Photos | Review | Catalpa Festival | New York

Words by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens | Images by: Joe Russo & Amanda Macchia

Catalpa Festival :: 07.28.12-07.29.12 :: Randall's Island :: New York, NY

Full review below photo gallery!

The first time one attempts something can often be the best, but more likely it is an adventure filled with challenges and obstacles, a learning experience that future attempts benefit from. Catalpa Festival on Randall's Island in July was mostly a delightful weekend of music with some of today's top acts in the business.

Despite the constant threat of rain, the two-day inaugural Catalpa Festival promised to display a very eclectic weekend of 25 acts, including rock, indie, electronic and hip-hop, on the two main stages and a non-stop reggae stage. The two stages were close in proximity, surrounded by some concessions and porto-pottys. The environment was intimate and one may, at first impression, feel like are they are at a homecoming football game rather than a music festival in New York City.

Catalpa by Joe Russo
Saturday performers included Aviation Orange, Zola Jesus, The Demos, Hercules and Love Affair, The Sheepdogs, and TV on the Radio.

Saturday Highlights

Umphrey’s McGee :: 6:45 PM – 9:30 PM :: Jeep Stage
Catalpa benefitted from this stalwart jam band, representing the sound in exemplary fashion, Their reputation had earned them two sets, and it was clear to anyone that this may be the smallest audience that Umphs will play to all year, and at a Festival no less! The benefit of a smaller audience provided an intimate show for those in attendance and thus offered more room to dance. Considering this band pounded out a face-melting and monumental lengthy set at Bonnaroo for thousands until dawn, it was impressive how Bayliss and the boys approached this show with equal intensity and sense of purpose. With hard core fans cheering and throwing hands up in the air, they maneuvered through a mesmerizing non-stop sensory overload, including a 14 minute “Miami Virtue” before the best cover version of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” that I have heard. With their trademark long jams and enigmatic energy, the band left one breathless and satiated.

The Black Keys by Amanda Macchia
The Black Keys :: 9:30 PM – 11:00 PM :: Catalpa Stage
No one ever said it, but considering their relevant prowess with the populous, The Black Keys were the true headliner of the weekend. Dan Auerbach (guitar/vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) front a band including touring musicians before a crowded and raucous audience fighting inclement weather. Having formed in 2001, the Ohio-based duo embraced steady success, but it was the 2010 album, Brothers, that launched them into the stratosphere. A wonderful aspect of the Keys success lies in that they don’t play standard rock n’ roll or pop. They are a blues-based rock/garage style band that plays heavy and hard with a guitar rhythm and bombastic sound that demands attention and relentless head-bobbing. The Keys acted like headliners by diligently delivering a set of music that would satisfy any fan. The band played many tracks from their most recent two blockbuster albums including “Tighten Up”, “Howlin for You” and “I’ve Got Mine” as well as some old school ditties. There were moments during this performance with abundant audience participation, including a consistent raucous screaming of “Na-Na-Nas” to guitarist Auerbach’s riffs that are what a music festival is supposed to be about.

Sunday Highlights

Sunday performers included The Big Pink, City and Colour, Matt & Kim, AraabMuzik, Girl Talk, A$AP Rocky and Snoop Dogg.

The Dirty Heads by Joe Russo
The Dirty Heads :: 3:45 PM – 4:45 PM :: Jeep Stage
The Dirty Heads are that musical outfit one finds at a Festival like Catalpa, where one is enticed to buy a ticket for an anchor band, but it is the song from the band you never heard before that pleasantly repeats in your ear afterwards. The most notable aspect of The Dirty Heads sound is the unique flavor it leaves on your palette. Although easily recognizable, they share a feeling and express a specific brand of music that has yet to saturate the market. The southern California band dons an appearance that reeks of summer, surfing and the atmosphere of their upbeat songs while reflecting the free-spirited lifestyle one might expect from that environment. Jared Watson (vocals/guitars) and Dustin Bushnell (vocals/guitar) mesh together a sound that is fresh, fun and contagious. Look no further than their 2010 monster gold single, “Lay Me Down” to understand why the Catalpa crowd went crazy for the band. They didn’t even seem to be disappointed that this live version, stripped down without the exquisite vocals of Rome, was left not nearly as fulfilling as the studio cut.

Consistently compared to Sublime, the band does share many sensibilities with the reggae/rock band that is credited by many of inventing a genre. When asked if he appreciated being constantly lumped in with Sublime, Watson stated, “That is an honor really, we are very close with those guys, but if people dig in and listen closer, we have a much different sound on many of our tracks.” The Dirty Heads should garner even more fans with their just dropped release, Cabin By The Sea which includes the song, “Spread too Thin” which was a hit single in its own right. The Dirty Heads offered up a crowd thirsty for sunshine on a rainy Sunday afternoon with an hour of non-stop smiles and concluded with a salute to MCA. They are currently on a national tour with Matisyahu.

Matisyahu by Amanda Macchia
Matisyahu :: 5:15 PM – 6:15 PM :: Jeep Stage
The highlight of the Festival was Matthew Miller, better known under his Hebrew and stage name, Matisyahu. Only a week removed from dropping his new record, Spark Seeker, he surprised most of the crowd by arriving with a completely new look. He had clipped off his long curls, shaved to a clean face and shed his trademark attire. Known to many as “The Jewish Rapper” and having once burst onto the music scene with a buzz mostly due to his unique appearance, I remained curious whether a young audience, would readily accept the new version on display on this steamy Sunday afternoon. He delivered his trademark smooth reggae-fused hip-hop over the one hour set. Rather than prance about on stage, Matis uses his silky voice and a subtle swagger to share sun-drenched lyrics to cast a pleasant shadow of love and a sense of harmony much like his idol Bob Marley’s music. The jovial crowd swayed and sang to his Top 2005 hit, “King Without a Crown” and the fist-pumping anthem, “One Day” among other embraced choices. So many people were repeatedly screaming for the same requests that a frustrated Matis said, “You don’t need to keep asking for those...of course I’m going to play all the songs you are asking for!”

When speaking to Matis, he detailed his strong affinity for the music of Phish and his face lit up when reliving the moment he met Trey, was asked to sit-in with the band at Bonnaroo 2005, and the definitive moment that changed his life after he dropped out of high school to follow the band from Burlington. A smart, soft-spoken and articulate man, Matis is one who knows what he wants and follows his own heart while wearing passion on his sleeve. Perhaps he shed his beard and religious dress in a long-sought after need for anonymity, or perhaps it is to disavow any notion that his success as the Hasidic reggae star was any part novelty act. Matis said, “There is one path, one truth, and that is where I go.” His belief system reminds one of Cat Stevens in his prime, a man who wanted to share a broader vision with his position of influence, rather than garner materialistic offerings. Like Boy George, a man who possessed an exceptional talent that was overshadowed by his appearance and beliefs, Matisyahu continues to prove to a skeptical crowd that he still has the goods, despite a drastic change in aesthetics. Albeit perhaps less dynamic, he proved at the Catalpa Festival that his best success may still lie ahead and one day he may make us forget he ever looked any different than the man he is today. However, should one need another fix of the old Matis, look for his appearance as a Hasidic attempting to exorcise demons in the soon to be released film, “The Possession.” Matisyahu trusted his fans enough to do a fantastic stage dive into the crowd.

Snoop Dogg by Amanda Macchia
Cannabis Cup Band etc :: All days Both days :: That Tent
With all the varied big name talent on display over the 2-day Festival, the reggae stage offered the most reliable and consistent selection of quality satisfying grooves and melodies. Naturally, the reggae stage was sponsored by High Times Magazine, which supplied banners which surrounded the entire stage. The sponsorship proved ironic, as one did not require any illegal delivery means of euphoria to make one feel high as the music effectively provided the buzz. With a rotating stage of reggae veterans including the exhilarating Cannabis Cup Band with Ras Droppa, Skadanks with Lenny Don, Marcia Davis & Outro and Leon & The Peoples, the stage was a non-stop nod to everything one loves about reggae music. Of course, no 2-day reggae stage would be complete without numerous tributes to the King himself, Robert Nesta Marley. Sometimes one can tire of the requisite covers and exhaustive attempts to cash in on Bob’s brilliance and success, but seemingly each time I walked by the stage on my way to one of the “big acts”, I stopped, entranced by exquisite renditions of Marley classics including “Bend Down Low” and “Rat Race.” Unfortunately, the reggae artists pouring their soul into each performance did not receive the adulation that they should have earned – the audience for this stage remained eerily thin throughout.

Catalpa Crowd by Amanda Macchia
The silent disco is always an alternative way to enjoy music in an exciting and unique manner, but it was placed in a remote area away from the main stages and not obvious to all attendees. The Arcadia tent, scheduled to include performances by numerous known DJ’s, was never opened. This was rumored to be due to a Fire Marshall not clearing it, but no one was advised of this information in advance or on-site and at least three strangers asked me where this tent was located. The major distraction keeping Catalpa from being a weekend in perfection was some mud and rain, and while this was no Woodstock folks, if one has the proper line-up and amenities at a Festival, one will sit or dance through an entire downpour. Many at the Festival found excitement in playing the life-size version of “Connect Four” against a friend. One can’t underestimate how fun it is for one to tell the girl that beat you, “pretty sneaky sis!”

Frisky Entertainment, an Irish-based company that produced the event, should be applauded for attempting yet another Festival in the NYC area, a city wrought with many options for entertainment. Catalpa has a strong foundation of an idea, with the location easy to access, the friendly staff, and with much of the music top-notch. With some fine tuning in scheduling and execution, Catalpa can become an even stronger presence in the future.

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[Published on: 8/8/12]

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