Green Label Live, Northside: Luna Are Back Together. Here’s Why That’s So Great.
This weekend, Luna will be playing Green Label Live, in McCarren Park, as part of the Northside Festival in Brooklyn. We recommend you come and see the band that occupied 80% of the New York Times‘s coverage of said festival. Green Label contributor Anthony Pappalardo explains why.
Some of the best songs ever written about New York City aren’t about a street, a place, or a time—they’re about how those things feel. Do the Ramones even get to Rockaway Beach? Who cares? Little of the music that defines the city is by those who were actually raised here, and perhaps that’s because there’s too much noise. Instead, it’s the transplants like the rock band Luna that come here and suck the saccharine of New York City until the cavities in their souls create sounds—sounds that narrate what New York means to them.
Luna were one of the most beloved indie bands of the 1990s. They disappeared shortly after releasing their seventh album, Rendezvous, in 2005. Luna’s dissolution wasn’t predicated by a blow out or blow up; it was simply the choice to stop, because as lead singer Dean Wareham told Rolling Stone in 2004: “This is what bands do. We’ve been around for a long time. If you look at the other bands that stay together this long, they are usually making millions of dollars.”
If you missed Luna the first time around, you missed something sexy, and not in a creepy way. You see, whatever the hell the genre called indie rock is (which really has nothing to do with independent bands at all), also has nothing to do with romance; it’s a style of music where love is masked in cleverness. But that was never the case with Luna. No, led by Dean Wareham, Luna was a band that loved New York City, loved the chase, and loved love, along with the Velvet Underground and some other stuff.
But if it weren’t for a harsh break-up, Wareham may have never even found his swagger with Luna.
From 1987 to 1991, there would be no American indie act more academic than Galaxie 500. Wareham, a New Yorker by way of New Zealand, met Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang at The Dalton School, an Ivy League prep on the Upper East Side; they founded Galaxie 500 in Cambridge, MA, while they all attended Harvard.
Through Galaxie, Wareham developed a slack sound that journalists dubbed “dream pop.” Galaxie’s quiet expression of art, culture, and astute wordplay, yielded three acclaimed albums. Then Wareham, perhaps growing out of being in a band with a couple, and the general Boston area, quit.
Thus Luna was born. Perhaps it was the need for control that pushed Luna into directions his former outfit had never explored, but his new vehicle was clearly an extension of Wareham’s persona, with nods to the Velvet Underground, mixed with a miasmic take on French pop,
Twenty years ago, Luna released their third album, Penthouse, with Television’s Tom Verlaine and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab making guest appearances. If ever there were an album that deserved the term “swanky sleaze,” it was Penthouse, featuring Wareham’s ode to late nights in what could be the band’s most popular and catchy tune, “Chinatown.” Luna charged on as a working band, making national television appearances, touring the globe, and bolstering their following, but as fine as a songwriter as Wareham is, they never landed the breakthrough hit. Meanwhile the Gin Blossoms, Goo Goo Dolls, or whatever sterile take on power pop prevailed and grunge dirtied up the airwaves.
Luna was always at its best live, something that doesn’t always equal album sales. When Luna failed to crack the mainstream in the US despite charting well in the UK, it was eventually dropped, after their label called The Days of Our Nights “unmarketable.”
But to the fan base they’d amassed, since their inception, it didn’t matter what label was printed on the spines of their records, only that Luna was producing and playing.
Like many bands, Luna’s legend only grew in their absence, and they’ve done what other bands also do: reform. Luna were never a jam band, but they did jam, making part of the excitement seeing which songs would be stretched out live, which lyrics might poke through and stick in your brain, coming directly from Wareham’s mouth, and there was always something so civilized and proper about their performances, that felt like a throwback to when being a performer meant more than shock value. Like their contemporaries Mercury Rev or Yo La Tengo, Luna’s cool was not trying to be cool, but being collected and understanding the value of using the live setting to explore their songs, not just recreate them.