The New Colossus Festival

Reviving the Lower East Side’s Indie Rock Scene
4 minute read
Charlotte Horan HERO

If you’re as obsessed as I am with the iconic rock venues of New York gone by, and often find yourself strolling through the John Varvatos store, which has preserved the hallowed halls of CBGB’s or walking past the Chelsea Hotel listening to Leonard Cohen, wondering “where are today’s equivalent venues and artists?”, look no further than the Lower East Side’s New Colossus Festival.

Taking its name from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet that is etched on the base of Statue of Liberty, this is a quintessentially New York function. In 2020, NCF was the last festival in the world to perform live music before everything shut down and the city shuttered itself inside for the next several months due to the pandemic. In 2021, they hosted a virtual festival, and this year, they came back in person with a vengeance. The festival took over popular Lower East Side venues like Bowery Electric, East Berlin, Berlin Under A, Mercury Lounge, [Arlene’s Grocery]( "Arlene's Grocery"- 95 Stanton St.") and Pianos for five days from March 9-13, 2022.

The festival was founded by Mike Bell, Lio Kanine & Steven Matrick in 2018 and originated to give the artists n Lio’s label, Kanine Records, and the label Steven manages, Deadstrange Records, an opportunity to meet, mingle and perform shows in New York. Since then it has evolved into a space for the best of New York’s indie bands to come together in community, (even though more often than not the New York based ones know each other and play in each other’s bands) while also introducing bands from across the country and globe to the world of performing in New York.

Like I said, I’m completely fascinated by the history of New York City. I love scrolling blogs about the legendary neighborhood that is the LES and talking to old people in Tompkins’s Square Park who have seen these neighborhoods go through their many iterations. Upon searching “the Lower East Side indie rock scene” online, it will lead you to a whole slew of posts and comments written by former residents of the neighborhood scorning the rapid gentrification and mourning the once vibrant music scene. And while they’re right to criticize the gentrification that has priced out many of the musicians, writers, visual artists and theatre-makers that once called this area home, anyone saying the New York Indie scene died in the early aughts would eat their words upon taking in one of the shows from this past weekend.

The festival goers played as integral a part of the festival experience as the performers themselves. There you could find people of all gender identities and sexualities sporting long mullets and bellbottoms, fur coats and pixie cuts, mini skirts and ties, all mingling with each other over Modelos and Marlboro Reds. For a festival that intentionally doesn’t have headliners and has backstages tinier than an East Village apartment, this makes for an unpretentious mixing of bands and music aficionados alike. While it was difficult to get interviews done backstage due to the high turnover of performers stashing their guitar pedals and esoteric instruments like a Theremin, some of my favorite parts of the weekend were cramming into the crowded patios of these venues to smoke cigs and talk about how it feels to have live music back in the city.

I don’t claim to be a photographer, but I am, admittedly, a transplant living in Bushwick, and a film camera to a girlie like me is the same as a Telecaster electric guitar is to many of the musicians I had the pleasure of listening to and drinking with. Peep the photoset below to see my shots from the weekend.

From the likes of The Velvet Underground to Blondie, Sonic Youth and The Strokes, the Lower East Side of Manhattan has long been a nexus for generations of indie rockers. It was in this neighborhood that each of these bands honed the influential sub-genres we now know as Proto-Punk, New Wave, Noise Rock and Garage Rock Revival.

I’m not sure what to call this new generation of indie rockers as they all span across many genres of rock and pop, so it would be difficult to try and name a genre for them. But, looking at these photos, does this look like a dead scene to you? Sure, there was something special about the music coming out of the lower east side from the 1960s to the early 2000s that would be difficult to replicate today, but isn’t that just what happens as time marches on? Neighborhoods change and music evolves. But no matter the adversity artists face, whether it be gentrification forcing most of them to move out to Brooklyn, or standing on the shoulders of the prolific bands that made the Lower East Side one of the coolest neighborhoods of any city in the world, artists and musicians always find new ways to share their art and come together in appreciation for their craft.

That being said, I truly believe we’re in a new incubation period. After a long hiatus from live music due to the pandemic that altered our lives, the pent up energy released on the stages of the New Colossus Festival signals the rebirth of the New York Indie Rock scene as a force to be reckoned with. A new generation of Indie Rockers is on the precipice of starting another rich chapter in the story that is the music of New York. And if you’re lucky enough to attend an event like NCP, maybe you’ll have the privilege of being able to hang around before you start hearing their music on your favorite radio stations and spotify playlists.

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Charlotte Horan HERO

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The New Colossus Festival will be back on the Lower East Side next year from March 8th - 12th 2023. Check them out here or on Instagram @newcolossusfestival