Labor Day Weekend has said goodbye to the unofficial end of festival season, white pants (unless you are Pitbull), out of office replies and overbearing hot weather (more on that later). However there are still smaller events taking place across North America to keep the party going. We had the chance to check out Octfest this past weekend, September 8-9, a festival combining beer, music and food on Governors Island with names like Nile Rodgers & Chic, The Flaming Lips & Vince Staples performing.
In its second year, the festival was expanding from a one-day indoor festival to a two-day outdoor festival. A lot was changing. Put on by Pitchfork and their beer magazine October, you had a sense that the festival was going to not going to be a large shrine to mainstream music or consumerism. Pitched as a music and beer festival it wasn’t clear which was going to be the clear favorite or if they would be pretty evenly matched, but from the get go, the layout and the patrons made it pretty clear this was a beer festival first.
With 90 different beers from around the world all spread out by region -- South America, Asia, Australia and Africa, Eastern United States and Western United States and Canada, there was something for everyone. The 90 beers covered pilsners, IPAs, session beers, sours, stouts, lagers, ales, ciders and more. If you wanted a type of beer, it was there.
The festival offered each ticketholder 15 tastings each day (sometimes more depending on if you were scanned at each brewery) between the doors opening at 2pm and then they were cut off two hours before the music stopped at 10pm (more on that later). This was the main attraction for most people trying to get all of their tastings done on time before the breweries had to clear out at 8. There were some that were clear favorites like Taihu Brewing, which had a line all weekend for either its sour or tasty stout. Others such as more standard or lighter less “cool” beers like Narragansett barely saw a person all weekend (we will be back for your $3 dollar can at the bar all winter).
Your correspondent liberally used all 15 tastings each day and was getting rained on, so his exact memory / notes of each beer may be a bit rusty, but he tried to explore some of the beers from South America and Asia first before heading into North America. Cape Brewing Company, from Cape Town, had a very tasty and slightly sweet banana flavored Amber Weiss. The Hand & Malt served a stout that tasted like it had been brewed in dumplings. Balter’s IPA was fruity and good. BBC’s Rum Stout from Bogota was quite strong, maybe a bit over the top at 12%, but was good to warm up a cold soul. The Austin East Cider spiced cider tasted like a cool fall day and fit with the mood. The stouts seemed to be among the most popular as people wanted to the most alcohol and the right type of beer to warm up on the weekend. Various imperial stouts touched on coffee, chocolate or even smoked meats.
One driving factor for how people decided on their beer was the weather. In the week leading up to the festival, it was approaching 100 degrees after some beautiful weather over Labor Day Weekend. By Friday, it had started to cool into the 80s, but on Saturday, the temperature dropped unexpectedly into the 60s with grey skies, wind and drizzle throughout the day. Sunday was even cooler and the rain was teeming down all day.
People were wholly unprepared for this. Many were still in a summer state of mind in T-shirts, shorts, dresses and no rain gear. The festival is also on an island, which makes it even colder, especially at night when the sun sets. Vince Staples, the headliner on Saturday sold out his long-sleeve shirts not because he had that many mech-obsessed fans, but because he was the only one selling long-sleeve shirts. The festival had to rush over Rough Trade sweatshirts via boat on Saturday to help people stay warm. People seemed more prepared Sunday, but it was still hard. Many of them brought umbrellas, especially Sunday, so the crowds were sometimes impossible to see through as a sea of umbrellas, especially the assholes with golf umbrellas, obscured the stage. Head back to FiDi or Midtown dude.
With the weather and the focus on beer, when the tastings ended at 8pm, the festival seemed to empty out substantially, notably on Saturday. A large part of this was driven by the weather, which the festival can’t control and is par for the course in the fall, but if a large section of beer fans want to leave at 8, then the last two hours of the festival will appear sparse for the headliners.
The music spanned the two days across two different stages. Some of the bands were hit or miss, especially on Saturday. The format forced them to really work with crowds that were pretty small and some seemed to not understand what was going on like Standing On The Corner. Things started to pick up with Saba, who got more energy from the crowd with his soulful Chicago hip-hop. He paid tribute to Mac Miller who had just tragically died the day before performing his track Chance The Rapper “Angels.” NAO kept things going on the main stage (dubbed the Skyline Stage) with a dose of more uptempo R&B before Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy took over the secondary stage.
Tweedy would be great on a warm night sitting on the grass, but when it was unexpectedly cold, his slow acoustic guitar just did not do the trick. People needed to move. Vince Staples did just that. He came out with the best production of the day and no DJ, surprisingly, and gave the crowd a medley of his hits like “Norf Norf,” “Big Fish” and “Little Bit Of This.” To a crowd filled with his own shirts, he had a cool not giving a fuck attitude and was one of the dominant forces of the weekend.
Sunday saw a balanced lineup of music that spread throughout the day as artists seemed to lean more into the format and weather. Kamaiyah was dripping West Coast swagger, asking who was drunk and giving the crowd some of her big records, like her new one with SchoolBoy Q “Addicted To Ballin’.” The two-man band of No Age were loud relentless, but it was nearly impossible to see them beyond the sea of umbrellas in the crowd. Girlpool brought a nice indie rock touch to the festival, followed by a better and more involved performance from Hop Along, showcasing a very balanced lineup of women across the board each day.
Nile Rodgers and Chic had the largest crowd of the festival, arriving in show-stopping gowns and suits, declaring to the world they were ready to party. They brought their irresistible funk, soul and disco to the cold, soggy Octfest crowd, who kept on shuffling back and forth between beer stands and the stage to get the last of their samples and singing along to the endless hits the group and Nile Rodgers have. Rodgers declared he had the greatest day job in the world before they went into tracks like Madonna “Like A Virgin,” Daft Punk “Get Lucky” and David Bowie “Let’s Dance” in addition to some Chic classics such as “Le Freak” and their set closer “Good Times.” Even on a cold, wet day, they were able to bring some good times to the crowd.
The crowd started to thin once again as the tastings ended at 8 for Yo La Tengo, who dove into some of their heavier records, sensing the audience needed to feed on their energy. The Flaming Lips closed out the night with all of the pageantry that comes with one of their performances. Wayne Coyne brought out his laser glove to shoot off into the night sky and their blend of indie electronica and indie rock that kept the small, but loving crowd moving until the end of the festival.
Octfest was overall a success in year two. It was an indoor one-day festival last year, but this year it really became a festival. It was situated on a beautiful little plot of land on Governors Island that takes you exploring through the island. The hours are sane and the ferries were easy to use. The music was pretty solid across and board, though some of the acts seemed to be put off by the crowd. The beer was the main attraction and the layout put it squarely into focus. Going into year three, it needs to find a better balance between beer and music or decide if it wants to continue to make music more of the secondary aspect of the festival.