Arcade Fire closes out Panorama festival day one with a marching band tribute to David Bowie (along with some words about Trump)
Words & Photography: Steven Ward
Walking across the Robert F. Kennedy bridge in the sweltering heat towards Randall’s Island, it was hard not to feel the deja vu wash over me. Like many in the crowd that moved eagerly towards the other side, we’d been here before. Not more than a few weeks ago, for Governors Ball, previously the sole festival to reign over the small island. But that’s all changed with Panorama’s inaugural debut on Randall’s, which may have escaped the flash storms that plague early summer festival’s on the East Coast and caused the cancellation of Governors Ball’s day three. Despite the sticky heat, many attendees agreed that they’d take the sun over cancellation due to threat of lightning. After a rocky late start that left fans stuck waiting in line at the box office, Panorama opened its gates to the first flood of New Yorkers and the three-day festival began.
Thoughtfully smaller than its June competitor, the festival grounds were dominated majorly by its two large stages, the main Panorama stage, and its somewhat smaller but tented counterpart, the Pavilion. The latter was where I found myself first, and in attempting to escape the early noon heat I found myself at the center of a modest crowd that had gathered for pop mistress Little Scream. Iowa native and bold multi-instrumentalist Laurel Sprengelmeyer at first gushes as a Jenny Lewis-prodigy–her soothing trills and competent guitar chops are hard to argue with–but behind the polished licks is an almost forgetful sensitivity. From the rickety bumps and grooves of songs like “Love as a Weapon,” to the heartfelt folk twittering that encompassed her debut The Golden Record, Sprengelmeyer’s sincerity bleeds through with more ease than most pop acts. It wasn’t long before the crowd beneath the Pavilion began to grow as she enchanted onlookers by the dozens, each one drawn in by the sounds that floated dreamily from the dancing blonde that stood at the center of the stage.
Over on the Panorama stage, blending their heady strains of punk, gospel, and blues in the afternoon heat, Algiers‘ poet of disruption James Fisher found nothing but open ears for his politically conscious lyricisms. Always an enraptured bunch, Fisher’s deep cuts on racial divides were more poignant than ever in light of the past year’s tensions between African Americans and police, but the politics of the band’s moody tracks did more than capitalize on the situation–it gave it a voice. From the sweaty delirium of “Black Eunuch” to “And When You Fall,” Fisher pummeled the crowd with the distorted electronic hauntings of his deafening vocals. The rest of Algiers strengthened his words with the dark atmospherics of their colossal sound. Buzzing synths and thundering choral harmonies mixed ecstatically with their inane, stadium-sized compositions–it was hard to accept that a handful of men were responsible for the immense sonics coming from the stage.
Awkward, weird, and all together the most entertaining band to step onstage on day one was Los Angeles’ very own, De Lux. Frontman Sean Guerin showed off his erratic dance moves to the tune of the bands delicious grooves throughout the set. Apparently unable to contain himself, Guerin spent more time in the crowd than onstage, running in-and-around the field in front of it, dancing with fans and altogether losing his mind. One part MGMT instrumentals and two-parts STRFKR stylized vocalizations, the incessant theatrics of De Lux came together not just with Guerin’s antics, but in the images they chose to project onto the backdrop that stood behind them. From vintage arcade games (the crowd favorite being a Star Wars play of Luke’s flight to destroy the Death Star), a brief appearance of Pokemon, and kooky cuts of 60’s dance routines— De Lux rolled out all the stops to keep fans fixated on the spectacle that was occurring onstage. Much like FIDLAR, Guerin and company embraced their eccentric nerd-ness with glee, and it was enough to woo the early risers who’d begun camping out for Arcade Fire’s closing set. Their unusually long electronic fantasias (“Oh Man the Future”) sparked mini dance parties across the crowd, and although relatively unknown to most present, De Lux’s insistently catchy hooks and easy to sing-along tracks made them an afternoon favorite. From the howling synth horns of “LA Threshold” to the incessant bass head-nodding in “Better At Making Time,” it was difficult to not find something to love about the duo’s 70-80’s brightly technicolor tunes.
Los Angeles indie-rock heroes, Silversun Pickups received a warm East Coast welcome from a massive crowd as they took to the main stage in the late afternoon. Despite playing what would be one of the shorter sets to take place that day, Brian Aubert and co-vocalist Nikki Monninger cut a swathe of early 2000’s nostalgia through the crowd, begininng with the sweet coos and dreaminess of “Nightlight.” But the oft bashfully quiet Monninger stole the limelight during her duet with Aubert on “Circadian Rhythm,” her gorgeously lush murmurs mingling in a goose-bump riddling crescendo with his high-pitched wails. Her killer performance was made that much better by the fact that right before they began playing the song, Aubert revealed that Monninger is always super nervous about playing it live, so in true best friend fashion, he demanded that the crowd stare at her the entire time. SIlversun was born in the tiny clubs and bars of L.A.’s Silver Lake scene, and in the tight intimacy of small venues is where they thrive, where their grimy atmospherics and noisey guitars drown out the barely audible shout-alongs to their lyrics. But the four-piece humbly reminded the Panorama crowd of the massive potential of their sonics, tearing through the wall-of-sound guitar explosiveness on songs like “Panic Switch,” while Aubert dazzled on lead guitar, a smile seemingly permanently plastered on his face.
Major Lazer, the only major genre break on day one at the Panorama stage, opened their hour-long set to an almost satirical level of hype that revolved mostly around its pyrotechnics, provocative female dancers, Diplo, and an excessive amount of merchandise being thrown into the crowd. And did we mention Diplo? The electronic music collective’s other two parts, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire, dressed in all white (the latter even sporting a ultra pure white Pharrel-style hat) were also onstage, spending most of their time either doing a little two-step dance or behind their spin table. Yet, for all the people onstage and all the distractions from the trio’s music, Major Lazer’s performance felt surprisingly empty. Many of the groups redeeming qualities stem from the vocalists like Santigold and MØ that lend their voices to the group’s electronic overloads. It’s wrong to dock them for not being able to pull artists for a non-headlining set, as it’s most likely something out of their control; however, despite the only vocals coming from the stage being recorded vocalizations and the much too often requests to “fucking jump,” Major Lazer pushed full steam ahead with an almost sincere gusto for the first half hour. Then came a slump that lasted until their fire-heavy finale, one which culminated in the much expected performance of “Lean On,” which just didn’t feel the same without its lead vocalist. The group tried to make up for it in spectacle, but every head-rushing drop and stunning dance routine was overshadowed by the eventual bore that came with watching three talented producers jump around onstage to their own songs.
Brittany Howard, the rock-star, hoarse-crooner and front woman of the Alabama Shakes not only stole the show Friday afternoon, they burned it down. After their lightning rod rise to fame in the past year with the release of their sophomore album Sound & Color, the group’s late afternoon slot at Panorama was more than deserved, and they made the most of it by ripping through their two album discography like the stage they were playing on was on fire. Opening with buzzing rock introspections of “Future People,” Howard’s unreal, ear-splitting croons seemed to cut through from another dimension as gritty guitars and head-reeling percussion crashes slammed together.
At 27-years-old, Howard has the vocal prowess and range to match someone like Florence Welch, but boasts a now uniquely characteristic voice that is so powerful it could probably hit the shores of Manhattan. With every insane vocal thrust, the young singer was wrought with a shaking passion, one that would contort her face and mouth into intense visages of emotion. It oozed out of every single one of their bluesy ballads to their thunderous 70’s rock anthems, but one of the highlights of their set belonged to the latter, as Howard entreated the crowd with a rare performance of “Joe.”
Carrying the sole weight of the song’s biting sadness and melancholy on her soul-shaking yells, Howard’s unconventional vocal aerobics had fans screaming in sheer overwhelming joy, pride, and solidarity. Embodying the most tangible elements of blues, Howard didn’t just sing to the crowd (which had now grown to touch nearly both entrances to the festival), she spoke to them in the genre’s true fashion, pouring out her little tales with an effusion robust heartache and love. The story ended, of course, with a hot and sweaty eruption of emotion to the sound of their hit “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Mustering up what was left of their seemingly endless reserves of energy, the Shakes held up their rich testament to blues-rock on the buoyant rushes of Howard’s rustic hoots and stratospheric howls.
Like a comet of fire, Arcade Fire ended day one of Panorama with meteoric performance of blood, sweat, and tears. Opening with the burning guitar medley of “Ready to Start,” Win Butler led his seasoned, multi-instrumentalist collective into the night with a crowd of hundreds roaring along: “Now you’re knocking at my door/Saying please come out against tonight/But I would rather be alone/Than pretend I feel alright.” Standing under a slew of massive mirrors that were reminiscent of their Reflektor tour, ones that shifted and tilted throughout the set casting eerie reflections of the band into the stage rigging, Arcade Fire set Panorama ablaze. With over a dozen people onstage playing just as many instruments, one of the miracles of the band is how phenomenal they sound live, with every instrumental layered perfectly atop the other; from the quietly twinkling piano that dangles lightheartedly against the gripping melancholy of “The Suburbs,” to the rolling bass lines that grumble in the background of “We Exist,” the bliss of Arcade Fire’s live show is catching these modest moments of fame for each of the band’s many musicians.
Yet, as always, the inane antics of the younger Butler managed to steal the moment more often than not; many in the crowd couldn’t help but laugh, and then point for confused friends, at Will’s odd slapstick gimmicks. Unlike his brother, Win was the most vocal of the night–“Donald Trump will never be President,” he told the crowd, before diving into the mandolin and hurdy-gurdy fraught “Keep the Car Running.” It wouldn’t be the last time Win would offer up some much needed social commentary; he told fans about how his wife and co-lead singer Regine Chassagne’s father came to the U.S. from Haiti to escape the brutality of an American backed group (but only granted citizenship after fighting in Vietnam), right before the deafening organ of “Intervention” let loose its haunting melody. They kept the organs going with a volcanic performance of “My Body is a Cage,” dropping a body rupturing explosion of brass and percussion, before leaving behind Neon Bible for the bleeding nostalgic tenderness of Funeral. Both “Neighborhood #1” and “#2” were given play throughs— their lilting, folksy instrumentals carried the crowd into a shivering sing-along of “Rebellion (Lies).” With every steady bass drum pound Will’s fingers danced ever more quickly against the piano’s keys, and the goose-bumps grew all over our bodies–such a delirious moment seemed impossible to top.
As the opening riffs of “Wake Up” began, tearing through the night’s exhaustion and weariness like lightning, those twinkling of harp strings the sole signal to begin that wordless howl— it was hard not to feel the fire in your belly begin to smolder. Will pounding on his drum like a madman, Win with his deep croon capturing the unspoken casualties of adolescence, culminating in that final line (“We’re just a million little god’s causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust/I guess we’ll just have to adjust”). As the howling faded and the song tumbled into its rollicking finale of bluesy bass and trumpets, we found ourselves dancing and flailing wildly with complete strangers in the ecstasy of the moment. But the night was far from over, as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined Arcade Fire onstage to march into the crowd to the tune of hundreds of voices continuing to echo that intangible, elusively sublime and aching bellow of “Wake Up.” Once beyond the barricades and surrounded by fans, Win (with megaphone in hand) sang a three song tribute to the late David Bowie, of which they were one of the very few bands to be graced with his blessing of collaboration with. From “Rebel Rebel” to “Suffragette City,” all the way to a tear-jerking redo of “Heroes,” Arcade Fire led their momentously fervent tribute deep into the nighttime.