Volume 78 / Number 1 - June 4 - 10, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Photo by Roberta Bayley

Mary Weiss and her band will appear on July 18.


Hot town, summer in the city

By Lee Ann Westover

Though all of New York City seems to ring with music in the summertime, Downtown is fast becoming the epicenter of a varied and vibrant outdoor concert scene.

The gargantuan River to River Festival sits like a matriarch overseeing its conglomeration of smaller festivals, as well as some programming of its own. Downtown Alliance began River to River after the events of September 11, 2001 in hopes of infusing vitality into an emptying Lower Manhattan, and the fest boasts some of the most inspired performance spaces in town, from the South Street Seaport’s pier of tall ships to Castle Clinton National Monument.

The acts on this year’s roster are as varied as the population of the city itself. Among big-ticket performers like Sonic Youth (July 4), River to River dedicates much of it’s programming to bringing both classic and fresh-from-the-edge bands to Manhattan ears.

Chicago Soul legend Otis Clay adds a honeyed note to the lineup on Wednesday, June 11. His smooth chops first made their appearance on gospel recordings in the ’60s. Since then, he has toured consistently around the US and as far away as Japan.

On Wednesday, June 18, Jill Sobule hosts Poetic City at Rockefeller Park. Amidst readings by Cornelius Eady, Matthea Harvey, Fanny Howe, Li-Young Lee and Kay Ryan, Sobule will perform a number of her witty and sensitive original tunes. Though “I Kissed A Girl” remains her biggest commercial hit to date, the lilting, yearning “Jet Pack” makes her loyal fans go wild.

On June 25 Orchestra Baobab will radiate heat of its own in Rockefeller Park. This Senegalese pan-African dance band began playing together in 1970. Thirty-eight years later, they are widely known as one of Senegal’s greatest musical exports. Singer Balla Sidibe’s rich tone infuses the already beautiful melodies with energy and fire. Another of Senegal’s most distinguished voices, Youssou N’dour, produced their last album, “Specialist in All Styles.”

St. Vincent takes the stage on July 10 at Battery Park’s Castle Clinton Monument. Alternating between screeching electronics and a gentle jazz sound, St. Vincent is equal parts Feist, Bjork, and Maude Maggart. She entered the national scene as a guitarist and vocalist for the Polyphonic Spree, but her multi-instrumentalist’s chops and inspired songwriting on her solo debut album “Marry Me” have set her on the road to larger fame.

The Seaport Music Festival is one of the building blocks comprising River to River’s conglomerate, but its particular flavor sets it apart in audience and tone. Founder Steve Dima has an ear for the new, and through innovative programming, manages to attract the hipster fringe to Downtown en masse. Though each season touches on popular culture as it has been, Dima has ways of plucking musicians from the musical edges to show New York City where music is going.

Hyper young things Abe Vagoda, No Age, and Telepathe will have the whole Seaport shaking off its hinges on July 11. Abe Vagoda and No Age borrow heavily from ’80s pop and punk to get the audience off their feet. Telepathe adds a little experimental girly-ness to the mix, while losing none of the edge or the fun.

Mary Weiss may have temporarily faded from pop consciousness after the heyday of her ’60s girl group, The Shangri-las, but she’s showing the Amy Winehouses of the world who they owe tribute to. With a new album, she lacks none of the rock ’n’ roll grit that made her famous in the first place. Weiss will perform with her band on July 18.

The World Financial Center Winter Garden reopened for music just last summer and returns this year for more. Brooklyn’s Defibulators will wake up the lunchtime crowd on July 9 with their rollicking western sound. Daily from July 22 - 25, Ollabelle will showcase their country-gospel harmonies in homage to Johnny Cash as they build up to an all-star tribute concert on the 26th. On that day The Big River Project: The Music of Johnny Cash will feature Ollabelle, songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, roots princess Laura Cantrell and klezmer-blues ensemble The Sway Machinery in tribute to the Man in Black.

Farther uptown, the staunchly independent Washington Square Music Festival will serenade the West Village for five weeks in June and July. In honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary this year, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has proclaimed June 1 to be Washington Square Park Music Festival Day. (Try to say that three times fast.) In addition to three weeks of classical offerings and the closing concert by the Charles Mingus Orchestra, the festival will partake in Make Music New York on June 21. As musicians take to the streets throughout the city, Washington Square Park will host a number of folk and blues ensembles including Michael Packer Blues Band, and the pub band Three Pints Shy.

Lower Manhattan’s farthest festival outpost opened for the summer with a polo match and picnic on May 31. To add to the fun, Folks On the Island, NYC’s first and only folk festival, will kick off its second season on July 5 with a performance by legendary singer-songwriter Janis Ian. Now in her fifties, Ian recorded her biggest hit in 1964 while she was still in her early teens, though Ian’s poetry, as well as her wit, have only strengthened since. You’ll doubtless hear her perform that long-ago success, “At Seventeen,” but hope that she graces us with her hilarious and sweet musing on gay marriage, “Married in London,” featured on her MySpace page.

My favorite discovery of this festival season will step out on Governor’s Island on July 19. The five young members of Bearfoot met as summer music camp counselors in their native Alaska. In their few years together, the band has won a loyal following in the US roots and bluegrass scene. While their roots are indeed deep down in traditional song, their alternating sweet and soulful harmonies are unmistakably modern and absolutely electric.

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