A microbrew of alt-pop, family and activism made for a spirited, sun-kissed afternoon at the second annual Shadow of the City fest in Asbury Park, N.J.
The mission statement came from North Jersey-bred fest organizer/Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff, during a reunion set from Steel Train, the indie rock band that put his songwriting talents on the map in the early 2000s. “This is all about… growing up [in New Jersey]. I always went to shows in Philly and New York.” Since launching the fest last summer, Antonoff’s used it as a launching pad to bring metropolitan, tastemaking music to a region that has no problem fostering artistic talent, but often fails to hold onto it.
It was Steel Train’s first show since 2013, but Antonoff isn’t the sort of performer who insists on headlining his own fest year after year. Bleachers topped the bill in 2015, but this time (with the band working on a new album) Antonoff and his old friends ceded the spotlight to the 1975, Carly Rae Jepsen and Børns, who manned the final three slots on the Stone Pony’s Summer Stage. A little after covering Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” Børns closed with the Taylor Swift-approved alt radio hit “Electric Love,” a worthy bridge into what lay ahead.
Flew all the way from LA to see Steel Train reunite & play Jersey & it was completely worth it pic.twitter.com/99CwBmy8i1
— Alyssa (@alyssabuzzello) June 18, 2016
Carly Rae was the first performer to elicit a headliner’s response, but seconds after the 1975 made it out, it was obvious the svelte British rockers wouldn’t be upstaged. With the fluorescent lights bouncing off Matty Healy’s head of curls, the opening notes of “Love Me” rang out and the scene was off and running for a 15-song after-dark headlining set. It was one of those shows where the crowd decidedly did more with less; the Summer Stage enclosure (picture a microcosm of this weekend’s Firefly in the backyard of Jersey’s iconic Stone Pony) was left with open space in its outer reaches, but those pushing to the front forged an alternate universe in a space usually reserved for cover bands and nostalgia acts.
Carly Rae Jepsen’s presence might have been an even greater statement. When was the last time a Hot 100 No. 1 hit (let alone one that remained there for nine weeks) was performed in Asbury Park five years after its ascent? “Call Me Maybe” was the only Jepsen selection pre-dating her 2015 album E•MO•TION, which posted marginal sales, yet crushed it in just about every other conceivable metric: critical acclaim, media exposure, galvanization of the LGBTQ community and awesome songs primed to outlast modern day hyper-compressed hype cycles.
In this way, Jepsen embodied the ethos of Shadow of the City’s second showing. And it extended from the music to the crowd itself: predominantly female with a strong LGBTQ presence. Bathrooms were made gender-neutral and signs across the grounds announced a safe space where violence and discrimination would not be targeted. It’s a stance that’s seldom made so succinctly at venues above the D.I.Y. level, and following the Orlando shooting last weekend, it will hopefully prove a trendsetter. The Antonoff family (Jack, his father Rick and his sister Rachel) participated in a dunk tank, which donated all its proceeds to Orlando LGBTQ shelters (Lena Dunham was also announced but never showed). Rachel sold apparel adorned with “FEMINIST” and female reproductive anatomy drawings at one of the show’s several merch tents, while Rick played guitar and helped sing Steel Train’s spry jangle pop jam “Firecracker.”
Like the Antonoffs, the fest’s earlier acts mingled with the general crowd throughout the day. Hana, Shamir and Bishop Briggs made themselves accessible to fans following their afternoon sets, beginning with Hana’s solo D.I.Y. pop opening the fest at 1:30. From there, Shamir — whose fans call themselves Shaqueers, Ratcheteers or Baby Ratchets, depending on who you ask — added to the diverse atmosphere with a sunny set of boisterous synthpop. Then, it was Bishop Briggs and her band, whose set sounded like a mixtape of burgeoning alt radio flourishes, ending with the Alternative Songs hit “River.” And before Steel Train, former My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero and his band the Cellbration gave the day its most guitar-heavy dash, with a half hour of spiky, punk-indebted songs.
Shadow of the City held its own. Five days prior, it was moved from the beach at nearby Seaside Heights due to “unforeseen logistical and technical issues”,” back to its site the previous year. The Stone Pony isn’t glamorous, but Antonoff and friends have greater goals in mind. Will it lead to more trendsetting, tri-state concerts outside of city limits? It’s difficult to tell. What Shadow of the City did do was treat New Jersey to a bite-sized Coachella, driven by activism the world’s full-sized Coachellas ought to learn from.