So I went to the I AM Festival in New London (Waterfront Park) this past Saturday (Sept. 13), and it was pretty much awesome. Sunshine. Music. Right on the water. Like, this thing was on a giant pier; a lot of us really were, like, above the water. Good people all around. Lasted all day. ALL DAY. I mean, I got there at 1:15 in the afternoon -- which means I actually missed the first two acts, Great Skaught and Thick Thieves -- and I left from the afterparty (at the club once known as the El'n'Gee) at about 2 a.m. Remarkably, I was fairly rapt for almost the whole time; with two stages, one on each end of the pier, there were few, if any, lags for changeover (one band would set up on one stage while another band played on the other stage -- envisioning it? good).
This was one of those rare and wonderful examples of people coming together from all over Connecticut -- fans, sure, but also musicians (natch), music promoters, people who run record labels, media people. The synergy was really cracking; I mean, I hate the word "synergy," but key folks from New Haven, Hartford and New London were connecting, putting faces to names. Late in the day, under the tent where Safety Meeting Records and The Space had also set up shop with flyers and CDs and records, Mark from Manic Productions was marveling out loud about finally meeting people involved with Rock Yer Socks Booking, Wooden Man Records and New London's Sailfest. I know he meant to say, "I can't believe I'm meeting people whom I've been reading and hearing about for a long time," but in his excitement (and, at that point, fatigue) it came out, "I can't believe people are real!"
Man, Mark's gonna hate me for sharing that quote. Sorry, dude.
Jay Reatard headlined, and his set made me feel like I was 18. He's got all these jackhammer old-school punk rock songs, and -- Okay, wait. Let me clarify that. He actually has, like, three songs (one's thrashy skater-punk, one has a brooding retro-garage vibe and one is bright-sounding and more overtly poppy), but he rewrites them with enough variation that it's evident he knows exactly what he's doing. Loads of energy in the band's (Jay, a bassist and a drummer) set; Jay poured at least two beers onto his face and head. A pit broke out in front of the stage, of course (just a few feet from where I was standing), and at one point some dude came juggernauting up behind me and sent me flying about 10 feet into two very surprised young girls. Up the punks and all, but I'm getting too old for that kinda behavior.
Tiny Masters of Today played, and I think they were a late addition to the bill. This is that garage rock band that features a brother and sister, ages 14 and 12 respectively, and an older (and totally sick) drummer. They play songs like "Stickin' It to the Man" and sing-songy protest songs against G.W. Bush. Let me put it this way: If, by some strange twist of fate, I ever have kids, I want them to be like Tiny Masters of Today. (Dude standing behind me made an important point, though. "If they were, like, 18," I overheard him say, "we'd think they were terrible.")
Amongst other national acts: Kidz in the Hall were wicked high-energy, doing that thing that involves getting the crowd to chant "Real hip-hop" and to put their hands in the air and stuff, shouting for more dancing, showering the audience with bottled water (not really necessary at that point, I gotta say -- I was wearing a jacket), freestyling through DJ equipment failure. Kidz in the Hall. Killer jams. They were the only hip-hop crew of the day, unless you count Tiny Masters' impromptu reading of "Jump Around" following some kind of guitar or amp meltdown, and Martha Wainwright was the only solo performer. She had great command over the audience, though -- people were sitting in front of the stage, hanging on every word (even over the thumping of the festival's DJ booth down the road). My friend Dave put it best when I ran into him the following evening: "Those Wainwrights, man." Oakley Hall played while the sun was still up, and while their alt-country arrangements have a good sense of dynamic and melodic interplay, and while their vocal harmonies sound truly full and bright, I actually found the songs themselves fairly workmanlike. And Oneida -- it's a shame I missed part of their set, as the sudden descent of hundreds of mayflies and my own stabbing hunger drove me to walk back to my car for a Clif bar, because a number of people I respect whom I ran into over the coming days were like, "Wasn't Oneida awesome?" When I left, they were riding and adding a pretty compelling string of melodic variations to an essentially one-chord riff, driven by some highly energized drumming. When I came back, they were riding and adding a pretty compelling string of melodic variations to an essentially one-chord riff, driven by some highly energized drumming. I dug it.
One highly respectable (by my book) aspect of I AM was the fact that so many local/area bands were allowed on a bill that would assuredly draw hundreds of people, and that those local/area bands weren't quarantined to one stage, or to the earliest slots. Panda & Child and Atrina were right up there on the large stage ealier in the day, while Fatal Film played the second stage after the sun had gone down. Dan Barry, author of the Hartford Advocate's "Local Motion" column, has already written about some of the local acts, and accordingly it's kinda hard to approach the subject without responding to his points. Dan called Suicide Dolls "[his] favorite set of the whole fest," big-name acts inclusive. I know I can't pick a favorite act of the day/evening -- it's like apples and oranges and apples with DJs and pubescent oranges -- but I did find myself thinking, during SDs' set, "Okay; Suicide Dolls are better than this band, Suicide Dolls are better than that band..." In spite of how often they gig (it's a lot, and they'd just come off a two-week-long tour on Saturday), they're a bit underrepresented in local media, and they do have hooks to match their ambitious, art-punky sound. I was whistling Brian Suicide's guitar licks for days. That said, I've also seen them about five times already (and, full discretion, my band's gigged with them), so I'm bringing in some contextual appreciation, too. Context also possibly fuels my disagreement with Dan's assessment of Fatal Film. I've seen them perhaps once every six months or so for the last couple years -- never set out to see them specifically, but they keep popping up -- and to my ear, the batch of songs they're working with right now is not only their strongest and hookiest yet, it's just plain good, period. I've always admired their two-guitar interplay and sweaty, post-punk energy, but these days they're working with melodies as solid as their dynamic. Fatal Film has the residency at Piano's in New York City this month. Hopefully it'll help them catch on a bit beyond their hometown. Speaking of bands and their hometowns -- I know I've seen Hand Grenade Serenade's strand of rootsy, anthemic punk rock before, done with bigger hooks and by more idiosyncratic players, but the kids seemed to love their set, which reminded me that punk's not dead -- it's just localized. Its power is in the band in your town that does that thing. Many towns have a Hand Grenade Serenade, and every town needs one.
So many bands. I arrived just in time to catch Panda & Child; always enjoyable, their set plays like some kind of indie rock mix tape, ragged pop and surging post-rock and bursts of jagged aggression and airy passages. They remind me of the afternoon when I was 15 and first tuned into some college radio station out of Hartford and caught an earful of off-kilter 1990s indie rock by bands who have probably since been lost to time. Their instrumentation -- which includes trumpet, percussion, flute and sometimes two basses or two keyboards in the same song -- came out of the PA a bit muddy, though; I think their set translated better at Cafe Nine earlier the same week. I caught, for the first time, the current incarnation of Atrina -- Kelly L'Heureux has assembled a New Haven supergroup of sorts with Will Ianuzzi (The Vultures) on bass, Dave Parmelee (The Vultures, Goose Lane) on drums and Phil Law (Bloarzeyd, Old Man Lady Luck) on guitar. Their surging, minor-key, low-end-heavy mid-tempo riffing and Kelly's impassioned vocals all added up to an interesting contrast with the sunny afternoon skies and seaside setting, and this is a powerful, for-serious band, even if -- hate to say it, as I really like all these people -- Atrina is a case where "consistency" can drift into "saminess," no matter how evocative and rockin' the riffs are.
One person who commented on the online version of Dan's column felt he "[wasn't] fair to [noise-rock band] Brava Spectre, whose set was literally a spectacle -- like a bomb going off." Yes, it was a spectacle, a flurry of physical activity. I was talking about this with New London scene guy and radio host Marko after their set -- he felt their set sounded purposefully constructed, and he also pointed out that they were a young band, still teenagers by his estimation. I told him about my experiments with noise, when I was about 19 -- I fell on my face with it, because I didn't have enough outside reference points, didn't have enough structure. Brava Spectre hasn't reached transcendence yet with their music, but they seem to understand more about what they're doing than some noisefolks ten years their senior. It's tough for the listener to have an "in," if he or she isn't already immersed in that world -- which seems a good way to segue into Eula's set. Not that they're a noise band or anything -- they play spooky, driving, fractured art-pop sort of stuff -- but that for a long time, I couldn't find an "in," myself, because their set seemed like its own self-contained sonic world. I couldn't place an outside reference. Once I finally broke in, though, the quirks felt natural, the hooks were evident. And I've never seen them come off as more comfortable with their dynamic as on Saturday.
After Jay Reatard's set, I headed off to the afterparty at The Jinx, which used to be called The Backstage Pass but is best known for having been the El'n'Gee. I hadn't been since the Gee closed up shop the first time, much earlier this decade, and I was astounded at how much it'd changed. There was some kind of wooden dancing floor near the stage, and the bar itself was designed to look like half of an acoustic guitar (if you looked down at it from above). It was a far cry from the grubby punk club to which I'd hauled down from Bristol with my high school friends to see, like, The Dropkick Murphys in the late 1990s. Entering the men's room, I looked for the old scrawl near the ceiling that read "WRESTLING IS REAL," and of course it was gone. I'm too old to be whanged from behind by some moshing dude during Jay Reatard's set, but too young for nostalgia. What an odd place to be seemingly gentrified, a club on a dim street near downtown New London.
Anyway, I caught only a few seconds of Wonderlust's set (I was outside, talking with a few people about how what had been billed as a $5, 16+ show ended up costing under-21ers $8), which is a shame, but I'd been looking forward to seeing Gone for Good, who New London music promoter Sean Murray had been talking up for a while. "They're thee New London band right now," Brian Suicide told me. And they were solid -- poppy, rocking, tight, good vocal harmonies. Entirely accessible stuff -- I thought of the power-poppier end of the "new wave" thing (I hate that term, but whatever you want to call it, late-'70s/early-'80s guitar-pop seemed to be the clearest reference point. A few quirks, a few surprises, would make their songs more compelling, but that might diminish their appeal, too. Who knows. Mostly I wanted to see Quiet Life, and they burned the place up. At such a late hour and on their home turf, they were reckless and celebratory, and there's nothing like a band of proficient musicians getting reckless. While they've become increasingly able at nicking classic country-rock stylings over the past few years, here they were an amped-up rock'n'roll bar band. According to singer Sean, he's moving to California with his girlfriend and the rest of the band will follow in January. Bummer for us.
I left my house around noon feeling awful -- I'd just had a miserable previous few days. All the way to New London, I'd thought about how the past five or so times I'd been out there, I'd arrived feeling really down and left feeling great. Happened again. Dunno what it is. I show up and I feel welcomed, wanted. And then, usually, there's an awesome show. Thanks, guys.