The performers of the biggest show of the Northside Festival – a multi-venue independent rock sprawl in fashionable Williamsburg, Brooklyn – were an unlikely mix. The flamboyant freak-folk rockers Of Montreal, the winsomely deadpan singer-songwriter Jens Lekman, and the bracing yet introspective punks the Thermals played the main stage at McCarren Park in fractured but happy succession, united in their enthusiastic stage presence and little else.
After openers Beach Fossils, who spun their woozy pop for a tepid 5 p.m. crowd of tumbleweeds and visibly hung-over hipsters, the Thermals roused the slowly gathering masses with a taut, kinetic set. Largely favoring older material – from the ramshackle lo-fi bursts of first albums More Parts Per Million (2003) and Fuckin’ A (2004) to their superb, scathing critique of the Old Testament, The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006) – the Portland trio leapt across the stage and flung themselves to the floor with abandon. The boisterous core of the punk mainstays, Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, were almost shy in debuting a handful of new songs from their in-progress sixth studio album; happily, the anthemic hooks and richly imagined lyrics felt closest in line with their finest effort, The Body, though Harris’ howls of “Now I feel free to kill/I know my shadows, they follow me still” suggest a more menacing road ahead.
The Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman, marooned without his backing band due to eleventh-hour visa complications, reconfigured his show into a sparse, confessional coffeehouse hour. Atop leisurely, finger-picked guitar, he waxed rhapsodic about stalking Kirsten Dunst while she partied between Melancholia takes (“Waiting for Kirsten”) and rhymed the names of mournful, breakup-inspired chords as he strummed with relatively more cheer (“Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” a new track from next record I Know What Love Isn’t, out September 4th). Lekman is an odd duck, for sure – not least for his proclivity to spread his arms into bird wings and dash around the stage – and an endearingly guileless one; his deadpan lyrics ebbed to reveal a bittersweet core (“A Postcard to Nina,” “Black Cab”), which he crooned without flinching before live-looping guitars and electronics into a closing batch of tracks from his ebullient last full-length album, Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007).
The headlining psych-rockers Of Montreal wasted little time before delivering a telling choice of a cover: “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, faithfully churning and antagonistic. Frontman Kevin Barnes, clad in skintight red pants and a matching women’s ruffled blouse, took clear delight in screeching the line “We are your overlords,” a fitting boast for his pack of merry art-pop aliens. Their boisterous 90-minute set supported the Elephant Six group’s 11th album, February’s scabrous and self-flagellating Paralytic Stalks, and supported its corkscrew turns with unending visual stimuli. As Barnes preened and grunted his garbled poetry in center stage, he was constantly flanked by not only his seven loudly-dressed bandmates but a parade of dancers costumed as, in turn: ninjas, Mexican wrestlers, superheroes, referees, white birds, well-endowed and glittering swamp women (truly, they defied description) and more.
Barnes and guitarist Bryan Poole – the latter dressed every inch for opener “Suffer for Fashion” in a wide-brimmed hat and feather-boa topper – mugged around the foreground as saxophones, violins, cowbells and synths whirled behind them, cohering into blissfully sleazy disco-pop and Prince-style featherweight funk. Set highlight “Spiteful Intervention” (from Stalks) found Barnes pleading for an “elegant solution” in the album’s overarching malaise, miles away from the debauched falsetto gloss of 2008 track “Plastis Wafers.” Barnes’ slyly affecting if often Gonzo lyrics were frequently obscured in the melee – a disservice to his solid songwriting – but the band’s range was well represented, especially in the set closer “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” off their mercurial 2007 breakthrough Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? The near 12-minute song was meted out exhaustively, with no wildly clad dancers in sight; the spectacle was contained, and completely satisfying, in the chilling prog-rock jamming and nearly unbearable tension of the epic track, an exceptional high-wire act of musicianship and a suitable conclusion for the good-natured yet highly unusual night in Brooklyn.