Thousands of music fans of all ages and hair colors assembled Saturday on New York City’s Randall’s Island to celebrate rock & roll with one of its biggest cheerleaders: Steven Van Zant. Van Zant — known as Little Steven when he plays with Bruce Springsteen — created the satellite radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage two years ago, and his Underground Garage Festival was the embodiment of his fandom.
Hosted by Van Zant himself, the all-day concert (tickets were only $20) featured more than ten hours of music, celebrity guests and go-go dancing. And that was just onstage.
Concert-goers milled about Randall’s Island which, thanks to dreary, wet weather, was more like a mud flat, soaking up the day’s party-hearty atmosphere and catching sets by diverse, old-time acts like the Electric Prunes, bluesy legend Bo Diddley and the Pete Best Band. And while the theme of the afternoon was definitely celebratory, the concert was a real nostalgia trip.
Bruce Springsteen, clad in black wrap-around shades, introduced the Chesterfield Kings, a band often credited with re-energizing the garage-rock movement in the Eighties. The band zipped along through its ten-minute set and then cleared the stage. Early acts only performed two or three songs. Considering the high volume of performers, the show ran smoothly and bands transitioned with few delays resulting in a fast-paced and egalitarian show.
Mid-afternoon, Van Zant — sporting a leopard-print bandana and a flowing purple shirt, unbuttoned halfway, of course — took the stage to introduce some acts and to try to explain the garage-rock phenomenon. “People are always asking how you define ‘garage,’ and it’s impossible,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop me from trying . . . Our garage world is very inclusive.”
While the majority of the acts hailed from garage’s Sixties heyday, younger groups like the Mooney Suzuki performed with a bristling velocity. Lead singer Sammy James, Jr. — donning purple pants and a pink sash — howled and stomped through “Primitive Condition,” a song off the band’s forthcoming album Alive and Amplified.
And while fluorescent-wig-wearing go-go dancers shimmied on platforms behind the band, the concert got its first needed dose of female energy with Detroit’s the Paybacks, fronted by the scabrous-voiced, six-feet-tall Wendy Case, who wailed through a short set.
Nancy Sinatra was another prominent female on the bill. To some, her pop stylings might have seemed out of place. Van Zant explained in his introduction: “Attitudes add up to what garage has become . . . and in the Sixties there were two kinds of women. There were the independent and strong women . . . and on the other side there were sexy women. This is the first woman who combined both things.”
Sinatra wasted no time dazzling the crowd, belting out favorites like “Lightning’s Girl.” Her band included a full brass section and Blondie drummer Clem Burke. Sinatra unveiled material from her self-titled album due in September, including the Morrissey-penned first single “Let Me Kiss You.” Of course, Sinatra delivered the hit that all fans eagerly awaited, closing her seven-song set with the highly influential “These Boots Were Made for Walkin.'” Sinatra’s commanding delivery was complimented by her brassy orchestrations. “It’s great . . . every generation loves that song,” she said backstage. “It has a life of its own, and I just sort of go along with it.”
The concert was recorded on high-definition video and projected on five thinly paneled screens from the stage; and director Chris Columbus was documenting the festival. Camera crews also captured the audience and the gloomy weather conditions which, by mid-day, threatened to close down the show. In order to compensate, bands were asked to cut short their sets.
Danish duo the Raveonettes, comprising Sharin Foo and Sune Rose Wagner, were affected by the weather. The two brought along backup players to flesh-out their glamorous sound but were only able to display their sweet harmonies on two songs.
The rain went away for an energetic set from the New York Dolls, dedicated to recently deceased bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. Frontman David Johansen was his loveable feline self, decked out in a splashy, midriff-exposing hot-pink T-shirt. Johansen wailed away on harmonica and unveiled chestnuts like the set-opening “Looking for a Kiss” and rollicking closer “Personality Crisis,” which he snarled with a punky force. Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain was the only other surviving original member who performed with the re-formed group.
New York City denizens the Strokes played next with a spirited nine-song set that found the group uncharacteristically enthused. Singer Julian Casablancas jumped into the crowd early on and addressed the audience in rambling but charming short declarations. But the band sounded tight performing songs from its latest album Room On Fire, including “I Can’t Win” and the new single “Reptilia.”
Crowd members withstood a constant drizzle, braving threats of severe weather from Hurricane Charley, to catch a festival-closing performance by garage-rock icon Iggy Pop and his band the Stooges.
And while it rained on and off, it was Pop who was the real hurricane: a feckless fusion of grit and sexuality. Dressed in skin-tight jeans, the shirtless Pop bounded onstage, launching immediately into a double whammy of “Loose” and “Down on the Street” from the hallmark 1970 album Fun House. He jumped on a pile of amplifiers, and gyrated and preened through a breathless set. The Stooges delivered a fierce pummeling on hits like “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” matching Pop’s energy, an energy that encapsulates the essence of rock & roll by any name.