The New Alternative Music Festival (NAMF) was put on by the great people over at one of the finest alternative labels out there today, Don Giovanni Records. This was a bizarrely one-off festival that might very well have been in lieu of their annual bash thrown across the river in Brooklyn. However, this year they decided instead to stage it at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey, trading dirty, concrete streets for a sandy, breezy boardwalk. Despite the change of scenery, it still featured many of their best artists, and they continued to yield one of the most outstanding festivals of its kind anywhere. Championing its punk spirit, Don Giovanni’s trademark of anti-corporate sponsorship and artists’ rights mantras were in full effect, as they once again showed how they can generate such a close-knit family of artists and devotees, stirring a deep warmth in my rock n’ roll heart.
To step back for a moment and set the scene, this was the first time I’d been back to Asbury Park in more than six years, so in many respects it was an experience of rediscovery for me. The town had changed so much in the years since I had last visited, with so many more upscale shops and restaurants than there ever were before. I’m sure much of this growth and rebirth followed the devastation of Hurricane Sandy back in 2012, which demolished much of the East Coast, but especially there at the Jersey Shore. I had actually also never been to the mega-gorgeous Convention Hall on the beach boardwalk, and that was an epic experience onto itself. After all, the cavernous chamber was built back way back in the 1930’s and has seen many classic giant rock artists play in the past like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. So, this venue has a lot of rock n’ roll soul burned into every crevasse of its expansive arena.
Also, to set the scene by way of background, apparently some serious logistical and financial problems were encountered while working to pull-off this ambitious, all ages, mega-event. This was clearly a huge undertaking for a label of any size. Even though Don Giovanni typically sells out their label roster festivals when they throw them in Brooklyn every year, this was a much larger venue in a place less accessible to the typically more urban crowd that often devours their line-up. Thusly, the turnout was slightly less than I think they had hoped. Sadly, they had to cancel the third (Sunday) show out of explosive cost concerns, and tried their best to shuffle the rest into Friday and Saturday’s performances. That did mean a couple of my favorite Don artists weren’t able to play, namely Priests and Shellshag. Still, every time I attend one of their jubilees, I always get turned onto new artists, and they never cease to astonish my sometime fickle tastes. The label’s co-founder Joe Steinhardt remarked shortly after the fest, “The person who sold me the insurance that I needed in order for this to happen told me he didn’t understand why I was doing this if I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I wasn’t surprised he didn’t get it, but then it really is kinda insane if you think about how many people worked so hard for so long for no real financial gain. But for everyone who was there and was a part of it I think it was clear why.”
This was clearly a festival done out of love for the music, and I can’t help but feel this is the kind of event the music industry as a whole needs now more than ever. Music seems to have become so disconnected from the performers with mindless streaming services that barely even compensate the artists and the remaining big labels holding onto every penny they can so their board can still pocket bloated six-figure salaries. It’s truly heartwarming to see a label embrace the artist in such a personal way.
“This is a pro-weirdo event held in direct opposition to the apolitical sludge that has come to pass as ‘indie’ and that has nothing to do with operating independently,” said the label in a press release. “Where many festival bills are structured to reflect critical acclaim, the NAMF lineup is meant to reflect a community. In addition to making great music, many of these artists are involved because they are peers, tour-mates, and friends.” Thusly, as you might imagine there was quite a bit of political context and social movement involvement to be found all around the celebration from booths giving away zines to artists to the audience themselves. There seemed to be especially a lot of gender-equality, feminist, and general activist ideals involved throughout, even down to the bathrooms that were donned gender neutral just for this festival. As for the very thing most of us came for, there was plenty of music for all to enjoy. I must say, this was one of the most well organized festivals I have ever been honored to attend, being one of the only I have ever experienced to be actually running AHEAD of schedule! They seem to have largely accomplished this by splitting the entirety of the expansive stage in half, so that they could always be loading in and setting up gear for the next act as the present one was playing, which seriously helped reduce downtime between sets.
On Friday, I made the grand NJTransit train trek from Brooklyn to Asbury, arriving around 3pm. Although I may had missed a few opening acts, I think over 8 consecutive hours of concert-raging was even pushing my excessive limits. The first artist I saw was the musician, activist, organizer, curator, poet Camae Ayewa, who goes by the name Moor Mother, and has been infiltrating the hip-hop underground for the better part of a decade. This Philly-based artist has released some 100 recordings online since she began in 2012, and generates an eclectic barrage of electronic noises from hip-hop to jazz to electro-punk all rolled together in some impressive protest songs. Next was another outfit from Philly, this time in the form of the crushing sonics of the guitar/drums duo, Pinkwash. Behind their swinging bushy bangs of mystery and immense axe-riffing intensity, there’s a lyrical deepness and sincerity to their head-banging prowess. Then it was back to one-woman electro-hip-hop, this time it being Sammus from upstate New York. This producer and rapper by the name of Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo generates a far more tongue-in-cheek humor, even to the extreme of being a figurehead of the geek-gamer world while still clearly generating a feminist message of sisterhood and togetherness.
The power trio from DC, The Max Levine Ensemble, produced some enjoyable pop-punk that grazed somewhere between Green Day and The Rentals. I’ve always loved the punk-pop sensibilities of California X, which dwells more in the 90’s grunge range of Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, and Mudhoney. Their set may have been marred by sound troubles, but they still cranked that distortion level to maximum and rocked out some seriously psychedelic jams. Following that was the Brooklyn power trio Nude Beach, who are simply one of the most genuine acts capturing the classic rock feel of 70’s arena pop nostalgia in the style of MC5 or Thin Lizzy with a catchiness that is all but unparalleled.
The Philly quartet Radiator Hospital brought on a slight indie-pop smoothness to some rather expansive jams. The Wisconsin trio of Tenement is perhaps one of my absolute favorite Don bands, with an explosive rawness and hip harmonies that can’t help but make you bow down to their sweaty all-in rock. Probably one of the biggest surprises of the festival was the Alabama punk band that started up nearly 10 years ago by the name of P.S. Eliot, who have been inactive since 2011, coming out and playing a set. This is a band perhaps better known for the projects of the twin sisters Katie (guitars, vocals) and Allison Crutchfield (drums) after their very influential two albums were released, Katie having started Waxahatchee and Allison forming Swearin’. Although they were never on the Don label before, as far as I know, they’ve just released a stuffed double album compilation of their career’s work. That was what I imagine brought them back out and made this their second to last stop on their six-city mini-reunion tour. They turned out a truly enchanting set of awesome rockers that made me miss their unique blend of punk, riot grrrl, and indie-pop flavors. Also, Katie should receive the brightest of gold stars for conflict resolution management for smoothly breaking up some over-anxious kids who were squabbling up front. Ought are a band of attractive young male label-mates from Montreal that happen to be out on the road with P.S. Eliot at the moment. Their set was a smooth indie-rock flavored groove with some surprising moments of aggressive rocking and breakneck time-changes that came together in a rather wonderful way.
The headliner for the night was, of course, Screaming Females, who in many ways are the highlight, or at least the very core, of Don Giovanni Records as a whole. Not only are they their best-selling artist, but they also take the label back to its roots as an early promoter of New Brunswick, NJ’s basement scene, where this band also got their start, making a name for themselves playing shows in people’s cellars and backrooms. Their sound is something of a loaded gun, with the rhythm section of Jarrett Dougherty on drums and King Mike on bass creating the powder keg of danger with their infectiously driving beats. Then comes in Marissa Paternoster, the total badass behind the trigger, who underneath her deceptively petite frame lies a ferocious monster. She wails on the axe with some of the finest guitar shredding anywhere in modern rock as effortlessly as she breaks from deeply foreboding baritone to banshee wailings. As many times as I’ve seen them bring the house down in numerous venues across the country, this may have been one of their finest face-melting sets yet, as they brought out tunes from across their decade of recordings and six full-length releases. It was a beautifully sweaty way to end a nicely full day of rocking out on the gorgeous Jersey Shore. Stay tuned for a recap of day two…
Article: Dean Keim