The second half of Siren fest saw the Black Lips play a rousing set of their newest and dirtiest “flower-punk” songs. After their typically rowdy house show at Silent Barn the night before, I was curious to see how they would take to the giant festival stage. Answer: like a toothless old southern punk to a plate of grits. My friend had just commented on how a year of intense practice and touring had robbed them of their “can’t-play-their-instruments-energy,” whatever that means, but that’s fortunately been replaced by a “fucking-good-at-their-instruments-energy” that is just as insane but nicer to listen to. They went all out, flailing about for all their rock ‘n’ roll hearts were worth, and combined with their newfound musicianship, made me dance(!) despite the heat. At one point they brought a live chicken onstage, saying “this is our friend Popcorn…he’s gonna help us with this next song.” Next thing I knew, there were feathers everywhere.
It was unclear what was happening from where I was standing and I had a “holy shit” moment, wondering if the Lips were about to alienate the (numerous) animal sympathizers in the audience by pulling an Alice Cooper on poor Popcorn. However, my fears were relieved once I got a better vantage point and saw that the feathers were coming from a cannon of some sort and Popcorn was relatively intact, standing on the monitor looking freaked out but otherwise unharmed. The music coming out of that monitor was tight, groovy blues-punk via the dirty south, so I didn’t feel as bad for him as maybe I should have. Thank you, Black Lips, for not killing Popcorn and making me hate you.
We Are Scientists played a solid set of danceable indie pop, but after the Black Lips I found it a bit tedious. I half hoped they would bring some adorable kittens on stage to compliment the Black Lips’ chicken, but the kittens from their album cover (admittedly half the reason I first listened to it) were nowhere to be found. There are only so many smooth and smiley songs to which one can bob one’s sweaty head before one must retire to the comforts of the press tent. But minor tedium aside, they did a good job, especially considering how peppy they remained in the face of the merciless heat. Also, I never realized how much like the Killers certain of their songs sound…but that’s ok, because I (still) like the Killers.
Next up was M.I.A., who upped the sexy factor significantly in a bling-tastic outfit only she could pull off. She danced with slow, thrusting moves that struck me as somehow strangely masculine. Put it together in your head: a beautiful Sri Lankan woman, spitting out rhymes about ganja and the P.L.O., dressed in sparkly crunk-wear, moving like she’s got a dick… subversive. She showed her softer side, though, when she hollered “where my boys at? I’m single now!” to enthusiastic cheers from every male in the audience.
For a relatively new artist, she has a high degree of professionalism; her focus didn’t waver through several mic malfunctions. Also, at one point she announced she had drunk all the alcohol on stage, but didn’t skip a word in any of her songs. This chick is bad ass, and I have reason to believe she’d be the coolest girlfriend ever. You’d better start building your credentials now, dudes.
The New York Dolls played last, and I must say I was kind of disappointed. I’ve always known they were more influential for their look than for any kind of musical innovation, but I still associated them in my mind with early CBGBs and the punk movement at large. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that their once lo-fi sound is now run through incredibly expensive equipment, or maybe the fact that they came into being after the Rolling Stones created their trademark blues rock sound but before punk exploded… but no matter how much Steve Conte’s face tried to convince me he was totally rocking out as he wanked on the guitar, I was unconvinced. Worthy bands influenced the Dolls’ sound, but in the shadow of the Stones, the Clash, etc., they will always be that lesser band from the CBGBs pantheon that used to dress like women. Also, the fact that they are incredibly old and strung-out-looking detracted somewhat from their “glam” appeal. I don’t want to sound like a bitchy 22 year old, but seeing a skinny, makeup-wearing version of my grampa do the pelvis dance in a crop top and bell bottoms left me feeling slightly ill.
I’m also reminded of what Spin‘s Charles Aaron said (perhaps unfairly) about Courtney Love’s new material: “You know how trashy, ’70s-style punk bands, especially ones involving people with hard drug problems, can settle into a stumbling, mid-tempo lurch that ends up sounding ‘bluesy’ by default?” He was most certainly referring to the New York Dolls. It was cool when they covered Janis Joplin’s “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”, but not cool enough to keep me from leaving early to go on the Wonder Wheel, which proved to be significantly more thrilling and less icky.
All in all, it was sort of surreal to see a place usually occupied by guidos from Bay Ridge full of hipsterati, but in a way it was also sort of fitting. Coney Island is, at least for a little longer, a grimy, flashy, noisy, obnoxious place that reflects certain people’s fucked up idea of fun. Which is pretty much what rock and hip-hop are, too… minus the part about being a place (a place in your heart, maybe?) That is why it works to have Siren Fest there. And that is why I rode the train home feeling like I was going to puke…between the glammy elders and the fried food, it was more entertainment than one human can absorb. And by the way. If you ride the Wonder Wheel, do not expect a calm, romantic, ride. Expect it to swing like a motherfucker and scare the shit out of you.