Friendly Fires/The Naked and Famous/Cults - Live at SummerStage in Central Park
Originally published by PopMatters on August 10, 2011
With the punishing humidity and fetid stench of rotting garbage and human waste, summer in New York City is no picnic. Just try telling that to the sea of pink-faced revelers who streamed into Rumsey Playfield on Sunday afternoon (some of whom were actually picnicking with baskets of food and blankets) for a free Central Park SummerStage show headlined by English post-funk outfit Friendly Fires with support from New Zealand-based indie popsters the Naked and Famous and Cults, a New York band who admitted to being more nervous about playing in their own city than they’d been two days earlier at Lollapalooza.
On record, Friendly Fires are a kinetic blend of dance rhythms, massive washes of synthesizers and guitars and the blue-eyed soul yelps of frontman Ed Macfarlane. Live, however, they’re even better, a frenzy of motion from which the noise escapes. In Central Park, there was the standard instrument-hopping and continuous pulse as experienced by this reporter at Coachella two years ago. There was also a two-man horn section helping certain numbers lean a decade further back than the oft-noted ‘80s influence the band seems to revel in. And there was also Macfarlane, one of the most energetic singers trodding the boards today.
Much has been said of Macfarlane’s fondness for exaggerated Jaggerisms (ex-Jaggerated?) on stage, and it must be said that there’s really something to that. Few young bucks even bother attempting to mince and flounce around the way Macfarlane does. There’s an air of the wan socialite in the way the microphone is scornfully held with a limp wrist, dangling there as Macfarlane gyrates and shimmies. And anyone who’s seen Friendly Fires before knows Macfarlane spends so much time in the crowd during his band’s set that he really should have to buy a ticket. You know, unless the show is free.
Because many of the SummerStage shows are free (with donation boxes prevalent at the exits), the crowd is often something of a mixed bag. Without casting aspersions on anyone in particular, it’s not unreasonable to deduce that many of the people who feasted on the bounty of some of Brooklyn Flea’s most popular food vendors and quaffed $8 beers might not have turned up for a regular Friendly Fires show with an actual ticket price. It mattered not, as all three bands on the bill brought the goods in their own way.
Cults were on stage for around 30 minutes, at least half of which sounded pretty much the same: The same beats, same blend of weedy pop and faux-darkness. Cults, a duo, are fleshed out on stage by three musicians, presumably chosen as much for their skill as their huge piles of hair. Madeline Follin is a perfectly fine singer, though her voice occasionally cut through the mix in an unappealingly sharp way. Still, it was hardly an unsuccessful set, and the audience was appreciative.
The Naked and Famous, if I’m being completely candid, probably drew the biggest crowd. Their radio-friendly songs have been featured in popular television shows like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, and there was definitely sporadic widespread singing along from the audience. With their approachable songs carried on a throbbing electronic pulse and occasional loud guitars, it’s likely popular for the same reason MGMT caught on a couple of years ago. In fact, one of the few low points in their set was probably my own fault, as the outro to one song reminded me a little too much of an ad for consumer electronics company Haier.
For Friendly Fires, the show was an opportunity to showcase songs off their latest album (Pala, which sounded fantastic alongside tracks from their eponymous debut), to possibly develop a wicked sunburn before heading off to Japan for Summer Sonic and to bring some of the energy that led to a stage invasion at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn two years ago. They did all that and more. With a fall tour of the US lined up, it’s worth whatever you have to spend to hit one of their shows.