NYC’s newest multi-venue music marathon, The New Colossus Festival, took over Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a celebration of independent musicians and concert halls. It was primarily composed of bands travelling into the states from Europe and Canada on their way to Austin, Texas for SXSW, and the three plus days of a tsunami of artists proved to be as exhilarating as it was exhausting. It was a great way to get exposed to new bands, many of which had never even performed in America before. Personally, it was also a great chance to soak in the nostalgia of exploring a neighborhood where I’d spent so much time back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, as well as marvel (and complain) about how much this hood has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. This fest took place over three days (five if you count kick-off and post-game showcases) and all the insanity occurred at three of the old guard strongholds of remaining independent concert venues – Pianos, Arlene’s Grocery, and The Delancey, as well as some newer spots that have taken up the torch – Berlin, Bowery Electric, and Coney Island Baby.
The LES was once the premiere neighborhood for seeing indie and punk 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 music acts, like the gold standard indie venue CBGBs, have shuttered due to exploding rents, changing neighborhood demographics, and merciless noise restrictions, plus the (anti-dancing) cabaret law. A couple decades back that began to change, as most of the coolest DIY spots were chased straight across the East River to Williamsburg, and even more recently, as that hood has gotten overrun by the rich, it is now being chased further out to places like Bushwick, both areas that were no man’s lands when I first moved to Brooklyn back in ’97. Still, this is a process that is never-ending in NYC, as neighborhoods have long been in a state of change between ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups. A great example is the area of Soho that borders the LES, and that was once the scary artist bohemia of the 80’s (just watch the movie After Hours), and long ago those dark cobblestone streets mutated into the playground for the ultra-rich that it is today.
The first time I ever visited NYC wasn’t until my late 20’s, and the two nights I spent here in the middle of the sweltering Summer of 1996, in the midst of a stifling trash strike, was a life-changing moment for me. I ended up feeling so at home in the city that never sleeps, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t already living here. I stayed at the St. Marks Hotel, and me and some friends partied up and down the LES, East Village, and Alphabet City, and I very much remember seeing a couple shows at Coney Island High (which has also since closed, sadly), and that was when I first marveled about how the party never stopped in New York. Coming from the Midwest, where everything apart from the occasional Denny’s would close ridiculously early, I couldn’t get enough of this wonderland where you could get anything at any hour of the day or night. Principally, as a life-long music freak, I couldn’t get over how many stages there were here, both big and small, all over town. It was almost impossible not to walk through this part of the city at that time without tripping over a killer concert somewhere, and circling all the shows in the Village Voice made the addiction even worse. It was the start of my obsession with seeing live shows, and I’ll never forget the music high this neighborhood first bequeathed onto me.
This neighborhood’s wild history made it rich territory for this kind of musical goldmine. Gangs, drugs, and crime had infamously gotten so bad that at one point the NYPD largely gave up in this whole chunk of Manhattan, leading to plunging rents and quality of life, and that made it perfect territory for affordable spaces for bohemian artists types and starving musicians alike. The LES proved to be one of the most fertile music scenes in rock history, budding punk to experimental in all the darkest and most beautiful ways, from the 70’s to recently, with ultra-influential musicians like Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Television, Richard Hell, Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Talking Heads evolving (or devolving) to the 80’s punk of Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, and Sonic Youth, to 90’s alt rockers like The Strokes all using this area as their springboard to massive success. Alternative rock as a whole owes an unimaginable debt to this music scene. Yet, with the early 2000’s sterilizing clean-up of the city came a repressive gentrification. Those grimy bars with bathrooms you wouldn’t dare touch anything in vanished, and were replaced by tacky Euro-trash bars, while poor artists and punks were replaced by entitled yuppies and hipsters. Many of the premiere venues shuttered their doors over the last decade or so, like CBGBs, Coney Island High, The Ritz, Luna Lounge, Lit Lounge, Cake Shop, Brownies, Tonic, Sin-e, Fez, Tramps, Continental, and plenty more, but yet, a handful have held on, and some new ones have even popped in to pick up the slack, and this festival has perfectly encompassed that enduring need for gritty, raw, and loud rock and roll in the Big Apple.
It was a real blast to have purpose to be roaming through this neighborhood and find some of my old enduring party spots, like Library Bar, Cherry Tavern, and Double Down Saloon, however this epic journey was not about going on a bender. This was all about the music and keeping up the endurance to keep rocking on despite your feet feeling like they’re ready to fall off. My second official day of the fest (Friday), started off early, with the daytime showcases kicking off around noon. Then, I shuffled between Pianos and their neighbors around the corner, Arlene’s Grocery, who also got their name and classic sign from the mid-century store that was there before them, and what could be more punk than that.
The daytime music showcase started with the bewitching dream pop of London’s Hussy. Then, there was Ontario’s darkly shoegazey Vallens, while Theodore from Athens, Greece roared with some turbulent anthems. Sydney, Australia’s Body Type proved to be an awesomely fun way to revel in heartbreak, while Scotland’s Fatherson roared with Zeppelin-like intensity poured into a tall cool glass of slick Arctic Monkeys rock. In the dark haze of the upstairs room of Pianos Spain’s Lava Fizz were kicking a powerfully volcanic brew of rock, which was followed by London’s surreal ‘anxiety pop’ band Flirting that turned out to be pretty mesmerizing. Finally, Manchester’s Fruit Tones and their classic backbeat/britpunk/britpop mélange ended up finishing off the day’s shows.
I started the evening’s shows at the basement spot Berlin Under The A, a place I had once heard The Ramones used to rehearse at (although I have never managed to verify that), but this is definitely the kind of spot I could see having once been a speak easy or a secret hideaway, and this cavernous spot has a seriously authentic German cabaret atmosphere. This is where I caught the St. Louis duo Bruiser Queen, who I make sure to never miss when they come around, and their blistering energy is only ever upstaged by their killer catchiness. Then I did pop down the street to Bowery Electric to catch a local favorite Palberta, who’s off-time and off-the-rocker lunacy is also something I try not to miss. Then, back at Berlin, I managed to catch a truly cray cray electro-pop duo from Brooklyn called Casual Sexists who really managed to kick off a dance party. After that, the mood switched to hard rock with a horror synth metal outfit called Nastie Band that I had wanted to catch since missing a Halloween show of theirs, and they were everything I hoped, and I only wish they would’ve played longer. Next was another don’t miss experience in the form of the Brooklyn noise-punk/doom metal trio called Weeping Icon. I then made my way up Avenue A to Coney Island Baby, the much cleaner, glam version of the classic punk venue located at this spot called Brownies. There, I managed to catch a bit of the ghostly synth/drum pop duo from Portugal called PAPERCUTZ. Finally, I ended the night in truly epic fashion, with one of my fav local bands called Grim Streaker who always managed to blow the roof off and all faces who see them.
Article: Dean Keim