see all the photos from this event here

Drop Dead Festival - Part 3
Knitting Factory, New York City
Friday September 3 to Sunday September 5 2004
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Sunday September 5 - bands in order of appearance:
Radio Scarlet
Undying Legacy
Cinema Strange
Tombstone Brawlers
Holy Cow
Skeletal Family
David E. Williams
Cinema Strange

Three days in, and I’m starting to feel like a commuter. Back downtown on the nine train to Franklin Street station, then two blocks over to the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street. Here we go again. Day three of Drop Dead.

"Can we have some more drumulator in the monitors?"

People trickle in. There’s a Sunday-ish feeling of lassitude in the air.  Looking around, it seems that the crowd for this last day of the festival is somewhat smaller than on the previous two days. Why might this be? My promoter’s brain (which I’ve brought with me in a small pickle jar) tries to tease out reasons. All three of the event’s top bands - Ausgang, Cinema Strange, and Skeletal Family - are scheduled to play additional sets today, but I suspect that having already been given the opportunity to catch the bands’ debut sets yesterday, anyone who’s not a particular fan doesn’t have any special incentive to come back for a second bite. Add to this the fact that Siouxsie is in town, playing the first of her three New York shows tonight, and there you have another reason for a fair chunk of the Drop Dead crowd to be elsewhere. Then again, maybe people have simply fallen victim to festival fatigue. Assuming you get in somewhere near opening time, and stay till final curfew, each day of Drop Dead lasts a brain-straining nine hours or so - and that’s excluding the daytime events such as the horror movie matinee. Two days of that is enough to make anyone flake out and decide to skip day three. Perhaps extending Drop Dead to three days wasn’t such a wise idea. Two days would’ve provided ample time to include all the essential stuff without repeating any performances or turning the event into an endurance test, Siouxsie wouldn’t have been any competition, and the numbers would, I think, have been likely to remain high throughout. Sometimes, less is more.

But although there’s a certain low-key feel about the day, there’s still an encouraging crowd of curious souls gathered about the small downstairs stage for the Sixteens. This is the great thing about events such as this - the opportunity to see new bands which I might never have known existed otherwise. The Sixteens come from somewhere in California, and they’re an anomaly - but a very welcome one - at Drop Dead in that they’re an electronic band. Two boffin-ish blokes and a lab-coated girl; lots of boxes, lots of wires. Clearly, we are in the old-skool zone here. Before electronic music became dominated by that doofin’ dancefloor beat and shouty-crackers vocals, before everyone started doing the same-old, same-old, there was a whole other world of electronic bands. Experimental weirdos who took the anything-goes attitude of punk and hard-wired it to the mains. The Sixteens are clearly in that bag. I can tell this as soon as I clock their gear on stage. Not only are they using vintage synths in those endearingly tacky wood veneer cabinets - ah, remember the days when everything electronic came wrapped in highly unconvincing wood veneer? - but they’ve eschewed the usual keyboard stands in favour of zimmer frames, upon which all their equipment is precariously balanced. I’ve seen bands use ironing boards for ironic effect (or perhaps just to save money - have you seen the price of keyboard stands these days? - but zimmer frames are a new one on me. The band haven’t played a note, and I like them already.

And then they play a note. Several notes, in fact, most of which go ‘Tzzang!’ and ‘Fzzt!’ and ‘Sponk!’ in a splendidly class of ‘79 manner.  They have a song about ventilation fans - but then, they would, wouldn’t they? One of the boffinish blokes says, ‘Can we have some more drumulator in the monitors?’. Drumulator! Now there’s a word I haven’t heard for 20 years! The other boffinish bloke kneels behind his zimmer frame as if taking shelter in case his equipment explodes. They share out the vocals, but most of the songs are fronted by the lab-coated girl, who lets rip in an assertive caterwaul while making strange semaphore-like gestures. It’s a bit like watching Nina Hagen fronting Kraftwerk. Most of the Sixteens’ songs thump merrily along on clonking electro-beats; the songs on which they keep the rhythms simple work the best. On occasions, when they get busy with the beats and throw in assorted fills and sort-of syncopation, the rhythms teeter dangerously on the brink of incoherence. It’s a relief when they haul everything back to basics, because they do those basics so well. Somewhere in the weirdness they have pop songs, more or less, and it’s this sensibility that keeps the music from simply turning into experimental tomfoolery just for the sake of it. A bass guitar makes an appearance, and the band thunks and rattles and wails to a conclusion - and a well-deserved round of applause from an audience which seems far more interested in the electronic side of things than you might at first expect from a bunch of deathrockers. I wish the festival had featured more bands of this ilk. More weirdo electronica and possibly a few less psychobilly outfits wouldn’t have been a bad idea at all!

"They lurch and prance and fall over each other and generally put on a show, skittering through a set of jittery, manic songs, and the fans love every goofball move."

Much of Drop Dead’s organisation seems to be based on the ‘make it up as we go along’ principle, and all manner of tweaks and re-arrangements have been made to the running order as the event has progressed. After three days of these chops and changes not a huge amount remains of the original schedule.  My programme tells me that Entertainment will follow the Sixteens onto the downstairs stage. In fact, Entertainment have been shifted upstairs, to the main stage, so let’s get up there and check ‘em out. Moving up to the bigger stage might be seen as a bonus from the band’s point of view, and they certainly get the benefits of a more beefy PA and a proper lighting rig - but there’s also a down side. The thin crowd looks much more noticeable, spread out over a larger floor area. Maybe that’s why Entertainment seem tetchy and out of sorts, the singer frowning his way through the songs while the rest of the band glumly stand back and keep out of the way. Then again, maybe they’re always like this. They make a fine noise - they’re doing that first Bauhaus album thing coupled with some Chameleons-style big guitars - but I don’t think I’m watching a vintage performance. The singer jumps off the stage and wanders around the empty bit of floor at the front, where the mosh isn’t, but he doesn’t try to galvanise the audience into action. Quite the reverse: he turns away, and sings at the monitors, wearing an ‘I’m not impressed!’ expression all the while. It’s a shame, because this band clearly has merit, but they just don’t seem to be in a mood to win friends today.

(Incidentally, I have seen Entertainment’s name rendered in all sorts of bizarrely ‘punctuated’ styles - Entertainme.nt, eNTERTAINME.nt, and Entertainme-nt, to name but three variations. In the absence of any definitive guide as to which is right, I have given the name here in un-messed-about form. Maybe that’s why the band were in a bad mood - the poor dears are going through an identity crisis...)

I’m heading downstairs again to catch Radio Scarlet, when I suddenly come upon assorted members of Undying Legacy milling about in the corridor.  They’ve also been shunted up to the main stage after originally being booked to play down below. That’s not a problem, but what *is* a bit of a boo-boo is that their stage time has been changed, too - so that they’ll be playing upstairs at the exact same time as Radio Scarlet are playing downstairs. As both bands are full-on fishnet-clad deathrock outfits, who obviously appeal to the same crowd, splitting the audience like this surely isn’t wise - especially as Radio Scarlet, being the better-known band in the USA, would certainly grab most of the attention. Undying Legacy are on a mission to change the schedule yet again, to give themselves a later, and therefore more favourable, slot. After coming all the way from London, I think that’s fair enough, although frankly it shouldn’t be up to the bands to fix this sort of admin glitch. I wish them luck and proceed down to the second stage. Let’s see what Radio Scarlet do.

What Radio Scarlet do is instant deathrock - just add mohawks. It’s as if they built a deathrock band from a kit of parts, as you would a model aircraft. All the essential components are present and correct - the goofy punker bassist, the art-whacko guitarist dressed in carefully arranged rags, the heart-throb Johnny Slut lookalike frontman. Oh, they’re very good at it, that’s for sure: the singer has even taken care to adopt the traditionally reedy ‘deathrock wail’ voice, as if he’s a Dickensian street urchin from somewhere grim but trendy in east London. They lurch and prance and fall over each other and generally put on a show, skittering through a set of jittery, manic songs, and the fans love every goofball move. But, looking at Radio Scarlet going through their schtick, I can understand why Cinema Strange have found it necessary to move on. A few years ago, this was Cinema Strange’s own territory - the Batcave look, the early-eighties influences, the instantly accepted deathrock identity - and they were virtually alone in doing it. Now, everyone’s doing the deathrock thing. And when the field gets crowded, the leaders of the field have to make a move.  Cinema Strange, of course, had the wit and imagination and sheer creative nerve to stake out a new area of their own. I wonder if Radio Scarlet will be able to make similar progress - or even if they would ever want to?  They’re fun, sure enough. But I’m not sure how much substance they’ve got beyond the fun factor. Only time will tell.

Upstairs to the main stage, where Undying Legacy, having successfully renegotiated the running order, are getting under way. They’re doing the Batcave thing, too, but in a very British Goth Scene Way. Where Radio Scarlet are manic and goofy, Undying Legacy are measured and sensible.  Where Radio Scarlet have scratchy, nervy, punky songs, Undying Legacy have a bass-heavy, deep, full sound. For all the deathrock-isms, you can tell that this is a band who’ve come up through the British trad-goth route. I’m willing to bet that if I ransacked their record collections I’d find more Mission and Rosetta Stone than Specimen and UK Decay. They fit neatly into the Brit-goth continuum; they just do it with more fishnet and bigger hair.  Their best asset is without doubt their gutsy sound - maybe this is a function of the big PA, but they have a solid, pit-of-the-stomach rumble to their music, a commanding low-end throb which captures the attention and makes you pay heed to what’s happening on stage. Not that there is all that much happening on stage, mind. The band are fairly static, never really cutting loose and throwing shapes. In particular, the guitarist - who stubbornly retains his traditional British Goth Hairstyle - barely moves anything except his hands throughout the entire set. I’m half convinced his colleagues nailed his boots to the stage for a laugh. This has got to be the area where the band need to sharpen up. It’s not like I want them to stage pratfalls all over the place, like a collection of deathrock Norman Wisdoms, but swinging in to the music like they’re really into the stuff they’re playing would help to push the show along in a very useful manner.  Still, Undying Legacy are a very new band - this is something like their seventh gig; not bad going to get a transatlantic booking at this early stage - so maybe this stuff will follow later. For now, we’ll file them under ‘contenders’.

"Someone throws an inflatable sex doll on stage, and, as if suddenly realising he’s there to entertain, he stages a series of full body-drops onto the inoffensive doll until, at last, it bursts."

We now descend to the lower floor yet again, because Cinema Strange are back for their second set. Persuading three of Drop Dead’s top bands - Ausgang and Skeletal Family being the other two -  to perform twice on different days of the festival is, I suppose, one way of squeezing value for money out of your star acts, although it also has the slightly less-good effect of diluting the impact of the individual performances.  Cinema Strange, however, rise to the occasion with a whole new costume concept. Gone are the Shinto priests and Noh players: this time, they’re leprechauns. Yes, I kid you not. Pointy ears and all. They look like they should be seated around a garden pond with fishing rods. They rattle into their songs with their trademark taut, wound-up energy, the small stage and closely-packed audience giving the performance an intense, if somewhat ramshackle, air. There’s no room for dramatic grandstanding in these compact surroundings (and, anyway, how dramatic is it possible for a bunch of pixies to be?), so it’s all stripped-down, freaked-out energy tonight; but nevertheless the band still manage to conjure up the impression that we’re watching a piece of lively art rather than a set of plain ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. Lucas plunges into the crowd, brandishing one of his pointy ears, trying to fit it on to unsuspecting fans, like the pixie prince in search of his Cinderella. The set itself seems to comprise songs from both extremities of Cinema Strange's career so far: new songs and old songs, and songs that, thanks to the band's recent re-recordings, are both new and old: Agent X-Ray, Mr Quilt, Golden Hand, Anti Good. There's a distinct absence of the band's usual crowd-pleasers and floor-fillers. That’s a brave move, but typical of the Cinema Strange approach. Give the audience something different every time, whether they want it or not. Not, it must be said, that there’s the slightest doubt on that point. The crowd slurps up every note and move as if they’re dining at a gourmet buffet. If Cinema Strange operated an all-you-can-eat policy, they’d never be allowed off the stage.

Momentarily at a loss after Cinema Strange finish, I wander back upstairs to see who’s on the main stage now. And I walk right in to a classic Drop Dead juxtaposition, for I find the Tombstone Brawlers doing their thing, in full belligerent effect. They’re another of Drop Dead’s many psychobilly bands, and without question the most psycho of the lot. A bunch of blokes, all built like brick shithouses, all wearing blue jeans, work shirts, and stick-on Halloween tat, roar aggressively through some beaten-up jalopies of songs, while their fans - who seem to comprise a platoon of boisterous gentlemen exactly as brick shithouse-like as the band - stage mock-fights in the moshpit. At least, I hope they’re mock fights. At any rate, you can almost smell the testosterone in the air. This band, clearly, is all about boys being boys, and doing it as loudly and as pugnaciously as possible. As I cautiously approach the stage to take a few photos - apologising in my best Limey pantywaist style as I gingerly ease myself into the fight club zone - the Tombstone Brawlers launch into a song entitled ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight’. The vocalist leers hideously into the crowd. ‘I wanna see some BLOOD!’ he yells, and it seems there’s no shortage of mosh-heads ready to take him at his word. Coming straight after Cinema Strange’s pixie performance art show, this is just a bit too much for me to take. I make my excuses and retire graciously to the bar.

Holy Cow, on stage directly after the Brawlers have been packed off to their tomb, are a very different proposition. Like The Empire Hideous, they’re very much a lead-singer-plus-backing-band set-up: the musicians stay in the background, maintaining a low profile. The guitarists keep their heads down, while the impressively moustachioed keyboard player simply stands, stock-still and impassive, behind his instrument like a shopkeeper awaiting the first customer of the day. The band’s entire identity is invested in their frontman, a splendidly tattooed modern primitive who looks like he’s just blown in from Burning Man. Summoning the faithful by honking tremendously at a horn, he launches into a wigged-out display of shamanistic intensity that’s half Jim Morrison and half Henry Rollins. Eyes screwed shut, a transcendental expression on his face, he alternately roars and croons through the songs as if the meaning of all things is hidden in his lyrics. Between songs, the shaman seems to emerge from his trance, slightly surprised to find himself on a stage in front of an audience. Someone throws an inflatable sex doll on stage, and, as if suddenly realising he’s there to entertain, he stages a series of full body-drops onto the inoffensive doll until, at last, it bursts. Cheers erupt; he takes a bow. And then it’s back into the music, the band whipping up a smooth rock-noir brew, the trance-like state descending once again as the singer regains his strange inner world. It’s almost as if he’s a rock ‘n’ roll savant, tapping in to knowledge that’s just beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. I note with amusement that some of those ordinary mortals are much impressed by his physical form: throughout the set there’s a coterie of women clustered around the lead vocal position, anxious to express their admiration. One in particular seems intent on making contact.  She reaches out, tries to give the shaman a drink, and engages him in conversation between songs. He responds in a slightly offhand manner, as if too polite to brush her away, but I can’t help feeling that inside he’s muttering to himself, ‘Not now, dear, I’m busy!’ At the very end of the set the patience of the female fans is rewarded, as the shaman drops his trousers to reveal a neatly inserted Prince Albert. The girls send up a gleeful cheer, but wasn’t Rudi Giuliani supposed to have put a stop to all this naughtiness? Holy Cow are fine, if rather surreal, entertainment, and many people seem to regard the band’s set as the climax of the night. The crowd drifts away from the stage, and a significant portion drifts all the way out of the door. It’s getting late, and Drop Dead is winding down.

But it ain’t over until it’s over. We still have a few bands to go before we say goodnight. Skeletal Family make their second appearance of the festival on the smaller downstairs stage now. Although the schedule has lumbered them with another late slot, and, as a result, another crowd that isn’t what you’d call huge, they plough on regardless and win everyone over with a no-frills rattle through their classics - ‘So Sure’, ‘Hands Of The Clock’, and the one everyone seems to be waiting for, ‘Promised Land’.  Compressed into the confines of the smaller downstairs bar, the Skeletal Family sound takes on extra intensity, and although the band doesn’t actually do anything different - the set is exactly the same as yesterday’s slot - at least there are no unplanned drum-disintegrations this time, and it all works well. The grand finale, as ever, is ‘Black Ju Ju’, with its sudden explosion of a chorus, and the verdict of the assembled old-skoolers seems to be that the band done good.

Then comes David E. Williams, who is that uncommon thing: a gothic singer-songwriter. Or, at least, if he isn’t strictly gothic, he certainly has a mordant wit in his lyrics, and a downbeat, dryly resigned, me-against-the-world delivery which fits rather neatly. He’s joined, on some songs, by a guitarist/vocalist, but most of his set is just a solo keyboard and voice thing. It’s as if we’re in a late-night cocktail bar watching Randy Newman’s stroppy brother, as he sings his odd, off-kilter story-songs and gives us his uniquely jaundiced view of the world to a mellow piano backing. It must be said that the subtleties of David E.  Williams’ lyrics go mostly unnoticed by the small crowd of bleary-eyed and inebriated deathrockers - the murky mix, which tends to squash everything except the mid-range out of the sound doesn’t help much, either  - so the performance is received politely, rather than with any great surge of enthusiasm. But under other circumstances, there’s stuff here which would repay investigation. I can’t help thinking that perhaps the best gig for David E. Williams would be as support to Voltaire, where I’m sure he’d find a crowd sympathetic to the art of erudite lyric writing and pithy, pointed wit.

It’s now past 3.00am, and curfew time is rapidly approaching. Most of the Drop Dead crowd has long since vanished into the New York night, but a few stragglers are still hanging around the venue, intent on one last drink, and - maybe - catching one last band. There’s a rumour going around that Cinema Strange will play a third set, but nobody - least of all the band themselves, who are milling about in a state of indecision - seems to know which stage will host this impromptu performance. At last, someone selects the downstairs stage, a decision which I suspect comes as a slight surprise to the sound engineer, who’s already striking the gear. But he keeps enough of the essentials set up for Cinema Strange to plug in. The small-hours stragglers gather from every part of the Knitting Factory, and, quite spontaneously, without anyone suggesting it, everyone grabs a bar stool and sits in a ragged semicircle around the stage. Lucas Lanthier - who’s contrived a new image for this performance, with a hastily drawn-on moustache - asks: ‘Well - what shall we play?’ The audience shouts out requests, out of which the band conjure the briefest of sets. It’s as intimate and special as if the band was playing at a private party. They end on ‘En Hiver’, the last song of the last night of Drop Dead, and when the song draws to a close it really is all over.

So, that was the second Drop Dead festival. Was it good? Yes, indeed it was. Sure, at times, it was disorganised and haphazard, with both bands and audience occasionally at a loss to know what was supposed to happen next.  And, sometimes, it seemed that for every cool and creative band there was an identikit bunch of psychobillies cluttering up the bill; a demonstration, maybe, that there are not enough bands operating in the post-punk zone (and maybe not enough potential punters, either) to fill up a three-day event without a little help from elsewhere. But for all that, it was a very positive experience. It was worth the price of admission to witness The Rabies shrieking and battering their way through their ramshackle horror-punk songs, and Speed Crazy catching fire with that huge, express train sound. It was worth it for Deadbolt’s deadpan good ol’ boy humour, and Ausgang’s huge rhythmic assault. Worth it for The Brides being spiky and cool, for Bella Morte letting off their energy bomb, for the Sixteens’ surreal electronica, and - of course - for Cinema Strange taking their unique creativity for a stroll around the stage. In pixie outfits.  For that, alone, I’d gladly cross an ocean. Here’s to next year.

Continue on to Drop Dead Links