An Overdose of Ambiance

Written by Sam Roudman on . Posted in Posts.

With summertime in New York City come the summer concerts, a continuous slew of low wallet-impact/high population-density outdoor musical entertainments, each one trying to outdo the next with the diversity of its calendar. The highly scientific summer music formula goes something like this:

not-too-obscure indie rock

+ hip-hop (that’s not too scary for white people)

+ classical, weird composers only bald guys with glasses will get

+ (nostalgic jazz, soul, zydeco, classic rock, doo-wop acts)

x Belgian tummy percussion ensembles

+ disco, electronica, down-tempo trip-hop

– Inuit whale songs and many masters of weird instruments rescued from anthropology textbooks and placed in popular song contexts

= summer outdoor music fun!


While the general goal is the same—to put on a series of public productions commensurate with the narcissistic tastefulness of this fair city—each series releases its own distinct pheromone of sonic ambiance based on locale and demographic. The pungent odor of tat-sweat and eau de hot dog from McCarren Pool still clings to the kids when they show up for Beaujolais and grass clippings at Central Park’s SummerStage. Then there’s the intoxicating aroma of East River mist combined with American Eagle deals at South Street Seaport. The concerts provide a spectacle essential to city living; just don’t expect the music to be that great.

Obviously, some bands are more successful in an outdoor setting than others. When I saw Deerhunter last spring, it was from the back of a tiny bread oven (aka Brooklyn’s hot and barely lit Silent Barn). The space was packed, and Deerhunter’s frontman, Bradford Cox, owned the place, commanding respect like black Jesus. The frighteningly skeletal Cox (eww factor 5) took off his shirt to reveal a dress with a gigantic red crotch stain (eww factor 8.3), and for their finale the guitarist spent a good three minutes with his head bobbing under the skirt while Cox pretended to moan (eww factor 10!) as the song swirled out of control.

The audience was mesmerized; time choked on itself and the universe was revealed as a center-less, infinitely foaming continuity. It was scary and awesome. It was the sort of thing possible in a controlled, protected alterna-space.

Fast forward a couple months, and it’s a glowing summer evening at South Street Seaport. Suburban teens in the city for the day mull about shopping and eyeing each other, family strollers abound. I’m eating a gigantic Mrs. Fields cookie. There’s a big-ass schooner and the East River flowing behind it all with an ease and charm belying its toxic death contents. A beautiful scene to be sure, but it was less than ideal for a psychosexual onslaught. Deerhunter played a rudderless, washed-out show. No eww, just eh. The despondent reached for the nearest plate of nachos.

It’s hard to be happy with such results, but it’s easy to shrug them off, considering that I still got to enjoy the 1-in-50 beautiful city day, and ogle until my eyes ached. The key lesson is that the bands are just background, the bellybutton to the body of an experience. It can’t hurt to cross a bunch of bands off the “I haven’t seen it” list. Just remember that a summer festival show is often the musical equivalent of padding the stats, but it’s also the daytime equivalent of enjoying your life.