Nevermind the slew of commemorative cash-ins and merchandise that have emerged in time for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock; Sunday at All Points West almost turned out to be a living, breathing, squelching, real-life re-enactment of the epochal 1969 mud-bath.
Early arrivals to day three of the festival were first denied entry and subsequently herded into the nearby ferry terminal like poncho-wearing refugees as torrential rain battered the site, which was still struggling to soak up Friday’s downpour. Rumours quickly circulated about a possible cancellation before the sky began clearing at around 2 p.m. Despite that, most fans arrived onsite well after 4 to find that main stage (Blue Comet) openers Steel Train and the Gaslight Anthem had been cut and the park now looked like little more than a green and brown swamp with concession stands floating on top. The mass, sludge-based anointing began en masse — and most of it was involuntary.
To their credit, the tens of thousands who braved the punishing weather, foul smells and indignity of being treated like cattle remained in good spirits and their first reward was a fizzing opening set from Silversun Pickups. Such was the desperation to hear something other than rain and thunder, the Los Angeles quartet could have walked onstage and played Liberace numbers and most of the crowd would have lapped it up. Thankfully though, they stuck to their moody, melodic West Coast shoegaze. The much-loved “Lazy Eye” is still an ace up the band’s metaphorical sleeve but cuts from their recently released album Swoon easily eclipse that early career highpoint and show how quickly they are progressing.
Any remaining bad vibes dissipated by the time British indie mainstays Elbow began their set. Adored in his homeland for his genial nature as much as his gorgeous voice, singer Guy Garvey affably chit-chatted with individual members of the huddled masses assembled in Lady Liberty’s view and encouraged them to add some extra power to the hymnal chanting of songs like “Grounds For Divorce” as if he were addressing old friends. The Manchester five-piece toasted the crowd and slammed down a shot before playing the meditative “Weather To Fly.”
And then there were Echo and the Bunnymen. Backstage frontman Ian McCulloch offered Rolling Stone a stiff drink and a long conversation covering everything from urinating horses to “knock knock” jokes, but onstage band stuck to its formula: they play wondrous songs with minimum fuss, and fans listen with maximum awe. It’s been their working method for 30 years now and it once again proved effective as members of nearly all the day’s other bands hustled over to watch the band play. It was essentially a greatest hits set with the emphasis more on greatest than hits. The band tossed in ad-libs and audibles almost at will (“Villiers Terrace” for instance became “Roadhouse Blues” at the drop of hat while “Nothing Lasts Forever” instantly morphed into “Walk On The Wild Side”) and the Donnie Darko devotees weren’t denied their moment either as “The Killing Moon” aptly rang out as the sun went down.
Those looking for a contrast to the softer, indie-centric lineup didn’t need to look far as over on the Bullet Stage were the ever-reliable Black Keys, playing just behind headliners MGMT. Over the past few years, the Akron, Ohio blues rockers have quietly become one of America’s most respected bands by continually pledging themselves to the stripped down simplicity of rock & roll. Patrick Carney’s drumming is rarely less than apocalyptic, singer Dan Auerbach doesn’t just play guitar but throttles it, and the raw, whiskey-soaked tones of his voice convey more emotion than any assemblage of words could ever do. And when they put it together during “Thickfreakness” or the sinister stomp of “Strange Times,” it was a pulverising combination. As they played to an increasingly carefree crowd of mud-zombies who seemed content to leave their clothes, shoes and other human traits deep in the Liberty State Park soil, it was difficult to imagine a context in which the Black Keys primal power could make more sense.