There is a poem engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty that welcomes immigrants to NYC called “The New Colossus,” and, in part, it reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It is fitting that the newest Big Apple music marathon celebration is named The New Colossus Festival, a celebration of music that took over Manhattan’s Lower East Side and is primarily composed of bands travelling into the states from Europe and Canada. Most of these artists were already coming through NYC on their way to America’s premiere multi-venue music marathon, SXSW in Austin, Texas, and traditionally, many of these would already play at least one show here at the premiere city for advertising, music, media, and the arts, before heading South, so it seems like a truly obvious but unexploited idea to collect them all into one grand premiere festival.
The whole festival is the brainchild of three music industry veterans – Steven Matrick who books talent at the LES venue Pianos and runs Kepler Events, Mike Bell who founded the management firm Lorimer Beacon, and Lio Kanine who runs the indie label Kanine Records – all making a rocking combination. They threw an inaugural one-day version of this last year, but this year was the true debut of the festival proper, one that takes on both the old and the new of the NYC music scene and this ever-evolving neighborhood. Obviously, the Lower East Side was, at one time, the go-to hood for seeing independent music in New York City. However, as the area has gentrified over the last few decades, many of the biggest and best-known places to hear the unsigned and minor label acts out there, like the gold standard venue to see largely unsigned talent called CBGBs, have shuttered due to exploding rents, changing neighborhood demographics, and merciless noise restrictions. New Colossus took place this year over three days, five if you count kick-off and post game concerts, at some of the old guard of remaining independent concert venues like Pianos, Arlene’s Grocery, and The Delancey, as well as some newer spots that have grabbed the torch like Berlin, Bowery Electric, and Coney Island Baby.
Not only has the landscape of this music scene changed, but it has also been steadily pushed further and further out into the boroughs, not to mention NYC has also been starving for a multi-venue festival of its own for the last few years. For more than three decades, that premiere music fest title was firmly in place with the College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon, a five-day annual festival produced by the trade magazine for college radio stations, which began back in 1980 and was, at one point, larger and more influential than SXSW, and also took place at venues all across this vast metropolis, but sadly abruptly ended its marathon run back in 2015. For a few years, it seemed like Northside Festival would pick up the slack, centering on venues in and around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, directly across the East River from the East Village, a hood that is where many of the DIY venues ran to after being chased out of the LES. However, Williamsburg has also transformed from grime, grit, and rock n’ roll lifestyle to also becoming a pricey playground for the rich, and many of its cool venues and bars have thusly likewise been pushed further out to areas like Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens, so Northside has already begun to fade and has lost much of its relevancy.
Now, there is a new beckoning light, as the New Colossus Festival is taking us back to as time of larger-than-life music festivals and wild adventurous neighborhoods that used to personify the bohemian artist and rock n’ roll lifestyle of NYC. This is the tale of the first part of my journey on this epic musical adventure.
Opening the fest was a stacked kick-off show at Pianos on Wednesday, the site of a former early 1900’s piano shop that re-opened as a bar and concert venue back in 2002, where they coopted the former tenants name as well as their classic store sign. The show opened with the dreamy shoegazey sway and guitar wail of Brooklyn’s No Swoon. Then there was a classic rock drenched Ecstatic Union, followed by psych rocker HNRY FLWR. Upstate NY offered up the inaugural performance of the grungy trio Candy Ambulance. Local glam rockers Yaasss kicked out a powerful rock ruckus with lots of glitter, sequins, and power chords. Cindy Cane took on a darkly ominous tone with some soaring tomes. Lastly, the Queens trio Miranda & The Beat ended the night with some classic 60’s-inspired surfy soul rock.
Thurday, the first official day of the fest, started with afternoon panel conversations about the music industry with an impressive lineup of insiders called The New Colossus Festival Colossal Conversations. In the evening, the music kicked off, and I started off at Bowery Electric, the neighborhood’s answer to the loss of CBGB’s, with a much more neon-flooded version of the area’s former punk spirit just a block down the street. There I caught a set by the Philly garage rock rompers Blushed. Then, I returned to Pianos for the huge Kanine Records showcase, that started for me with the brilliant dream pop swoon of Toronto transplant Ellis on the downstairs main stage. After that, I headed upstairs to the smaller coffee lounge styled stage for a grungier take on that same Ontario-area dream-pop sound by the name of Basement Revolver. They were followed by a delightful performance by Nicole Yun, singer and guitarist from the Virginia band Eternal Summers, who radiantly slayed with a lighter and funkier sound for her upcoming solo album. A young Boston band of dreamy, yet very grounded, surf pop rockers called Honey Cutt continued the sweetly rocking vibes of the night. Meanwhile, another Canadian import, Living Hour, played downstairs with a sound highly reminiscent of classic indie pop bands like Cocteau Twins and Camera Obscura. Then there was an enchanting set by The Natvral, the new band of former Pains of Being Pure at Heart frontman Kip Berman, which brought on recollections of a young Bob Dylan.
After that, I headed back over to Bowery Electric and managed to catch a bit of the imported psych rock outfit Lost Cousins. I then ended the night with a couple of the hardest working local bands in the city that never sleeps, that started with a team that just didn’t quit called Pom Pom Squad, who put on a wacky show as cheerleaders for an uber-silly school of rock that helped offset the darkly hard-hitting nature of their music. Conversely, I then saw the power trio thrashers called THICK, who sing songs largely comprised of lighthearted absurdist angst that is often offset by being played with a thunderous intensity that is always sure to start up a wild mosh pit, and that debauchery did indeed kick in the adrenaline rush that carried us all into the wee early hours of the morning.
Article: Dean Keim