All Points West
Liberty State Park; Jersey City, NJ

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The state of New Jersey is incapable of hosting a decent music festival.

Mind you, this statement isn't the product of reckless New Jersey bashing that takes place all too often amongst the ranks of cultural snobs and Pennsylvanians alike; I myself hail from the sort-of-maybe-great state and have lived there most of my life (I've also lived in Florida and Connecticut and was born in Texas, which means I must be up for some sort of consolation prize from the continent of North America). Instead, this statement is simply borne out of surveying the facts. Consider: the last music festival I went to was 2003's infamous Field Day, which was originally a two-day festival in upstate New York that, due to permit problems, was whittled down to a one-day ‘festival’ in East Rutherford, NJ's Giants Stadium.

There were a multitude of issues that I and everybody else had with Field Day, and it wasn't just the fact that the entire thing was held in a football stadium (seriously, seeing Beth Orton play on the theoretical 50-yard line provided a bizarre experience that no drug could top). For one, it rained all day, an injury made more injurious by a no-umbrella policy and an $8 rain slicker charge. Furthermore, the schlep between the second stage, located in the parking lot(!), and the main stage within the stadium was drawn out and awkward. Of course, the fact that the day was littered with sets that ranged from lackluster (Beastie Boys, Bright Eyes) to altogether non-existent (thanks for nothing, Beck) didn't help.

Field Day was a disaster, but it's not necessarily fair to place blame on New Jersey (even if the state's usual idea of a festival usually includes the words ‘hot air balloon show’ in its title). Like the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, Jersey is simply a state with bad festival-related luck (no, Warped Tour doesn't count) looking to reverse its fortunes.

While this past weekend's All Points West festival, held in Jersey City's Liberty State Park, did one-up Field Day in the fact that it actually took place, whether the three-day event could be considered a success is debatable. Yes, the stage setups were sonically agreeable (although the speaker setups may not have been -- we'll get to that later), but the lineup was fairly front-loaded and dull. Furthermore, something has to be said for the general dishonesty of the Coachella arrangers and APW dreamers Goldenvoice, who could have warned festivalgoers (both potential and confirmed) of overly restrictive alcohol regulations and lengthy traveling times to the festival grounds. There's something a little despicable about taking people's money without letting them know what they're paying (not to) do; hopefully, if there is another APW next year (which, judging from early reports of ticket sales and first-hand experience of attendance rates, seems highly unlikely), the promoters will learn from their mistakes accordingly.

All this talk of complaints and curses, but one question remains: What about the music?

...

{Day One, Friday}

{The Duke Spirit}

"Oh, cool, they're all dressed in black," my friend semi-snidely commented as we stumbled upon Brit nü-gaze also-also-rans The Duke Spirit's set at the unfortunately named "Queen of the Valley" stage. Indeed, for a band that seemed like pretty nice people in interviews I had watched prior to the festival, there sure was a lot of forced posturing on the stage. The band members stayed far enough away from each other at all times (because, you know, that's how the Pixies played live) and sneaked furtive glances so as to keep time without losing cool. Every move Liela Moss made, whether it was hitting her useless tambourine (really, do you need a tambourine in a stage setup that is mostly sludgingly borrowed guitar chords to begin with?) or shifting her body into a new position, was referential of decades studying pictures of musicians without actually resembling one.

Regardless, you got to give them points for trying to impress the woefully small crowd, and their sort-of-okay artless-rock was tolerable for a few songs. It's no fun getting bludgeoned to death with hand-me-down signifiers for an entire set, though.

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{Michael Franti and Spearhead}

Look, if you're going to one of these festivals for free, and you're covering it for a publication, you have to be open-minded -- even if it means giving a hippie-friendly “world music” band 20 minutes of your time before Mates of State take the stage. That said, when Michael Franti and Spearhead foisted their opening notes on the unsuspecting air, I witnessed one of the most truly horrifying things in my life: The assorted dirty-clothed white people littering the field with their presence jumped to their feet as if they were part of a gospel tent revival, as scantily-clad girls jumped up and down while their dresses flew over their heads (but that's okay, man, because it's free love!) and the smell of cheap, shitty pot permeated the air. Dig this scene, man. Dig this crazy scene.

As for the music: what has heavily been banded around in the press as "loose-sounding" and "multi-cultural" ends up sounding like a rendition of Ashlee Simpson's "L.O.V.E." as performed by a group of just-out-of-college session players and repeated ad nauseam. The strangeness of the atmosphere was disorienting, and I wasn't even high. Furthermore, Franti's forced attempts at multiculturalism came off as insultingly condescending, especially when he engaged the audience in a call-and-response of saying ‘hello’ in various languages before launching into a song with a chorus comprised of the same thing. Bottom line: when he hollered into the microphone, "You guys like reggae music?" we decided that we did, which resulted in our departure from the set.

{Mates of State}

Ironically, as the ever-adorable duo Mates of State took the stage, storm clouds covered the field as fierce winds began ripping the festival's banners off of their tethers (much to the audience's delight, until said tethers began whipping into the audience). Despite the gloomy conditions, the forever-married Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel launched into a set that relied heavily on 2006's exuberant Bring it Back and this year's slightly underappreciated (but still pretty turgid) Re-Arrange Us.

Strangely, it was the more frantic older material that tended to drag at times, especially during the too-cute "Like U Crazy"; the new songs, on the other hand, came to life with dramatic crescendos and exquisite musicianship. One minor complaint: the band did look pretty awkward on the oversized stage -- but their high-octane pop was well-suited for the large crowd that had gathered to see them (although, with Michael Franti & Spearhead still ‘doing their thing’ on the other side of the field, it's not like there was a better choice).

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{Duffy}

Ugh. Word of advice: if it sounds like shit, and it looks like shit, then it was probably produced by Bernard Butler in the last 12 months.

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{Grizzly Bear}

One of the biggest problems I had with Grizzly Bear's last record, 2006's "nice try" Yellow House, is that it sounded like the work of a band that didn't know who they were just yet. For the majority of House, the quartet spent way too much time utilizing orchestral flourishes, organized breakdowns, and left-turn genre exercises (see: the doo-wop of #1 blog hit "Knife") and not enough time thinking about how to rise above the ‘mannered Animal Collective’ comparisons. It wasn't until the second half of "On a Neck, On a Spit" that Grizzly Bear touched upon a collective, electric propulsion that would launch them to conceive of the stellar re-imaginations on the otherwise uneven Friend EP.

The new material that the band has recently debuted through various media outlets -- the swooning "Two Weeks" on Letterman, the sexy "While You Wait For the Others" on KCRW -- has revealed a newfound confidence in the quartet's songwriting, which made their APW set, for me, a must-see. Needless to say, they did not disappoint, turning in an explosive, shimmering set was undoubtedly the best the festival had to offer.

The sheer sonic chemistry of Grizzly Bear in a live setting was incredible, based on their vocal talents alone: Daniel Rossen's rough-hewn growl, Ed Droste's Orbison-esque timbre, Chris Taylor's angelic eruptions, and Christopher Bear's velvet croon create an atmosphere that is simultaneously and alternately filled with sensuality and danger. The set was mostly comprised of new material, which was heavy on intertwining guitar work from Rossen and Droste and oft sounded as if Adventure-era Television had been shot into the stratosphere. It would be premature to do as others have done and proclaim that Grizzly Bear are one of the most vital acts that have emerged in the last couple of years – given the sonic fuddy-duddying done to death on Yellow House, these guys still have every chance to clutter these sparse hymnal rockers with extraneous bullshit – but based on Friday’s virtuosic performance, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they’re certainly one of the more fascinating acts out there right now.

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{CSS/Andrew Bird}

Maybe I wasn’t drunk enough. I’ve read in various publications that CSS fancy themselves to be a ‘party band’ of some sort. I’ve been to parties where the music’s way too loud and obnoxious, the girls are dressed like colorblind children, and even the guy who threatens to pour a beer on your head can’t get up the nerve to do it because he’ll ruin the carpet or something. I don’t like being at these parties – so what makes CSS think that this sort of idiotic spectacle is acceptable as a stage show?

I’ll give them the fact that they seemed to be having a blast and that the crowd was pretty energized. I really liked their self-titled debut, so we stuck around in the back -- way, way back -- through standouts “Alala” and “Meeting Paris Hilton” until the dance-grunge aphorisms of the Brazilian outfit’s disappointing follow-up Donkey were trotted out like the animal it’s named after. We followed suit and trotted over to Andrew Bird’s set, where the troubadour was proudly exhibiting his standards-flecked tunes with equal technological impressiveness and charisma. Not being able to stick around for his entire set was one of my greatest regrets about APW – my friend and I decided we should get in a decent place for Girl Talk to appropriately appraise the spectacle to come – but I was told by many that the performance was competent, if not a bit overlong. When we returned back to the final strains of CSS – including a surprisingly fiery run-through of “Let’s Make Love To Death From Above” – I was a lot less agitated and more ambivalent to Lovefoxxx (3 x’s? Is that really necessary?) and her ‘yeah, whatever’ crew of hipsters and professional photo posers.

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{Girl Talk}

There were an alarming number of 15-year-old boys and girls packing the front of the stage for Girl Talk’s set – and we’re not talking about age in an emotional sense (just kidding, scenesters, I won’t get all Adbusters on you). Night Ripper was something of a minor hit amongst white North Jersey teenagers, and I assume from all the pre-set chanting of “Play your part!” that Gregg Gillis’ laser-precision focused follow-up, Feed the Animals, has made waves in that community as well. It’s nice to see Gillis’ fanbase extends beyond the American Apparel/Alcoholics Anonymous community – regardless, it was more than a bit uncomfortable to be surrounded by severely underage children grinding on each other at a show where the DJ is notorious for taking off articles of clothing.

After what was way too extensive of a setup for someone whose entire repertoire is fed throughout two shitty-looking laptops, Gillis took the mic and said some hilarious things about Cloverfield (my favorite movie of the year and maybe of the decade) before launching into what was a set that alternated between sonic studs (Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” and Tag Team’s “Whoomp, There It Is!”) and total duds (Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” and Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli”). Minus the missteps and an overbearing sound system (hey, it’s a festival), the music itself provided for an adequate party atmosphere.

Of course, the massive setting didn’t allow for the usual club-like intimacy that Girl Talk shows are known for; in order for Gillis to achieve some sense of communal atmosphere around him, he hosted an utter spectacle on stage alongside him, replete with hipster-dancers of various (un)dressings, toilet-paper-unfurling leafblowers, and massive inflatable toys. It was a lot of fun to look at, sure, but for an artist such as Gillis, who seems to believe in the power of unity through appreciation of all kinds of pop, this exhibition of ‘me’ culture (including an unfortunate purple-unisuit-clad woman who spent the entirety of the set standing in front of the stage vogueing and flashing her breasts) seemed a bit backwards from the music’s message. At the set’s close, however, when the unshirted, shaggy DJ himself threw an inflatable mattress into the crowd and triumphantly rocked out until he fell to the ground, his true message was delivered: he’s just in it for the music, dude.

(Part 1) {(Part 2)} {(Part 3)}

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