All Points West Music & Arts Festival
8 August 2008
Jersey City, New Jersey
Given the throngs of determined Radiohead acolytes who came by ferry and light rail to genuflect before the quintet at Friday’s All Points West Music & Arts festival in New Jersey, a more fitting name for the event would have been All Points To That Oxfordshire Band. For this three day, 47-band extravaganza, Radiohead headlined on Friday and Saturday while Sunday’s mainstage draw was Jack Johnson. All Points West, planted in the middle of Liberty State Park, across the Hudson River from New York, was the area’s third recent attempt at a significant destination festival, like Electric Picnic or Glastonbury, since 2003’s dismal, close-to-cancelled and ultimately rain-drenched Field Day and 2005’s borough-focused Across the Narrows event with Interpol and Oasis.
All Points West, organized by the promoters behind the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, had three attractive points in its favour: public transport access (though problematic), scenic beauty (the park faces the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the lower Manhattan skyline) and – of course – Radiohead, returning for their first New York area concert in two years.
But while that headliner might have been a plus for festival organizers in terms of ticket sales, the other bands playing on Friday seemed to suffer for it. Despite an eclectic lineup of very good artists and groups spread throughout the day over three stages – like Underworld, Grizzly Bear, CSS, Andrew Bird, Mates of State, Duffy, The Duke Spirit, The Go! Team and giddy Girl Talk – the crowd seemed to carry a general air of ennui, disinterest and even downright rudeness about any band (or individual) that wasn’t Radiohead. Threatening skies and mid-afternoon downpours didn’t help either; by the time State arrived, the audiences for bands like the politically robust Michael Franti & Spearhead and the sensually rhythmic Brazilian/New York group Forro in the Dark, were depressingly sparse.
Instead, the goal of the more madding Radiohead crowd was to arrive in time to stake out a place by the main Blue Comet stage a few hours before the band’s start time of 8:30pm and thereafter, for the most part, treat all preceding bands as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Sometimes the crowd’s apathy was marginally deserved. The clouds cleared and the sun reemerged for Vancouver-born power pop-rockers The New Pornographers, a band that State likes but had never seen live. Unfortunately, the seven-piece ensemble, sans Neko Case, churned out a somewhat dull, slack, hour-long set, peppered by embarrassing, between-song-banter courtesy of frontman Carl ‘AC.’ Newman. He clumsily speculated on how the crowd might be handling their need to ‘shit,’ tried to initiate a Blind Melon ‘No Rain’ sing-a-long, and made lame Bob and Doug McKenzie references that only a Canadian might appreciate as he gazed into the distance (‘Shit, it’s the Statue of Liberty, eh?’). Once Carl stopped nattering on and focused on songs like spiky standout ‘Testament to Youth In Verse,’ things vastly improved. The band opened strongly with the gorgeous, retro-Seventies sigh of ‘My Rights Versus Yours’ and lovely moments between Newman and keyboard player and vocalist Kathryn Calder were suffused throughout the set, bounding from ‘The Laws Have Changed’ to the quirky, comely ballad ‘Adventures in Solitude’ (prior to which Newman, thankfully, re-tuned his guitar). Drummer Kurt Dahle even managed to play acoustic guitar, slinging the instrument onto his back when he needed to pick up his sticks. Oddly, the most lustily played song in The New Pornographers’ set was their last track and it was a cover at that: a banging, exuberant take on Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Don’t Bring Me Down.’
Underworld’s Rick Smith and Karl Hyde might have felt a bit down about the lackadaisical – a.k.a. Radiohead myopic – reception they received from half the crowd. Especially since the duo delivered an aggressive, virtuosic hour and fifteen minute show, despite the disadvantage of performing in daylight, a factor that diminished the impact of their innovative videos, lights and visuals. Opting for a festival-friendly set that included usual suspects like ‘Cowgirl’ (with just a passing coda of ‘Rez’), ‘Pearl’s Girl,’ ‘Born Slippy.NUXX,’ and ‘Two Months Off,’ composer/producer Smith and singer/lyricist/guitarist Hyde smartly assessed the hard-to-please (unless it’s Radiohead) All Points West throng and gambled on a canny performance that emphasized Underworld’s rock -n’ roll undertow.
Opening with a stunning rethink of the atmospheric instrumental ‘Glam Bucket’ from 2007’s Oblivion with Bells, Smith coolly built muscular, mutable layers against a galloping beat while Hyde, often overlooked for his deft guitar work, lashed into the track with a pointed ferocity, even banging the head of his Les Paul into the console for more dissonance. Athletically mixing and improvising live, Smith was in thrilling form: at the denouement of ‘Jumbo,’ he lifted a phrase just sung by Hyde and then slyly looped it back into the live performance to haunting effect. The usually playful Hyde worked exhaustively to engage the non-celebratory, ass-scratching hipsters and appeared mildly perplexed on just how to connect with their languor; he stood still more than danced, slumped for a moment on the mixing desk, and rammed his way pugnaciously through ‘Shudder/King of Snake.’ Finally, he seemed content to play affectionately off his bandmate instead. As the final, assailing thrust of ‘Moaner’ kicked in, Hyde cheekily directed the song’s opening salvo, ‘Hey kiss me, I kiss you,‘ to Smith and both men laughed, mirroring their oft-repeated mantra of ‘good vibrations’ despite the tough crowd. Later than night, at the end of Radiohead’s second encore, when Thom Yorke dedicated ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ to Underworld because ‘they are a big influence on us,’ it seemed a deliberate riposte to the audience’s earlier torpor.
But Underworld had it easy compared to Tibetan Buddhist scholar Dr. Robert Thurman of Columbia University – yes, Uma’s dad – who then appeared onstage to champion the new benefit album Songs For Tibet. On this opening day of the Olympics in Beijing, China, Thurman amiably tried to drum up support for Tibetan independence to a sea of largely disinterested faces. The professor’s earnest observation that Radiohead displayed Tibetan flags onstage couldn’t even thaw this frosty bunch and when Thurman asked for applause on behalf of happiness and freedom for all beings, he received a half-hearted smattering of handclaps back as one goon bellowed ‘Where’s Radiohead?’ Yet when Radiohead’s lighting crew was hoisted high into the rafters by harnesses and ropes minutes later, they received a cascade of claps, cheers and hoots. So much for freedom.
By this point, State couldn’t help but feel a mite hostile towards pushy, Buddhist-and-Underworld dissing Radiohead fans, but fortunately that sentiment did not extend to Radiohead who were, in a word, galvanizing.
Pulling primarily from 2007’s remarkable In Rainbows, the band played for over two hours in a dazzling forest of stalactite-like rods, colourfully illuminated by bold, environmentally-conscious LED lights and flickering screens that obsessively documented every gesture made by the very animated Yorke, reticent and hooded lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway.
Since In Rainbows is coiled in intimate obliquity, jittery electronic thrashes and supple grooves, translating those ruminative tracks to a bold festival setting before beer-swilling multitudes could have been a disaster. But astonishingly, the transference from studio to a New Jersey field worked. Radiohead redefined the album in live performance, adding a tangled layer to the explosive ‘Bodysnatchers’ and the gentle lope of ‘Nude,’ which Yorke parsed with Nina Simone-style soulfulness. The inventive flux of show opener ’15 Step,’ the wistful encore of ‘House of Cards’ and the broken chord inquietude of ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ were revelatory. Each song was toughened, elasticized and expanded, coalescing as a particularly peculiar rock opera. Greenwood and O’Brien were constantly preoccupied with their gear – fiddling with effect boxes, frantically changing guitars (often twice in a single song), or sitting on the floor nursing an array of electronic equipment.
Some of Radiohead’s fans apparently thought they were at a Justin Timberlake show. They squealed, screamed and whooped when Yorke awkwardly danced, flung his arm across his face, uttered a few words (‘cool beans’), or launched into an older material like ‘Lucky’ from OK Computer (a highlight as O’Brien and Yorke majestically hit a crescendo of confluent harmonies). As for other back catalog songs making an appearance, both ‘Idioteque’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ were gloriously, madly unhinged. “Street Spirit’ was dedicated to ‘hectic’ New York in the second of two encores and it was disturbing but strangely funny as Radiohead tackled ‘You and Whose Army’ as the camera cryptically focused on Yorke’s right eye. Surprises included -Cymbal Rush,’ plucked from the frontman’s solo album, and his gracious dedication to Underworld, -Everything In Its Right Place’ from Kid A, which drew the show to its shuddering end. The band left the stage accompanied by the track’s echoing loops as two roadies then entered, knelt by the equipment, nodded, and simultaneously pulled the plug.
As State departed the venue around 11pm – back aching, feet sore, but grateful that we didn’t have to stand in the distressingly long queue for ferries back to Manhattan (yes, we drove) – we couldn’t help but wonder if All Points West could survive without a draw like Radiohead. Yes, there were concertgoers excited to see artists and bands like Andrew Bird, Michael Franti, Underworld, Girl Talk and Grizzly Bear, but the pervasive, dispiriting attitude on this day was that All Points West was a Radiohead concert disguised as a festival – its formidable but unappreciated lineup, overpriced burritos, art installations and five beer limit meant to keep folks preoccupied until Thom walked on stage.