Before the main stage bangers of Pygmalion’s packed Saturday line-up, I stared my day off by catching a couple songs from the C-U’s very own Boycut at Exile On Main, which has been providing free and all-ages shows all weekend for the community. The record store has a very colorful vibe on its own, adorned with records, tapes, CDs and other knick-knacks to peruse, but Saturday it was filled with the smooth synthpop tones and sweet musical stylings of Joe Meland and Emily Otnes (lead-singer of both Boycut and Tara Terra, the latter of which would later play the main stage at Pygmalion.) One of the highlights during the Boycut set was their cover of another local band, Elsinore, which was a beautiful rendition and showed the camaraderie and sense of family that exists in the local scene here in Champaign-Urbana.
Boycut at Exile On Main Street. Photo by Scott Wells.
Following Boycut’s set, I (as well as Emily) rushed over to the Highdive to check out the main stage where local band Tara Terra kicked off the action. I feel silly trying to tell people to check them out because after their 2014 release, the LP Daughter, I assume that pretty much everyone in the 217 has gotten a taste of them. If you haven’t, let me introduce you to their magic. The set went something like this: The indie/alternative sextet opened with a bright guitars and violin, layered over beautiful and intricate three-part harmonies delivered by the lovely voices of Emily Otnes, Alleya Weibel and Rachel Wilson. Then they crash into powerful riffs and chords, allowing guitarist Colin Althaus and bassist Nick Soria to drive through these melodies while Joey Buttlar, drummer extraordinaire, grooves effortlessly through toms and kicks. Saturday’s heat was no joke, but that didn’t stop a very sizeable crowd to show up early and cheer on their hometown heroes.
Tara Terra at The Highdive Outdoor Annex. Photo by Scott Wells.
Immediately following, on the stage just across the parking lot, was the commanding Sarah Jaffe. With her band, she gave a unique array of electro-pop jams as well as full band songs that could earn her spot among the Riot Grrrl bands. Switching between just a mic, to a six-string, to a bass, Sarah delivered an array of music that kept the entire crowd contented and engaged. “I grew up listening to a lot of different stuff, so I try to incorporate it all into my music,” Sarah told me after her set. “I’ve been in different relationships and all of those influence my work.” Jaffe’s set definitely included sounds from all around as she closed her set off with a song leaning more on the indie side of the fence.
Quirky, odd and energetic are words that fall short in describing Chicagoans NE-HI (whose name has many origins, but the one that Jason Balla, lead singer, is sticking to now is about a knee-high mini horse the band loves a lot) who were next up to deliver a massive set. These groovy alternative rockers combined the heavy and deep chords found in everyday alternative and threw in a sweet mix of indie tones, all while Jason Balla hopped and jumped around the stage. A band with similar gusto and sonic styling as FIDLAR, NE-HI easily delivered one of the most fast-paced and up-tempo sets of the festival. When asked where all his energy comes from, Balla said that his body was an extension of his instrument and the music has was playing. “Also Queen was one of the first bands I ever really got into. I like to do it big,” he said with a grin. While NE-HI is no Queen, they definitely delivered a big, big performance.
NE-HI. Photo by Stephen Kemp.
If there was an award for ‘most-polite-band-to-ever-exist,’ Portland pop band, Wild Ones, would definitely take the cake. “I’m so excited to be here! Thank you for having us,” lead singer Danielle Sullivan said sweetly before the start of their set. Sullivan took on a very spiritual aura as Wild Ones slid into a set that induced dream-like euphoria. Sullivan’s soft vocals melted into the glossy tones of synths during their performance of “Dim The Lights,” a single of their recent EP, Heatwave, released last month via Topshelf Records. “It took a long time to write,” she said to me, between greeting fans and selling merchandise after their set. “The recording wasn’t too bad, but we sat down and wanted to take a different approach to our sound, and it was a challenge to feel around new parts but eventually we got it.” That challenge paid off; during their set the entire crowd was swaying and dancing to the grooves of Wild Ones.
Tour mates and Portland-based as well, Pure Bathing Culture were next to take dazzle Pygmalion. I couldn’t catch much of their set but what I heard definitely impressed me. “Come down storm crow/Find your way back home” sang Sarah Versprille, on keys and vocals, to close out the first song they performed, “Dream The Dare” from their 2013 LP Moon Tides. The ambient noise of Pure Bathing Culture was in line with the dream world feel that Wild Ones delivered (which makes sense that they’d be touring together), and it constantly had a nostalgic pull to it.
Pure Bathing Culture. Photo by Stephen Kemp.
Singer-songwriter HANA graced the Pygmalion stage next. Once part of a band, HANA now writes and produces all her own music. This feat garners even more acclaim when one learns that she is opening for Purity Ring for the duration of their current tour… with only two singles floating about the internet-sphere. Watching her set live clears up all the questions on how a single woman could achieve such status in such a short time. With just some flashing lights, her keyboard/synth and a microphone, HANA caught all the Pygmalion goers in a trance with her songs. “I was in an abusive relationship for years,” HANA told me afterwards. “I’m just so excited to be able to make music I like and talk about these issues with my songs, and if I can inspire and empower young girls to take agency over themselves, then it makes it all worth it.” Despite the flowery sounds and pretty lights, HANA delivered a set filled with passion and sincerity; her story rang loudly in her words. “I want to be an example, a role-model,” she declared. HANA is currently working on compiling a full-length with no slated release date.
Purity Ring was not the last band of the night, but they had a crowd large enough to make me think that it was the end of the entire festival. Self-described as future-pop, the duo lit up Pygmalion with long strings of LEDs that took on the moods of each song. Corin, the man behind the booth, dazzled us with playing electronic lampposts that emitted light as well as sound. It would be a folly to merely describe the sound of Purity Ring—which is, by all means, enormous and beautiful—without also commenting on the intricate use of lighting and stage-equipment. Purity Ring is a musical performance and an art piece all in one, as lead singer Megan floats about the stage, crooning ghostly notes into the mic. As cliché as it is to say, watching Purity Ring definitely could be called a spiritual experience. There is something in the way she sings that simply reaches deep down inside the human spirit.
Purity Ring. Photo by Stephen Kemp.
The second to last act of the night brought together two local emcees/poets/rappers, T.R.U.T.H + KLEVAH, to the main stage action at Pygmalion. A festival filled with powerful lead front-women (a lack of which has put other festivals around the nation under fire) was perfectly rounded with these two women of color holding it down for the POC. In a time where social justice issues are gaining more and more attention and grounds, thanks to the widespread reach of social media, T.R.U.T.H + KLEVAH’s set comes at a time where the voiceless cherish and respect those that allow them to have a voice. Their second piece, “Say Her Name,” draws reference to the controversial death of Sandra Bland, and with the recent release of movie “Straight Outta Compton,” T.R.U.T.H + KLEVAH embody the same swagger and attitude that the Compton boys mustered to speak out against the injustices faced by minority groups and marginalized peoples.
T.R.U.T.H. + Klevah. Photo by Tom Chandler.
“Champaign, are you ready to Run the Jewels?” This question asked to the crowd was met with a roar almost as loud as the music that had been blasting all day and night. Run The Jewels is made up of duo El-P and Killer Mike. Only two years old as a duo, these rappers have taken the entire world by storm. Their first song incited jumping so heavy I actually felt the parking lot shake. A hype crowd and epic beats quickly turned the pit into a hot, sweaty mess despite the cold chill of the night. The smell of beer, smoke and human bodies were the tangible pieces of their performance; their music was on a different level. If you weren’t dancing, then you weren’t listening.
Killer Mike of Run The Jewels. Photo by Tom Chandler.
These guys know how to have fun, utilizing every inch of the stage to its full extent. The energy they bring to their performance most definitely earned them the headlining spot of the night. Their acclaim is so large that fans actually funded a $60,000 dollar Kickstarter remix their second album, Run The Jewels 2, entirely out of cat sounds and called it Meow The Jewels, which was released one day before their performance. “We absolutely love you guys for making Meow The Jewels happen, and we absolutely hate you guys for making Meow The Jewels happen,” they joked. The main stage extravaganza of Pygmalion’s Saturday sets ended with Run The Jewels, whose third album is in the works and is scheduled to be released next year.