People love to complain about the Siren Festival. Every year, throngs of BrooklynVegan diehards declare the given year’s lineup the worst ever, but given the considerable rise in competition for free outdoor programming in NYC — think about it; Jelly, SummerStage, the Seaport, Celebrate Brooklyn, Gone to Governor’s… they’re all basically going after the same bands — this weekend’s bill was far from being the worst thing ever. There was variety within the indie-rock realm, a decent mix of local and national talent, and a zero dollar price tag for attendees. There was also cheap food, an inordinate amount of M.I.A. posters hung around Surf Avenue, and there was heat. The 97-degrees kind. The flesh-melting kind. The kind that makes an all-day outdoor music festival take a toll on your soul.
If a band like Surfer Blood, a group of Florida boys who built a sound around huge Weezer-like choruses, couldn’t succeed in such an atmosphere, there would be little hope for everyone else who followed. Overall, their pseudo-careless/90s party/Can’t Hardly Wait vibe came across heavier than on record and singer JP Pitts’ (not wearing shorts, btw) bark bordered on flat-out screaming, but it didn’t detract from the hooks, especially in the mid-set, one-two punch of “Twin Peaks” and “Swim,” where the weird audience-band detachment that outdoor shows fortify (barriers in front the of the stage, talking among the crowd, etc.) was almost completely zapped.
By the time I got to Ponytail, with only two songs left in their set, Jeremy Hyman’s face had turned a shade of red I’m never seen before on a human being. That guy is a monster on drums, I’ll just leave it at that. A comparatively small but dedicated, surfer-friendly group had formed and were going bananas for the band’s sorta-mathy-but-not-quite, sorta catchy-but-not-all-the-way primal tunes. There’s not much to “get” about a Ponytail show, I don’t think, other than on a very basic, guttural level, they want you to cut loose and lose your shit right along with them.
There’s not much to get about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart either, given their immediate shoegaze/dream pop reference points in the Jesus & Mary Chain and Black Tambourine, but especially when they start their set with a song called “This Love Is Fucking Right!” Joined by a new guitarist — or at least new since I saw them last year — the now five-piece sounded surprisingly more charged than I’ve ever heard them in a live setting. The power of short-sleeve shirts, maybe?
By the time I made it over to Harlem at the Stillwell Stage, the sun was starting to sink behind the clouds, and the garage-rock trio from Texas was taking full advantage of the break from heat. They acted just as you would imagine after hearing their undeniably scrappy, hooky album, Hippies: They played fast (“Faces,” particularly fast), with the three-part harmonies having only a 50/50 chance of shining through, and they very much encouraged crowd surfing/stage rushing/beach-ball tossing “like it was Woodstock ’99″ (“Wasn’t that the shitty one?,” one of them asked. He had a point.) Best stage banter award goes to the bassist, who wondered mid-set, “What should we do? Put on a decent show or have a nervous breakdown?” They seemed to be having the most fun of all the bands I saw, not caring about much else. The tight group at the front of the stage seemed to not be wanting much more.
During the Pains’ set, Kip took a moment to thank the other bands that were playing the Main Stage that day, calling it an honor to play before Ted Leo and stating what’s become common knowledge at this point: “He’s been doing it right for a long time now.” As such, Ted Leo and his Pharmacists worked their way through an early evening set of tightly wound punk rock to a crowd of tired, sweaty thousands like he’s been doing it since the beginning of time. No big thing. After seeing Harlem, Leo stood on opposite ends of the spectrum. Whether handling the warped assault of “The Stick,” the quieted-down “The Toro and the Toreador” or a cameo from Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster, he did it with passion.
Regrettably, I threw in the towel trying to find a spot where I could actually see Siren pep team/headliners Matt & Kim pretty early in the game. From my vantage point, I could see that two giant screens had been lowered on both sides of the stage — a nice touch for those of us in the back (new this year, I think), though it would’ve benefited if they were hung higher. I did hear Matt rap “Ignition” before launching into the duo’s latest single, “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare” (Clinton Hill, represent) and left seeing Kim-via-Jumbotron smiling huge. Seemed fitting for a last impression.