The thing that makes All Points West, the New Jersey festival currently celebrating its second year, so special is its knack for pairing your favorite bands with your new favorite bands. To get this out of the way immediately, write down the following names: the National and the Gaslight Anthem. Those are the bands you will leave this festival loving, and the bands you can expect to see closing out festivals in a few years time.
Which is not to short-sell any other act on the lineup. What makes planning a perfect All Points West so tricky is the fact that every act is worthy. What more can you say about a festival where, when the Beastie Boys cancel, their replacement is Jay-Z?
On a bill loaded with must-sees, here are our picks for the cream of the crop. And stay tuned throughout the weekend — Rolling Stone will be on the ground bringing you live reports, photos and interviews direct from APW.
1:00-1:40 p.m. – Heartless Bastards
This is the way you want to start a music festival, with Erika Wennerstrom’s unbridled, unholy howling and a barrage of blackened riffs. The Heartless Bastards have been refining their sound since 2003, moving from scuffed-up blues riffing to pained and potent guitar rock. The change in style hasn’t diluted their power: their songs are still emotional tornadoes, perfectly capturing the agony of heartbreak and the matchless pain of raw longing. At 1 in the afternoon, with the hot summer sun at the height of its powers, their set is a must-see.
2:00-2:45 p.m. – Shearwater
Here’s a way to prep yourself for Coldplay’s closing-night slot. Austin’s Shearwater packs all of Chris Martin’s bright-eyed stridency into smaller, artier packages. Their latest record, Rook, was an underrated masterpiece. Its sweeping songs are loaded with both odd ornithological references and dark contemplations of mortality. And, sure, that kind of heady intellectualism doesn’t always make for prime summer listening, but Shearwater’s ace-in-the-hole is Jonathan Meiburg’s grand, majestic voice — the kind of roof-reaching tenor that can generate chills even in 90-degree weather.
3:35-4:25 p.m. – Fleet Foxes
Few things are better suited to outdoor enjoyment than four-part harmonies and long, loping country songs. Fortunately, Fleet Foxes deliver both in abundance, dosing their windswept Appalachia with coy indie rock sensibilities. There’s a haunting, madrigal quality to their songs — they sound like incantations you might hear moaned out in monasteries — provided those monasteries were located on a mountain range in North Dakota. Equal parts magic and mystery, Fleet Foxes are country music for people who gave up on country music.
4:50-5:40 p.m. – The National
A few weeks ago at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, the National got a rowdy, drunken crowd of 20,000 to do the impossible: go pin-drop silent and pay attention. Such is the power and potency of this remarkable band. Trust us: of the recent crop of indie bands clamoring for space on blogs and iPods, this is the one that will be around in 20 years. Their tiny songs expand effortlessly to fit a festival setting, starting out as tiny pirouettes and steadily building to grand, stormy conclusions. It helps that frontman Matt Berninger is one of rock’s most riveting presences, moving from confined to unhinged within the space of a single song. If their APW set is on par with past performance, expect a dazzling set that demands both respect and reverance of its audience. Indie rock generation, your new R.E.M. has arrived.
5:30-6:20 p.m. – Organized Konfusion
Organized Konfusion may not have sold as many records as their mid-’90s hip-hop peers, but the lyrics of MCs Pharoah Monch and Prince Po were without any clear equal. Both have gone on to moderately successful solo careers (their records continue to be underrated masterpieces rather than commercial blockbusters), making this reunion the kind of rarity that’s not-to-be-missed. At a time when hip-hop has gone limp with Auto-Tuned non-stars, Organized Konfusion’s grand, grimy sound should provide a welcome respite.
6:10-7:00 p.m. – Vampire Weekend
A year ago it seemed like Vampire Weekend were alienating as many people as they were convincing. Pouty gripers took issue with the group’s upper crust background and champagne sensibilities, while still others fretted over what they deemed an “appropriation of Afropop.” From this distance, those arguments seem sillier than ever. Vampire Weekend write light, jubilant pop songs, buoyed by big choruses, laced up with leaping guitar and helmed by Ezra Koenig’s bright-eyed tenor — experts in the very kind of bright, skipping songs that summer is made for. Is it their fault they have a thing for boat shoes and polo shirts?
7:15-8:45 p.m. – Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus’s Los Angeles was a small, mysterious record that appeared out of nowhere and hypnotized most everyone who heard it. It’s hard to tell how his songs will play outside — Lotus’ area of expertise is the kind of dark, dubby electronic music that defined the first Portishead record. If he’s on, though, he’s not to be missed: Lotus’ songs have a weird, indescribable energy, built on big beats and decorated with twisting, off-key synths and eerie, disembodied vocal snatches. If he can fight his enemy the sun, Lotus should be able to bring a welcome bit of evil to August in New Jersey.
9:10 p.m. – Jay-Z
And to think: Jay is a replacement act. It doesn’t matter the kind of music he plays: Jay-Z is a rock star, one of the few left in popular music, commanding the stage with the kind of ease and bravado that comes from years of experience. Jay has performed both solo and with a live band, but his command and delivery is the same in both settings. He adds emphasis to key phrases and restructures songs to suit his mood and environment. And though he’ll likely be previewing tracks from the forthcoming Blueprint 3, like any good showman, Hova knows that the people are there for the hits. The spirited bounce of “Roc Boys” and metal crunch of “99 Problems” are perfect close for a cool summer night.
1:10-1:50 p.m. – White Rabbits
The first pop band of the apocalypse, White Rabbits write dark songs decorated with barroom piano and bolstered by Stephen Patterson’s desperate yelp. That the group has not one but two drummers only adds to their incredible thunder, and their ramshackle sets ignite via the perfect combination of energy and unpredictability. To put it another way: they’re what a silent movie might sound like if it were scored by a bored Brooklyn blogger.
1:50-2:40 p.m. – Trail of Dead
… And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead built their early reputation on their cataclysmic live shows, the kind of performances where no man, woman or drum kit escaped unscathed. The good news is they haven’t changed much: TOD performances are more likely to unravel than to end properly, and any set that goes peacefully is a strange aberration. Over the years, they’ve gotten more ambitious: their recent work has more in common with prog and art rock than their early, punky outings, and frontmen Conrad Keely and Jason Reece’s impish demeanor perfectly leavens their stately, orchestral metal.
3:30-4:20 p.m. – Cool Kids
APW’s hip-hop lineup is characterized by new school panache and old school heart. Case in point: Cool Kids, a duo out of Chicago with a flair for bright, buoyant songs that recall the early ’90s without being hopelessly nostalgic. There’s barely anything to their tracks: just a bounding back beat, a little squiggle of synth and Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks’ loose, limber delivery. Somehow, that doesn’t much matter: the duo fill the blank spaces with charisma, making them one of the most inspired — and inspiring — young hip-hop acts around.
4:30-5:10 p.m. – The Postelles
A band to watch: New York’s Postelles don’t have much in the way of buzz or hype, but if they can pull off their pouty guitar-pop live half as well as they can on record, that may start to change. The Postelles channel Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello and — more recently — the Arctic Monkeys and the Strokes, building songs from brief guitar stabs and sounding like the wound-up early hours of what will be a long Saturday night on the town. There are elements of both mod and post-punk, but the Postelles have a sneering attitude all their own, and their songs should sound great bouncing up to the Jersey skies.
6:05-6:55 p.m. – St. Vincent
Annie Clark is a cipher. On record, her jittery new wave songs are icy and remote: weird, robotic missives from a mechanical housewife purred out over zig-zagging synthesizers. The live setting is another matter entirely entirely. Here her music grows fangs; all those keyboard parts are replaced by stabbing guitars, machine gun percussion and loop-de-loop oboes. If there is a single word that describes Clark, it’s relentless. Her shows motor mightily along — they’re driving, determined steam engines and haywire conveyor belts, gaining in velocity and power with each passing second.
6:30-7:20 p.m. – Gogol Bordello
Pry yourself away from St. Vincent (if you can) to catch the tail end of what is sure to be yet another manic Gogol Bordello performance. Eugene Hutz has been delivering his unhinged brand of Balkan blitzkrieg bop for a decade now, and time has turned the band into live performers with few equals. Imagine if the Sex Pistols were formed in the 1600s and Sid Vicious played the accordion and you’re getting close. Not content to simply play their music, Gogol turns their live shows into a physical experience, Hutz coralling the audience like an wild-eyed circus ringleader, cajoling all the people in the front row to crowd into the lion’s cage.
7:20 p.m. – Neko Case
Neko Case can match the power of 100 Gogol Bordellos with just a single note from her mighty pipes. Case’s voice is a siren at the center of stormy songs about love and loss, a single beacon guiding battered ships to shore. Her early work drew heavily on country, but lately Case’s tastes have grown more expansive: there’s as much Phil Spector as Patsy Cline on Middle Cyclone, and Case’s amazing ability to belt out bell-clear notes without breaking a sweat remains one of nature’s great mysteries. An on-again/off-again presence in the New Pornographers, it’s Case’s solo work that truly displays her talent. Expect her live show to be as envigorating — and as vulgar — as the woman herself.
8:15-9:15 p.m. – My Bloody Valentine
You know what everyone says about My Bloody Valentine? That they’re ear-wrecking, head-collapsing, body-quaking loud? Yeah, those people are underselling it. My Bloody Valentine are so loud, they had to employ volunteers to hand out earplugs during their recent string of indoor reunion shows. Live, their mountainous guitars bleed together to form grand, enveloping bands of sound — not so much single notes as big, streaming chords — the sonic approximation of the auroa borealis. Frontman Kevin Sheilds’ notorious perfectionism was a large part of the reason why the band stalled out 18 years ago, but that same drive for excellence is what’s made these reunion shows so breathtaking. You don’t just hear My Bloody Valentine live, you feel it — every deafening note rattling your chest and blowing your mind.
9:45 p.m. – Tool
Tool’s music is dark and drastic, a long walk through an empty art museum at 3 in the morning. So the live experience is appropriately harrowing: Maynard James Keenan has a tendency to hang out near the back of the stage, bare-chested and donning a cowboy hat, all sinew and menace — the reincarnation of Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver. He winds his voice around guitarist Adam Jones complicated chords, a lone ghost crying out from the center of the machine. So many metal bands go for blunt force trauma, but Tool are one of the few who understand the power of mystery. Their songs are expertly constructed, and take their time building to spellbinding finales. Expect their set to be as gripping as it is deeply unsettling.
2:00-2:30 p.m. – PT Walkley
Walkley is a New York folkie who has yet to turn many heads, so All Points West could be his shot to garner some well-deserved attention. He’s got some obstacles: his songs are small and quiet, not the kind that usually win over newcomers at a sprawling state park, but lean in close and listen and the rewards are great. Walkley’s got a hushed, tender voice, and he opts to undersell is emotion, garnishing his delicate folk songs with spiraling strings and gentle piano. He’s up against it, to be sure, but he’s got the charm and panache to pull it off.
3:10-4 p.m. – Kitty, Daisy & Lewis
Another of APW’s Under the Radar finds: Kitty, Daisy & Lewis are a country trio from London who funnel the heart and harmonies of the Carter Family and the spunk of Loretta Lynn through prime-era Squirrel Nut Zippers. All of that makes them sound unbearable, we know, but the opposite is true: Their songs have spunk and spirit and soul, and their interpretation of American country music owes just as much to Ray Charles appropriation of the same than it does, say, Toby Keith. It’ll be blazing hot and right in the middle of the day, but don’t be surprised if an impromptu dance competition breaks out.
3:45-4:35 p.m. – Gaslight Anthem
The weekend’s other must-see: New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem are the latest in a long line of battered, ragged troubadors with their heart on their sleeves and stars in their eyes. Their music is a blistering blend of punk raucousness and bar band bluster, like Bruce Springsteen blasting through a set of Clash covers. They play every song like it’s their last, vocalist Brian Fallon pushing his voice to breaking as the band accelerates mercilessly behind him. It’s no wonder Bruce himself tapped the band to open for him during a handful of shows in the U.K. Gaslight prove there’s no shame in emotional honesty, and they empty themselves unabashedly with every ringing chord.
7:05-7:55 p.m. – Mogwai
The Pixies may have invented the loud/quiet/loud formula, but Scottish group Mogwai made it their raison d’etre. Their menacing, (mostly) wordless records maximize on dynamic, going from pinprick guitars to howling, distortion-heavy chords in a matter of seconds. And while they may have grown more refined over their 12-year career, that doesn’t mean they skimp on force or potency. Mogwai live shows are still among the most brutal and bludgeoning in the biz, and the group is capable of rendering audiences as speechless as their songs.
7:30-8:20 p.m. – Echo & the Bunnymen
We know what you’re thinking: Echo & the Bunnymen? Really? Didn’t they only have that one hit? Yeah, it doesn’t matter: Go to this. Seriously. Set aside the fact that their first four records are start-to-finish perfect: Ian McCulloch & crew have got arena-mope down to a science. Their songs are surprisingly cutting: quick lashes of silvery guitar stitching up McCulloch’s perfect pout, sadness and determination in one perfect package. This is where you want to be when the sun is going down: standing before a team of road-tested veterans, listening to the eerie, clanging chords that open “The Killing Moon.”
8:20-9:10 p.m. – The Black Keys
Sandwiched between Echo’s brilliant brooding and Coldplay’s rousing anthems, the Black Keys provide a welcome dose of minimalism. The Ohio blues duo have little use for grand gestures or big refrains: this is filthy music, chords as raw as fingernails bitten to the quick. They’ve effortlessly shaken the White Stripes comparisons that dogged them early in their career, instead crafting something darker and dingier. Call it punk-blues: primal music that howls and stomps, the perfect release after a greuling weekend outdoors.
9:15 p.m. – Coldplay
Are we over hating Coldplay at this point? The cheap and easy knee-jerk bile masked a few simple facts: a) they write great songs. b) those same songs sound even greater at several thousand decibels. c) as self-involved and egomaniacal as people think Chris Martin is, the truth is that he’s actually fairly humble, self-effacing, and has a pretty decent sense of humor. And honestly, at 9:00 on a Sunday night, will all that matter anyway? What you’re gonna want is a guy parading around the stage in a weird, funky jacket, throwing his whole body into his songs, and you’re gonna want that guy to be backed by a bunch of musicians who know that you’re there to be entertained. You’re not gonna get misty when he starts “The Scientist”? You’re not gonna cheer for “Vida La Vida”? Sure you’re not, you liar.