Matt Lehtola, a longtime DJ at BreakThru and local Brooklynite, got a press pass for the Northside Festival, which took place in Brooklyn June 14th-17th. He returned back with this enthusiastic and substantively narrative account, which we present to you in a series. The following covers day 1 of Mr. Lehtola’s adventures on June 14th.
GZA, the genius, himself. All Photos by Phillip Nguyen.
By Matt Lehtola
My Northside adventure began in Bushwick, at the Myrtle Avenue/Broadway stop at 4:45 p.m. on June 14. I rode the M train five stops up to Marcy Avenue, nodded to the now-faded painting of Toshiro Mifune (in full samurai regalia) on the Manhattan side of the Marcy Ave platform, and walked down the steps into the late afternoon sun.
Turning right on Havemeyer, I affixed my lucky purple ear buds and began listening to the new SpaceGhostPurrp album (again). In the first song, “Mystikal Maze,” SGP notes, “the world is a house with a yard full of snakes.”
Pondering that, I moseyed toward Grand Street, where, as I turned left, my phone rang, killing the music. Again, I wished for an option on the iPhone that makes music listening uninterruptible from phone calls.
It was the person who knows me best in life, however, so I talked and walked to Bedford Avenue. Hanging up a few minutes later, I saw a text from Phil (BTR’s DJ Wynn), who I had plans to meet w ith at the Northside badge pick-up on North 5th. Phil said he’d just emerged from the L cave at Bedford; as I began to text a response, he suddenly appeared, camera backpack at ready. Phil had returned from a three-week trip to Europe less than 24 hours earlier.
Dude looked like he had lost some weight. “Meat is expensive over there,” he grumbled, “It’s been all baguettes.”
We shook hands and walked to Northside’s registration loading dock on North 5th. We picked up our badges from the friendly ladies there and eyed a pile of pizza boxes stacked haphazardly to the right of the credential distribution tables. Though it was cold, we were happy to discover that a lot of free pizza was still left.
After scarfing down half a square pie, we ventured deeper into the Northside sponsor spread. There we saw our first free Heineken sampling square, full of people drinking free beer, as well as a large inflated igloo that appeared to be a ‘wi-fi hotspot.’ There was one dude in there, working on a laptop. He looked sad.
Next to the igloo, in the cavernous, garage-like warehouse space, sat many abandoned shwag tables. Badge pick-up/registration had begun at 8:30 that morning and we hadn’t arrived on the scene until 5:30, so it was no surprise to see the place deserted.
While Phil raided a pile of miniature candy bars on one of these abandoned sponsor tables, I ran into Maryanne, a photographer who I hadn’t seen since a White Birds show at Pianos a few months prior. We caught up and joked about how we’d no doubt be seeing each other everywhere over the course of the fest. I bid her adieu, then Phil and I left to get a cup of coffee at Toby’s Estate on North 6th street, as there was still plenty of time before the GZA/Brownout!/SpaceGhostPurrp set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
We palavered, drank expensive cold brew I can’t really justify purchasing, and exchanged humorous anecdotes. As Phil was recently back from his first trip to Europe, there was much to talk about. “People walk slower there,” he said. “I could easily see myself living in Barcelona or Paris.”
I became depressed. “One day, I’ll get over there,” I said, without much gusto, wondering if I ever actually would. Phil also noted the $7,000 espresso machine on display by the bathroom at Toby’s, to which I said ,”Jesus Christ!”
Then we left to stand in the line outside the Music Hall of Williamsburg, which, at that point, reached to the doors of Cubana Social. “What time does Sean Connery arrive at Wimbledon?” asked the food-hype placard outside the restaurant.
We got inside shortly after, posted up in front of the stage, and proceeded to listen to the same James Brown song on repeat for about 45 minutes. I reckon the sound engineer at Music Hall really digs that one.
Brownout! took the stage first at about 8:25 p.m. The frontman/guitarist had one of those guitar cables that looks like an old-school spiral phone cord. Are those better? I know shit about gear, but if I played guitar, I’d want one of those. They look more compelling.
The nine-piece band out of Austin, Texas played in a jammy style, touching upon Afrobeat, Mariachi, Latin funk, and island music. There was no lead vocalist; the entire band shouted all the choruses, making for some real block party type shit. It sounded solid, but the crowd didn’t quite match the music. Bands that focus on instrument solos (bongos and guitar in this case) instead of a singing frontman or frontwoman, aren’t for everybody.
“I wish they were SpaceGhost,” remarked Phil.
Brownout! performing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Brownout! finished at 8:59 p.m. with the front man cleverly saying “good night!” on the last beat. He was wearing a Brownout! t-shirt with an Uzi on it, and said “Oozy” (Oozy being the name of the band’s third studio album).
The band came back to the stage about 20 minutes later, wearing black shirts with white GZA ‘G’s on the chests. They played an overture. I heard GZA say “check” from somewhere offstage and weed smoke suddenly filled my nostrils. The crowd began to shout the classic “WU” (pause) “TANG” chant.
Then GZA himself came out the Music Hall stage door, wearing a white shirt with the GZA ‘G’ on it in black. I spent the next five minutes trying to tweet this moment, complete with a picture, but the shit kept getting timed out. Then I felt a shoulder on my right, two shoves and a few shouts. I looked, and saw a fan pushing his way to the front, shirt half off, exposing a beautifully detailed back tattoo of the iconic cover art for Liquid Swords.
A group of dudes nearby, seeing this intricate tribute, spent the next 45 seconds trying to get GZA’s attention, so the man himself could see it.
An attempt to capture GZA’s attention.
Eventually GZA did see it, but he didn’t smile. He nodded with approval, shook the man’s hand, and got back to work. I stayed through “Liquid Swords,” in which GZA broke things down in the middle of the song to tell a story. He talked about a night in Shaolin, years ago, whilst Brownout! (via their alter ego, Group Fantasma) played softly behind him, slowly stoking up the fire.
“We were in the cellar… Cellar dwelling… Drinking… (pausing for effect)… FORTIES… Smoking blunts… And playing chess… With the RZA.”
There was more, but I couldn’t type fast enough. Needless to say, the tale ended with a huge explosion of bass, horns and drums from Brownout! I thought about the first time I had heard that song, in the parking lot of my high school. That’s when I drove a 1985 Toyota Camry with two twelves thundering in the trunk.
Feeling nostalgic, I then left, as Dope Body were playing next door at 10 PM. I got a red star stamp from the Music Hall doorman, walked to Public Assembly, and quickly learned they were at their press limit.
I could hear Dustin Wong’s set wafting out, sounding wistful, and wizard-wrought.
“Well shit,” I thought, and gave the man $14.
Walking inside the main room, I leaned against a metal girder and focused. It was a calming, complete 360-degree turn from the Wu-Tang revelry next door. I felt at peace. Dustin Wong was looping, plucking and shredding up there, sometimes in a chair, but always looking (and sounding) contented.
A man shouted “I LOVE YOU” to him, during a poignant moment in the set. I didn’t hear anybody object. Most of the people in the room were standing very still, wholly captive.
Wong finished with a furious display of fleet finger work, said thanks, and suddenly it was over. “Damn,” I said, trying to think of some way to describe the show I had just seen. The video for “Wataridori”, by Cornelius, kept coming back to me – all that imagery of the landscape flying by? That’s what it was like.
The video for “Wataridori” by Cornelius.
I then decamped to the back room, just in time to hear Dope Body frontman Andrew Laumann say “We’re Dope Body from Baltimore.” They sounded exactly as I had hoped they would; tight, sure, and tough. It was fucking great and I was happy to learn they’d be releasing a split with Roomrunner in the fall. Dope Body then played a song from that forthcoming release, which caused me to write the phrase “like a bulldozer wif big teefs” in my notes.
“Next song’s about about wearing a different hat,” said Laumann. They launched into “Weird Mirror,” the first single off of Natural History. It sounded faster live, and, as it’s the most linear track on the album, it got the biggest reaction from the crowd.
Dope Body frontman Andrew Laumann.
Dude dropped the quote of the night a few songs later, saying “Magic Markers up next, sponsored by Crayons.” That shit got me snickering. Little did I know I’d be chuckling again toward the end of “Lazy Slave”, when Laumann pulled off an unexpected and seriously high-pitched bout of scream-singing. This sudden shift into a high register, after an entire set of mostly growled vocals, was so apropos I laughed out loud.
Really, is there anything better than being pleasantly surprised by something so awesome it makes you laugh?
Feeling good, I hit the bathroom. Public Assembly’s facilities are pretty small. “Great set,” I heard someone say, and looking up, there was Dustin Wong, washing his hands.
“Thanks man,” he said cheerily. And as I walked past him into the just-vacated stall, I mumbled, “Yeah dude, awesome show.”
He didn’t hear me though, and I was glad. I’ve never meant the compliment more, but the other guy had said it first, thereby weakening my sentiment and thus leading to the unoriginal, mumbled follow-up.
As I did my necessary, I overheard the same guy ask Wong if he was playing any more shows that week. Wong said “nahh,” in a funny, almost questioning way, trailing off on the “ahhhh” as if some surreal comment might follow, but none did.
I washed my hands and left the bathroom to search for a socket. A power strip hung on the wall by the ATM, so I plugged in and posted up. Starring had just begun on the main stage at Public Assembly. The first song they played was some suspenseful shit. I got lost in it for a minute, then began typing the Wong story onto my plastic screen, backspacing often because the protective cover on my phone case fucks shit up. I fielded a phone call and suddenly Phil was standing there, looking exhausted.
“I think I’m done man, beat,” he said, or thereabouts. I believed him. Dude had been on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean yesterday and was still all tired and time-addled. Shit, I was surprised he had made it this far, snapping swift pictures of Brownout!, GZA, and Dope Body.
We walked outside. All four members of Dope Body stood on the sidewalk, talking to people.
Whenever confronted with this situation, since 2006, what I usually do is walk over to the band that just tore shit up and ask them if they want to record a conversation about it.
However, I’m still burned by how the last such conversation turned out. My questions are too weirdly personal, I guess – people tend to say things they later regret. Also, I always record these conversations late at night, with the band or artist having no idea the shit was happening until I appeared ex nihilo to ask them. I wouldn’t call it “bum rushing,” but it’s an aggressive approach, and my questions are not of the puffy variety.
Why do I do it like that?
I’ve always looked at these post-show moments from the perspective of an on-the-court reporter after a sporting event. A live show is very similar, and to record quotes from the sportsman or sportswoman directly following the act of what they do the best? That makes total sense, right?
In sports, yes, but not always with music. Often a band won’t want to record a conversation until after the show. That’s fine, but sometimes people in bands drink or smoke throughout the evening, which means whatever they say by the time they get to me, well, they might regret that shit.
Anyway, this is not to say that Dope Body looked inebriated – quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. They looked alert and ready for anything, but still I hesitated.
So, instead of talking to Dope Body, I talked to Phil, who told me a tale about a sandstorm in Barcelona. I countered with a crazy-ass story about a mutual friend. Then I wished him well on his train ride, said we should get some Popeye’s soon, and went back inside Public Assembly. I plugged my dying phone back into a socket (this time on the opposite side of the main room, behind the sound board) and tried to tune back into Starring.
Unfortunately, they finished their show (literally) a few seconds later. This meant it was time for Magik Markers (another band I knew nothing about) to begin in the back room. I hustled down the hallway and re-planted my feet.
With her hair all up in her face like a Japanese horror film, the frontwoman was doing some crazy-ass spoken-word shit. She prowled the stage, as if looking for something someone had dropped on the floor and lost forever. Then she raised her guitar up in front of her face, like a ward against evil, and stood as still as a redwood tree. Her hair and guitar neck hid all facial expressions. The drummer was bent over his kit, hunched, as if trying to keep a basketball away from grabbing defenders, while the bassist swayed slowly back and forth. The music stopped and the guitarist started whispering things, like “bonfire.” The chant built up, and suddenly the song exploded back into being, all fast and old school White Zombie, the girl now screaming in high-pitched harmonies. That turned out to be the final scene in a fascinating five-act play of a song, with the stretched out meditation in the middle making for a truly massive climax at the end.
I am now a fan of Magik Markers.
My ear canals flooded, I lurched back to the main room, plugged my phone back into the wall behind the soundboard, and noticed a fellow on stage that could pass as a Bob Marley stunt double. ‘Twas M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, adding more diversity of sound to this already well-curated first night at Northside.
M.A.K.U.’s music reminded me of a massive drum circle on South Beach I had stumbled upon post-Ultrafest, back in 1999 (the first Ultra – the only one they held on the actual beach.) But I found it difficult to focus; my brain was still reeling from the Magik Markers set. I rubbed my eyes and noticed a couple of cats in marching band costumes standing nearby. They were attaching drums and straps together from a pile of percussive instruments on the floor a few feet away from me. “Mucca Pazza,” I thought, “I saw these guys at the Harvest of Hope four years ago.”
M.A.K.U. Soundsystem then began an extended, fast-paced drumming exploration and build, with the horn players accenting at key moments. I realized they were the first band that night to have a projection going on behind them. The screen displayed images of people doing daily chores somewhere in the third world, sometimes in black-and-white and sometimes on 70’s-tinged video tape.
I decided to check out the back room again. There was a man in a peach-colored suit there, shuffle dancing next to a lady in a colored polka dot dress. Both had black hair.
The music they were singing to (which included a hard-blowing saxophone player) had a decidedly 50’s-surf-movie-with-Elvis-type-vibe; lots of “uh huhs” and “oh yeahs.” I wondered if they were together in real life. The two were singing in a back-and-forth kind of style, as if there was some silly argument going on between them.
A few couples in the back started dancing about. It was now 12:38 a.m. For a second there, the bloke in the suit reminded me of Dan Lastick, of The Saps, a Chicago band I last saw at Arlene’s Grocery in 2007. But, no, this was Chain, of Chain & The Gang, who, between songs, referred to his band in the third person (as he introduced each member). I caught the “Katie’s on vocals” part.
That girl’s got sass for days.
Wondering what else might be going on, I took a moment to look at the Northside schedule. All the official showcases were finishing up at 1 or 1:30 a.m. There were probably after-parties, late shows, and DJ sets on into the night somewhere, but I was feeling done.
So I bought my first beer of the night, at the back bar, while Katie from Chain and the Gang finished a song by singing “I need a dolllllllllar.”
After tipping the barkeep my own dollar, I went back to the main room, posted up against a metal girder, and watched as all 30 members of Mucca Pazza filed into the room. I saw that some of the players had what looked like elementary school intercom speakers attached to their hats, making for on-the-go amplification. There were cheerleaders too, and suddenly I found myself engulfed in horns, drums, and colored Pom-Poms. Mucca Pazza played a rousing, setting-the-table type of march as the drummers mounted the stage. The guitarist and multiple violinists followed. Meanwhile, the horn section and cheerleaders stayed in the crowd, while the cymbal crashers split themselves between both the stage and the floor.
This was easily the best moment of their set, as I was literally surrounded by music.
But it didn’t last. Soon all of Mucca Pazza was on stage, and I was surprised to see they all fit. There was a round of fight chants from the cheerleaders then, followed by an extended violin solo. I admired how each player had their own unique marching band outfit. Also, the synchronized marching band (not dancing… more like ‘stancing?’) was fun to watch. I appreciated how the front row of players often crouched so the second line could be seen, very democratic.
Music-wise, I felt like I was in the final scene of an old James Bond film.
No martinis though. I went to the bar, where I bought and pounded a Porkslap pale ale. It was time to leave Public Assembly. I walked back through Williamsburg to the J/M at Marcy Avenue. I knew I had nothing left on my Metrocard so I hit up the machines on the platform. The machines weren’t taking debit cards, however, and, lacking cash, I had to foot it back to Bushwick.
It’s a decent walk. Broadway was, for the most part, entirely deserted. I put in my lucky purple ear buds, listened to “Suna” by Radicalfashion and mused upon bad metaphors, like how the massive train track structure bolted to Broadway is like the Adamantium fused to Wolverine’s skeleton, but not really.
As I neared the Lorimer stop (or was it Flushing?) I saw a group of people walking toward me. It was the first pocket of persons I’d seen in at least eight minutes. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was Dope Body, bound for somebody’s apartment.
Was this some weird sign? I was so into “Shoushetsu” (the piano solo at the end) that this uncanny moment didn’t register until I had walked past the band. I turned, looked around, and almost shouted “Dope Body, great fucking show tonight!”
But I didn’t. And, unlike the Dustin Wong situation, I had the floor to myself. There was no one else on Broadway, at all.
I suppose I should have asked to record a conversation with them earlier? Seeing them again, like this, was just too fucking weird.
I continued walking, eventually switching to Glassworks by Philip Glass. By the time I got to track three, “Island,” I saw the old, familiar Flat Fix. Oh sure, there are many Flat Fixes in Bushwick, but that one is mine. Trying to sleep with the sound of lug nuts spinning off screws, late into most nights, makes it so.
Keying open the heavy front door of my apartment building, I thought about how metal keys will probably still be around for a while. Then I walked up the stairs to the roof and looked at the Manhattan skyline. Dazzlingly bright white lights at the bottom, blue lights in the middle, the new World Trade Center is some crazy-looking shit. I suppose the lights at the top, when it’s finished, will be red?
I swept my gaze to the right to see that the colored lights at the top of the Empire State Building had been doused for the night. It was late, and time for train-addled sleep.
Such was my first night covering the Northside Fest.