To kick off my last day at The Pygmalion Festival, I returned the Highdives’ outdoor stage to see elecro-pop R&B duo Cathedrals. The singer and guitarist combo were joined by a touring bassist and drummer. Together, the entire collective of Cathedrals dazzled those that were undeterred by the earlier rain that washed over the festival. Dressed in a long, black dress and donning a black shawl to go with, the lead singer was a dark-pop witch as she twisted and turned her body to the music. Their styling combined the raw sound of guitars and drums churning with her vibrant, sensual vocals as well as smooth synth grooves. Cathedrals did well in employing an arsenal of songs that were both high in energy as well as a bit more subdued to provide some room for festival goers to relax and soak in the music.
Cathedrals at The Highdive Outdoor Annex. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
Following just across the lot was North Carolina pop duo, Sylvan Esso. Sylvan Esso was one of the few artists I had actually known about before the festival, and I was more than stoked to see them live. Acclaimed single, “Coffee,” brought on enough listeners to garner Sylvan Esso a massive crowd. Lead singer Amelia Heath popped onto stage with a cheery, “Hey!” before jumping into a song that had the entire crown bobbing and pumping their fists to the beat. Upon hearing them earlier, I was quite aware of Heath’s unbelievable vocal prowess. Her Pygmalion performance also revealed a spectacular talent for dancing. She glided across the stage while delivering her unique sound.
“We’re gonna play some new ones, is that okay?” She asked the crowd, and they responded quite favorably. The two new songs they performed received just as thunderous applause as “Coffee,” “Play It Right,” and “Hey Mami,” all singles released from the eponymous debut album released summer of 2014. “These are the last few shows we have before we’re going to our hidey-hole and recording a new album,” Heath told the crowd. If the new album keeps the same quality as the new songs heard, then Sylvan Esso are bound to find even larger success in the music world.
Sylvan Esso at The Highdive Outdoor Annex. Photo by Chris Davies.
Caspian is a four piece rock band drawing elements from post-hardcore and other heavier guitar workings. Here’s the catch: no one in the band sings. Similar to bands in the vein of Explosions In The Sky, Caspian is entirely instrumental. To make up for the lack of vocals, Caspian has a sound that is roaring and gargantuan. Their opening song came blasting in with a tribal drumbeat that immediately caught everyone’s attention. Caspian definitely was one of the hardest hitting bands of the festival, musically speaking. The drums would not quit, the guitars were screaming, the bass was booming. All the sounds were dark, grungy and brooding; Caspian is a band that capitalizes on the chaos of sound. But they are not simply just loud and boisterous, not at all. Midway through their set, Caspian slowed it down with a couple songs focusing on brighter tones and isolated notes that rang out overhead as the moon started to eclipse in the night sky (this isn’t me being dramatic, there was an actual eclipse happening.) Caspian ended their set with a solid crunch of guitars and slamming cymbals.
If you know shoegaze, then you know RIDE. Reuniting for a second time last year, RIDE came to Pygmalion as a stop on their American tour. Despite it being late on a Sunday night, Ride’s legacy helped them keep a sizeable crowd around to watch them hammer out an impressive hour and a half long set. “You should get ear-plugs,” a friend told me after finding out I was going to see the Oxford rockers. I found out quickly why: the sound that RIDE brings with the classic two guitars-bass-drums set-up is enormous. Heroes of the 90’s shoegaze movement, Ride hasn’t missed a stride in the 20+ years that have passed. Mark Gardener and Andy Bell (famous, as well, for his role as the Oasis bassist) kept the night alive with their legendary vocals. The guitars were sweet, the distortion sweeter, the effects pedals getting their work in; Ride still lives up to their name. True to the sentiments of shoegaze—this is a term that made fun of bands where the members would stand in place during their live shows and ‘gaze at their shoes’ in a manner that was detached and introspective (thank you Wikipedia for the quick lesson)—the members of RIDE didn’t do much moving around, but they didn’t have to. The sounds that brought them to fame in the 90s filled up the entire stage, the entire parking lot. With a waterfall of cymbals and powerful chords, Ride closed out the last performance at Highdive’s main stage.
Editor’s note: the term “shoegaze” can also refer to the amount of effects foot-pedals employed to create such noise and distortion, of which RIDE had many.
RIDE at the Highdive Outdoor Annex. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
Before I called it a night, I took a peek inside the Highdive to check out a couple songs from Grandkids. Before moving base to Chicago, Grandkids were based out of Urbana-Champaign and I have had the pleasure to see them kick it in cramped living rooms and packed basements. The growth from a basement band to a band playing quality venues was reflected in the growth of their music. Grandkids are a blend of indie, alternative and even hints of jazz. My roommate called them “an indie-rock Sylvan Esso,” which definitely speaks to the vocal prowess of lead singer Vivian McConnell, who had the biggest, beaming smile as they jammed to their C-U friends. Grandkids played a handful of new songs, telling the crowd that they’re sitting on a new album. All of the new songs have taken a new turn compared to their older material, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have them in our hands soon.
The biggest take-away I got from Pygmalion this year was girl power. Of the 72 listed acts, 28 of them were fronted/split-fronted by women. While there can always be a critique for more female representation in the music industry, festivals especially, Pygmalion’s numbers are much more accommodating compared to other acclaimed festivals which often have only a couple (or in some terrible cases, none) on their bill. In regards to inclusion, Pygmalion made an outstanding effort to have the festival foster the community as a whole, with extensions into the Tech, Lit and Made fest. Year after year, Pygmalion grows larger and larger, drawing more businesses, bands and fans to bring an amazing weekend to the C-U community. Pygmalion 2016 will definitely have it’s work cut out for it to beat the 2015 Pygmalion Festival.—Nishat Ahmed
Pygmalion has come and gone once again, so quickly that I can’t believe it is now Monday morning and I have receded into a basement office cave, a lifestyle much less flashy than the one I lived over the weekend. We haven’t been mentioning much about any of the other elements of the festival this weekend, besides music, but I’d like to note how special this year’s festival was in terms of my ability (and I assume, others’) to carve out my own experience.
I spent the weekend darting around Champaign-Urbana, catching a Ryley Walker show here and a conversation between Smashing Pumpkins drummer and entrepreneur Jimmy Chamberlain and Pitchfork editor Brandon Stosuy on immediacy in music there. I saw friends of mine do Lit Fest readings and play in bands (and get a little bit too turnt). I got to meet Jessica Hopper. I got to watch an empowering performance by T.R.U.T.H. and Klevah, two amazing local rappers who shined so brightly they made everybody at the fest take a step back then five steps closer. I saw RIDE perform an acoustic set at Exile On Main Street (which they played off as an excuse to go crate digging). I had my first C.L.A.W. experience, which had me grinning ear to ear. I got to watch a fucking lunar eclipse to crushing post rock and shoegaze bands, for chrissake!
RIDE performing acoustic at Exile On Main Street. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
What I’m getting at is that I made Pygmalion into a rewarding experience for myself, with tech talks, lit readings, some window shopping at Made Fest and of course, music. It all came together for me, and I hope, for you as well. Here’s to hoping next year is an even bigger and better Pyg.—Maddie Rehayem