An Overdose of Ambiance

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With summertime in New York City come the summer concerts, a continuous slew of low wallet-impact/high population-density outdoor musical entertainments, each one trying to outdo the next with the diversity of its calendar. The highly scientific summer music formula goes something like this:

not-too-obscure indie rock
+ hip-hop (thatís not too scary for white people)
+ classical, weird composers only bald guys with glasses will get
+ (nostalgic jazz, soul, zydeco, classic rock, doo-wop acts)
x Belgian tummy percussion ensembles
+ disco, electronica, down-tempo trip-hop
Ė Inuit whale songs and many masters of weird instruments rescued from anthropology textbooks and placed in popular song contexts
= summer outdoor music fun!

While the general goal is the sameóto put on a series of public productions commensurate with the narcissistic tastefulness of this fair cityóeach series releases its own distinct pheromone of sonic ambiance based on locale and demographic. The pungent odor of tat-sweat and eau de hot dog from McCarren Pool still clings to the kids when they show up for Beaujolais and grass clippings at Central Parkís SummerStage. Then thereís the intoxicating aroma of East River mist combined with American Eagle deals at South Street Seaport. The concerts provide a spectacle essential to city living; just donít expect the music to be that great.

Obviously, some bands are more successful in an outdoor setting than others. When I saw Deerhunter last spring, it was from the back of a tiny bread oven (aka Brooklynís hot and barely lit Silent Barn). The space was packed, and Deerhunterís frontman, Bradford Cox, owned the place, commanding respect like black Jesus. The frighteningly skeletal Cox (eww factor 5) took off his shirt to reveal a dress with a gigantic red crotch stain (eww factor 8.3), and for their finale the guitarist spent a good three minutes with his head bobbing under the skirt while Cox pretended to moan (eww factor 10!) as the song swirled out of control.

The audience was mesmerized; time choked on itself and the universe was revealed as a center-less, infinitely foaming continuity. It was scary and awesome. It was the sort of thing possible in a controlled, protected alterna-space.

Fast forward a couple months, and itís a glowing summer evening at South Street Seaport. Suburban teens in the city for the day mull about shopping and eyeing each other, family strollers abound. Iím eating a gigantic Mrs. Fields cookie. Thereís a big-ass schooner and the East River flowing behind it all with an ease and charm belying its toxic death contents. A beautiful scene to be sure, but it was less than ideal for a psychosexual onslaught. Deerhunter played a rudderless, washed-out show. No eww, just eh. The despondent reached for the nearest plate of nachos.

Itís hard to be happy with such results, but itís easy to shrug them off, considering that I still got to enjoy the 1-in-50 beautiful city day, and ogle until my eyes ached. The key lesson is that the bands are just background, the bellybutton to the body of an experience. It canít hurt to cross a bunch of bands off the ďI havenít seen itĒ list. Just remember that a summer festival show is often the musical equivalent of padding the stats, but itís also the daytime equivalent of enjoying your life.

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