Admittedly, the hair / beauty combo conjured up images of MIA in all her kooky, fashionable finery, so when Kish started playfully rapping in a style that was equal parts cute, sweet and sexy, the slight comparison stuck. Her tunes were way more laid back though, fusing velvety soul and classic R&B with electro beats to a sound that could work at a chic urban dinner party, or when you’re smoking blunts in the backseat of a limo with Queen Latifah.
Kish’s jams should sport titles like “White Dove”, “Blue Dream”, “Vanilla Cloud”, etc., not because they were about bath salts or weed — (she did have a tune about getting drunk called “Fucked Up” though) — but because they were so smooth and creamy. We were sad to leave her dancing and cooing just as the crowd was warming up to her. Womp womp. After she announced it was her birthday and one guy roared, “DROP DAT SHIIIIT,” we knew that was the universal symbol of party time, but we had to get to Beach Fossils. (See “Mini Misses.”)
Capitale – Friday
Remember the wet blankets milling about Capitale earlier for Andrew Wyatt’s performance? Well they were still around when I returned to Capitale to catch the tail end of Fat Tony’s set, along with half of Williamsburg, stifling the creative flames Tony was trying to kindle. UGH. Even after giving a shout out to Brooklyn in an awesome way — a preview of the remixed Tom Cruz produced track “BKNY” — he told everyone to throw their hands up to rep their hoods. Less than 10 hands were raised. Perhaps it’s a blessing that none of those affluent hipsters actually attempted to form “hood signs” with their spliff-less fingers, but seriously? No one? Tony was faced with a true Ferris Bueller moment by having to ask, “Anyone? Anyone?”
Club banger “Luv It Mayne” turned things around slightly, sounding like House of Pain delivery atop Ace of Base synthy backing tracks. A few kindred spirits up front finally whipped out a joint or two, but the crowd didn’t seem to need any help mellowing out. They looked bored unfortunately, and without good reason, which made the scenario all the more frustrating. It was hard to not get the sense that everyone there was just waiting for Black Hippy to play. In other words, they were waiting for Kendrick Lamar.
I for one look forward to seeing Fat Tony play again. There was one ray of blonde sunshine in the bored / boring crowd, in the form of Kilo Kish, who had just come from performing at Tammany Hall. We had a quick photo op with the birthday girl, I briefly fell in love, and then made my way sidestage for Black Hippy.
Capitale – Friday
Three-fourths of the set are a blur because I was too busy standing two feet away from Kendrick Lamar to notice anything else. Not kidding. After the west coast hip-hop collective ran onstage to do a couple group numbers, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q performed individual sets, leaving Lamar to wait offstage for at least 20 minutes. All I could do was gaze at him and use every ounce of self restraint in my body to not snap pictures, or speak. ScHoolboy Q did grab my attention with “Yay Yay,” which was about cocaine, and therefore as yay-yayee as it sounds. Lamar performed last, starting off things chill with “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees”, before eventually doing “m.A.A.d City”, “Backseat Freestyle”, and his verse on A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems”. The finale was “Drank (Swimming Pools)” with no encore, but the audience seemed satisfied. Hats off to their touring DJ (it wasn’t Ali), his sweet smile, and his glorious tiedyed bucket hat for keeping the set tight and flowing smoothly. Black Hippy was in and out after getting the job done — probably in search of greener pastures to smoke in.
Bowery Ballroom – Saturday
Ahhh, technology. There was a lot of it put to good use in Purity Ring’s set, and it wasn’t just limited to Corin Roddick’s expert electronic drumming / sequencing / sampling / DJ’ing / whatever else you call it. The electro-pop duo craftily constructed “trigger pads” out of 7 bulb-shaped wire frames around light bulbs, covered in some sort of thin tissue that changed colors and controlled a specific sound when struck with a drumstick. They looked like floating wasp nests, or maybe subway lanterns, casting a soft glow from the dark stage, which was decorated like a busted-ass abacus. Roddick stayed occupied with his trigger bulbs, melting glitchy R&B beats with dark, celestial vocals from Megan James, who sang and floated around on stage, possibly wearing Linda Blair’s big baby dress from The Exorcist.
Occasionally she’d pick up a large mallet and bang the shit out of a bass drum that was sitting on a stand at the side of the stage, solely for that purpose. This was a true festival highlight. The mallet was also used as a tool to tantalize her engrossed audience, teasingly lifting up part of her dress at one point. Sometimes she’d venture over to push a few buttons on one of Roddick’s gadgets, but she primarily brought the heat with her performance of songs like “Shuck”, “Belispeak”, and “Grandloves”, which yielded an appearance by the dude from Young Magic on rap-singing. After a well-received cover of Soulja Boy’s “Grammy”, James tossed back a large shot of something brown, raised her glass, and closed with “Fineshrine”. Home run!
Cake Shop – Saturday
The idea for this show was to see Trash Talk, but thanks to another scheduling mixup, we barreled into Cake Shop to find underground Memphis DJ / rapper Cities Aviv setting up instead. Not to worry — his recordings sounded sweet during my pre-festival research, and he announced that Trash Talk would play afterwards. He went back to adjusting his microphone stand for 10 minutes while I made some crowd observations. While there were a few Lower East Side versions of leather-clad hotties presumably there to see Trash Talk, a number of people appeared to just be sticking around from the prior show, curious to see what Cities was going to dish out.
Then came a sound blast so loud that someone, somewhere around the world inevitably had their eardrums burst — this coming from someone who is half deaf from attending too many noisy rock shows and never wearing earplugs. Fortunately, I had just put some earplugs in, but it still scared the shit out of everyone in that tiny, dank room. The music that followed sounded nothing like the Cities Aviv recordings I’d heard and more like that little sound blunder — deafening, distorted and as if Trash Talk were playing their set at the exact same time; it was impossible to tell if you were listening to hip-hop or thrash metal. As if enough fresh hell hadn’t already been served up, the lights on the stage were inexplicably turned off, making it impossible to see him unless you were within five feet of the stage.
This made things tricky, considering the room was packed, there’s no backstage or sidestage area, and the ceiling and stage are very low. The usual solution is to just look at the old Cake Shop TV, which offers a static-y stage view. But since the show was essentially in the dark, few were blessed enough to glimpse the lone figure onstage, singing along (shouting) to pre-recorded 4-track accompaniment.
After one, two, or maybe three songs — who knows, the torture never stopped — the will to leave with my hearing and psyche intact was stronger than the will to stick around for Trash Talk. Chalk up Cities Aviv’s rough start to being stuck playing in the worst venue that could’ve been chosen for what he was trying to do, and just hope his next NYC set shows some improvement. He can only go up from there!
Rockwood Music Hall, Stg. 2 – Friday
This young lady is like the Shawn Colvin of our generation, and not “Sunny Came Home” Shawn Colvin, but soothing, insightful, storytelling Shawn Colvin, wrapped up in a little Joanna Newsom or Laura Marling. She only had two or three songs left by the time we arrived from attempting to see Beach Fossils (see “Mini Misses”), but she is a wordsmith and immediately made me wish I’d skipped out on reading The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago and listened to her lyrics instead. With just a guitar and vocals, her acoustic renditions of “Who Am I” and “Tailor” were the most captivating, understated performances of the entire festival.
BEACH FOSSILS @ Cake Shop – Friday
PALMA VIOLETS @ Bowery Ballroom – Friday
DIIV @ Mercury Lounge – Saturday
DUCKTAILS @ Rockwood Music Hall – Saturday
HEFNA GWAP @ Tammany Hall – Saturday
There were many mini misses that were a direct result of some scheduling confusion. In other words, we literally missed five of our key shows that we had scheduled other shows around. Can you believe that? And no — it wasn’t just some sort of amateur move on our part, because other people had the same problem. And because, like, we know how to read a schedule. There were a couple shows that were advertised at incorrect times, and lineup schedules and emails exchanged with conflicting information — honest mistakes and oversights of course, but ones that left us feeling slightly frustrated, confused, and / or like total jackholes.
For example, when we arrived to see Palma Violets at Bowery Ballroom — doors flung open, revealing a dirty floor strewn with cocktail napkins and not a soul in sight, except for a door guy with a big gut who seemed to relish telling us, “They got done playing an hour ago!” But that’s water under the bridge as far as we’re concerned because we love Downtown Records, there will be plenty of other shows in the future, and the festival was awesome. With this year marking the expansion of Downtown Music Fest into other major metropolitan cities, it’s only a matter of time until this festival becomes one of our regional favorites.
Photography by Lynn Casper.