6 Niche NYC Music Festivals

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Somewhere along the line, rock fests came to resemble those continental breakfasts you find at chain motels. First off, they’re everywhere, and most offer exactly the same buffet-style mix of familiar artists and genres. Come for the OutKast, nod along to the EDM DJs — have you tried calculating just how many times you’ve now seen Vampire Weekend and The Flaming Lips? They aim to please everyone. And, while they — like those cinnamon buns piled next to the cold scrambled eggs at the Red Roof Inn — can be pretty tasty, sometimes you’re in the mood for something specific and unique, the musical equivalent of candy-corn pancakes or a fried-chicken-and-okra omelet.

Luckily, there are some awesome outliers, and not surprisingly, you’ll find a bunch in New York City. What follows are six genre-specific musical shindigs offering a break from the norm. After all, this is a city where you pay for the privilege of being able to avoid big-box stores, so why settle for musical homogenization?
1-800-photo_samanthamarblePhoto: Courtesy of Samantha Marble.

The Brooklyn Power Pop Festival

When and where? May 9 and 10 at the Bell House in Brooklyn.

What’s it all about? Although power pop as a genre wasn’t really named until the late ‘70s, when skinny-tie-wearing bands like the Nerves, the Plimsouls, and the Rubinoos began kicking some of the catchiest jams ever to be ignored by Top 40 radio, its roots stretch back much further. Some credit early ‘70s heroes Badfinger (you know their “Baby Blue” from the Breaking Bad finale) and Big Star with inventing the stuff, but really, it was another “B” band, the Beatles, that set the template for this fast, fun, supremely hummable sound.

Why should you go? The first-ever Brooklyn Power Pop Festival features genre stalwarts Dwight Twilley, Pezband, the Shoes, and Paul Collins, as well as upstart melody addicts Barreracudas, Games, and 1-800-Band.

But don’t take our word for it. “People still need to become aware of this fabulous style of music that draws on the best elements of rock ‘n’ roll, great songs with killer guitar hooks and sweet vocal harmonies,” says Collins, a longtime genre spokesman who cut his teeth in the Nerves and the Beat. “So, it’s a milestone when an established, high-profile venue like the Bell House dedicates an entire weekend to power pop, bringing in top acts like Dwight Twilley, Shoes, and Pezband, all groups that have played a big part in the creation of power pop back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.”

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NYC Popfest 2014

When and where? May 29 through June 1 at venues across Brooklyn and Manhattan.

What’s it all about? Now in its eighth year, the NYC Popfest is heaven on earth for fans of charmingly mangy, hyper-catchy lo-fi guitar music — the type pioneered by British bands like the Pastels, the Shop Assistants and the Mighty Lemon Drops back in the mid-‘80s. Alumni range from beloved youngsters the Drums and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart to genre trailblazers like the Wake and the Close Lobsters, and while it’s tempting to throw around the word “twee” — that catchall for anyone who kind of sounds like the Smiths or Belle and Sebastian — there’s more to this fest than jangly odes to rainy days and romantic poetry. (Though you’ll probably hear some of those, too.)

Why should you go? This year’s installment features some 30 bands from all over the world. Don’t Cry Shopgirl, the Garlands, and Stars in a Coma are coming all the way from Sweden, while Band a Part and Lost Tapes visit from Spain. Local faves the Besties, the Gingerlys, and the New Lines only have to ride the subway from their Brooklyn cribs, but, hey, give ‘em a hug anyway.

But don’t take our word for it. “The great thing about NYC Popfest is that it's the kind event born purely out of a love for the music,” says Jeremy Cole, singer for Aussie greats the Zebras, whose headlining set this year will mark their first NYC performance since 2007. “The organizers, the audience and the bands are all here because they just really like this stuff. There's no whiff of hype, pretension, or the dreaded industry showcase, and it seems the intention is to simplygather everyone in the same town for four days, and let them do what they do best. The other thing that I particularly like about this festival is that they invited us to come over and play, and I really need the holiday.”

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Apple Stomp 2

When and where? May 31 through June 1 at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza.

What’s it all about? Originally the sound Jamaica’s independence, ska is the music of a million permutations. Since the late ‘50s, it’s mated with punk, jazz, rock, and even thrash metal, and last year’s inaugural Apple Stomp played like a parade of its many musical stepchildren. While there was some emphasis on the punky “third wave” stuff you may remember from the ‘90s, traditionalists like the Slackers and the Scofflaws held it down for folks more into skanking than moshing.

Why should you go? Like its predecessor, Apple Stomp 2 is all about variety, and headliners include the Toasters, who pretty much invented third-wave ska in the ‘80s, and the Stubborn All-Stars, a confab of NYC virtuosos who serve up some of the smoothest sounds north of Kingston. For fans of the harder stuff, there’s Jiker, Big D and the Kids Table, and the High School Football Heroes.

But don’t take our word for it. “We know the Apple Stomp last year was a major music event and a great sign that people are interested in ska once again,” says Jay Adelberg of Connecticut mod-ska octet Johnny Too Bad and the Strikeouts, who—after several failed attempts—are reuniting at the urging of organizer Matt Flood. “Matt, to his credit, has stayed on us pretty consistently over the past few years, which is tremendously flattering and really was a big part of everyone in the band realizing that this was a tremendous opportunity that shouldn't be missed.”

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Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival 2014

When and where? July 9 through 11, venues TBA.

What’s it all about? Born in a parking lot in 2005, the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival has grown into a borough institution. Literally—there are plans to open a brick-and-mortar institute devoted to hip-hop history and culture, and that means beats, rhymes, breakdancing, and graffiti writing, as well as “community building and social change,” according to the website. Past performers include EPMD, Q-Tip, Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, KRS-ONE, and Lupe Fiasco, and with the new motto “Undeniably, unapologetically hip-hop,” this fest promises to drop knowledge and stay sucka-free for years to come.

Why should you go? The full lineup has yet to be announced, but Wu-Tang founder Raekwon, underground hero Jay Electronica, and the Pro Era collective — featuring Brooklyn riser Joey Badass — have signed on as headliners. Other events include a panel discussion about the Notorious B.I.G.’s debut, Ready to Die, which turns 20 in September.

But don’t take our word for it. "Reaching the 10-year mark for the festival is a great accomplishment, personally and professionally," says founder Wes Jackson. "We have worked hard to establish Brooklyn as the home for hip-hop all over the country and the world. This milestone brings us closer to that goal. With the inclusion of Raekwon, Jay Electronica, and CJ Fly of Pro Era, we think we have arguably our best lineup in years. I am also excited to be launching the Hip-Hop Institute this year. We are redoubling our efforts to educate and advocate for hip-hop. It's going to be a great year, and I welcome every hip-hop fan young and old to come join us."

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Gutter-Demons-4Photo: Courtesy of Gutter Demons.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Luau 2014

When and where? July 26 at the Paper Box in Brooklyn.

What’s it all about? Conventional rock ‘n’ roll narratives place the birth of punk in the late ‘70s, but followers of psychobilly know better. These tatted and greased-up cats and kittens trace their rebel roots to the ‘50s, when way-gone hillbillies like Elvis and Gene Vincent challenged Americans to throw away their Perry Como records and dig on some sexier, scarier sounds. Predicted, you might say, by NYC legends the Cramps in the late ‘70s and codified as a proper genre in Britain a few years later, psychobilly is essentially ‘50s rockabilly played at breakneck speed with campy abandon, and for the last seven years, the Psychobilly Luau has served as the East Coast’s biggest gathering of the faithful.

Why should you go? Rechristened the Rock ‘n’ Roll Luau, this year’s event brings together “the wildest rock ‘n’ roll subcultures that this continent has to offer with one mad, raucous all-dayer of pure primitive, gut-twisting rhythm and booze,” according to the official site. Peruse the fest’s three stages, and you’ll hear everything from the mad thump of Canadian psychobilly kings the Gutter Demons to the twang-tinged thrash of local surf punks the Turbo A.Cs.

But don’t take our word for it. "First time i heard about the Luau was from my friends the Hypnophonics, who played the festival at his beginning,” says Flipper of the Gutter Demons. “After all the good things they had to say about it, I had check it out for myself and did the trip from Montreal in 2011. What a blast I had watching bands like Klingonz, Furious, and NYC gems the Arkhams and Memphis Morticians. Now it's 2014, and I will play the biggest Psycho 'n' Roll festival on the East Coast with my band the Gutter Demons!”

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Afropunk Festival 2014

When and where? August 23 and 24 at Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn.

What’s it all about? Of all the fests on this list, Afropunk is the most like a buffet, though there’s nothing stale or flavorless about this yearly baked cultural casserole of “music, art, BMX, [and] skate,” as founder Matthew Morgan once said in a Billboard interview. Last year’s marquee acts included muckraking rap icon Chuck D, reborn Detroit proto-punks Death, funky hard rockers Living Colour, U.K. garage-soul champs the Heavy, and rappers Danny Brown and Theophilus London, among others. As per the New York Times, Afropunk puts “rock and rebellion squarely in the category of African-American music,” and it does so without cramming itself into any stylistic box.

Why should you go? No word yet on this year’s lineup, but given that Erykah Badu, Bad Brains, Santigold, Janelle Monae, Questlove, TV on the Radio, Gym Class Heroes, and Meshell Ndegeocello are among the acts that have dropped in over the years, expect the best punky metal soul-shakedown hip-hop party of the year.

But don’t take our word for it. “We started the festival with the question, ‘Are we truly independent? Are we free?’” Morgan tells us. “For a weekend once a year, we help to bring to the surface what we are constantly told we cannot do, which is get along, to mix, be tolerant of one another. We defy those notions by coming together to appreciate our differences and celebrate our uniqueness without fear.”

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