This year's Rockin' at the Knox made a break from past versions of the event. The first peak of the "new Rockin' " came a few years back, when Wilco and My Morning Jacket shared a bill on the stage in front of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and blew the minds of some 4,000 people or so.
Suddenly, the Rockin' event had entered the arena of alternative music, and our own art museum had become a stop on annual tours. That show set the bar. Elvis Costello, Blondie, and others met the challenge, but certainly didn't ride above it.
This year, however, was on par with the glorious Wilco/Jacket gig. The Albright folks partnered with Pitchfork.com's Chris Kaskie,aBuffalo expatriate living in Chicago, for this year's show. That meant that the on-line music criticism go-to site was able to influence this year's lineup in a major way. What all of this ended up meaning was that Rockin' became less of a populist event and more of a "What's happening now in pop art?" symposium. The answer, as was obvious after Friday's set, is The National is what's happening. The band recently released the high charting "High Violet" album, and suddenly found itself eminently popular after a decade of slugging it out in anonymity.
When the show was first booked, The National hadn't broken in quite so major away. The prescience on the part of all involved with booking Friday's show should be applauded. Pairing the National with headliner Rufus Wainwright, adding another Wainwright in the form of sis Martha, throwing in Atlas Sound and an eclectic couple of local bands—this added up to something both adventurous and, in its execution, stellar.
Hats should be removed for Buffalo's own multi-instrumentalist Jim Whitford, who manned upright bass in a joint set with former Spirit of the West collaborator Linda McRae. Tackling some traditional and original folk songs, the pair brought a deep musicality to the event's kickoff, and managed to set the bar high for the remainder.
Atlas Sound — a solo jaunt for the lead man in indie rock outfit Deerhunter — melded a Neil Young-esque sense of postmodern folk to a nifty conception of looping; throughout the show, acoustic guitar phrases were recorded and replayed in real time, and the effect was something akin to an acoustic guitar army taking over one of the festival's stages.
Martha Wainwright admitted that, "Probably very few of you know who the (expletive) I am," but her set was warmly welcomed, as her brother Rufus watched attentively from the wings.
The National – led by vocalist Matt Berringer — took what Martha had introduced it and shot it through the ceiling. The lack of ceiling at the Rockin' site meant that the band's widescreen, emotive post-'80s alternative rock often seemed to be bouncing around the cosmos. Eerie, pulsating, often downright propulsive, the band's songs moved on the strength of its rhythm section, the way the multiple guitars danced around each other, and Berringer's baritone voice served as some sort of glue, holding all of it together. Headliner Rufus Wainwright was due to hit the stage at press time.
Rockin' at the Knox
With Rufus Wainwright, the National, Martha Wainwright and more. Friday evening outside Albright-Knox Art Gallery.