The third annual Spy Fest, organized by Brooklyn’s intrepid Northern Spy record label, took place over the weekend of September 6–8. Including Friday night’s opening party, the full weekend’s events brought in approximately 350 attendees—no small achievement given the festival’s concurrence with the burgeoning Hopscotch festival. Northern Spy was founded in 2010 by Tom Abbs and Adam Downey, each of whom spent years working at ESP-Disk, a label best known for its classic free jazz and underground rock output. Northern Spy continues this tradition with an updated catalog of avant-goodness that includes some old faces and many new ones. Despite some difficulties with cancellations, a full spectrum of Northern Spy’s diverse stable of talented acts was on display at this year’s installment of Spy Fest.
Saturday night’s show was at the Spectrum, a tiny loft space on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. The living room ambience of the space was to be the perfect setting for free jazz legend Charles Gayle, the night’s headliner, whose excellent release from last year, Streets, reaffirms his status as one of the label’s many jewels. For health reasons, however, Gayle had to cancel at the last minute. Stepping in admirably was another fixture of the N.Y.C. free jazz scene, Cooper-Moore, and those expecting to see Gayle couldn’t have been disappointed with Moore’s set to close the night. Even though Downey admits that the Spectrum was chosen mostly with Gayle in mind—the decision, he suggests, was also a nod to the label’s affinity for the Downtown scene—the other artists on Saturday evening took full advantage of the intimate confines.
Of particular note was the third performance of the evening, a set from Loren Connors & Suzanne Langille. The couple, who have collaborated in many forms since the late ’80s, has formed an intense bond on stage. This bond depends on subtle cues, with Langille singing her distinctive hushed blues in response to Connors’s skeletal improvisations. In the early ’90s Connors was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and though he hasn’t let it slow him down, his guitar playing has become more abstract and delicate in recent years. A space like the Spectrum, completely devoid of unsavory background chattiness, was the perfect setting to see the duo. Their 30-minute set wound down into an entirely unexpected cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Also of note that evening was a set by Mark Dwinell, also known as ODO. Dwinell played the beautiful Steinway piano set up in the corner of the loft in a hypnotic set of new age minimalism. Lush, flowing, repetitive tones filled the room as Dwinell showcased an exquisite command of the cosmos that he has cultivated for years with the group Forma.
Sunday night couldn’t have been more different from an atmospheric standpoint. The setting this time was 285 Kent in Williamsburg, no stranger to long evenings of experimental rock music and a deliciously stark contrast to the locale of the previous evening’s performance. Once more, a major cancellation threatened to sap some enthusiasm from the night’s bill, as Thurston Moore and John Moloney, the festival’s headlining act, had to bow out. Fortunately, Northern Spy was able lure in Sean Lennon and Greg Saunier, better known as Mystical Weapons, to take over. The duo, together with Shahzad Ismaily, has a record due out later this fall on the label, and according to Downey, it wasn’t hard to convince them to step in. Though Downey concedes he was initially disappointed with Moore and Moloney dropping out, he notes that “Mystical Weapons fit perfectly and helped make the bill really special.” The thunderous power duo delivered a raucous set of noise generated from Saunier’s frenetic drumming and Lennon’s energy on guitar and handheld synthesizer. Saunier, best known for his role in the enduring indie band Deerhoof, and Lennon, best known as, well, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son, have an undeniable chemistry on stage and are prone to thrilling crescendos of madness.
NYMPH was another band filling the packed room of approximately 200 with pulses of energy. The Brooklyn-based collective channels the spirit of psychedelic visionaries such as Sun Ra and Ash Ra Tempel. Playing selections from their recently-released second album, one of the most impressive features of NYMPH is not only their willingness to venture into so many different directions—from prog, to Middle Eastern-infused psych, to free jazz—but also their ability to stop on a dime and go someplace totally unexpected. They packed so much into their cathartic half-hour set that the payoff was pure exhilaration.
The remainder of 2013 offers no reprieve for Northern Spy. Seven new albums are slated for release before year’s end. Of particular note is the U.S. release of Open, the 17th record from tireless Australian improvisers the Necks, which is due out October 29. On November 29, Mystical Weapons will release a yet-to-be-titled album for Black Friday Record Store Day in a limited edition pressing of 1,000. If the band’s set at Spy Fest was any indication of what to expect, it’ll be wise to get in early on this one.
CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.