The AntiFolk Summer Fest 2000
Feel the Power of the Park Side of the Fort
Joe Bendik: With a Rebel Yell
Dateline: The East Village, New York City. My city can kick your city's ass. Fair fight or foul, any day of the week. We can eat more Nathan's hot dogs, charge higher rents, put more police bullets into an unarmed man at thirty paces, make yummier pastrami, abuse more street vendors, kick better buskers out of busier public areas, release more mental patients with no possible future course of recovery out onto more callous streets, hand over primer real estate to bigger corporations without charging property taxes, and generally lay waste to our grand land better and faster and louder than your city can. If you doubt this, you don't live here. We have more ways to give parking tickets than will ever fit in a rulebook. Our bagels just can't be beat, our homeless crazies smell worse than words will convey, and we never pay retail unless we're in way too much of a hurry to shop. Which we often are. Oh, and it's legal here for women to go shirtless anywhere men can go shirtless. Although they never do, more's the pity.
This is how people leave New York: they go somewhere else to visit, come back home, and realize that there's a life out there. Realize that we've got it all tragically wrong. Your Mr. Cyrano had a close scrape with the environs of Santa Fe a few years back; Nashville, Austin, New Orleans and the Far Coast claim many. We can still kick the asses of all those places, mind you. But they might, just might, be having more fun than we are. And they're probably allowed to dance in bars, which is against the law here. (True.)
Dan Emery: All-Weather Mystery Man
Summer in the AntiCity: But when we do live, we live large. It's a soggy and overcast Saturday afternoon in Tompkins Square Park, the humidity is as close to the magic temper mark as it can get without a snorkel, and we're here for the kickoff concert of the nine-day Summer AntiFolk Fest 2000 presented by Fortified Records, one of the City's handful of testy and tough-minded homegrown indie labels. All the local motley is out in sticky celebration. The Puerto Rican elders on their decorated fanfare bikes are parading around in state, the portable box-and-shanty community is asleep on half of the chess area, and a clot of EMS people is trying to put someone into an ambulance who doesn't want to go -- this entails shouting and a scuffle, and at the first hint of controversy video cameras appear from every quarter, kind of like the guns leap out all over at the end of your favorite Tarantino film. Lounging around stageside and at the merch table are scads of musicians toting guitars and clutching small stacks of CD's, pale and slightly blurry and for the most part rather out of place in the cloudy light of day.
AntiFolk is a catchall term, as nebulous and inclusive as "post-modern" (and just as useful or useless, depending on who's wielding the word). It's a royal neologism, tracing its lineage back to the early '80s. By content, AntiFolk isn't especially anti anything: or perhaps it's anti everything, which is much the same thing. But by attitude and demeanor, there's anti-ground aplenty to plant in long rambling plots. In some ways, AntiFolk is the love that dares not figure out exactly what its name means. In vagary, there is strength.
Lach: AntiFolk AntiKing, Antithesis of the Mundane
The legend goes more or less so: back when the East Village was just a gleam in a realtor's eye and Bleecker Street was the center of what had been a Scene in its day, young poet and singer Lach found himself getting booted on a regular basis from better music establishments all over the West Village. His brash brand of folk music -- a sweet and sour mash of leather jackets, rancor, wit, rock star poise, scrambled thrashings on massively amplified acoustic guitar, and healthy appreciation of big old kid-love glam arena bands -- wasn't much of a hit with the paying punters touristing down the tattered remnants of the Bob Dylan Trail and watching for the fog to roll in off the East River banks. In fine downtown style, Lach ignored the hand that was offering him only table scraps and decided with a few cohorts that if they weren't going to be Folk then they might as well be AntiFolk. So there. And if he couldn't get booked into someone else's club, he'd just start his own.
Thus the Fort, a Lach cultural fiefdom that set up house in various venues until it settled comfortably into the back rooms of Avenue A's Sidewalk Cafe (at 6th Street) where it has been fermenting lo these past years. AntiFolk is a populist and inclusive circle, warming new talent with a weekly Antihootenanny open microphone session every Monday night. Most of the performers at the Festival came bubbling up out of the Monday night ranks at one time or another, moving into full bookings at Sidewalk and then out into other clubs and cities beyond. Some, like teen singer Michal Towber, ended up in the arms (clutches?) of major labels; some, like Dan Emery of The Dan Emery Mystery Band and Major Matt Mason USA, released albums on local independent labels. Bree Sharp had a novelty hit last year with her song "David Duchovny (Why Won't You Love Me)." Jesse Malin, ex of D Generation, isn't strictly an AntiFolk guy, but he's a close neighbor at the furthest and is doing a guest turn today with keyboard star and Loser's Lounge honcho Joe McGinty. And there's a score and some of others in spangled finery, ragtag homewear, in leathers and subdued suits and the ubiquitous Joie/Dead Blonde Girlfriend T-shirts, who are recording albums on their own, building careers step by odd step, and finding in the AntiFolk community an outlet for their art and a peer group that won't tell them, say, that the way to make that new song better is to lose some weight.
The Voyces: Arresting on their Laurels?
Eine Kleine Tagmusik: On stage, Laurel Hoffman and Brian Wayne of The Voyces are making magic out of air, weaving an exquisite harmony that stops even the early-afternoon drunks in mid-rant. Their shimmering songs are complete performed this way, with their twining voices soaring over Brian's trim acoustic guitar. Later that night, as the festival shifts gears and accelerates into a crowded sway of fast-paced sets at Sidewalk, they are joined by their backing band and flex, presto change-o, into something else entirely. Brian's voice is distorted through effects that sound like Phil Collins treatments gone berserk, and Laurel drifts onstage clad in a black gauzy wanton waif dress, peeping out through lightly ghoulish goth makeup, her vocals strident and powerful. The music is every bit as lovely, all the more so with its pulse and darkness against the breezy light memory of their daytime taste.
Soon Dan Emery is up for a solo spin -- or nearly solo. Before strumming into his light, winking tune "Mustard" ("Squeeze me spread me eat me / I'm a little jar of mustard") he introduces A.V. Phibes of the offbeat performance group The Cadavers,
explaining that in place of an Emery guitar solo this afternoon, A.V. will
hammer a screwdriver up her nose. Sure enough, to general gacked jubilation, she does. Dan is an effortless, prolific songwriter and a charming presence, with appealing down-home American Boy good looks and piercing bright blue eyes -- you'll want to consult Mr. Cyrano's Disclosure Alert below at some point -- and when he sings "The Streets of the East Village," a warm and funny story about a love affair between a whitebread guy and a street anarchist who meet on Avenue A, the assembled crowd is gleeful. There aren't all that many East Village love songs out there, and the recognition is instant. Later in the week at his Sidewalk show Dan mixes new material, both witty and heartfelt, with songs from his current CD, "Natural Selection." There is a reprise of the Screwdriver Incident. A bed of nails also makes an appearance, and there is some brief fire-eating. At a Dan Emery show ... well, one never knows, do one.
Please Don't Feed the Writers: Poet Jon Berger (Superman) and Playwright Peter Dizozza (right)
Here Comes the Sun: It's not going to rain after all. "The weathermen were wrong again!" Lach crows to a doubting crowd, which squints suspiciously at the heavens looking for portents. Joe Bendik, who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slow lazy slug on a hangover day, erupts on stage and pogoes into his signature solo acoustic punk blaze of shake, rattle, roll, shout, bellow, shiver, freak, shriek and stomp, stunning the unwary and roaring into the unkempt afternoon. And they keep on coming, and coming, and coming. Playwright and composer Peter Dizozza, whose surrealist musical sex comedies "Prepare to Meet Your Maker" and "The Last Dodo" are in various stages of workshop development at Sidewalk and other downtown venues, does a rare guitar performance of songs from his plays; I miss Michal the Girl's early set -- it's pronounced "Michael," and yes it's her real name -- but catch up with her pert solo performance at Sidewalk later on. She girls the merch table for the whole of the outdoor show, patiently sifting curious CD buyers from curious nut jobs who call the park home ("Do you have this T-shirt in extra large?" "Yes, would you like one?" "No"). Michal's pretty bruised-pride songs mine a relentlessly-fertile territory of loss, inadequacy, jealousy, rage and rampant neurosis in quiet, chipper style, and her small thin frame adds a spunky toughness to what might otherwise be some dreary, mopey stuff. She also sings backup with Anne Husick's ringing band Shameless, playing over at Arlene Grocery -- not strictly an AntiFolk venue and not technically part of the Fest, but Shameless has a long history at Sidewalk and the sidestep out to their high-powered inaugural night at Arlene is a small and worthy dogleg.
Michal the Girl: Patron Saint of Everyone's Stuff
The nod for Best-Dressed of the Fest goes easily to winsome a capella vocalist Ms. La Nive (about whom Mr. Cyrano knows nothing, oops). She performs a knotty and fascinating full-bodied number which brings Diamanda Galas to mind and is rather impenetrable at first hearing, and does it in an eyecatching glove-snug slit-leg scarlet sequinned gown which blazes fetchingly against her long mane of dark hair. David Dragov, subdued in an impeccable brown suit and pale blue sunglasses, does a calm sweet daytime cameo. Later at the Sidewalk, in his traditional silver lamé suit-of-lights outfit, he pumps up the volume to its usual level, playing acoustic guitar on a stadium delay setting over ornate taped loop compositions, warping a range of classic rock elements into a strange lilting droning fusion of hiphop and mild-mannered unflappable glam. I'm reminded of Peter Cooke's prescient rock-star impersonation in the original "Bedazzled." But in a good way.
Jude Kastle: From a Whisper to a Scream
Beginner's Pluck: Newish on the scene is Jude Kastle, whose facile songs, nimble voice, and lithe, writhing delivery have shot her quickly up the informal AntiFolk ranks. She doesn't look Newish, and she isn't -- Jude has done the infertility dance with the music business in the past, and seems to have found a welcoming home at Sidewalk. At her most pedestrian Jude sounds stunningly like Jewel, complete with some of Jewel's more abstruse and unusual vocal quirks and tricks, and when she eases into her own vibrant space, as in her lilting and infectious happy pop twinkler "Stoop" ("Me and my boy-oy-friend / Sittin' on a stoop / Smokin' a doob"), she is a rare pure streak of joy. One of Mr. Cyrano's favored Kastle songs, "Desire," is a sweltering prurient story of a chance meeting in a bar, delivered mostly in a breathy whisper, full of finely-observed detail and simmering blood down where the heat is. Jude sings bodily, performing as much as an actress as she does as a vocalist; in "Desire" her longing girl-character's lips tremble and her half-lidded eyes dart secretly as she sighs her internal monolog, until it is no longer possible to separate the dancer from the dance. Other songs are punctuated by hipsway moves that would make Elvis blush down in that secret underground Antarctic CIA center he shares with Marilyn Monroe. Jude's commitment to her material is total, selfless, and fascinating.
Nighttime. All week long The Fort rocks with strange and glorious sounds. Every time I see Steve Espinola, sometime keyboard and short-wave radio player with the Dan Emery Mystery Band and solo talent-around-town, I'm happily won over by his wide-ranging interests, both musical and secular, and his general kind outlook. Steve's songs are clever and bright-eyed and might include a sampled bassline pieced together from dog barks, a virtuoso percussion interlude played with deep concentration on a set of plastic cups, or a shouting chorus flailed in rhythm on his home-built electric tennis racket. His sets have an air of "Oh, let me show you this" -- they read less as shows than as impromptu visits, as if you've dropped by his house when he was in the middle of a particularly creative mood.
The Humans: On a Mission from Mod
The Anti-Blues Brothers: Staten Island twins Dave and Dan Schurtman front The Humans, a stark and rumbling group that has been central in the AntiFolk pantheon for several years. They are a montage of pastiches, a bubbling stew of vintage fashion statements (skinny-tie mod for the most part) and musical references to bands like The Cure, Big Country, and The Jam. Their logo incorporates both The Who's old target and the pointing Who arrow. For all of this name-dropping, though, The Humans sound exactly like no one else. It's Saturday night late at Sidewalk and the room is drenched in red light; David Dragov in the front row is pointing a utility flashlight at the disco ball, and Dan and Dave are pumping away at guitar and tambourine amid the spattered spray of white reflections while Joe Bendik on bass leaps irrepressibly in place. Bombastic harmonies tuck and tremble over a soupy seething core of melodic drone effects, and the guitar is crisp in the mix. It sounds like Booker T., it sounds like The Specials, it sounds like The Zombies. It sounds like The Humans. The girl on my left is shrieking and babbling and doing a sitting jerk dance to some complicated internal drum kit, her legs spread wide and her arms raised as if she's about to break into semaphore; we were chatting before (if that's the word, and it's not), until I started to wonder if she's really on that much coke or if, even worse, she's like this all the time. The Humans are singing that they're becoming anti-everything, pleading for sense in this senseless -- or insensible -- world.
Which is, in the end, what this is mostly all about. AntiFolk is a tadpole one moment, a frog the next, hard to discuss in sensible terms: but from here it looks like these people are yearning. They are storytellers looking for morals. Mass media reduce stories to strange peripheral insignificance, developing a cultural shorthand that fits easily between spots from our sponsors. The nameless crew member surely gets eaten by the alien, the girl who snubs the sweet pudgy guy and goes with Muscles does so at her peril. At the end of the hour the alien is subdued, thanks in part to the heroism of Ensign Deadguy; Muscles has come to a bad end and sweet pudgy tells the girl that they wouldn't be right for each other anyway, clasping her hand meaningfully and then departing in a wave of coulda-been ending music. Fade to black. It's no wonder people talk in movie theatres. Their brains have all that free time during the picture.
Joie/Dead Blonde Girlfriend: It's Not Easy Being Green (Haired)
We're all yearning and searching, of course, some more vocally than others. Much of the world tells you flat out not to think too hard, like -- well, let's just stay away from the recent Republican Convention, no good could come of it and it's a cheap shot to boot. Certainly the music industry is famous for soundalike timidity and for lavishing expensive care on people who color inside the lines. AntiFolk launched with a circle of odd birds who wanted to color and couldn't find the lines in the first place. This Festival is celebrating that splash of creativity, not as a reaction against traditions or rules but as a simple happy acknowledgement of the act of creation, and the lines be damned.
What does it mean to have green hair? I haven't asked Joie/Dead Blonde Girlfriend about it, just as I haven't asked him why he plays punk songs of frustration, railing rage and eternal questionings in a blur of strumming on an acoustic guitar amped to 11. If Joie had a Les Paul and a band behind him on his musical letter home, say, in which he describes how life in the East Village isn't quite what you think it might be, we'd call it emo and that would be that. But there he is on the afternoon stage, sunglassed and lanky and with dark mint-leaf locks, stark and alone, singing in his cultivated gravelly rasp to a crowd that doesn't quite know what to make of it all at times. He's doing what he wants to be doing. That's the story, more or less.
Lach closes out the Saturday show at Tompkins Square Park, also solo and clangingly acoustic. He's a canny writer with a fine eye for twists and turns and the heart's ironies. He's also, as you'll have understood by now, a malcontent of epic proportions, and he delights at deflating whatever is overblown this week. Dismissing the Republican Convention with a few sharp barbs, Lach announces that he'll be running for office on the All Night Party, and that if he wins he'll paint yellow lines 15 feet on either side of fire hydrants -- "just so we know where we all are." Playing his anti-anthem "I Love America" to the arty, the odd, the homeless, the stoned, the drunk and the bemused in this one of the City's least fashionable parks, he transcends all of the implicit ironies and is simple and moving: "I love America," he sings, "but she don't love me." Looking around, Mr. Cyrano has to agree -- we're an unloved lot in the scheme of things. Lach's election stumper "The Hillary Clinton Song" ("H-I-double L-A-R-Y / Hillary, Hillary, she's our guy / From the great state of Arkansas / Looks like she just got off the set of L.A. Law / And that's all right with me / Vote for Hillary, Hillary, Hillary Clinton") gets a great reaction, but the best thing about it is that it was written long before Hillary was running for anything. Psst ... don't anyone tell him, but this sounds like folk music to me. Just not the weeny whiny kind.
Hamell On Trial: Self-Proclaimed Sweaty Bald Guy
This year's Festival was dedicated to the colossal and convalescent talent Hamell on Trial, a long-time joyous AntiFolk practitioner and East Village regular. Hamell's freight-train flavor of unstoppable one-man acoustic AntiFolk rock, peppered with outrageously funny awful dirty jokes and belly-laugh patter, have won him fans nationwide, and he recently landed a terrific spot touring with Ani DiFranco. Never too easy parting with success, the world dealt him a rotten hand this past May, and Hamell was involved in a serious car accident -- serious enough that he was cut out of the wreckage and Medevacced to the hospital by rescue workers. As a musician, Hamell has neither medical insurance nor disability insurance, and while he recovers upstate (and we hear he is on the mend) he has no source of income. All Festival performers donated their tip-jar money across the nine days to give at least a little something back for the art he's given us, and for his example and his unflagging spirit. We wish him speedy health and are glad that he's alive.
See you in two.
Mr. Cyrano's Electoral Sally:
Suggested Vice President for Gore: Guinan.
Suggested Vice President for Bush: Mr. Hand.
Inauguration Musical Entertainment Should be Provided by: Napster.
Best Ever Potential First Lady: Linda Ronstadt
Remembering the life of Sir Alec Guinness.
Hamell on Trial: www.hamellontrial.com
AntiMatters, AntiFolk and Jon Berger: www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Club/3794/
AntiFolk Links and Info Site: damnfine.org/
Joe Bendik: members.aol.com/joebendik
Peter Dizozza and Cinema VII: idt.net/~dizozza/
David Dragov: www.daviddragov.com/
Dan Emery: www.web-ho.com/Mystery/
Steve Espinola: members.aol.com/spespinola/apesteve.htm
Joie/Dead Blonde Girlfriend: members.aol.com/beallndall/index.html/index.html
Major Matt Mason USA: members.aol.com/folkbro/matt.html
Michal the Girl: www.michalthegirl.com/
Bree Sharp: www.breesharp.com/
Check performance dates for artists sans Web sites on
The Gigometer™: www.web-ho.com/gigs.html
Disclosure Alert: The Dan Emery Mystery Band is signed to Home Office Records, which is this writer's indie record label. We are extremely likely to love his work. Of course, so are you.
Antifolk Summer Festival 2000 pix by Linus Gelber. Hamell on Trial shouting head by Pierre Jelenc.
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