September 8, 2009

Ithaca Heartbeats

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Here’s the thing about falling in love with a city: it’s all about the complexity. The richness of a place lets the relationship linger and grow over time — people are myriad and varied, the food varieties are endless, the music is always bumpin’.
Sunday was the second of two days of co-sponsored events brought about by Dan Smalls Presents and funded by Ithaca Beer Co. While Brew Fest is widely lauded — if upstate New York constitutes “widely” — Positive Jam is an event that has yet to grow to full maturity. Although it’s less attended and less publicized, I felt on Sunday that I was at the beginning of something big whose potential had not yet been realized.
Nonetheless, bits of Ithaca had been transported to Stewart Park for our enjoyment: in this little microcosm there was the beloved gyro stand from the Commons, Ithaca Brewery’s tasty Pale Ale, local band The Caution Children and that Ithaca dance that everyone here does — tye-dye shirt, moving in a circle, lots of arm movement and kind of a little hop on one foot. More Ray Bans than I have ever seen in one place at one time.
The first headliner (after the local openers and The Rural Alberta Advantage) was Rhode Island band Deer Tick. True-to-heart American music with a kind of dark poetic twist, Deer Tick sounded like the bluesy rock that fuels long nights at the bar talking about your true love, the job you lost, etc. Far from being a stereotype, however, John McCauley’s slightly nasal, drawling voice gave new meaning to any preconceived ideas about country or folk music. The audience, which on Sunday was slow to get going, lingered in the shade during Deer Tick’s set. Their lyrics encouraged a slow roll rather than rambunctious dancing — “I’ve lived lies all my life / and I’ve been living here a long, long time / And it’s been coming down a while now,” Cauley sang in “Art Isn’t Real.” Introspective, indeed.
[img_assist|nid=37839|title=Makin’ sweet, sweet music | James Felice of the Felice Brothers at Positive Jam|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=223]
But the audience’s static poses weren’t going to last long: The Felice Brothers came onto the stage like nothing we’d ever seen, wearing face paint, war paint, breaking out into these wild, cross-stage dances as if something was going to explode. They brought out the big guns: an accordion, strange looking guitars, a washboard, a rabid violinist. If you ever doubted that you were going to dance, The Felice Brothers left you no choice.
Fully aware of their presentation and masters of it, Ian Felice and bassist Christmas Clapton – is that a real name? And can I share it with him? – made small talk about picking up indie girls at bars. On stage, they chatted about the weather, made philosophy jokes about Heidegger (“Hi, Digger!” Really?) and played some wild, wild music. It’s like these guys figured out what irony was — learned the genre norms — and decided to say “Fuck it.” “Good days are coming, good days are coming,” they sang — you’re telling me. The Felice Brothers’ set was the best of folk and indie rock, cross-bred with madness.
The Hold Steady, The Positive Jam’s headliners, came to the Ithaca stage with a well-established fan base, having played to a huge crowd at Castaways over the summer. By the time frontman Craig Finn had gotten to the ’80s in his decade-by-decade lyric run-through of the century (that is the start of the title song “The Positive Jam”), the crowd was screaming for more. Especially after two sets of folksy, bluesy rock, The Hold Steady sounded explicitly rock-and-roll.
The Hold Steady is a group of characters. Franz Nicolay, the keyboardist in a Scarface suit, and awesome facial hair, played like nothing we’ve ever heard. Craig Finn himself is the antithesis of what one expects a rock star to look like — until he starts moving, he is just a geeky guy in designer glasses with a sideways smile. But my god, when he starts performing, Finn is a bar room preacher, compassionate and angry by turns. A lyricist at heart, Finn comes off as a history buff (the Kennedys were mentioned at least three times) with a penchant for pop culture and pessimism. We hung on every word. No one’s home town, Americana fetish or local tradition was left untouched by his sarcasm. And yet Finn won us all with this wild, hyper laugh that drove the show — it’s a laugh that says, “I know you in all your failures and inconsistencies — but I love it. And I’m going to make music out of it.”
In “Ask Her For Some Adderall,” Finn told us, “If she asks, don’t tell her that I’ve been living hand-to-mouth / Don’t tell her that I’ve been sleeping on your couch / If she asks just tell her that we opened for The Stones / that’s her favorite band except for The Ramones.” Yes, Finn and The Hold Steady are jaded by love, jaded by life. They’ve done crazy things and deserve to be pessimistic, yet they somehow turn these experiences into anthems. The song that started it all, “The Positive Jam,” which began and ended the set, was the explosive conclusion to the day. “All the sniffling indie kids,” Finn calls out, “Hold steady. All the clustered up clever kids, hold steady. We’re gonna start it with a positive jam. Hold steady.”
Yes, Craig — this Sunday love affair with Ithaca may be the last day of summer, our last day of sharing local beer, green grass and Sundays spent rocking out in the sun. Soon we’ll be consumed by your concerningly precise depiction of life: growing old and jaded, drug addictions, relationships consumed by technology and worse — but we’re going to hold steady, Craig. And stay positive. Your twisted smile, the sunlight through trees over the lake and that feeling of the bass reverberating in my chest is going to last me through the Ithaca winter. By and by, we’ve got to start it off … with a Positive Jam.