(This story was originally published on Raleigh & Company)
Washington D.C. is falling apart.
Not from the seemingly endless election cycle (we somehow still have like four months till Iowa), or the slow teeter to an eventual government shutdown (reset the clock to 70 days). No, Washington is quite literally crumbling. Our national monuments, though beautiful, are weathered, and fainting. Most parks have escaped servicing for decades, and have become victims of a gridlocked congress. Because Washington is a federal district, rather than a state, any allocation of funding for upkeep has to come to through both chambers on the hill, fend off the mighty veto, and receive the blessing of the President.
Recognizing how unlikely that scenario had become, and the state of disarray their most prized possessions had devolved to, The Trust for the National Mall found their golden ticket to raising funds, and awareness for their cause: a music festival.
Not unlike the high school that throws a dance to pay for new textbooks, the National Parks Service embraced this otherwise antithetical idea, lending its cathedral to hooligans likely to tarnish it, leaving a trail of debris in their wake. And yet, a festival served as a perfect medium to invite a crowd (youths!) who had long ignored the parks.
From long and far, tourists descended upon the seat of power, clamoring for a chance to catch the voices behind their shower medleys, and car-ride anthems. In its inaugural year, Landmark managed a lineup that would be respectable for an established weekend getaway, let alone one fresh from the womb. The headliners, Drake and The Strokes, each have signing fees rumored to be as high as $1 million per appearance. The B-acts weren’t slouches either, with Alt-J and Chvrches both making appearances, as well as hometown hero Wale, the poor-man’s The Weeknd (Miguel), and highly regarded indie outfits TV on The Radio, The War on Drugs, and Chromeo.
If the most important goal of the two-day romp was to force festival-goers to find a connection with the national mall, the location was a metaphorical silver bullet. 25,000 people per day ventured to the back corner of West Potomac Park, tucked behind the Lincoln memorial, and in the shadow of the Washington monument.
Everything about the festival down to the sod beneath our feet reflected the host city. Marine One flew overhead. Airplanes consistently passed by. Food vendors were chosen to with local flavor in mind. The bands and fans may have been visitors, but there was something undeniably homegrown about the atmosphere.
Saturday’s main stage lineup was no different. On a day dominated by hip hop, it was Wale, a homegrown icon, and Drake, a beacon of youth, who stood out. Sure, Miguel had some choice lines (“What the fuck is normal anyway? Different is okay.”), but he was sandwiched between the biggest non-directional name in music, and a guy who climbed into the audience mid-song, stopped a track, and pleaded with his fans to “get stupid.” You can’t beat pandering with a second tier version of the guy who sings sex soundtracks.
For everything that Miguel was missing in his lackluster hourlong set, Drake had an answer. The Toronto-born, Degrassi-bred superstar was electric, aided by an array of clips and images on the enormous screen behind him (at one point there was what looked like a flyover of a snowcapped forrest that a ski instructor may have found erogenous).
He began the show with a simple message. Not dissimilar to the kinds of self-introductions young groups on the rise would give at early gigs.
“Before we get started, I want you all to know my name is Drake. I’m from Toronto. Nice to meet you.”
Donning a full beard, an “October” crew neck sweater, black denim jeans, and white kicks, Drake embraced the sex appeal he’d worked so hard to cultivate. Girls climbed on their partners’ shoulders to get a better view of their messiah, and honestly, I can’t blame them. Drake is, objectively, a wonderful looking person.
At one point, the stage was engulfed with six different towers of fire. IT WAS LITERALLY LIT. Another time, he disappeared into a wall of smoke, only to re-emerge moments later. Though the performance was fine tuned, and came off more like a film screening than a live show, it still elicited a kind of connection I’ve rarely felt at concerts. At times, it was personal. After “Back to Back,” the crowd began to chant “FUCK MEEK MILL,” a dig at the diss track’s target.
Drake, as smooth as ever, leaned into the mic and delivered the knockout punch.
“Don’t worry. He’s dead already. Don’t worry.”
He also acknowledged his online reputation for being soft, saying he read internet comments, and knew about all the “candlelit dinners and back massages and crying when a girl don’t call me back.”
“I know that shit,” he said. “I’m not here for that cute shit tonight.”
And yet, even with this recognition, he seemed to play up the narrative more and more. He consistently pandered to the audience, and at times, seemed overbearing in his desperation for their love.
He stopped songs midway through to lie about how great the Drake fans in the city were, comparing them to fans in “the six” (Toronto). He mixed the city into his tracks (“Just hold on D.C., we’re going home”), and even claimed that it was the best stop on the tour, and one of the best nights of his life.
Forgive me for being pessimistic, Aubrey, but I don’t buy it.
This relentless indulgence of the crowd wasn’t without its perks, however. Drake finished his final song — Know Yourself — with fireworks. Real, actual fireworks that District security somehow okayed. You can’t fly a plane over district airspace, but Drake can put on a fireball light show for the hell of it.
Man, politics are dope.
Rather than bringing the glitz and glamour of fireworks, Sunday’s headliners relied on their charm, and damn, was it awesome.
I’m not sure any band has ever been able to stay low-key cool as long as The Strokes. For nearly 15 years, Julian Casablancas and co. have graced stages worldwide with sunglasses, rough lyrics, and an aura reminiscent of classic rock legends. They were the biggest rock stars in the world in the early 2000s, and they seemingly didn’t care.
Julian, his usual enigmatic self, explored the idea of rock and roll in one of his many in-show speeches, and wasn’t too pleased with what he’d found.
“I don’t even technically like rock and roll,” Casablancas said. “When I think of rock and roll I think of like 70s blues jam. Nothing after 1936 with the blues for me.”
These are the past, and future kings of the genre. A group who stood dominant for a sliver of time, and gracefully melted back into relative obscurity, peeping their heads out to occasionally release new music for us to fawn over. In their remarkably short set (by my watch it was just under an hour. They were originally scheduled for 90 minutes), The Strokes managed to remind me why I fell in love with their music in the first place. That sense of effortless cool dominated the evening.
I’ve rewatched their set four times now, and after each viewing, I come away with something new. Live, it was the realization that Julian forgot the words to my favorite song (Someday), and chose to make up new ones on the spot. Later, it was the way he jubilantly said “Welcome to Japan!” during the aptly titled track.
After my most recent viewing, however, it was something different. These five guys who met up to make music in New York more than a decade ago are the last remnants we have to true rock stars. Not just rock stars in the sense that they led the garage rock revolution, but rock stars in the sense that they carry themselves like icons — idols of past worlds. Worlds dominated by guitar riffs and late night bar crawls with hoarse voiced superstars in the making. Worlds absent of pre-pubescent pop stars wailing about long lost love that could have only been found on a kindergarten playground.
The Strokes are iconic. And for one night in Washington, they proved they still mattered. Just before the group closed the show, Casablancas took to the mic, and capitalized on the opportunity.
“Thanks guys, we’ll be back soon,” he said, “and we’ll be back in the studio and shit.”
The internet rightfully went crazy when the album was confirmed, as if twitter had also realized The Strokes were back, seeking the iron throne from which they once ruled.
And so here I stand — a serf welcoming the return of my lords — with nothing but unrelenting anticipation for the next set of songs birthed from Julian’s head.
The Strokes, like most other artists, are by no means perfect, but they allowed me to escape my mediocre reality, and for one night, escape into a different plane of enjoyment. A dimension filled with rock, decent booze, and an overwhelming sense that just for a little while, everything was pretty damn great.
And on that eve, the future kings were reborn.