CBGB Festival in Times Square

I wanted to do a quick post about something that seemed like the worst idea ever and turned out to be a great time. Last Saturday, the temperature in NYC got to its highest yet of this summer, reaching over the 100 degree mark into something I’ll classify as an inferno of misery. If you know me, I don’t have to tell you how much I dislike the heat. Give me a the coldest day in winter over the swelter of the subway platforms in July. So in the afternoon of such a day I would rarely dare to venture outside, it just so happened that three of my favorite bands were all playing free shows as part of the CBGB Festival (yes, CBGB as in the legendary club on the Bowery).

The catch, in addition to the Hades-like weather, was that they were in Times Square, which, if you were creating some sort of hell for me, you could probably do no worse that Times Square in tourism season with the sun bearing down its scorching rays. But the things I do for the bands I love continue to reach new heights. And I am so glad I made it, because all three bands put on fantastic shows and thanks to the plethora of coffee chains with free air conditioning in the area we survived.

For some reason, the set times weren’t being released online, but thanks to a friend who got in touch with certain drummer who is a wonderful person, I was able to find out that Superchunk was going on at exactly 1:20 pm. (There was also the confusion of there being two stages; I really can’t say that this was well-organized in terms of letting fans know when bands were going on.) I got there just as they were jumping into “This Summer,” a perfect way to start.

If you are unfamiliar with Superchunk, you are definitely missing out, as they’ve been around since 1989 and have put out some of the best indie rock of the past couple of decades. Their current lineup is Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Jim Wilbur, and Jon Wurster, who is also the drummer for the Mountain Goats. Their energetic set for CBGB included a lot of my favorite songs of theirs, including “Hyper Enough,” “Crossed Wires,” and “My Gap Feels Weird,” and there were several fans who knew absolutely all the words to every song and were keeping up an enthusiasm I did not think possible for such heat. I did the best I could!

There was then a bit of confusion about when the next bands would start, and on which of the two stages, but we finally found someone who told us that there couldn’t be any music while the Broadway matinees were happening. I suppose that makes sense, as you wouldn’t necessarily want Craig Finn’s poet-in-a-punk-band voice intruding on Mamma Mia if that’s not what you were there for.

After some chain coffee shop time, we went back into the sun for the Hold Steady. I think this is the third or fourth time for me to see the Hold Steady (I am not counting the Craig Finn solo show this year), and they never disappoint. Finn’s wild gesturing and narrative lyrics over the bar band-tinged music makes for one of the most enjoyable live shows out there. Like Superchunk, they picked one of their “summer” songs for the opener: “Constructive Summer.” I guess despite me not being a summer person, the bands I like are into it, if in a way haunted by malaise. (Take the closing verse of “Constructive Summer”: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher/Getting older only makes it harder to remember/We are our only saviors/We’re gonna build something this summer. Now do you feel… happy?)

Immediately after the Hold Steady ended their set, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah started on the other stage, this one being right in the middle of Times Square by TKTS. This would be the last day for CYHSY to be playing with their current lineup, as two members are moving onto other projects, and I can’t say I would have ever guessed that they would be the band for a farewell concert in Times Square. While the Hold Steady and Superchunk had a sort of contained crowd area, passer-bys and tourists moved through the CYHSY crowd. I’m not sure what they made of Alec Ounsworth’s winding voice, similar to Jeff Mangum in that it’s not traditionally beautiful, but there’s some so uniquely engaging about it.

The last time I saw CYHSY was at Littlefield, a tiny venue in Gowanus, so it was a little surreal to see them playing in one of the busiest, most chaotic places in the world. But it didn’t impact their sound, as every song was performed with clarity and emotional drive. I am sad that I won’t be able to see this particular iteration of CYHSY again, but they’re all incredibly talented and I’m sure I’ll catch their new music directions soon. Hopefully it won’t be in weather that feels like the surface of the sun.

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