"I know it's not easy to dance when you're holding an umbrella," said Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, essentially summing up Friday's rainy, muddy, bleak, All Points West Festival in New Jersey's Liberty State Park. After the rain turned the grassy festival expanse into a bog pockmarked with tiny lagoons, gooey mud obstacles and the stench of liquefied goose shit, the goal of every band would simply be to try and boost the spirits of a shivering, soggy crowd.
The rain came down in bucketloads around four in the afternoon, distracting comedian Arj Barker from his set. "This is fucking ridiculous," he said, before asking his water bottle, "You know anything about this, you son of a bitch?" Colorful New York indie-dance troupe Ra Ra Riot responded fast by bringing more energy than their audience, who was busy navigating all the new puddles that surrounded the stage. The band hopped around and played indie-rock versions of tent-revival rave-ups, complete with violin. Dry and perpetually happy, singer Wes Miles remained optimistic, trying his damndest to engage the crowd. "I guess it's not as wet as it could be," he said, clearly unprepared for the raspy heckler who shouted, "That's what she said."
The only stage covered by a roof became a popular hang-out (though not as popular as the covered "beer garden" tents). Canadian-Australian Xavier Rudd was turning out gospel-tinged blooz, using a Jules Verne contraption to play the didgeridoo and drums at the same time, causing happy sandaled or bare feet to clomp around in the mud or on dirty blankets almost instantly.
Brooklyn's The National hit the main stage, and played their already moody indie rock to a sea of ponchos and umbrellas. Their anthemic-yet-dreary rainy-day melodies couldn't break the grey cloud over the audience's head — especially since lead singer Matt Berninger practically played the entire show with both hands on his mic stand and eyes tightly shut. They did however get some severe head nods and a sea of clapping to 2007's "Squalor Victoria," especially when it hit its stunning climax.
Organized Konfusion's brainy, loquacious art-rap isn't exactly good-times festival music to begin with, so it definitely hurt that their first show in 10 years was in the dead center of a rainstorm. Rapper Pharoahe Monch tried to convince the crowd to appreciate the rain: "Don't it feel so good?" No matter what, the front rows were loaded with hip-hop faithful who went absolutely bonkers for '90s underground classics like "The Extinction Agenda," "Simon Says" and "Fudge Pudge" which featured a guest verse from OC — who was also kind enough to perform his back-to-basics underground classic "Time's Up."
The first band to break the spell of the rain — both figuratively and literally — was Vampire Weekend, who was lively from the get-go, despite water dappling the stage as they played. Koenig was light-hearted and fun, whipping his hair around and talking to the audience like they were his close friends. He asked people to go crazy during the "raincoats" line in "A-Punk" and tried to teach them the histronic screams in "One (Blake's Got A New Face)." They even got cozy enough to try a new song — something that had the feel of classic VW, the electro feel of the Discovery album Koenig guests on and a beat like U2's "Bullet The Blue Sky." Maybe their good attitudes helped, because the sky quickly turned from grey to blue-grey before "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa."
From then on, the mood was infectious. The Pharcyde's set moved from chill to raucous, climaxing with Fat Lip doing a verse and two choruses of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." Later, when Q-Tip hit the stage, he mixed James Brown vamps with a stream of old classics, eventually getting to a version of "Award Tour" so heated that he just screamed over the chorus.
But the only band to bring true festival drama before headliner Jay-Z was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The first act to bring out props — a giant inflatable eyeball — they were also the first band to truly mesmerize the crowd, thanks to Karen O's body contortions and vocal acrobatics. Karen was always on the go: flopping around on the stage, running backstage for a quick wardrobe addition, playing peek-a-boo with a scarf. Like a coffee-and-art-school Gwen Stefani, Karen screeched out happy nonsense — "New York, New York! Jersey! Yeah Yeah Yeah!" The presumable climax, "Maps," was played for its emotional resonance, slowly strummed by Nick Zinner on an acoustic guitar like a power ballad, greeted by a sea of lighters and glowsticks. After that false ending, they soldiered through "Y Control" and "Date With the Night," concluded with Karen destroying the microphone like she pretty much destroyed every band that played before her.