Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival
Randall’s Island, New York City
Saturday, August 14, 2004
by: Matt Saha
On the 35th anniversary of Woodstock (August 14th), Little Steven threw a different kind of outdoor rock party. Forty bands entertained the crowds on New York’s Randall’s Island for more than 12 hours during the International Underground Garage Festival. At a ticket cost of only $20, that’s a 50-cents-a-band deal. The show was a labor of love for
Steven Van Zandt and his buddies from “The Sopranos,” and The Boss himself came out to lend his support and help introduce the acts. Groups from the 1950s through today, and from all over the world -- from Norway to New Zealand and from California to Detroit to New York -- filled the bill.
Garage rock has been defined in many different ways, but very loosely it is simply three-chord guitar play, raw, rough and honest vocals, and basic instrumentation unadorned by drum machines and heavy studio effects. Some of the acts (Nancy Sinatra) seemed to be part of the ensemble simply because they are personal favorites of Little Steven; all can be forgiven, however, as Van Zandt has almost single handedly waged war to preserve, cultivate and disseminate this kind of music. The story goes that if The Rolling Stones were starting out today they would find little space to be heard on the airwaves.
Most of the bands rushed through abbreviated sets of only two songs each as the organizers hoped to beat the anticipated rains produced in the wake of Hurricane Charley. What was billed as the world’s largest collection of go-go girls helped to set a positive and festive atmosphere and a collective group mindset helped to will away the rains. Highlights included Finland’s The Flaming Sideburns, whose infectious energy and charismatic lead singer helped to set a good vibe early on; New York’s The Mooney Suzuki, with catchy guitar riffs and a booming rhythm section; and The Electric Prunes and The Chocolate Watchband, two California ‘60s bands whose trippy psychedelic sounds helped to show that talented musicians could produce a range of “garage” sounds without being hyper-produced.
The Dictators ushered in the more extended sets. This band was at the forefront of New York’s youthful punk scene of the 1970s, and the musicians still sound young and vibrant. Lead singer Handsome Dick Manitoba clearly loves being on stage and the audience returned the love.
But not all the acts hit their marks, a statistical inevitability with 40 acts. The Pretty Things, who helped to inspire The Rolling Stones and David Bowie all those years ago, were less than inspiring on this day. The Pete Best Band (Best was the original drummer for The Beatles) was tinny and amateurish, and The Strokes, who no doubt helped to sell tickets and attract the young and the pretty to the event, grew tiresome with their one-note “I’m too cool and detached for this shit” pose.
Following a 30-year layoff, The New York Dolls reunited this year for a limited number of engagements. After a gig in England, bassist Arthur Kane, who had been complaining of flu-like symptoms during the show, found out he had cancer and rapidly and sadly passed away. David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter, and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain decided to honor their remaining commitments, including Little Steven’s event, but the future of The Dolls remains unclear. This is sad news because these pioneers in glam and punk, to put it simply, rocked on Saturday. Their songs are witty and intelligent and Johansen is one of the great showmen in rock, which is one reason he has also found success acting in film. Bassist Sami Yaffa, from Hanoi Rocks, played beautifully taking Kane’s place and Sami hit all the right notes as he literally came to the stage from his wedding that day, a poignant tribute to Kane.
The night culminated with Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Iggy, that remarkable physical specimen of nature, has all the energy and enthusiasm of an adolescent. He bounced and pranced and rolled around the stage while working through Stooges classics like “1969,” “No Fun,” “Fun House” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which he rendered twice. The bare-chested, long-haired Rock God takes your breath away with the vigor of his performance. He bated and provoked the crowd, but always with a love and respect for them.
As par with an Iggy event, he also urged members of the audience to take the stage with him. When security tried to stop this from occurring, Iggy screamed at them, “Let them fucking up here, this is not Nazi Germany!” Security relented and the audience ran around the stage in a free for all; for a short time anarchy reined, which created drama and tension, but Iggy as always was able to harness that raw energy, and peace and music prevailed. In urging the crowd onstage, Iggy exhorted them to “Take It Over.” He meant not only the stage that night, but also The Music. And therein lies the genius of Iggy, because for all the definitions of garage rock, he provided the best: it is ultimately the people’s music. It is Bo Didley building a primitive box guitar with his own hands. It is The New York Dolls donning lipstick to taunt radio station accepted norms. It is four lads, plus one or two others, from Liverpool wearing black leather and rocking their hearts out in the din of Hamburg’s late-night life. It is three guys with little musical skill, but with a whole lot of hope and love, playing their favorite music in their grandmother’s garage. It is the fight against the corporate and sanitized music engorged by the Clear Channels of the world. It is us. Take it over.
And as Iggy finished his set, the rains came.