Guided by Voices, Strumbellas Bring Indie Rock to 2016 4Knots Music Festival
Given the cultural dominance of hip-hop, the growing respectability of pop, and the general lack of guitars on the radio, some critics have predicted the end of indie rock as a relevant genre. If they’re right, you couldn’t quite hear the death rattle on Saturday (July 9), as the Village Voice presented its annual 4Knots Music Festival at South Street Seaport in New York City.
While there was some diversity in the lineup -- local rapper and producer Kirk Knight, retro-minded funkateer Boulevards -- this was a day for guitar, bass, and drums. In the case of the four main-stage headliners, there was scarcely another instrument to be found, though Canadian stomp-folk sextet The Strumbellas worked a little violin and keyboard into the mix.
Topping the bill was Guided by Voices, back in action with the umpteenth lineup of its 30-plus year existence. So long as they can handle the material -- punky ’60s-style oddities that last just long enough to get you humming the hook -- the specific musicians backing frontman Robert Pollard don’t make a huge difference. He’s the show, and on Saturday, the white-haired former schoolteacher had the packed pier singing along to tunes from throughout his insanely deep catalog.
“I broke the record for most songs without ever having a hit,” Pollard joked late in the set, following a spirited run-through of the crowd favorite “Game of Pricks.” In addition to well known tracks like “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Cut-Out Witch,” Pollard plucked a few from the band’s 22nd studio album, this year’s Please Be Honest, and dipped into his side projects Boston Spaceships and Ricked Wicky.
Pollard was tamer than he’s been on past GBV tours, limiting his high-kicks and sipping from a single beer rather than killing a bottle of Cuervo. Still, the band brought a certain ramshackle energy -- most notably at the very end, when Pollard used his final five minutes of allotted stage time to squeeze in two more, including 2001’s Cheap Trick-grade anthem “Glad Girls.” A quarter-century earlier, that one might actually have been a hit.
The Strumbellas, who played just before GBV, have tasted commercial success. Their 2015 tune “Spirits” topped the Alternative Songs chart, and as singer Simon Ward told the South Street crowd, the band had just arrived via the redeye from England. With its four-to-the-floor kick drums and massive Lumineers-like melodies, The Strumbellas were definitely the day’s most traditionally festival-worthy act.
A big reason was Ward, who was game to crack goofy jokes about the Jets or the Nets or the honking water taxis behind him in the East River. On “We All Know,” he put down his acoustic guitar and ventured to the edge of the stage to lead the sing-along. It was the stage move of a guy in a band that long ago decided it’s better to be likable than to be cool. Watching the crowd groove out to something like “Sailing” -- think “Sloop John B” with Marcus Mumford steering the ship -- it was hard to knock that choice.
Protomartyr doesn’t seem to care about style or affability, and that’s what makes them so great. Performing before The Strumbellas, the Detroit foursome came hard and mean with jabbing licks and ornery post-punk beats. Leading the charge was frontman Joe Casey, a middle-aged barker with a red face and an ill-fitting suit. Clutching a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, Casey seemed to say it and spray it while biting hard into the words of “Maidenhead” and “Cowards Starve.” Closer “Why Does It Shake?” all about staving off the body’s inevitable decline, went from nervous dance track to awesome noise onslaught.
The energy and volume of Protomartyr marked a drastic shift from the wordy, windy thinking man’s indie of Car Seat Headrest. The quartet is the brainchild of 23-year-old Virginia native Will Toledo, who released 11 albums entirely on his own before linking up with Matador for his two most recent efforts, 2015’s Teens of Style and this year’s excellent Teens of Denial.
The latter LP figured heavily in Saturday’s set, and on tunes like “Vincent,” which features both crunching guitars and Television-style noodling, Toledo proved he’s more than just the millennial Stephen Malkmus. Pavement don’t have an all-time monopoly on tangly riffage and droll verbosity. As the persistence of indie rock attests, there are plenty of ways to express your quirks with electric guitars.