At 50 Varick Street, the day before the Tribeca Festival's Battle of the Bands, held in partnership with "The Drunken Canal," two security guards stood in front of an elevator poring over the newest issue of the downtown zine: "It's cute. It's interesting, quirky," one of them told me.
For all that's been thrown at the Dimes Square scene—overwrought and underbaked takedowns published seemingly weekly, entire plays devoted to examining its excesses, profiles on the connection between more senior members of the scene and Peter Thiel's shady cashflow—it strikes me that "The Drunken Canal," a real, physical newspaper founded by Claire Banse and Michelle "Gutes" Guterman in 2020 and distributed in unmarked newspaper boxes, has gotten a bad shake. Though now inextricably associated with cocaine, Caroline Calloway, LES rich kid cool, and pernicious, new-right politics, "The Drunken Canal" hasn’t ever really claimed to be anything but a clever, stylish zine that's mostly committed to the universal truth that it's both fun and funny to gossip with your friends.
Might that look pretty frivolous to some, especially those who didn’t grow up moneyed in Manhattan? Certainly. But my point is that they're not hurting anyone. Sure, it's a club, full of winks and in-jokes. And last Sunday at Baby's All Right, for 30 dollars, you could be in it, or some corporate-sponsored simulacrum of it, one that was attempting to trade on what the media class has anointed as downtown cool. The Battle of the Bands came complete with a liquor sponsorship—Johnnie Walker—and judges worthy of the money clearly spent—the NYC rapper Despot; one half of Chromeo; Nick Sansano, an NYU professor and the producer of two Sonic Youth classics; and Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Puja Patel, before she dropped out the day before due to a scheduling conflict.
Inside the club, while there were a fair share of Tribeca lanyard-holders packed into Baby's, the majority of the crowd didn't seem like they were there to rub elbows. "How is this associated with Tribeca? It's really weird. But it's an open bar,”one young attendee pondered over a cigarette.
One possible answer to that confused attendee's question? James Murdoch's money. Back in 2019, the "good Murdoch" bought out the Madison Square Garden Company to become the majority shareholder in Tribeca, dropped "Film" from the Festival's name, and rebranded it into what the official site this season is calling "the entertainment experience of the year!" (Exclamation mark their own.)
The new Tribeca is eager to assure you they're still playing movies, but, inspired by the metastasizing success of similar festivals, is perhaps just as excited to introduce its gaming, audio storytelling, and immersive verticals. Kicked into a new gear, and flush with cash, Tribeca Festival 2022 seemed willing to try anything once. Why not make a few bets?
"I think it's going well," said Banse, midway through the event. "We've got judges who've got a good take on it, we've got a packed room, we've got some stars on stage, we've got a lot of different whiskey sponsors." She added, "I don't drink whiskey but I'm learning to."
For all of the corporate money thrown at trying to infuse some of the young zine's current vibe into Tribeca’s increasingly confused brand, this was an old-fashioned affair: six bands, three rounds, a slate of judges—and a lot of alt-rock. If some in the crowd sporting khaki shorts were worried they weren't hip enough for the evening, the opening salvo of a band called Wild Mothers would’ve been more than enough to dispel theirdoubts. "How many of you like sex?" the group's cowboy-hat wearing bassist deadpanned. "And how many of you like space? Well, here's a song about sex in space," he announced, before launching into a song that bore a noticeable resemblance to Train’s "Drops of Jupiter." (If their inclusion spoke to the event's intrinsic corniness, they were, alas, quickly eliminated.)
The judges made the most of it. "Everybody’s got it," said Dave 1, of Chromeo, at one point. "No one sucked." There were some bright spots—Programmique, who opened up the affair, were dark, tight, and brooding. Queer artists like Michael Incognito or Moon Kissed—dance-punky and bedroom-poppy, respectively—were experts at courting an audience, and clear fan favorites. Of Lazlo and the Hidden Strength, another judge, the rapper Despot, had this to say: "They seemed like a band that met at jazz school."
In the end, the judges picked a dark horse as the winner—Stella Rose and the Dead Language, a band I had counted out from their first song for sounding a little too much like Rage Against the Machine and for their guitarist's AC/DC schoolboy look. It was an unfashionable choice, beating out clear fan favorites and Drunken Canal affiliates for the top spot. Their prize? A cool $500. Come on, James.