The first day of the inaugural Catalpa/NYC Music Festival kicked off with more logistical problems than could be counted but ended on a high note with a barn burning headline performance by The Black Keys.
The schedule listed sets on the Arcadia Stage, which was both not on the map and not on the grounds. According to vendors, the festival had no merchandise to sell because of a last minute screw-up with the distributors. Staff and security didn’t have access to schedules or maps and were relying on the good will of ticket holders to be brought into the loop. Even the folks with access to walkie-talkies gave off the impression that communication between promoters, production, security and the communications staff was hopelessly out of whack. But as far as the promoters were concerned, the biggest problem must have been the lack of a crowd. The official count was 5,000 attendees but even at an overpriced $100 a day, that math is likely to keep the promoters in the red.
Zola Jesus took to the Catalpa main stage mid afternoon and moments later a torrential downpour came from the heavens that sent most attendees scrambling for cover. To the credit of Ms. Jesus, she kept on stage and played a full set to a tiny but dedicated crowd. The Sheepdogs won a contest that got them on the cover of Rolling Stone, and this drew plenty of curious spectators who came out to experience their modern blend of Allman Brothers blues and Black Sabbath gloom.
Umphrey’s McGee didn’t bust out anything special or unusual (compared their high standards) but over the course of their two sets, they provided a tight, if not rushed, performance to the largest crowd on the side Jeep Stage drew all day. While the Umph were hitting their groove in their second set, Brooklyn’s own TV on the Radio took the main stage, kicking things off with “Young Liars,” a tune off the self titled EP that came out before their first proper studio release. They also dished out Dear Science favorites like “Golden Age,” “Dancing Choose,” and while their set was enjoyable, things seemed a little off in the world of TVOTR. April of 2011 saw the death of their longtime bassist, Gerard Smith, and while their then-drummer has now filled in on bass, long-time followers of the group had reason to wonder if the neo-beat poets have professionally rebounded from such a personal loss. Frontman Tunde Adabimpe, arguably one of the finest lyricists of the past decade, has been known to deliver powerful performances where he flails his body around like Michael Phelps doing the butterfly stroke. At Catalpa, Adabimpe seemed low on energy and he seemed winded while spiting out the faster versus of his that he traditionally has dominated.
By 930pm, plenty of great acts had provided good performances, but nothing really stood out as being all that special. Then The Black Keys performed. Simply put, the duo from Akron, Ohio are rock and roll. They live it, breath it, and unlike any of their contemporaries that come to mind, they exemplify it. The group had two auxiliary performers on stage with them to perform bass, and guitar/keys on the newer Danger Mouse produced material, but they were at their most powerful as a duo. As a showman, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach borrowed some moves from the Hendrix playbook in the best way possible, and as a guitarist he played lead and rhythm licks like blues great Robert Johnson and contemporary guitar god Jack White. As Auerbach worked the stage, drummer Patrick Carney provided the thunder to Auerbach’s lightening with powerful beats that did much more than simply keep the rhythm.
Although The Black Keys ended ten minutes early, they brought Day One to a close with deafening cheers from an audience whose collective jaw dropped at the tunes, tone and talent of the days headliner. While the list of undesirable aspects of the events first day ran long, it’s fair to say that practically everyone in attendance left with an ear to ear grin on their face. Having an outstanding headliner isn’t enough to keep a festival going year after year, but this time around, it was good enough.