A new music festival amplifies the Jersey shore this Fall as Atlantic City becomes Frantic City, an all-day celebration of the energy, vibe and sounds of the Asbury Park days of the 70s and 80s. Frantic City will take place at the Orange Loop Amphitheater in downtown Atlantic City, steps from the famed boardwalk, with a line-up that includes Car Seat Headrest, Yo La Tengo, Snail Mail, Murder City Devils, Shannon and the Clams, Superchunk, The Raveonettes, Rocket from the Crypt, Samiam, Titus Andronicus, Protomartyr (feat. Kelley Deal) and Control Top, with the proceedings hosted by Fred Armisen. Featuring regional vendors, top-notch food options for all diets, a merch concierge (yup!), in a wonderful outdoor setting, Frantic City will be an experience not to be missed.
Frantic City is presented by two Jersey natives with a long history in the New Jersey music scene. Todd Abramson was the long-time booker at Maxwells in Hoboken, and now books White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, along with other events. Joe HoldFast was the owner of legendary Asbury Park record shop, HoldFast Records, and has been heavily involved in the revival of the Asbury Park scene. With Frantic City, the two, along with the team behind Bourré, are looking to breathe new life into Atlantic City.
Joe took time out from putting finishing touches on the festival to talk about its origins, the line-up, his long history in the alt-music scene and his personal love of reggae. We also talk about Atlantic City’s rejuvenation as a family vacation destination spot and the festival’s secret Bedrock connections.
Frantic City, huh? Who came up with that name?
Well, that was all Todd. I believe he stole that from The Flintstones.
I knew it! I’m a certified cartoon head so I love that. I love that. So what’s the idea behind the music festival?
We were approached by the people at Bourré, Atlantic City and we noticed there was kind of a missing link to the alternative rock scene and stuff like that. Obviously, a lot of bands are playing in Atlantic City. We notice places like the Anchor Rock Club, which is on New York Avenue, which is next to Bourré. They are doing some great bands and everything else but the owner said that they want something different; something that’s just a different part of the culture of Atlantic City that might be missing.
And you know, my background is, that I worked in Asbury Park; I ran clubs in Asbury Park. I was working at The Stone Pony. So I watched Asbury Park kind of grow from a spot where only punk bands would play. Only the punk rock kids were showing up for a long time. It was kind of like the Land of The Misfits for a long time there but then, I looked around and I said ‘you know, Atlantic City has this feel like it’s on its way back.’ And this festival, and the lineup we put together, will bring the right crowd to Atlantic City and show them it’s got a lot to offer. No. And I think the crowd that we’re going to draw really fits what Atlantic City needs, which is forward thinking people.
I like the focus on keying in on the audience that has returned to Atlantic City. More and more, you see families returning to having fun in Atlantic City. And with the Mamas and the Papas and the little kids, you also have that middle ground – the 18 to 30-year-old or so. They’re looking for something that speaks to their generation.
Let’s be honest – that’s the future of Atlantic City. It’s gonna be that 18-to-25-year-old that’s gonna decide they want to be part of this scene. They want to see it move forward. Everybody wants to be a part of something, so inviting our crowd down there and the crowd we will bring to see what Atlantic City has to offer is perfect.
Coming from my days at Asbury Park, I remember when you couldn’t walk down the boardwalk after eight o’clock. Now, you can’t find a parking spot. And a lot of that had to do with bringing in the alternative crowd, the punk crowd; people that don’t see the misery and don’t see all these bad things. What they see is an opportunity; they see a chance. They look at all the artwork and say ‘there are great artists here.’ There’s the Atlantic City Arts Foundation which does amazing stuff down there. We need to bring an audience to that and I think this is the right audience.
It makes sense that they come to you to pull this off because this is your backyard.
Yeah, it’s mine, it’s Todd’s. For us, we kind of learned some things working in areas people weren’t used to going to and people didn’t have on their radar. Sometimes it feels like a job and sometimes it feels like it’s right. This feels like it’s just right because people are going to be excited about seeing what they can do and see what’s already happening. And they’ll want to get behind it.
And those 18-to-25-year-olds – you know, maybe their parents will never see Atlantic City differently, but they will. It’s a different generation, the kids see things that, even me at 47, I miss. It’s really exciting. When you do the lineup, these are kids who are looking at the festival grounds on a satellite map. We weren’t doing that (laughs).
Very true (laughs)!
These guys are like ‘oh cool, there’s a nice bar right around the corner. So cool, we can stay at this hotel just three blocks away.’ That’s a really big thing. They’re seeing the world and Atlantic City a lot differently.
Now how does the lineup come together? How is Frantic City built?
Once again, that’s me and my partner, Todd. We did, pretty much what everybody who’s in music dreams of doing, which is sending lists of bands back and forth for days. It was, like, who would you want to see on that stage? You know, we kind of built the show we wanted to go to; like, would our friends want to go to the show? We wanted to do a nice flavor of some old stuff, some new stuff, you know, and kind of mix and match, so that people that showed up for Shannon and The Clams could get blown away by The Murder City Devils. You know, people that have shown up for Car Seat Headrest maybe have never ever heard of Superchunk. You never know, you never know.
That includes me because I’m a novice musically to the punk scene. So, I’m reading some of the names of the bands and I’m like, ‘well, they sound interesting, that sounds interesting,’ I know it’s like having to choose between your babies but, was there one group, one sound that you needed to really make this coalesce into what you envisioned?
Well, I can’t speak for Todd’s kids (laughs) but for me, it was The Murder City Devils. They’re one of those bands that have always grabbed me and they stopped playing 8-10 years ago, only doing a couple of shows since then. And, for some of us growing up, they’re one of those bands that hit you hard when you hear the songs. They kind of bring you back and, you know, there’s not too many bands that do that for people. But for the people that are into that band, it’s like a cult. It’s going to be a religious experience. It’s going to be, like, exorcizing the demons, so to speak.
Are you going to exorcize your demons, Joe?
I’ll be honest with you, man. I’m a reggae guy! (laughs) I grew up on punk and hardcore but I’m a super reggae nerd now. That’s all I own in my record collection. But when I had the chance to put Murder City Devils on this, Todd was like, “well…?” And I said, “no, no-no; if we’re doing this show, then that band has to be on.”
Oh man – I’ve done maybe a thousand shows at this point and it’s one of the only times where I was like, “this has to happen!”
You said they stopped performing regularly about 10 years ago. Was it a process to even get them to perform?
Todd just reached out and, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s like, when they saw the lineup – and we’ve got The Ravonettes and Murder City Devils – groups see that we’re throwing a really big party and they’re in.
I see that Samiam gets things started on Friday; kind of a pre-game show.
Yeah, right over at Bourré, across the street from the festival area, with Night Birds and The Ergs. Comedienne Natalie Cuomo is our emcee. Bourré is a great venue, 300-400 capacity. It’s going to be a little outdoor show; nice and intimate. I think people are really going to get into it. And then the next day, Samiam is doing a set on one of the big stages. That’s a great 24 hours.
And you’ve got Fred Armisen hosting the whole thing.
You gotta keep it weird, right? (laughs) We want to fill the downtime with the weird – get me Fred Armisen (laughs). We got a little creative on this, man. I’ve worked a lot of festivals and outdoor shows in Asbury, Giants Stadium, and everywhere else. It’s not too often when you look at a project and it’s, like, ‘oh, we’re allowed to do what we want?” and you get to do things that, for 20 years, you’ve been wanting to do. We’re doing things that we’ve never been able to do because everybody thinks one way.
Todd and I came up with the idea of a Merch Concierge, where if you buy something, you can leave it with the merch concierge and get it on your way out, so you don’t have to carry it all day.
Well, that’s different.
Yeah, because we have like 20 vendors. We have record vendors, closing vendors; people selling vintage antique stuff. You don’t want to carry all of that all day. You want to hang out all day. So – shop, bring it over, get a ticket (just a coat check), walk around all day, and turn in your ticket for your stuff when it’s time to go home. It’s so simple.
Let me ask you about your partnership with Todd. How did you two get together?
I owned my record shop in Asbury Park for over 10 years (Holdfast Records) and, from working in the clubs, me and Todd had a lot of friends in common. Just crossed paths – handshakes and hellos – and he was coming into the shop, hanging out. We got to talking more and more and more and one way or another, we started talking shows and this opportunity came up.
I think it was a good fit for both of us and we work pretty darn well together. We’re definitely two different people, you know what I mean? I’m a little more on the hustle, pretty aggressive. He’s definitely a little more prepared and planned and I’m like, ”let’s build it up, break it, build it again.” And it kind of works, you know.
That’s every good duo, you know? There’s one that’s the wild energy and there’s the other one that likes the wild energy and is not trying to box you in; they’re just giving you parameters.
Yes! It’s kind of crazy because, as well as being the one who’s said ‘if we’re gonna do this, let’s make it bigger; it’s only a day, let’s make it five days,’ I’m a complete super nerd when it comes to production. I measure everything down to the inches. I take logistics seriously; where we’re parking the buses is just as important to me as who’s on the stage. The flow of the crowd – make sure they can get to the food, make sure the bathrooms are easy to access.
The funny thing is, as much as Todd rains me in on the nutty, when we talk about production and that’s stuff, I usually out-nerd him about tenfold. But when it comes to the band and everything else, he nails it. He’s very good at what he does.
I’m really looking forward to Frantic City. I really appreciate the attempt to just do something different down there, in Atlantic City. And I love seeing that you’re teaming up with Showboat Hotel, which devotes all of their entertainment to being for families, for everyone; all inclusive.
Let me say this. As a guy who’s 16 years sober, I am really very open about that. And I’ve been working around musicians for years and some of these guys don’t want you to know that they’re sober. The Showboat offers an opportunity for a family to go there and hang out, Mom and Dad to have a few drinks; for a guy who’s sober to go down there and hang out.
Sometimes, you just don’t want to be surrounded by craziness. You can go on the go-cart. You can go play the games and have a normal night, and they are a very welcome thing on the Boardwalk. I don’t think anybody realized that they really needed it. So, you know, I’m going down there, I’m staying at the Showboat for four nights, for the weekend of the show. My son’s going to be there. My wife’s going to be there and and, you know, you couldn’t say that about Atlantic City 5 years ago, 10 years ago. I think Showboat’s offering something that some of these places just aren’t.
I remember when they first reopened with the family mindset and it looked like a tough way forward. I’m sure it could have been very easy for them to throw in the towel but they stayed straight and true and it’s proven to pay off for them.
Hey man, it’s like anything else, if you see the vision? Like, I’m down in Kingston a lot in Jamaica; that’s what I do, looking for records now. This guy said to me once, “if you keep moving forward sooner or later, you get momentum.” You know, it’s very simple, it’s obvious. It’s the most simple thing you can tell somebody, but I think the Showboat’s a very good indicator that they knew what they were doing. They know the direction they’re going and they’re just going to keep going there. And people are going to figure it out and get on board and they’re going to catch their momentum.
Okay. I want to do a bit of word association with you, just to give people an idea of the kind of festival they can expect. So I’m going to throw an act at you. You give me a word or the first thought that comes to your mind. Here’s the first one – Car Seat Headrest?
Saturday night, right around 2:30 a.m. (laughs) There you go.
Nuff said. Okay. Superchunk.
Geez, Superchunk. I guess I don’t know if I got a word for Superchunk; I love that band. One of my best memories is driving with a very good friend of mine on our way to a show that was horrible. But the ride was amazing and Superchunk was the soundtrack for that ride. They were a soundtrack to a lot of really good moments.
I’ll have to find you at the festival so I can hear the details of those “really good moments.” Let’s go with the Murder City Devils.
For me, being 16 years sober, Murder City Devils remind me of some very, tough times and some very dark songs with some very positive forward thinking and self-awareness.
And we’ll close with Shannon and The Clams.
They’re just fun as hell, man! They’re just a fun band. That band’s a party.
Before I let you go, I’m just curious. When did the changeover for reggae happen for you?
Tinnitus (laughs). I have severe tinnitus and honestly, a very good friend of mine was always a reggae nerd. I think it’s a natural progression. The punk rock, hardcore. It’s the same angst. It’s the same anger. It’s the same misfit kind of feeling, only the music’s slower. It’s Revolution, man. It’s just that they’re not yelling about. They’re singing about it. Yeah, yeah.
There’s a lot of comparisons between the alternative crowd, the punk, rock crowd and the Dancehall kids of the 80s and 90s; these guys were just looking for a place to go. They found a place to go and the soundtrack just happens to be reggae and for us over here at the soundtrack just happened to be punk and alternative music.
So are we going to find any reggae on the stages of Frantic City?
Not this year, but it’s been discussed; it’s been discussed. Trust me. When we start bringing some of those bands over here – look out!