by Maria Gotay

all photos courtesy of BAM and Rebecca Greenfield

Last weekend, the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry music festival lit up the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Fort Greene. The festival was a small-scale borough-centric event, featuring performances from musicians who’ve come to fame in New York.   The event was curated by The National, an epic rock band who hail from Cincinnati but have lived here in Brooklyn for some time. The festival- in its inaugural year- takes its name from the famous Walt Whitman poem which gushed: “I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine; I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it.” There are a number of trendy curated festivals in the US and Europe, the most famous being All Tomorrow’s Parties– which boasts recent hosts like Portishead and Animal Collective- but never have these festivals been based off of the overflowing talent of the land. Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, however, provided a rich sampling of music, cultivated from the diverse music scene of this sprawling, bordered landmass we call Brooklyn. 

The 3-day festival, split between BAM’s three in-building venues featured an incredible line-with several unique tiers of local festival performers. Headliners like Sharon Van Etten, Twin Shadow, Caveman, Buke and Grass, The Antlers and My Brightest Diamond, whose music truly was born in NYC and Brooklyn, put a spotlight on local artists. This group of talent has made national waves with their innovative approach to the malleable genre that is Indie music- from new wave to experimental. Other artists, such as St. Vincent, Beirut, and the Walkmen represent the transplant nature of many Brooklyn artists and residents. Though these bands didn’t begin in here in the city, they came to NYC to focus of music, find a solid fan base and have truly blossomed. A sweet layer Brooklyn buzzbands that have dominated the local music scene and are poised to blow up, like Ava Luna, Zs, and Skeletons, brightened the lineup for indie artists. Beyond this, a littering of diverse local talents, from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus to Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang finished off the festival in unique form.  The fest was rounded off by a few notably NOT-Brooklyn-based artists, like Georgia’s Atlas Sound, filled out the rest of the line-up with an extra flourish of awesome.

I was lucky enough to attend the festival on Friday night, beyond excited to see the headliners and peek in on the film forum. In typical BAM fashion, the arts were well represented in the fest with 30 bands, songwriters, improvisers, composers, new music ensembles, and filmmakers taking part. In the tradition of the BAM, a classical streak influenced the music selections, and in the traditional of The National, an experimental approach dominated. This lead to an incredibly interesting sampling for Friday’s audience. I began the night in the Opera hall, observing the stylings of experimental rhythmic geniuses So Percussion– who, though classically trained, have dabbled in indie/electronic genres, having collaborated with Dan Deacon last year. They tend to favor strange sounds, and during this performance they used only metal tuning forks for an entire number. They are definite pioneers in their realm of music, and performed impressively.

Next I dropped in on Nadia Sirota, who, though featured on the small cinema stage, embodied much of CBF’s themes: classical influences, modern overtones, and a New York foundation. She played a haunting and beautiful violin melody while dueting with her computer, which hummed out minimal electronic sounds accompanied by undecipherable but beautiful computer-coated James Blake-like vocals.

Tyondoi Braxton played next in the Opera House. A huge fan of (his previous band) Battles, I was let down by his seemingly scattered and nonlinear performance. As a “math” rocker, he’s constantly balancing spaced beats in interesting ways. In this performance, his focus was there; it just didn’t connect with me. An interesting addition to the night, with a cool and interactive stage setup- it was dark, minimal and definitely weird-sounding. Let’s consider this the experimental base of the evening, although, not surprisingly, there were orchestral influences.

The Antlers played shortly in the Opera House, and they blew the space away with their reverb-drenched, tenor-shimmering, “slowcore” rock songs. I can’t imagine their sound soaring as high anywhere else. It was as moving as a 45-minute set could be, and though their music is subtle, it’s intricate, and I could see why they’ve gained such infamy in New York- last year they even headlined a River Rocks free summer show.

Buke and Gase are an extremely talented band, an eclectic jangling of instruments and distorted yelpy vocals, playful in a way unlike so many of their contemporaries. Their name lends an idea to the funkiness that lies ahead in a listening experience- a buke is a six-string re-worked ukulele, and a gass (gase) is a guitar/bass hybrid. This band was actually discovered by the National, so it’s not surprising to see them as a headlining act. B&G pushes and pulls their instruments to almost unnatural limits, making them clank and squeal, which in turn informs lead singer’s “hiccupy” vocals, that are sometimes beautiful, but more often wacky, and unpredictably fitting.

Last and certainly the most incredible performance of the night came in the opera hall from St. Vincent. The dynamic front lady and electric-guitar goddess surprised me with her amount of manic energy and incredible stage presence. Tearing through most of her recently fantastic LP, Strange Mercy, along with older, guitar-heavy songs and a (post) punk cover from the pop group, she lit up the stage for well over an hour and seriously captivated the crowd. Seriously, people were freaking out, including myself.

By the end of the night she had leaped into the small standing pit along the stage, and darted up the middle isle, rousing the seated-stunned audience to jump up for the rest of her set. I doubt that BAM’s generally very tame Opera house has ever seen as rock-hard a set; St. Vincent is reinventing the woman’s place in rock music more than any other modern musician. She’s a wonderful performer, an intelligent songwriter, and she closed out Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in typical BK fashion- loud, sophisticated, and like nothing else.