Giant, blinding billboards are formidable opponents when it comes to competing for the attention of an audience at a free concert. The CBGB Festival threw its lineup into the gauntlet in that regard, gathering My Morning Jacket, the Wallflowers, Lisa Loeb, Divine Fits, Grizzly Bear, James Murphy of LCD SoundSystem and others in the heart of Times Square for an afternoon that brought heartfelt acoustic musings, explosions of indie and arena-ready psych rock to Broadway. Despite the challenging setting and its unavoidable, LED-lit distractions, the talent overcame CBGB’s obstacles and did right by the festival’s rock institution of a namesake.
Lisa Loeb and My Morning Jacket made for some pretty paradoxical bookends, with Loeb strumming her way through "Stay" while recounting the song’s debut on the Reality Bites soundtrack and Jim James throwing a dishtowel on his head as he and the rest of My Morning Jacket whipped themselves into a frenzy of exquisite guitar solos. Illness prevented Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers from hitting the high notes of "One Headlight," but the Nineties radio staple plowed through a sunny set at high noon, setting an energetic standard for the day and stopping the pedestrian traffic of Times Square dead in its tracks with spirited renditions of Elvis Costello’s "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "6th Avenue Heartache" bouncing off the billboards.
In between the day’s coffeehouse-ready beginning and stadium-worthy end, Divine Fits and Grizzly Bear delivered the two most CBGB-worthy sets of the day: It was easy to picture Divine Fits’ (and Spoon’s) Britt Daniel and Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste in the recesses of a rock club, though the North Stage of the festival, sidled up alongside the Ed Sullivan Theater, felt as natural an arena as any for their straightforward rock stylings and fuzzed-out, exploratory soundscapes, respectively. As the 2013 festival season nears its end, both Grizzly Bear and Divine Fits have hopscotched between the stages of the country’s biggest productions, and the two bands made for standout moments at CBGB just as they did at Bonnaroo and Outside Lands before them.
My Morning Jacket’s grand finale at CBGB was fortified by friends, as special guests hopped on and off the stage for the final moments of the festival. Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard and Antibalas collaborated with Jim James for the recently released tribute Fela Kuti compilation RED HOT + FELA, and their performance of "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" was as meditative and serene as it was explosive and untethered. Jakob Dylan then joined in for a take on "Don’t Do It" from The Last Waltz before My Morning Jacket wrapped up the festival with "One Big Holiday," which relished in its might as a literal and figurative showstopper.
Though the performances were exceptional overall and the crowds flooded Broadway over the course of the festival’s final day in Times Square, the premise of the CBGB Festival is worth unpacking. As Lisa Loeb (good-naturedly) remarked two songs into her set, "It’s very strange to be playing a CBGB festival in Times Square. When I lived in New York City, those two things were . . . different." The intense corporate backdrop provided by the glaring advertisements, the slightly disjointed lineup and enthusiastic (albeit partly unintentional) crowd hardly recalls the grit and earnest commitment to rock against the odds that CBGB embraced. At the end of the day, it was the music of those present that echoed long past the six blocks of Times Square taken over by CBGB, and one can only hope that the music – and not the publicity stunt of a free, sprawling event on the city’s most famous and infamous epicenter – remains the constant as the CBGB festival continues to grow.