Through a series of strange circumstances, I found myself Saturday afternoon in possession of four free passes to the inaugural Catalpa Music Festival on Randall’s Island. (I got them legally.) What I found at the festival was all the typical festival things—Bros ironically dressed in ‘90’s hoops jerseys, beach balls, mud, girls dressed in neon, $9 beer.
But what I also found was a festival trying to make a name for itself in a market that’s become totally saturated recently. Just the same weekend, Caltalpa had to compete for ticket-goers with the Identity Festival on Jones Beach and for talent with the Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium. It also had to compete with last month’s Firefly Music Festival (also kicking off its first year) and, of course, the big boy on the New York scene, the Electric Zoo.
Not everyone in the tri-state area can pony up $179 for Catalpa while also going to the other area shows. Catalpa’s market position was even worse when you factor in people who travel to Coachella, Ultra, Bonnaroo or any other of the myriad massive festivals in the U.S. Could the newcomer actually bring something different to the table? Or was it doomed to be just like all the others?
The weather sucked.
Rain fell hard on Saturday and dark clouds never left the sky. By the time of the first set we made it to—TV on the Radio—the walking area between the two stages was all mud. The rain unsurprisingly kept out any big crowds, making the Saturday shows seem almost semi-private at times. Concert organizer David Foran had predicted 15,000 people would show. The number was certainly less than that.
After TV on the Radio finished a blistering set, we trekked over to the second stage (the Jeep Stage) to watch Umphrey’s McGee, the jam band that can play five songs in a row that somehow sound like one track. I don’t mean this as a complaint—it was pretty hypnotic to see them weave through different sounds, from funk to jazz to progressive and hard rock. Despite the music’s best efforts, though, bassist Ryan Stasik still stole the show with this handlebar mustache.
Umphrey’s drew a diverse crowd. One dude in front of me quoted guitar licks like most people sing lyrics. “This is a good one! Nah nah de nah, beee ya, NAH NAH NAH!” After a particularly nice set, one total stranger grabbed me by the shoulder and yelled, “That was totally worth the $99! Well, $99 if you were smart and got the Early Bird pass. Like me!” As we walked away to get good spots for the Black Keys on the main stage, I turned around and saw a literal cloud of smoke over the crowd. The massive Jeep ads were almost totally obscured by it. This was expected, but still, it’s always one of the funniest parts of music festivals to me. Corporations are growing more receptive to weed—Taco Bell has been directly advertising to stoners for years—but it’s still a little jarring to see representatives from Jeep pimping their cars to guys openly lighting up feet away from them. (Jeep also sponsored an off-road course where you could ride in a car through a series of obstacles. Few people who did this seemed to have a BAC below .2. I didn’t pass the bar, but I know a little bit... and that’s got to break some sort of law.)
The walk from the Jeep stage to the main stage put you past several weird sights. With the skyline of New York as the background, a giant inflatable church stood to the left. In that church, you could have a “sham marriage” performed by a dude dressed as a pimp with the girl you just met at the Umphrey’s show. Then, after walking by the church, past the worst porta-potty situation I’ve ever seen and past a “confession booth” at the “Church of Rock,” stood a giant igloo that just blasted straight dubstep all day. This, not coincidentally, was where most of the hot girls at the festival ended up. It was tough to leave. The Black Keys, however, were worth it.
The Black Keys—well, nothing I write will really do them justice. Let’s just say you need to make a concerted effort to see them live sometime in the next couple of years. The band plays everything, is at the height of its powers, and kicks a lot of ass. El Camino’s “Little Black Submarines” and “Lonely Boy” were highlights, as was the concert’s closer “I Got Mine.” Longtime fans may have been bummed to notice that the setlist almost exclusively came from the last three albums, but it really shouldn’t have mattered too much. These guys are on the top of the game right now.
Day Two dawned a little warmer, a little less rainy. The Cold War Kids were the first act we caught, and behind the stage, the backdrop bore the unmistakable album art from Snoop Dogg’s first album “Doggystyle.” This sort of overshadowed any music I could hear from the Cold War Kids—Snoop was actually going to play the whole 1993 album in just a few hours. It would be worth the price of admission.
The crowd soon split between people who waited to get a decent spot for Girl Talk, and those who jetted to the Jeep stage for Matisyahu. Matisyahu—what can I say about you Matisyahu.
Anyone who saw Matisyahu, the former orthodox Jewish guy with a long beard who made a name for himself combining himself by combining the music of Israel and Jamaica, wouldn’t come CLOSE to recognizing him now. The hair and beard? Gone. The black suit? Replaced by a jean jacket and neon Nikes. The black hat? Now a Marlins baseball cap, which he accentuated with sunglasses not unlike a pair The Situation would wear. When he began playing songs about the destruction of the Temple and the plight of the Jewish people 2,000 years ago, all the while wearing modern gear, it was a little jarring, like he had now turned into the Jewish DC Talk. It's like his shtick got him in the door, and he now he tries to go mainstream.
The rapper did have one great moment, though, when he began publicly shaming a guy who started hitting a beach ball. “I find these beach balls to be a bad f*cking distraction,” he said. “Anyone else?” The annoying beach balls went away.
Girl Talk did his usual thing—I can report that yes, toilet-paper roll guns were fired, and yes, dorky kids were brought on stage to dance. (The crowd kept yelling for the one hot blonde to move front and center. Alas, random skinny white dude never moved from that perch.) The Girl Talk set created a strange bond between concert-goers that was unique for the festival. Strangers talked to each other more. And one guy came up to us, looking to put someone on his shoulders. He asked me if I thought my roommate, who weighs maybe 180, would be a good option. "Don't think that's such a great idea, man!" I said. I scanned around. "How about that girl?" I pointed to a rave girl next to me. He gave me a high-five and approached her, and she agreed to go on his shoulders. I watched them walk off. "Wait," I thought. "He's on drugs. I just offered him a girl I don't know for him to put on his shoulders, and he's on drugs." Good amount of relief went through me when he didn't drop her.
A$AP Rocky and the A$AP Mob performed next on the secondary stage, and they were, well, I think out of control is the only way to put it. Imagine 20 dudes, jumping up and down, screaming every lyric for about five straight songs before Rocky finally toned it down with "Purple." He’s in danger of falling into the trap that certain members of Odd Future fall into sometimes, especially during their live shows. The louder, much less talented members make the noise, overshadowing their meal ticket, in this case, Rocky. Hopefully he'll find the confidence soon to just perform solo, letting his music do the talking.
Snoop Dogg took the stage at 9:30 on Sunday night. The crowd had swelled at that point—it’s not unreasonable to say that there were some festival-goers who had shown up just for the Doggy Dogg. He had said he was going to play all of his seminal album “Doggystyle” to mark the 20 years he’s now been in rap. I can report that he did play all of the album. It was unreal.
I tried to take notes throughout the event on my iPhone, but when Snoop began rapping, my they really begin to deteriorate. Chalk it up to the excitement of the moment. Let’s still take a look at the concert through them, though.
Sound guy comes out. He’s wearing a Raiders starter jacket. Thank God.
Intro video lets us know Kurupt and Lady of Rage will be making appearances. Missing Nate Dogg here.
They’re actually going to play every intro from the album. Doing it as videos.
Snoop is in a friggin’ bathtub for the first video.
These videos may be the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
He’s finally walking out. Cue Gin & Juice. This is fantastic.
Really shouldn’t have owned this album when I was nine.
Everything is good. He's so good.
Holy sh*t. Hollee sh*t.
Snoop may have come into a festival without a real definition. The music selection was strange, to say the least. The crowd was small. But at that point, it didn't matter. He had put an exclamation point on something that really didn't need to be defined in the first place.
Are there too many festivals? Yes. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. “La Di Da Di, we likes to party. We don't cause trouble, we don't bother nobody.”
See you next year, Catalpa.
Keep reading for a photo essay.