[above — Don Gerard introduces Braid on Saturday night]
Roberta Sparrow (Red Herring, 6:00 p.m.)
I was determined to see this band because I’d never seen them before and they’ll be breaking up soon. So this was my first Roberta Sparrow concert, indeed my first punk rock concert. I can’t say that I’ll ever be a fan of punk rock music (except the “sell-out” kind like Green Day and The Clash), but I enjoyed this show. These three guys love what they do, and that is infectious. It took me a few songs to get into it, but once I did, I had a hell of a good time. Maybe it was just me adjusting to a show the likes of which I’d never experienced before, but each song was an improvement on the previous one, and by the end, I was actually dancing. In public.
And to the six guys singing and moshing up front: you were as enjoyable to watch as the band.
Midnight Magic (Canopy Club, 6:30 p.m.)
I was only able to see two songs by this band, but wow. I’m so glad that I arrived in time to discover Midnight Magic. Soul, funk, blues, rock, horns, drums, guitars, and most especially Tiffany Roth’s strong, sensual, glorious vocals. I was so delighted by her: this combination of Christina (at her best), Cheryl Bentyne, and Adele. And she’s effing gorgeous, too.
I wish that I’d been able to enjoy more of this band. I plan to remedy that in the future.
Midstress (Red Herring, 7:00 p.m.)
I would assume being in a punk band and having a member of Cap’n Jazz and American Football watching your set could be pretty unnerving, but if Midstress noticed Mike Kinsella standing side-stage, they ignored him. Their set drew heavily from songs slated for an upcoming full-length, as well as last year’s Turn Up the Brilliance, and was capped off by a phenomenal cover of Nirvana’s “Breed”.
Washed Out (Canopy Club, 7:30 p.m.)
I wasn’t sure how this whole glo-fi/chillwave thing was going to work out live, especially in a bigger venue like the Canopy Club. Jeremiah even quoted the band in his preview as saying it was always a challenge to get the aesthetics of a lo-fi sound to shine through the kind of system at a venue like this. I’d say things worked out just fine.
Other than the house mix, which I thought could have used some more volume on those high-end synths, Washed Out put on a very entertaining set. Their sound was downright theatrical at times. Not quite “epic,” but I was enjoying one pretty song after another with a constant mix of unpredictable drumming that provided structure without getting repetitive. The highlight for me, though, was Greene’s vocals. It isn’t every day you hear such soothing lower vocals.
I also thought Greene did a great job engaging a very eager crowd who constantly clapped and swayed throughout the show. He was engaging but gracious, never cocky, and I respect that a lot.
I looked forward to watching Washed Out’s set not only because of the music, but also because Ernest Greene just seems like a genuine dude. I had a chance to catch up with him again briefly a couple of times during the night and got an update on his status on The Wire — one of his ongoing escapes during touring — and found out that the band enjoyed their meal from Xinh Xinh. I had no idea that his music was such a thing with all the frat guys, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying the set, even if I did feel old and out of place up front. The standout songs for me were “Soft” — which sounded like mermaids playing keyboards to me — along with the hit “Feel it All Around,” and “Far Away,” which closed the night for them and left me feeling pretty mellow and actually intact.
Grave Babies (Red Herring, 8:00 p.m.)
Definitely the loudest thing I heard all weekend, Grave Babies were a brutal wash of drum machines, echo and distorted guitar. Highly enjoyable, if you can deal with the permanent hearing loss…
Jill Andrews (Caffe Paradiso, 8:00 p.m.)
After Washed Out played at Canopy, I wandered down to see some alt-country down at Caffe Paradiso. Jill Andrews has played in town before, but this was my first chance being able to catch her live and I was blown away. Her voice is amazing. It’s sometimes delicate, sometimes forceful, and always engaging. Jill played with a backup band that really supported her well. The drummer played a pared down kit and mainly used brushes, and her guitarist — I believe his name was Josh Oliver — absolutely played some beautiful slide electric guitar.
I was really impressed with the turnout at Paradiso. The audience was really attentive. As for that space as a venue, well, I thought the acoustics were pretty good and the sound guy was doing his best; the baristas, however, were doing their worst (more on that later). If you haven’t ever listened to Jill you really should. She has a very endearing sound and there is an honesty in her vocal stylings that is really lovely. Some stand-out tracks were “Sound of the Bells,” “Mirror” and “Blue Eyes”
Cut Copy (Canopy Club, 8:45 p.m.)
Cut Copy totally out headlined the other headliners of Pygmalion this year. This was the craziest, most enthusiastic crowd I have ever seen at Canopy. People were crowd surfing; everyone on the main floor was jumping and dancing the whole show; the crowd was singing along to every hook and the band was begging for more during every song. This was an interactive dance pop show if I have ever seen one.
What surprised me most about this show was how much of their older material the band stuck to throughout the night. When I spoke to their bassist last week he was all about the new material and getting it out there, but live they were pouring in one old hit after another. I guess there is such a thing as giving the people what they want. And they wanted, real bad.
I thought the sound was pretty good. This was way more forceful than Washed Out and I think Cut Copy is used to the bigger venue thing by now. If anything, this was a small venue for them. I had the same complaint about Cut Copy’s sound as I did with Washed Out: the high end was just really not coming through enough and that is a shame because so much of their music relies on those synth hooks.
Like I said, in my mind these were the headliners of the festival. Are the Explosions guys better musicians? Well, yes, no question about it. But this was the full-on, sweat-inducing kind of show that festivals are made for, and Cut Copy owned that stage Friday night.
I enjoyed them in the sense that their energy was great and that transferred over to a crowd that was one of the better ones I’ve seen at Canopy. Apparently, Cut Copy is quite the thing for all the college kids. A guy in front of me with America shades turned and yelled “America!” and I appreciated the irony as we watched the Australian band do their thing on stage. It made me forget for a moment that he was a foot taller and that he had decided that standing right in front of me was the best place to be. So I just focused on the crowd and hoped that maybe I could hear a New Order cover or something at some point.
This show was one of the most unique (second only to The Duke of Uke ) and fun performances that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live show where the band had a more enjoyable time while performing. Even if I’d not liked the music (I did, very much, especially “Lights & Music”) and even though I did not like Dan Whitford’s voice (I didn’t, very much), the combined splendidness of the songs, the dancing, the entire band’s choreography, the view (from the balcony) of the audience raising its arms and jumping in unison, and the light effects…well, I couldn’t have helped but have a great time.
As is my wont when I first encounter a new band, I tried to categorize them: “Oh they’re a pop band … wait, they’re new-punk … no, they’re techno … electronica?” It seems to me that they’re a little of everything (except, maybe new-punk; I have no idea what I was thinking there). By the end of the concert I’d decided that their official genre — according to me — is “Awesome.” I loved everything about their show.
And whatever they’re paying the light effects person, it’s not enough.
Ivan & Alyosha (Channing-Murray, 9:30 p.m.)
I attended Ivan and Alyosha’s show because their band is named after characters from The Brothers Karamazov. Also, Tim Wilson seemed like a nice guy in his interview with Chris. I arrived about five minutes after they’d started, and I was happy to see a pretty large crowd in Channing-Murray attending the show. I was also happy because Ivan & Alyosha is an incredibly good band.
After spending almost two hours listening to synthpop and electronica (as wonderful as that was), it was great to enjoy a band that is heavy on the guitars (three of the members play guitar). Ivan & Alyosha play a type of rock/bluegrass/folk fusion and when they’re all banging their guitars at once during the choruses, they own the stage. Wilson’s voice is beautiful, and when the entire band harmonizes it’s glorious.
This is one of the few bands from which I bought a CD immediately after the show’s end.
Jessica Lea Mayfield (Caffe Paradiso, 10:00 p.m.)
After Cut Copy it was back to Paradiso for another round sultry acoustic tunes by a lady with a beautiful voice. I got there as the first song was ending and was very happy to see the place was packed. I kept having to peek in between tall dudes wearing fedoras just to catch a glimpse from the back (isn’t there a rule that says no more than one fedora in a room at a time?!).
The place was full and the crowd was very attentive and very into it. Jessica commanded the crowd very well and did a great job playing through the constant espresso machine squeals. Quick rant: Really?! You can’t turn the espresso machine off while music is playing at your coffee shop? I get it is a business, but it was ridiculous. This is beautiful, delicate music and that always takes priority over your cappuccino. Both Jill Andrews and Jessica played through the noise and kept their composure well.
I don’t know Jessica’s catalog extremely well, but I want to get to know it now. She accomplishes such a full emotional range with just her guitar and pipes and that was very impressive to see live.
I was told that I couldn’t miss her set at Caffe Paradiso and I’m glad that I heeded that advice. It was a nice change-up during a pretty intense, loud Friday night. My favorite was “For Today,” a song that makes you want to be a part of a relationship that won’t work out just so you can express your painful disregard about how you “love the sound of [someone] walking away.” I think it was Joel who wrote about her eyes in the Pygmalion Oddsmaker. Whatever the case, she totally did want me and pretty much everyone there. Those eyes were killer until she stopped playing and became cutely awkward drinking her coffee and whispering to the captivated crowd.
Grandkids (Channing-Murray, 10:30 p.m.)
This show demonstrated the evolution of Grandkids from a folk group to a rock band. The acoustics in the chapel fit their sound perfectly, and the band killed on new songs like “Gold Rain”, whose soaring harmonies and jazzy drum lines sounded downright epic in the chapel. They played a second new tune (“Sticks and Stones”) before closing with a brand new song written earlier in the week. The exception to the new material was a raucous version of “Ethylene”, but it was clear that the group has grown hugely since recording the song roughly a year ago.
The Luyas (Channing-Murray, 11:30 p.m.)
I’m ready to call The Luyas and Dodos concert my favorite of the entire festival. This, without having seen Ivan and Alyosha or Grandkids (the opening bands) and without giving Saturday or Sunday’s performers a chance to earn the (arbitrary) distinction.
As soon as I heard the Luyas I was amazed. Their integration of keys with Wurlitzer, bells, french horn, and guitar was phenomenal. But this was all eclipsed by the quality of the beats they created. In particular on the song “Too Beautiful to Work,” the band put forth so much energy and excitement that it was impossible not to feel good listening to them. With Jessie Stein’s delicate voice hovering above the clatter, the Luyas create a captivating brand of indie rock that is very special, especially in a live setting.
The Dodos (Channing-Murray, 12:30 a.m.)
The energy of the Luyas was met and surpassed by the Dodos, whose performances was furious and magnificent. Meric Long plucked his guitar with vigor, and with each note the crowd responded as if feeding off the vibrations from his strings. Logan Kroeber’s drumming was fantastic, matching the intensity of Long and somehow remaining perfectly in time and as flawless as on record. The band played a smattering of songs from their records, but none excited as much as “Black Night” and “Good” from their latest album, No Color. None were as beautiful, in my opinion, as “Walking” and “Red and Purple,” which flowed seamlessly together and left me in awe.
Seeing either of these bands would have been a highlight of Pygmalion this year, but in tandem these two groups went above and beyond my expectations and truly put on an amazing show. But, I, along with many other festival goers, might not have been able to see it if not for the work of Seth Fein. Just before the Luyas played, the line to get in to Channing-Murray stretched from the door to the street, with security maintaining a one-in-one-out policy. Fein worked his magic and made sure that everyone who waited in line was able to see the concert. I don’t know exactly how he made it all work, but I know that he worked very hard to appease the fans and for that, among many other reasons this weekend, he deserves praise.
One of the sets I was most excited about didn’t disappoint me. Sure, I was a little drunk by the time they came on around 12:30, but it was my favorite performance of Pygmalion. It was hot and it was cramped in Channing-Murray, but the sound was refreshing after so much time at Canopy Club. I’ve really come to love duos over the years and these guys really know what they’re doing up there. The sound was full and they were precise and energetic the whole set. They played most of the favorites and even “Undeclared,” a song they don’t typically play live because Meric has to take his voice so high. He struggled and laughed about it all and we soaked it up.
Owen (Exile on Main St., 2:00 p.m.)
Mike Kinsella played some songs, including an incredible version of “New Leaves”, and talked fantasy football with the small crowd that turned out early. In other words, it was an Owen show. Apparently he starts Philip Rivers.
Joan of Arc (Highdive Annex, 2:30 p.m.)
I came in from Owen’s performance to join this set in progress, just as the band were ripping through an epic version of “I Saw the Messed Binds of My Generation”. While their set drew almost entirely from this year’s Life Like, “Excitement is Exciting” (from 2003’s In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust) was a definite highlight, skittering over the sparse early crowd as the sun shone.
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (Highdive Annex, 3:20 p.m.)
These guys seem to play town every other month, but they just have too much fun on the stage to not enjoy. They’re dependably great, and sometimes it’s nice to know what you’ve signed up for in advance..
Asobi Seksu (Highdive Annex, 4:10 p.m.)
The first truly interesting set of the day came from Asobi Seksu, whose crisp distortion clashed with Yuki Chikudate’s washed out vocals to create a narcotic effect. The band’s ample supply of volume and pounding drums from ex-Glassjaw member Larry Gorman ensured that a sufficient sense of distant foreboding remained to keep the crowd from collectively mainlining on shoegaze. When the band closed their punctual set with a Jesus and Mary Chain cover, the skies seemed to sense the undercurrents and threatened to rain, only to clear and the band left the stage.
Evil Tents (Exile on Main St., 4:30 p.m.)
I saw this band because of word-of-mouth and I’m glad that I did. I was able to escape the Polyvinyl craze for a bit and just chill out on the floor of Exile with some candles, sparse vocals, attentive melodies and guitar. The whole thing had a very sexy, sultry tempo and vibe, including “Rainy Day Girl,” a song about the model Twiggy.
Deathtram (Mike ‘N Molly’s, 5:00 p.m.)
When I wandered out of the Highdive in search of cheaper food, I walked by Deathtram kicking up an incredible racket (seriously, it was loud) to a large audience in the beer garden. Having jumped up the ladder from solo act to a two, four and now five piece ensemble, the band’s live show has moved from politely interesting to a full-on rock and roll experience.
These days, it’s a joy to see a straight-up rock and roll band. Deathtram was fantastic from start to finish.
STRFKR (Highdive Annex, 5:40 p.m.)
Despite courageously playing through some nasty sound problems, STRFKR simply suffered from a lack of energy and enthusiasm. They simply never fully got going, and the crowd never really started to move, despite their mastery of multiple instruments and ample beats.
Xiu Xiu (Highdive Annex, 6:40 p.m.)
By far one of the strangest and somewhat scariest performances I have seen. I couldn’t look away during the set though. It was just plain weird and very German feeling to me. I think their stuff might work well in a John Waters film. I hope none of them are ever mad at me for any reason.
Japandroids (Highdive Annex, 7:50 p.m.)
The duo sucked me in with their energy and noise. It provided some escape to my Pygmalion “synthdoms” that I started to develop sometime Friday. It was nice to see something a little more straight-forward and I hadn’t really heard the word “fuck” as many times as Brian King (guitar, vocals) spit it out since I last watched The Big Lebowski. It also induced some good ol’ ponytail swinging fun from two dudes and a lady who were quite entertaining to watch. Good times.
Despite some pretty brutal sound problems and a broken drum stool early in their set, Japandroids blew through their set on the strength of their stage energy alone. After opening with a sequence of new songs, the band went into some older material such “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Rockers East Vancouver” that drew a massive crowd response. When they closed with a furious cover of the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy”, we were rocking at maximum.
I danced in public again.
Deerhoof (Highdive Annex, 9:10 p.m.)
I’ve dreamed of seeing Deerhoof play their wildly obscure music in a live setting for years, and when the moment finally arrived last Friday night, they shattered my already inflated expectations. The band played in the back lot of the Highdive as a part of Polyvinyl’s 15th year anniversary showcase; they were alongside nine other bands on the label’s roster including Xiu Xiu and Japandroids.
As is to be expected, the band played a number of songs from their newest album Deerhoof vs. Evil such as “Lets Dance the Jet” and “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” They also played a good handful of older tunes including, “The Perfect Me” and “Tears of Music and Love.”
Perhaps the most endearing quality of the set was that no one song was played exactly as it was recorded. There were a plethora of improvised “jams” (I can hardly use the term) built into many of the songs, featuring screaming feedback solos and drum breaks with more odd-meter bars than toms on the kit.
And you’d think that music this technical and experimental would alienate a crowd, but surprisingly, the result was quite the opposite. I was surrounded by fans singing (more like screaming) along with Satomi Matsuzaki as she danced and jumped around the stage, holding the microphone out to the crowd for a call and response, or making playful hand gestures to act out her lyrics.
On the whole, I haven’t genuinely enjoyed a concert this much in quite a while. Deerhoof brought to life music that was both experimental and incredibly fun. My only wish is that they could have played a little longer.
Frank Maloney and the Dolt City Ramblers (Mike ‘N Molly’s, 10:00 p.m.)
These guys had been slingin’ beer every night during the festival for us drunkards so I couldn’t help but check it out. The three of them are the most entertaining bartenders I’ve ever been around so I figured they had to be fun on stage. Mike ‘N Molly’s ended up pretty busy during their set — it must have been the talk about porno mags, whiskey and masturbation that brought out the best of us to see it. My trip back to the Highdive and then to Canopy Club felt a little mind-numbing after the ramblin’ honkey tonk fun I had watching these guys.
Braid (Highdive Annex, 10:30 p.m.)
Despite a noticeably thinned crowd post-Deerhoof, Braid started their show on their feet and running. After a quick intro from Don Gerard and a subdued opener that I didn’t recognize, they went straight for the collective jugular with the unbeatable Frame & Canvas trio of “The New Nathan Detroits”, “Killing a Camera” and “Never Will Come For Us”. Bodies soon began flying through the crowd, and I don’t think there was a single person there who wasn’t singing along at the top of their lungs. The band’s new material, despite what Pitchfork may say, sounded terrific live, and the energy was unrelenting throughout their ninety minute set. After a raucous version of “Do You Love Coffee?”, the band closed with a bittersweet “I Keep a Diary”, and went their separate ways, presumably for another long hiatus. In a word, it was perfect.
The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra (Boltini, 12:00 a.m.)
The Duke of Uke and his Novelty Orchestra played an excellent set to a crowded, disinterested group of Boltini patrons on Saturday night. The versatile seven-piece ensemble gamely packed themselves into a space more fit for a duo and entertained those willing to momentarily glance upward from their appletinis. The group’s enthusiasm and lovely vocal harmonies were a welcome warm-up after a chilly end to the outdoor show.
Bass Drum of Death (Mike ‘N Molly’s, 12:00 a.m.)
I made it in to catch the second half of the Mississippi punk group’s set, and immediately regretted missing the first. Their speed and aggression were unmatched by any other artist at the festival this year ― a whirlwind of sweat, white light and noise.
The Dirty Feathers (Mike ‘N Molly’s, 1:00 a.m.)
Shortly before the Dirty Feathers were set to start, I looked out the back fence and realized there was an honest to god line of people waiting to get into Mike ‘N Molly’s (I suppose being the closest bar to the just-emptied Highdive will do that). The band obviously took notice, and played their guts out to a very drunken crowd, including members of Japandroids. After an intro from a beautifully intoxicated Tom Pauly, the band took the stage to a wash of fog, strobes, and colored lights. Burning through every song on the just-released Midnight Snakes, with a guest saxophonist and assistance from Elsinore’s Dave Pride on tambourine, the band and crowd were more than happy to rock away into the night.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Highdive, 10:30 p.m.)
Elsinore kicked the final night off to a packed house and most of those people stuck around to see Big Troubles and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I thought Pains put on a stellar performance. They don’t overwhelm you with any on-stage antics, they let the music speak for itself and that is what I always want out of a shoegaze show.
They opened up with “Belong,” the first track on their latest album of the same name. I dig this approach. If a song is good enough to open your album it should be engaging enough to open your live show as well. I was really impressed with Kip Berman. His vocals were smooth without being doused in reverb and his guitar hooks carried the show for me. I did wish I could hear more of the delicate harmonies from the keyboardist, but I guess that is something you sacrifice in favor of loud, effected rhythm guitar.
It was great to finally hear some music inside of Highdive at Pygmalion this year. The sound there is always pretty great and it holds so many folks without feeling overwhelming; I think it is a really underutilized venue in Champaign.
Evil Tents and Washed Out photos by Jeremiah Stanley; Deathtram photo by Ben Valocchi; all other photos by Chris Davies