Bands in order of appearance:
October in New York, and the city is in a frenzy of orange. You can't take five steps without falling over a pumpkin.
America celebrates Halloween with a kind of gung-ho enthusiasm that's alarmingly surreal to anyone accustomed to the small-scale, one-off fun night for kids that's all it is in the UK.
In the USA, Halloween is a week or more of spooktastic frolics, with homes, businesses, and even city streets festooned with decorations: cut-out cauldrons, sillouette spooks, so many ghosts in the machine I'm surprised that the wheels of the city still turn. And pumpkins everywhere - piled high in artistic shop window displays, piled even higher at the Union Square farmers' market.
Curiously enough, nobody ever seems to eat pumpkins in the USA. At this time of year, they're everybody's favourite home decor item, but you never seem to find one on the dinner table.
America's gleeful obsession with spookies 'n' goulies might seem bizarrely OTT to this Englishman in New York, but at least it provides an appropriate backdrop for an event that looks like becoming a fixture in New York's music calendar: the Drop Dead Festival.
Now in its third year, now expanded to a four-day extravaganza across three stages in two venues, Drop Dead just keeps on getting bigger. Paradoxically, shifting the event to the Halloween weekend from its previous September slot isn't necessarily the neat move you might at first assume, for the simple reason that every other goth(ish) promoter in town also seems to have seized on the Halloween period for shows and special club events.
Result? This year, Drop Dead has plenty of competition. Over the four days that the Drop Dead festival is running, New York also plays host to The Cruxshadows, playing a Saturday night show at the long-established Albion/Batcave club, while the Tiger Lillies (ironically, a band heavily featured in the Drop Dead magazine) have a Halloween night gig in Brooklyn. Over at CBGB, the Alchemy club hosts a Halloween party with four live bands, costume contests, and Myke Hideous in the master of ceremonies role.
In short, at this time of year there's no shortage of alternative entertainment for the discerning spooks of New York City, and this, perhaps, is the reason that the Drop Dead crowd seems to substantially comprise people from elsewhere in the USA, Europe, and beyond - all of whom have made a special journey to attend the festival.
New Yorkers might be rare beasts at Drop Dead, but the rest of the planet is represented in strength. That's Drop Dead's secret weapon - the festival has a worldwide following. I wouldn't be surprised if, even now, the Department of Homeland Security is puzzling over statistics which show a sudden increase in the number of travellers with mohawks arriving at New York's airports as the Drop Dead dates approach. The world wants to be here.
Here goes, then. First day, first venue, first band. We're at the Knitting Factory, the location for three days of this year's four dayer. It can't be easy, being the first band on stage at such a large event, but someone's got to open things up. Today that someone is Entertainment - 'Without any punctuation!' as the lead singer points out in his introductory remarks. Floor spots bathe the musicians in white light, and they get stuck straight in to generating some white heat.
Entertainment have a distinctly left-field approach which points up the irony of their name. Their music is a wailing, fractious thing, a bent out of shape Bauhaus, a cacophonous Cure. Occasionally the band will teeter on the cusp of a jaunty pop song, but then their underlying weirdness rises to the surface, and it'll all go off into a stranger area.
The singer lurches to and fro, shoving his face in the gleam of the floor spots, turning his back to bow respectfully to the amps. Sometimes he comes on like a shameless pop star, sometimes he seems doubled up by angst. It's all rather good, as it happens, and in some ways quite a challenging way to open the festival: an amiable, accessible, rockabilly outfit would've perhaps eased us in a little more smoothly. But hey. Personally, I don't do 'ease' or 'smooth' - and Entertainment certainly work for me.
Today, the bands on my personal 'gotta see 'em' list are all playng the main stage on the ground floor. But, down below in the basement, there's a whole other gig going on. Taking advantage of the between-band gap upstairs, I head down to briefly check out the proceedings...and come face to face with some scary men wearing little more than guitars, underpants, and tomato sauce.
This, it appears, is Psycho Charger, a band who effortlessly live up to the first part of their name. Sporting their Bill Grundys and red gunge with considerable aplomb, they plough relentlessly through some heavy-duty good ol' boy riffing, a rock-solid backbeat from an equally ketchup-splattered drummer keeping it all nailed down. They're a bit like ZZ Top....if you fed them hallucinogenics and locked them in an abattoir overnight.
Bizarre stuff, but underneath the craziness Psycho Charger are an unpretentious rock 'n' roll band, pure and simple. They're heading for London soon, where I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to get a (cautious) closer look, so for now it's a quick glance and then back upstairs for...
...Swann Danger. And, in a move that momentarily wrong-foots me, guitarist and vocalist Cynthia Mansourian has given herself a makeover since I last saw the band at Pagan Love Songs in Germany. It doesn't take much to confuse me, and her new appearance - oddly retro-demure, like an Enid Blyton heroine - is quite at odds with her previous image of platinum-haired indie-glamour.
But bassist Andy Zevallos is present and correct with his cocktail cabinet of electronics, and Swann Danger immediately plunge into a pool of warmly shimmering reverb, every sound doubled and trebled and layered and increased and augmented until you'd almost believe there's a seven-piece band on stage, instead of just two people and some technology in a beer crate.
It's a big sound all right, and quite a bit more punchy and abrasive than you'd expect from the oft-quoted, and misleading, descriptions of Swann Danger's music which always seem to be bandied about. If it's 'shoegazing' or 'dreampop' you're after, I fear you may have to look elsewhere.
What Swann Danger do pitches up somewhere between Stereolab and Public Image Limited (Metal Box mutant-dub version), and Cynthia Mansourian is a detached, almost other-worldly presence throughout. Perhaps, in her head, she's off solving mysteries with Julian, George, Dick and Timmy The Dog - at times, it seems like she's barely aware of the hardware around her or the audience in front of her. It must be said this is not necessarily a good thing - a bit more focus, a bit more straight-in-yer-face interaction with the crowd would give the performance that vital extra wallop. As it is, the sound does it all, filling the Knitting Factory like gas, and despite the fact that the on-stage action is a little subdued, I'm happy to breathe it in.
Who or what is Autonervous? A new project put together by Jessie Evans, formerly of The Vanishing, it appears. There's no band - all of a sudden we're in the cabaret zone, with a costumes-and-poses performance acted out to a backing track groove.
Jessie's partner in crime for this project is Bettina Köster, ex-of Malaria, and the two of them strut and swagger around the stage, toting saxophones like AK47s and almost literally throwing their personalities out into the crowd. Surprisingly, the assembled audience of punks, goths, and deathrockers takes to the show with great good humour.
I'd assumed that the distinct absence of anything remotely related to rock 'n' roll would've counted against Autonervous at this event, but not so. The combination of sax-squawks and bump 'n' grind rhythms, the assertive, confident demeanour of the performers on stage, and the feeling of Berlin-underground dissolution which the Autonervous experience instantly conjures up, all combine to create a show that works. I'll bet Andi Sex Gang, connessieur of cabaret decadence that he is, would've loved it.
At the end, Bettina Köster signs off with a cheery 'Thanks - that was fun!' 'No it wasn't!' contradicts Jessie Evans, immediately contrary and mock-peevish. But I think they both had a good time - and, somewhat unexpectedly, so did the audience.
Nina Hagen is billed as the 'Mother of Punk', but tonight it might be more appropriate to call her the mother superior. She's included religious elements in her work from her earliest days - most notably the Nunsexmonkrock album of 1982, which included the song Cosma Shiva, after which Nina named her daughter. In 1999 she recorded Om Namah Shivay, an album of Sanskrit mantras - and tonight she's has assembled a complete Hindu music performance, entirely Nina-style, of course.
She'swearing orange and red and yellow, a hot pink heart bindi painted on her forehead. She's a flourescent punk goddess, sitting at a harmonium that bears a 'Free Tibet' sticker. 'Hello young people,' she says. 'We are the old people!' She's joined by a serene, smiling woman on a second harmonium and a percussionist coaxing rhythm out of a dhol, and every song is a hypnotic mantra starring an assortment of Hindu deities. It's both peaceful and intense, Nina's signature voice swaying between sonorous and delicate, ever-changing between scratchy and milk-smooth.
But this is not a po-faced performance, dour and serious: quite the opposite. Nina's playful bug-eyed expressions and mystical, scatty pronouncements between the songs keep it all lighthearted, and just in case we still don't get the message, behind the musicians Elmo, the orange Muppet from Sesame Street, makes a guest appearance. Orange, of course, is a highly auspicious colour for a Muppet.
The crowd is packed and rapt all the way through - it seems there's been an influx of extra people just to catch the Nina Hagen set, for her audience is noticably larger than any of the bands before or after. Not everyone is convinced, mind. It must be said that Nina's excursion into enlightenment does rather try the patience of the psychobillies at the back, who heckle boisterously at intervals, but this performance requires the devotion and background knowledge of a true fan. Or, at least, an inclination to go with the flow, a certain what-the-hell willingness to follow Nina on her musical trip up the Ganges.
Yes, this is a surprising set for those who were expecting a full-throttle punk diva, but then we should naturally expect the unexpected with Nina Hagen. These three take crooked ways: carts, boats, and musicians, as the Hindus say.
The Sixteens appear in their usual tangle of wires and boxes, as if a mad professor had just cleared out his attic. There's a certain stressful air to their set-up and soundcheck, and it's not just because the whole thing has to be sorted in front of an audience of curious onlookers, many of whom seem to regard the on-stage shennanigans as all part of the show.
Apparently, the airline upon which the band flew in from their new home of Berlin mislaid their equipment, and right up to the eleventh hour it looked like we might be in for a spoken word set. But the gear got here, and eventually it's all plugged in, troubleshot, and ready to roll. The soundcheck merges seamlessly into the set.
The Sixteens may not be a rock 'n' roll combo, but they're unquestionably as punk as fuck and tonight they're fuelled by stress and attitude. The beats ricochet off the walls while irate electronics assail our ears with pitchforks and flaming torches. Kristen, decked out in a confection that's half wedding dress, half paper towel, does battle with keyboards and effects.
The Sixteens use plenty of guitar effects pedals, but don't see why they should actually use guitars. They do bring a bass out for extra low-end, lo-fi rumbling, but for the most part it's that glorious beaten-up electronic noise all the way, with vocals spat and splattered over the top. It's not electroclash, it's more like electro Sex Pistols. 'Ventilation Fans' strides along like an automaton army, and then - incongruously, delightfully - stops dead while the railway station announcement plays through the PA. Kristen and fellow electronics-mangler Veuve Pauli just stand there, waiting for the echoing voice to finish reading out the list of stations. Then the song kicks off again as if nothing unusual had happened.
Under most normal circumstances, I'd expect a reaction of bemusement and hostility from the crowd to a performance which so blatantly rips up the rule book, but after Autonervous and Nina Hagen's decidedly un-rock 'n' roll sets the audience is clearly primed and ready to take on board whatever weird-art excursions are hurled from the stage.
The Sixteens go down well, but it all gets cut short. The extended soundcheck ate up the performance time, so all of a sudden it's thanks and good night. Perhaps the band themselves wouldn't see it quite like this, but for me the impromptu ending works quite neatly - a final fluke, one last little glitch in a performance built around grabbing glitches and running off with them in seven directions at once.
Stand to attention, you 'orrible lot. Here comes the Colonel. Resplendent in a toy soldier hat, Lucas Lanthier leads the Deadfly Ensemble out on stage. This is the Cinema Strange frontman's side project, an excursion into musical theatre - well, sort of.
Every Deadfly performance is different: different characters, different concepts, different between-song dialogue. It's as if an old music hall act suddenly found itself in a parallel universe. There's little point in trying to make sense of the show - just go with whatever the performers are doing.
Tonight, we seem to be in the company of a military man, home from the war, swapping banter and avuncular advice with his friends on the ol' back porch. Songs intersperse the conversation: oddly mutated country-tinged numbers strummed on a couple of acoustic guitars by Lucas and sideman James Powell, with cello-sawing by Marzia Rangel in the guise of a classical southern belle.
Notwithstanding the instrumentation, it must be said there's never any doubt who the songwriter is. Deadfly Ensemble songs do tend to sound suspiciously like Cinema Strange songs with the punk rock taken out. That loping, lilting, almost fairground-style feel which is such a feature of the Cinema Strange songbook is also readily discernable in the Dead Fly ouevre.
But it's the in-between bits that really make the show, little vignettes which hint at a bigger back-story. The onstage extracts give you the outline; you fill in the rest yourself. James Powell, a quizzical hayseed in dungarees, addresses the Colonel: "Darnell's daddy said that with as much time as you've spent in jail, you could probably say a thing or two about love." Ah, there's an entire pot-boiler in there somewhere!
Now it's the early hours of the morning, and the audience has thinned out somewhat - but a bunch of diehards are still clustered around the main stage, eagerly awaiting the arrival of tonight's final band, The Naked And The Dead. Here's an outfit which has had a more erratic career path than most. In fact, it's hardly possible to refer to the band's on/off (but mostly off) existence over the last 20 years as a 'career'. So, for those who've just joined us (and in the case of The Naked And The Dead, that's virtually everyone), let's briefly recount the essential history.
The band originally sprang from the New York post-punk scene in 1985, and enjoyed a brief, intense, magnesium-flare existence during that year. Eight months, three gigs, and a handful of demos - a lifespan so vanishingly brief that under normal circumstances they would barely have registered as a blip on anyone's radar, and would certainly be utterly unknown today.
But in 2001, guitarist Greg Fasolino made the band's old demo tracks available on the web, and all of a sudden The Naked And The Dead picked up a new fanbase. The taut, urgent, wired racket captured on those 1985 recordings - the sound of a young band plunging headlong into their music, energy crackling, enthusiasm to the fore - grabbed the attention of many people who hadn't previously known the band had ever existed.
The next step, naturally, was a reunion. In 2002, with three original members plus Julia Ghoulia of The Brides on vocals, a revived version of The Naked And The Dead played their fourth-ever gig. Plans were made for the future, but it was not to be. The band split again, and has remained in limbo ever since - until tonight.
A re-revived incarnation of The Naked And The Dead has been assembled for Drop Dead, this time featuring only two original members - Greg Fasolino on guitar, and Christopher Bollman on bass. Julia Ghoulia returns on vocals, and Brides drummer DW Friend sits in behind the kit.
This is still only the Naked And The Dead's fifth gig; given the 20 years that have elapsed since the band first formed, that's almost surreal. In terms of time and logistics, we're a long, long way from that energetic young band of 1985, squeezing out sparks in a frenzy of big hair and enthusiasm. That, in my head at least, is grounds for caution. I want to see how this band aquits itself. A 20-year old demo and some fragments of old-skool history won't count for much if the present incarnation doesn't deliver.
Today's deathrockers seem to regard The Naked And The Dead as some kind of mystical talisman, a rare tangible link with the 80s scene they venerate but never actually knew. But I'm holding out for some evidence that the band can kick it around in the here and now. Call me a cold-hearted cynic for not joining in with the revivalist hosannas, but that's the most important thing for me.
It sounds good. The drums roil and tumble like a river over rocks, a constant thunder and flow of rhythm. The guitar cuts through like a canoe shooting the rapids. There's real power in the music. This version of the band sounds distinctly bigger and more fleshed-out than the demo recordings of the original line-up. In a way, The Naked And The Dead don't actually seem 'eighties' at all - if you kidded a passer-by that this was a new band playing new songs, I dare say they'd believe you. But, of course, The Naked And The Dead are a new band. This is the first time this line-up has played a gig.
And there, perhaps, we have a bit of problem. There's no real rapport between the people on stage, no real sense that what we have here is a cohesive unit, accustomed to working together, sparking off each other, pushing and pulling and pummelling each other to ever-greater heights. In truth, the band looks like what it is: a pick-up outfit.
The two originals, Greg and Chris, stand on opposite sides of the stage, distant, detached, never moving off their marks, never even exchanging a glance. Greg in particular is head-down and introspective throughout, standing so far off to the side of the stage it almost looks like he's deliberately trying to separate himself from the rest of the band. Julia Ghoulia, nursing a beer (and apologising incongruously between songs for being drunk), teeters at the mic in ill-fitting heels, reciting the lyrics with all the gusto of a newscaster reading an autocue. The verve and sheer gung-ho spirit that comes across in the band's old demos is not, alas, approached tonight.
The deathrockers down the front leap and swirl in the moshpit, clearly excited to witness their eighties talisman-band in the flesh, and in doing so they create the energy that the band doesn't supply. I stand back, unable to feel what they're feeling. Yes, it sounds good...but as far as tapping into that heady spirit of the 80s post-punk scene, that time when energy was almost tangible in the air and all things seemed possible - well. It doesn't happen for me, and I suspect, if you were to put the band members on the rack and torture the truth out of them, they'd admit it's not quite happening for them, either.
It's nice to hear those old demo songs played live just this once, but I don't think The Naked And The Dead have any long-term future. Although I've heard rumours of further activity, after tonight I'd suggest the best thing to do is to formally wrap up the band and move on. I'm actually very keen to hear Chris and Greg's new venture, Bell Hollow, which I suspect will prove to have far more of a 'real band' feel, and will certainly have more of a genuinely contemporary raison d'etre than any of the revival-versions of The Naked And The Dead.
The set rumbles on. The band are still on stage, still playing, but I think it's time to go. We're well into the wee small hours now, and it's time to head in the direction of bed. I'm tired, everyone is tired - even the soundman has gone to sleep, hunched over his mixing desk. Let's take our leave, and then come back and do it all again tomorrow...