An insane variety of international beers, live music to jam to, and a cup to refill repeatedly sounds like a hophead’s dream, but it was a reality this past weekend at Governors Island, where OctFest, a ‘Beer, Music & Food Celebration’ presented by Pitchfork and October, went down swimmingly in spite of rainy conditions. The sold-out Saturday/Sunday bash not only gave us a chance to taste some rare and delicious imported beers, but ride out the buzz with a wide range of impressive live acts – plus a fuck-the-rain crowd who kept grooving all weekend in ponchos and umbrellas. Navigating the seemingly endless selection of brews – which were well organized by region, allowing one to travel the world three ounces at a time – the 15 samples a day included with all tickets turned out to be a big supply, and the lineup was well spaced to avoid overlapping sets and allow time for sipping. We had a lot of fun on day one of the 2018 fest (in its second year), which kicked off on Saturday, September 8th.
We found one of the best brews right off the bat when we tried Radeberger’s Schöfferhofer Grapefruit, a kickass 50/50 Hefeweizen/Grapefruit blend from Germany with a pink hue to match its radiant flavor (at just 2.5% ABV), which was much discussed among festival-goers. Even better, kicking off all the music with just her powerful voice and a loop pedal, Madison McFerrin – whose musical style hearkens back to her father’s work in a neat way – coaxed an early crowd over with a super-smooth a cappella cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” followed by songs from her own recent EP, this year’s Finding Foundations: Vol II. Not long after, we were enjoying Brewery Ommegang’s fresh and mellow Witte (5.2% ABV) from Cooperstown, New York, and watching Flasher rock around the stage. The D.C. band brought a coastal, 80s vibe to the rainy scene and got the audience dancing to a fun cover of Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
Several beer lovers could be seen rocking lederhosen and dirndl dresses in true Oktoberfest fashion as they roamed the festival grounds, which were intimate, grassy, and easy to navigate. That was good planning, considering how many beers were within reach, including some nice imports – like Boxing Cat Brewery’s Ringside Red, a malty, toffee-flavored lager with a glowing red tone, all the way from Shanghai, China. The chill crowd dug the retro dream pop sound of Australian singer-songwriter Hatchie – also known as the bassist/vocalist for indie rock band Babaganoüj – who played songs from her debut EP, Sugar & Spice, released earlier this summer. Then, ensuring anyone tipsy was wide awake, Brooklyn free jazz/experimental band Standing on the Corner brought an aggressively trippy performance of spoken word, brass, sax, distortion, drums, guitar, and even a screwdriver to the Skyline stage.
There was a lot about OctFest that really rocked, but one aspect that was lacking was the ‘Food’ part of the bill, simply because there wasn’t enough of it. The ratio of food vendors to beer vendors was surprisingly low, given how snacky beer drinkers tend to be, and some of the food lines on day one were consistently over an hour-long wait – with several spots even running out of ingredients and closing before 7pm. Those willing to sacrifice some music or beer time to score food were rewarded, though, because there were some great artisan restaurants representing at the fest. We loved the authentic taste of Colonia Verde’s carnitas tacos with coffee-rubbed braised pork, served on blue corn tortillas with a zesty house-made salsa verde. A lucky pick for a pairing, the smooth and spicy White IPA from Bushwick’s Braven Brewing Company was the perfect match for the meal.
Like most of the weekend, it was a good time for another beer, and we were excited to get a hold of Hertog Jan’s Grand Prestige Vintage from 2009, all the way from the Netherlands (listed in the “certified beer nerd” section of the schedule) and aged to a strikingly deep and dynamic flavor. We were even more excited to catch Cameroon-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Vagabon, a.k.a. Laetitia Tamko, whose cool lo-fi sound was fuelled by her dexterous guitar work and one-of-a-kind voice – particularly on the memorable “Sharks,” during which she describes herself as “just a small fish.” Keeping the good vibes high, Canadian art punk/noise rock outfit Preoccupations had the intoxicated crowd thrashing happily in what was one of the hardest-rocking sets of the day, featuring songs from their latest studio album, this year’s New Material.
Finding a big, eager crowd awaiting his set, Chicago’s SABA brought real-deal rap and fast, thoughtful verse to the Island stage, which was getting increasingly slick and reflective in the weather. “I know it’s raining down there,” SABA said early on. “It’s raining up here too, so if I’m gonna give you that energy, you all gotta give it right back, alright? We’ve got an agreement,” he proclaimed warmly, wrapping them around his finger even more. After he crushed his set, we soaked up the flavor of the Indian Summer Ale from Australia’s 4 Pines Brewing Company, a light and refreshing treat (4.2% ABV) with hints of honeydew and passionfruit. Moments later, we were buried in more good music. Backed by her fantastic live band, British singer-songwriter NAO unleashed her classic sound and wide-ranging vocal power on the audience, who were hooked on her moves and energy, especially on fan favorites like “Happy” and “Inhale Exhale.”
Before the festival’s 8pm booze cut-off (which seems oddly restrictive for a beer-focused fest), we had time to taste both the DayTrip West Coast Lager and the seasonal SunSetter Peach Wheat Ale from Vancouver’s Stanley Park Brewing, which were uniquely refreshing and light as air. Of course, we didn’t need any buzz at all to enjoy the much-anticipated set from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, which was fully acoustic, vocally stunning, and a special treat for the many fans who made up his large, affectionate crowd. Tweedy’s generous 15-song setlist covered a number of Wilco hits – like “I am trying to break your heart” (which he played second), “Impossible Germany,” and “Jesus, Etc.” – as well as some Uncle Tupelo surprises – including “New Madrid,” “We’ve Been Had,” and “Acuff-Rose.”
He was the headliner for us, as the rain unfortunately came down harder for Vince Staples’ set and made it a risky environment for cameras. Admittedly, we wondered if day two of OctFest would end up pulling in a smaller crowd due to the weather, or even being cancelled. Luckily, Sunday went on rain or shine, and ended up being as much of a blast as day one.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley