Brooklyn Is Berning: Two Nights of Dem-rock-cracy for Bernie Sanders
We spent two nights at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn seeing if indie musicians could convince young people to vote for Bernie Sanders.
All photos by Jason Bergman for Noisey
I live in the city so to get to the Bernie Sanders fundraiser, held at Baby’s All Right on Tuesday and Wednesday, I had to take the train. I had to take the L train to Bedford Avenue to go to a Bernie Sanders benefit to write about it for VICE. It goes without saying that my glasses were thick and black rimmed and I brought a Paris Review to read on the train, because fuck it, I am as God made me. Both times, the train ride there was uneventful except for the small difference recriminations my mind conjured up against my fellow travellers as I pretended to read one of those short stories that I never finish because I can’t bear the inevitable humiliation of the protagonist, and told myself, “don’t be cynical about Bernie Sanders. You don’t even understand economics 101. Just, one time, don’t be a jerk. Let people believe things.” Each time, the Bedford Avenue L stop was an atrocity exhibition. That’s an Interpol joke.
“Brooklyn Is Berning” was a two-day benefit concert for the Democratic candidate from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. The concert leaned heavily towards the indie and folk which makes sense as, purely pragmatic terms, indie rock and folk music is good because A) people of all ages enjoy these genres or at least don’t mind them, and B) you generally can't depend on Motorhead fans to vote the Democrat party line. The name of the event is a continuation of the punned theme of the campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern,” a likably corny catchphrase in the “I Like Ike” or “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” tradition. The shows were organized and curated by Baby’s All Right’s owner, Zachary Mexico, and NYC political organizer, Winnie Wong, in conjunction with Bernie Sanders’s Arts, Culture, and Youth Vote Manager, Luis Calderin. Wong, who despite being politically focused, has longstanding friendships with many and varied NYC musicians, explained to me that the bands were picked with sound and relationships and enthusiasm to play the main considerations rather than draw. The crowds themselves, between the two nights, were healthy, occasionally boisterous, young, predominately white but not so much that it would warrant a thinkpiece, and wildly enthusiastic for their guy, Bernie Sanders.
When I arrived, the crowd was sparse but it was early so my expectations were reasonable. That it never really filled up can safely be blamed on the coldness. It’s been a balmy winter in New York and so whenever it dips below 65, isolationist hysteria ensues. There may have been an imbalance in the two night’s lineups but as someone with zero notion of what’s popular and having heard of more artists on for the first night, I’m loathe to lay the blame on anything besides the—comparative to our usual Saharan existence—frigid temperatures. Regardless, not knowing that Baby’s All Right would be at capacity the second night, it was vaguely depressing. I want Bernie Sanders to be president so I hoped the thin population, at 6:45 PM, watching the very fine folk stylings of Kat Wright and Brett Hughes, wasn’t any indication that the next eight years would be endless warfare and chaos.
(Full journalistic disclosure: Again, I want Bernie Sanders to become president. I’m going to vote for Bernie Sanders. I think, no matter who is president, the next eight, 18, 1,800 years are going to be endless warfare and chaos. I think that’s what we are as a nation. Sorry!)
were very perfectly lovely. They dedicated a song called “You Let Me Down” to “everyone but Bernie.” The equally perfectly lovely Brooklyn folk band, Spirit Family Reunion, followed them. So far, the night was Newport Folk fine. Decent white folk alluding to sweet honey from a rock and other bible imagery while looking like it had been some time since they themselves had prostrated themselves before a cross. Spirit Family Reunion, in this incarnation a duo of banjo and guitar, did a fine cover of Woody Guthrie’s “ A guy behind me exclaimed, “Woody Guthrie!” and continued talking to his friend.
Will Sheff from Okkervil River
Along those lines: the first night especially was the quiet music night but both nights featured stripped down versions (whether Okkervil River or Dum Dum Girls) of larger band. People were generally polite but some people love to hear themselves talk, especially apparently in close proximity to a stage so I wrestled hard with the question of, “Can I shush people at a Bernie Sanders rally?” What if I, in my high dudgeon, soured them on the entire process and Sanders loses by one vote and it’s Clinton or Trump and all is death and duplicity and it's my fault because I can't stand whispering during I bit my tongue throughout.
The bands were introduced by Mr. Calderin, who was wearing a T-shirt that was an image of the first Bad Brains album (lightning hitting the Capitol Building) but with “Bernie Sanders” instead of “Bad Brains.” Presumably Sanders’ reggae outfit never covered “ but that’s my cynicism riding to the fore again. Everything is problematic and it was just a shirt and who cares but I can’t control where my squirming brain is going to squirm. Regardless, it was an apt shirt for the next act; Quicksand’s Walter Schreifels’ hard rawk act, . I’ve always been a fan of ex-hardcore dudes exploring their love of 70s bongwater. I love The Brought Low. Hell, I can tolerate Junkyard. And a world where u can go to a political fundraiser and hear ex members of Youth Of Today and BOLD and Gorilla Biscuits sing a song called "Adderall Highway" is as beautiful world as one can, present conditions being what they are, reasonably expect.
North Korea and the hydrogen bomb were trending on twitter. Outside, I overheard some dudes talking about how “lit” it was now. I’m assuming they were being ironic, or just not really caring what words were. Or they were serious young men who knew that something serious was happening that was scary that they couldn’t effect in the real world so they were, among friends, treating it lightly as a rational protective response. And I was eavesdropping and judging.
The next speaker was Nick Carter (the Sanders Political Outreach Director not the Backstreet Boy as he pointed out) who said a good political campaign is like a good rock show in that an emotional connection was important. This is true and I have nothing snide to say about it. I have nothing snide to say about any of the speakers. They were all earnest, talked about a non-violent revolution and a world of possibility, and were, to the last, far smarter than I, and I know my place. Nadya Stevens from Communications Workers of America union was particularly compelling, especially when she noted that Bernie Sanders was the only “real” Democrat, the only one who would take the stage and say “Black Lives Matter’ and that, “for some of us the recession never left.”
Will Sheff from Okkervil River played a short set compromised of fan favorites like “” and a cover of Dick Gaughan’s “Worker’s Song.” I asked Sheff later about his honest hopes for a Sanders’s presidency and he told me, “I’m so sick of having my head down and voting for these fucking…these corporate stoogey people…I believe (Sanders) is sincere, and if you gave him the reigns it would be a radical thing.” This sentiment was echoed throughout the two days, from artist to celebrity to attendee, everybody wanted to vote with their best and bravest angel and if people or media or Clintonites thought that naïve, fuck ‘em.
The bar was at least half full now. Tommie Sunshine was DJing a number of songs with the word “burn” in them. When I asked him how many, he said, “at least a half dozen.” (He also later emailed me: “Last night I played a gig to raise funds for Bernie Sanders. It's my duty to not just Tweet about things that matter to me & post IG pics but to actually go donate my time to help a brilliant man become our next POTUS. Feel The Bern!!!” For the record, the Tommie Sunshine Mix with the some variation on the theme of heat is as follows:
performed next. Oh…what to say about Jamie Kilstein. I’m sure he’s a lovely person. He’s also a musical comedian, God save us. Imagine a combination of Jello Biafra and the guy who did “United States of Whatever,” with the former’s nuanced views on Christians, hunters, and people with the temerity to enjoy country music. His songs included “Fuck The NRA” and “Every Country Song Ever.” Unbridled contempt was a thread throughout. People seemed to enjoy him. Good for them. Good for him.
Will Sheff told me “it’s hard to write political songs without being smug.” , a singer/songwriter of uncommon thoughtfulness and unlikely pop-punk popularity, manages to write decidedly unsmug political songs. On tracks like the recent “Talking Freddie Gray Blues” his sincerity and self-reflection can be almost oppressive; a level of white guilt that’s hard not to wince at. But its artfulness and essential truth in confronting his own complicity, carries it over. It was a fine thing to see it performed live. “There are a lot more people better suited to articulate these issues than us musicians,” he said. Considering the context, maybe that went without saying. But it was nice to hear.
The biggest crowd of the evening, the one that bridged the ten-foot moat that had existed between the audience and performers all night, was . Now, Frankie Cosmos plays music that is Not For Me. I’m 40-years-old. I am NOT the target audience for this. I can’t get over the hesitant vocals, the drums that sound like cardboard (and not in the sexy Darkthrone way), the family connections, the thirty years of bands that sound like this, etc. Charitably it's the much-needed soundtrack to the awkward transition from young adulthood to slightly less young adulthood. Less charitably? It's rich nerd music. That being said? People fucking loved it. Knew every word. So what do I know? Nothing, probably. Also, Frankie said, in between songs, “Come for the Bernie. Stay for the Frankie,” which was pretty funny.
We were going on five hours of Bernie Sanders supporting rock action and we were all getting a little tuckered. I imagine I had a pretty complete idea of what it must be like to be on the campaign trail for months at a time. Or maybe it’s different. Regardless, I wouldn’t run for president without being exceedingly drunk the entire time. Others must have felt the some because the crowd was getting a little wobbly. They either wanted to dance or go home. Jana Hunter of , playing guitar with backing tracks, managed to cut through the inevitable exhaustion. Hunter’s short set of beautiful, plaintive desire was revitalizing. Being contrary by unfortunate nature, I’d previously ignored the hype surrounding Lower Dens, but I was sold. Jana, sensing that this wasn’t a late night crowd, said, “Did you work today? Do you work tomorrow? Is it late for you? You don't work in bars?” I work in bars, but I had to get on the train and go home and stare at a variety of screens.
“Bernie Bernie Bernie can't you see/I'm voting for you in 2016/I just love your liberal ways/That's why you'll win the presidency."
When I arrived for night two of Brooklyn Is Berning, funk collective, Pants Velour, had taken to stage, performing the song they had written for the Sanders campaign. As with “Feel the Bern,” one could make jokes, but political campaigns worldwide are dependent on the appealing and easy to grasp, and a song based on the works of Biggie Smalls is, well, adorable in its fashion. Or at least shareable. And therefor valuable. As the band said from said stage, “Shit is fucked up in this country.” Also, Pants Velour’s drummer was good. And, at the end of the day, all I ever want is for the drummer to be good.
Already the crowd was almost twice what it had been the previous night. When I talked to Zachary Mexico about the turnout, he’d made clear that a number of things had to be taken into consideration. First, that—because of campaign finance regulations—tickets for the show could not be sold through the venue. All the money received had to be received by the campaign itself (bar staff and security were paid through the food and drinks revenue of the nights). The event had been only planned since November and the week after New Year’s Eve is widely known within the service industry as the deadest of the year. Zachary did say that he’d have given up the venue for Sanders at any point in the year (“because Sanders is cool”) but the bar would have certainly been slow without the show. But its till had to be considered that this was a time of year where it was hard to get bodies in a club. All this talk seemed irrelevant as the Baby’s All Right filled up for the second night.
There had been hopes amongst the crowd and on social media that Bernie Sanders himself might show up. He was in town stumping so it was plausible. The “special guest” turned out to be Susan Sarandon (“Suck it up and register as a democrat” and saying the word “vagina” to wild applause), which was perfectly swell. Who doesn’t like Susan Sarandon? With her excellent politics, fine acting, and no history of domestic abuse, she’s our non-insufferable Sean Penn. But people were still hoping against hope for Bernie Sanders. So when after rising above technical difficulties to present an entertaining set of Peter Gabriel inflected dance gloom (so…sort of like TV on the Radio), said, “Next up is…Bernie Sanders,” it was the best joke of the event.
During Mas Ysa’s set, there were two people up front spazzing out blissfully, writhing on the floor like slinkys in heat and of course I hated their joy in life but was comforted in the knowledge that either I was wrong or that life will eventually get them.
Dee Dee of took the stage and was nervous. It didn’t show but she told me afterwards. “I asked to play once I found out it was happening, and the campaign was happy to have me and therefore I was even happier. But yes (I was) more nervous than I've been since 2001 probably. I've decided it's time to be more actively involved. I love Bernie and everything he stands for and eschews.” She played songs from both her most recent full length and the EP before it and ended with a moody cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” that was (intentionally) more indebted to The Cure than either Nick Lowe or Elvis Costello.
Next up was , a folk duo complete with Joan Baez regalia whose pristine voices filled the room. I unfortunately had to miss much of their set to talk to Luis Calderin. He explained that this was one of the first of what was intended to be a national push of musical fundraising. I discussed my issues with some of the performer’s content and he pushed back with the fair point that in an election this important it didn’t make sense to be a single-issue voter. There was of course going to be specifics that we could all differ (he used Killer Mike’s stance on gun control as an example) but that the overall worthiness of a true progressive like Sanders taking office far outweighed any nitpicking (my words) about the detritus that comes with a large number of voices, especially musicians, who he was loathe to micromanage.
Chapin Sister were followed by their compatriots and his band. I have always mistakenly pigeonholed McComb as more of a folk troubadour but, with two drummers and rhythms that verged on Krautrock, the band was in full Rolling Thunder Revue era Dylan mode. I talked briefly to drummer, Ryan Sawyer, about playing the event and he told me, “I lost a lot of money by missing work tonight. I've never voted in my life, for anyone. This is the first election I'm going to vote in. For Bernie Sanders."
John Tasini, the author of The Essential Bernie Sanders, took the stage, a little buzzed and a little close to the mic. He quoted Emma Goldman to justify his scotch intake (with all of us murmuring “it me” in solidarity), asked for a show of hands to see who in attendance had actually manned phones or taken to the street in support of Bernie (there were…not many hands up), and then, despite or maybe because of, the piercing volume, roused the crowd to “DO THE WORK.”
Then played some soaring synth pop complete with multiple members bashing their drum pads and it was very good and not what I listen to and then it was announced that Gang Gang Dance was up next and I asked someone if Gang Gang Dance was playing or just DJing and they said, “DJing,” so I said, “Cool,” and headed for the L train.
On the train back, a young punk with Liberty spikes and tight pants with a misfits patch and a baggy bomber jacket came into my car, speaking loudly and banging his cane on the floor, saying he was homeless and starving and hadn't eaten in hours upon hours and if someone bought him food he'd eat it in front of them. Because he spoke loudly and his leg shook wildly when he sat too close to me, and he stared at the girl across from me and said, "She loves me not." I didn't give him a dollar, even though I had a dollar. Or maybe I just didn't like his hair or his Converse shoes looked too new or he didn't seem like a punk my punk friends would like. Maybe it was some sort of revolutionary test; how far will I go for the needy but obnoxious? I fail most revolutionary tests. Or maybe it was a larger test; to take to heart Gary Will’s assertion that the heart of Christianity is to not just ask what Jesus would do but to treat every person one encounters as if he or she is Jesus.
Anyway, I regret not giving him my dollar. Feels like I let Bernie Sanders and Jesus down.
Zachary Lipez is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.
Jason Bergman is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram.