The CBGB Festival Aims to Prolong the Spirit of Punk Rock’s Birthplace
Last Saturday, the 2nd annual CBGB Festival culminated into a free show at Times Square in New York City. The commerce center of Manhattan is a far cry from the gritty underground music club for which the festival is named, exchanging dingy floors and punks for massive adverts and tourists. Behind the barrage of stimuli, though, powerful performances by My Morning Jacket, Divine Fits, and Grizzly Bear commemorated the spirit of the now defunct counter-culture touchstone.
Entering Times Square can be a little overwhelming; in fact, no place imaginable emphasizes the uncanny feeling of being “in public” more. Anywhere you look, there’s something going on, whether it’s an onslaught of people snapping photos, or the enormous HD screens displaying frolicking lingerie models. It all contributed to a bizarre setting for a music festival.
You’d think that an all-day multi-stage music festival would demand the spotlight (did I mention it was free?), but in New York City, this was not the case. I scanned the huge space, a cavern filled with people bordered by towering buildings, but could not initially locate anything resembling a music festival. Families and tour groups laughed and continued sightseeing, seemingly unaware of the event taking place. After darting through a mass of humanity, however, a few CBGB logos revealed themselves in the distance.
The CBGB Festival layout provided an oasis amid the bustling city center. An expanse of six blocks ran uptown, providing the music festival essentials of stages, food and merch tents, and large monitors to view the action in transit. Within this canyon of closed-off streets, it was remarkable how the atmosphere changed to the relaxed and enjoyable vibes of a festival.
Early in the day, Lisa Loeb soundtracked the event with a relaxed set, followed by 90s college radio champions The Wallflowers, who added sunny tunes to a warm Autumn afternoon. Afterwords, Divine Fits played the main stage, showing exactly why they’ve become a festival mainstay this year. Britt Daniel (also of Spoon) added his raspy vocals to a rousing set.
After a midday intermission, the event resumed with a DJ set from former LCD Soundsystem frontman, James Murphy. He looked very relaxed as he turned knobs onstage, but perhaps the Times Square setting loomed a little too large; the set would probably be better suited in the cozy confines of CBGB itself.
Uptown on 54th street, Grizzly Bear took the North Stage beside the Ed Sullivan Theatre. The seasoned festival veterans played through a memorable set, adding their ghostly harmonies to standouts “Yet Again,” “While You Wait For The Others,” and “Ready, Able.”
“I’m sorry if I seem distracted. I don’t really know where to look right now,” lead singer Ed Droste added in between songs. “Every time I look up, I see David Letterman’s giant face smiling at me.” The crowd laughed, simultaneously looking up to see a giant “Late Show” billboard. Despite playing a bevy of festivals ranging from Bonnaroo to Coachella, Grizzly Bear still felt a little overwhelmed by the Times Square setting.
The day capped off fittingly with My Morning Jacket. As the sun began to set behind the New York skyline, MMJ rose to the occasion with a truly headline-worthy set. In the past few years, they’ve achieved quite a reputation for a seminal live show, and once they took the stage with “Circuital,” it was obvious why. The crowd grew larger and larger, many of whom stumbled upon the concert by chance.
My Morning Jacket brought guests on stage throughout the show, including Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, and Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers. They jammed and soloed through a sprawling set of covers and fan-favorites, clearly embracing the grand stage. By the time set-closer “One Big Holiday” began, the crowd had ballooned to thousands lining the city blocks, all taking in the incredible sight. As frontman Jim James waved his mane of hair through the onstage fog, onlookers witnessed the coming-of-age of what will surely be the next “arena” rock band.
The crowd wandered away from the CBGB Festival as randomly as they’d arrived. Perhaps in future years, a less hectic location would benefit the festival, yet even so, the event managed to bring together a motley crowd of music fans in the name of quality rock music, and that idea alone prolongs the very idea that CBGB was built on 40 years ago.
For more on the history of CBGBs, check out this article.
Article by Nicolas White