The first annual Across the Narrows festival this weekend promised two days of simultaneous shows at ballparks on New York City's Coney Island and Staten Island, with a stellar twenty-nine-band lineup, ranging from headliners Beck, Oasis, the Killers and the Pixies to huge indie acts like Interpol and Jet. With beautiful, warm weather at the waterfront venues on both days, the event seemed a sure thing.
So why was the turnout, by festival standards, so pathetic? While Coachella draws 50,000 and Bonnaroo 80,000 on average, a mere 6,000-8,000 fans turned up on each Narrows evening, according to tickethandlers. Most of the stadiums' seats, at both Coney's KeySpan Park and Staten Island's Richmond County Ballpark, would remain empty throughout the weekend, and people had enough room to lounge on the general audience floor area like they were laying out on a beach sunbathing.
"We expected more people here, but who cares?" said Sebastien Grainger of Toronto-based prog-rock duo Death from Above 1979 of the Saturday Coney Island turnout. "I think people are all coming for the Pixies."
DFA 1979 played early that afternoon, as did British rock act Nine Black Alps and Swedes Mando Diao, who axe-swung and seizured at the mike through tunes from "God Knows" to the manic "You Can't Steal My Love." Frontwoman Jenny Lewis opened indie darlings Rilo Kiley's set on the piano, swaying soulfully to each chord played on her Rhodes keyboard. "We've been on tour with a little band called Coldplay," she reminded the crowd. Staying upbeat about the "intimate" crowd, Lewis added, "But this is already turning out to be radder!" The Los Angeles fourpiece then launched into their hit "Portions for Foxes" and the underground indie gem "Execution of All Things."
Across the New York Bay, on Staten Island, David Johansen swaggered onto the stage like an Iggy/Jagger hybrid for the New York Dolls' performance. The old-school punk rockers performed "Pills" and covered the Big Brother and the Holding Company classic "Piece of My Heart." The Dolls then tried to incite the crowd with a rendition of their 1973 song "Vietnamese Baby." "This is a song about the Vietnam War!" announced Johansen, sporting a loin cloth dotted with buddhas over his rock star attire. In a confusing call for anti-war activism, he added, "We did our part, and maybe it's time to do yours!"
Obviously, Killers singer Brandon Flowers was too busy applying his eyeliner and memorizing Bono's dance moves backstage to get the memo. The Killers' Saturday closing performance, with its oversized pop anthems and glam silver backdrop, was packed with Hot Fuss favorites from "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside." The surprise of their set, however, was nearly as odd as "Vietnamese Baby": the relatively obscure song "Indie Rock & Roll," on which Flowers seemed to channel Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love for You." "It's indie rock & roll for me/It's indie rock & roll for me/It's all I need!" Hopefully, this was no preview of what the band has in store for their in-the-works sophomore release.
Sunday at Coney Island featured garage rock revivalist the Raveonettes; electro-rockers Dragonette, clad all in white; and the symphonic pop of Polyphonic Spree, decked in new, Charlie Brown-esque choir cloaks. The highlight of the Spree's enthusiastic set was clearly the off-the-wall number "It's the Sun," which found frontman Tim DeLaughter jumping up and down on stage with his usual preacher-man dance moves. Meanwhile, at Staten Island, a mellow (and noticeably sober) Evan Dando played a stripped-down alt-rock set with the latest configuration of the Lemonheads, including former members of the Descendents.
Already denser than the prior night's Killers set, the audience went manic for atmospheric British pop balladeers Doves, in the U.S. for another brief tour in support of their excellent third release, Some Cities. Shaggy-haired Aussie rockers Jet followed with an air-raid intro and instrumental jam that segued into the raunchy "Cold Hard Bitch." The band, who have opened for Oasis for the past month, played Get Born favorites "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" and "Look What You've Done." They even sampled a new song, the acoustic love ballad "Eleanor," packed with harmonizing ooh-ooh-ooh's.
With genre-bending alt-rock idol Beck headlining Coney Island on Sunday, Oasis closed out the Staten Island show with their massive Brit pop. The brothers Gallagher brought out old hits like "Fuckin' in the Bushes" and "Wonderwall," as well as the newer songs "Lyla" and "The Importance of Being Idle." On their Nineties hits "Don't Look Back in Anger" and "Champagne Supernova," singer Liam Gallagher stepped aside and let the crowd take over on the chorus. By this point, several in the audience had jumped on their friends' shoulders, trying to feel as carefree as they were when they first heard the song in grade school.