Mother nature put a damper on day one of NYC’s inaugural Catalpa Festival, but couldn’t negate the blistering brilliance of The Black Keys and TV on the Radio. Hopes were high for the two-day event on Randalls Island, and festival promoters and High Times Reggae Stage dwellers couldn’t have been pleased with the rain on their parade and joints, respectively. Poncho-donning attendees trudged through the mud to glean proper vantage points of the eclectic lineup. By nightfall, the porta potty scene had devolved into a dark nightmare, with soap yet no water and a smell best left undescribed. Thankfully, for those who shelled out big bucks to attend, the day’s well-curated lineup cured much if not all.
Most of Catalpa’s gimmicky side attractions were a bust, with the notable exception of the Silent Disco Tent. “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music,” read a Nietzsche banner adorning the entrance to the enclosed grassy dancefloor. Festivalgoers were given wireless headphones transmitting DJ sets directly to their skulls sans playback over traditional speakers. As Nietzsche predicted, passersby smirked at the sight of headphone-clad attendees busting a move to external silence, but properly-lubricated dancers caught in the moment swayed on, oblivious to the crowd outside the gates.
Somewhere beyond littered cans of Heineken and Six Points and kiosks serving everything from Jamaican jerk wings to $7 whiskey-and-Lucky-Charms ice cream sandwiches lay the main stage and its “Dance, Bitches” banner. TV on the Radio hit while Umphrey’s McGee was still playing a few hundred yards away at the Jeep Stage, with a noticeable amount of TVOTR sound bleeding into the latter band’s atmosphere. A respectable number of attendees inexplicably remained at the Jeep Stage while the opening notes of TVOTR’s “Young Liars” echoed in the relative distance.
TV on the Radio, possibly the best rock band to ever come out of Brooklyn, were firing on all cylinders at the behest of a pristine sound system carrying over the brisk air of Randalls Island. Having caught them twice last year in California in subpar, technically inept venues, it was a pleasure to experience their dense collage of noise in all its glory at Catalpa. With all respect to sing-along staples “Wolf Like Me” and “Will Do,” “Staring at the Sun,” taken from the seemingly ancient Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes record, may have shined the brightest on its commanding riffs and boisterous vocals. The band’s setlist highlighted 2011’s stellar Nine Types of Light, with fan favorites from Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain peppered in between. Keeping in tune with a host of New York musicians who have paid tribute in recent months, Tunde Adebimpe poignantly dedicated “Second Song” to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch.
As a light rain fell over the black sky, The Black Keys took over the night with their no-frills two-man barrage. They were joined by a few nameless faces to start the show for tracks such as “Howlin’ For You,” but were far more impressive when their guests departed. Most acts in their shoes rely on a touring band to flesh out their sound, but Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney get more from a guitar and set of drums than any backing ensemble could provide. The first two singles from last year’s El Camino, “Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling,” were tackled with grit as flashing lights painted over the duo’s silhouette. The latter track, played to death during NBA playoff commercial lead-ins, recently received a video treatment from renowned weirdo Harmony Korine.
Skies began to clear about halfway through The Black Keys’ hour and a half set, as they shredded through “Your Touch” off of Magic Potion and the infectious “Ten Cent Pistol.” The band’s most recent records, El Camino and Brothers, dominated an evening featuring high-octane compositions and welcome downtempo inclusions such as “Little Black Submarines.” The aforementioned track drifted on mellow chords for two verses and choruses, before an emphatic crescendo shook the mud from drying boots across the island. Familiar whistles from the Danger Mouse-produced “Tighten Up” didn’t emerge until the tail end of The Black Keys’ headlining set, but rabid fans were thrilled when they did.
Weather aside, the tree-dotted terrain of Randalls Island was a great setting for the soulful blues of Akron’s garage rock kings and the pensive machinations of Brooklyn’s art-rock pioneers.