If The AfroPunk Festival isn't the city's best one-site free festival (and I'd argue that it almost certainly is) it definitely has the most defined identity. Slowly building steam from modest roots in the basement of The Delancey, the eighth year of the fest is still loosely defined enough to make room for any musicians of color making alternative music. But that cross-stylistic lineup is still booked with enough care to make coherent sense in a summer show landscape that usually boils down to "the biggest acts we could get, within our budget."
As designed, the crowd actually did look like the racial mix present in the whole of Brooklyn, rather than a few select neighborhoods. (Although, if there's a hidden street somewhere filled with Mad Max apocalypse jackets and bright pink afros, I'd like the name of its best bar, please?) And unlike a lot of summer events, walking around the Commodore Barry Park grounds in Ft. Greene actually felt like a real celebration, and an acknowledgement of a unique place that couldn't be replicated in more than a couple other spots in America. Though punk culture is a stated rasion d'etre, and the fashions on display were way too awesome for any local community center, it's not like the feel was overly clique-ish or intimidating. The schedule was on point, the entry lines moved quickly. A sign posted by the drinks vendor saying: "Every time you tip a Justin Bieber fan dies," didn't seem to have too adverse an effect on the many kids present with their families. Everybody must have stiffed them. (Note: I guess I didn't actually check to see if the toddlers were all in fact just napping.)
And while I'm not sure the Sunday lineup had any single moment quite as electric as Mos Def joining Erykah Badu onstage Saturday, it was still a wildly enjoyable late August evening.
Upon entry, Reggie Watts was explaining to the crowd his blog about Instagram, which was filled with "tips for taking sharper pictures." His set, which was uniquely situated to receive an enthusiastic hero's welcome, was sort of like a Stephen Wright as a DFA Records producer—Brooklyn specifc non-sequiturs set to blippy disco. He melodically explained how seitan was unsuitable for gluten allergic vegans, in the most soulful manner possible. He is a weird, awesome man.
Toro Y Moi played the main stage next. The South Carolina band (former chillwavers, whose second album supposedly outgrew that label last year) had funky bass lines, fat synth sounds, and at least some degree of plausible soul. But man, they, as four plainclothes' dudes just sort of banging it out on stage, are also a total charisma vacuum. In the midst of a rippling fashion spectacle, it was tough to keep your eyes on them. Mine wandered two feet to my left where a lone college kid was popping and locking by himself in the middle of the field, for everyone, for no one. While spontaneous breakdancing should be a celebrated result for any good funk band, Toro might as well have been doing it from behind a giant curtain.
It was much more entertaining to stroll over to the concrete-surrounded second stage, to kill time watching all manner of skateboarder and extreme BMXer eat it on a ramped course. (A few railings, a simulated picnic table, several mohawks, tons of eating it.) Attention snapped back to the stage as a squeal of delight signaling the non-chalant entry of Pharell Williams. Pharell surprised the crowd by announcing Janelle Monae, who then surprised the crowd by instead sending out a top-hatted hype man. She appeared only after throwing off a giant death cloak from the center of two other giant-death-cloaked gents. Charisma-free, Janelle was not.
Janelle Monae - "I Want You Back"
With a dozen-strong band of stone pros behind her that included a standing horn section, a seated string section, and a pair astonishingly dressed backup singers whose commitment to synchronization was so great that I saw them pivot, and turn their backs to take a swig of bottled water in perfect unison (!), Monae was thrilling. I saw a million Janellesque pompadours on the women of the crowd, but none stylishly deflated like hers, resembling a 40s film star swoop. Her strong, clear voice set the standard in a sharp set full of ArchAndroid cuts. Her talent was more impressive than her look. At one point she lead the band through a sharp, faithful cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," like it was the easiest thing ever. "Cold War" and "Tightrope", her two best originals, closed the set, the latter punctuated by full-speed stage dive. Just a terrific, capital "S" Show-biz entertainer, who I couldn't recommend highly enough.
After Monae, TV on the Radio's headlining set was destined for second prize, but it was still pretty great. Since they've become an established festival closer and local indie-rock institution, it's become easy to take for granted what a singular band they are. Heavy, distorted rock organized around physical R&B grooves is a very rare thing. Remember the difficulty writers had coming up with sound comparisons when the Young Liars EP came out? We still hanging on to that Peter Gabriel line? They went that far back in their catalog numerous times during a triumphant set, and in spite of a couple overheard observations that they looked "old as hell," their take on some modern classics was smooth and forceful as ever. (A newly added horn player/second drummer on the ready definitely helped.) "Staring at the Sun," "Young Liars," "Wolf Like Me," these songs are big enough to reach thousands, and did. While they are still billing AfroPunk as a festival primarily aimed at a fairly specific niche, this year's offerings felt awfully universal.