By: Julian Towers
There’s one can’t fail trick for figuring out whether a band is really up to snuff live: watch them play a bad show. Without an in-house fanbase, or, at the very least, properly outfitted scenesters (y’know… goths) to reflect back their energy, musicians are forced to turn sniffling inward for their confidence. Because whoever lurks in that crowd, be it coors-snorting frat dudes or “super-cool” parents who’ve never heard of babysitters—they’re not giving anything back.
Small music festivals, of course, are made up of both demographics, which is why it was no surprise to find last weekend’s two-stage extravaganza, “Do-Division Street Fest,” a hilariously overdetermined, practically self-generating ecosystem of performance anxiety. With traffic piled up all over Wicker Park, and an optional ten dollar donation as the only barrier to see what all the fuss was about, the resultant crowd made for a chaotic picture. For every one actual music fan, there were perhaps twenty window shoppers. This dichotomy did not go unprayed upon by the festival itself; by placing the “Empty Bottle” stage at the entrance, where punk and industrial bands instantly assaulted the curious listeners with harsh, ugly noise, crowds were strategically funneled through two blocks worth of food and merchandise vendors before reaching Subterranean’s lineup of dance, indie rock, and folk acts.
For three days, small, interested audiences lined in front of the speaker systems, as everyone else either rushed by with their ears covered or arrived distracted by the spoils of festival capitalism. All of which is to say, it was a great chance to sample Chicago’s hometown acts as they settled into their summer season. It was easy to peg the artists who relied on fans, and everyone else proved they could still give a great performance even when there was a Jimmy John’s in their face. Here are the highlights.
Those concerned with post-punk’s immortal question of why the prettiest boys make the loudest music will find no solace in Modern Vices. They’ll do a great show, butthe five-piece opened the festival Friday with a chaotic set that was unexpectedly trance inducing. Though their songs seemingly being in chaos, with guitars slashing indiscriminately underneath frontman Alex Rebek strange croon, the sounds soon begin to fold in on themselves in pattern, and the listener realizes there’s been a clear sonic architecture in place all along. It’s like watching a black and white picture slowly fill in with vivid color. The show was nearly as much a visual sensation as an aural one. Modern Vices’ sound is so holistic, the band members dance up and down with their guitars as though they can barely control it. There were at least five instances where hair completely covered someone’s face.
“I’m a triple threat— filmmaker, photographer, and emcee,” was how Jovan Landry introduced herself Sunday. On the basis of her set, I think she might consider adding a fourth discipline: branding. The rapper spent nearly as much time selling her melodic, socially conscious boom-bap as she did packaging herself, at one point, even stopping mid-song to unite the audience in chanting her twitter handle (“Say it with me now, J! Lesley! Monique!”). While her hip-hop cockiness was something of a tonic against a festival of indie insecurity, it was difficult not to feel beat over the head. Especially if, like one helpless woman, you were literally —punched in the neck by one of the five Monogrammed tote bags Landry pelted into the crowd. Though that aggression helps her thrive as an unknown quantity, it’ll be interesting to see if she’ll settle down once enough people follow her on twitter. Her band’s got the stuff, at least. (Shout out to the one dude on flute).
All twelve people lucky enough to catch Peel on Friday left blessed with an iconic, instant classic skate-rock moment. Just before the band reached the call-and-response verses on “Wet Work,” a toddler freed itself from her mother to crawl, arms raised, to stage rim. Undeterred, one guitarist gave a Grinch-wide smile, and tilted his head down to sing his part right to the little sucker: “FUCK YEAH!” Blisteringly fast, but leavened somewhat by an ironic, rockabilly twang, Peel play confrontational punk that’s nevertheless accessible because it’s basically comedy. Sticky, juvenile hooks like “Follow the leader to…HELL!!” are likely what placed Peel on the more casual Subterranean stage, where they were undoubtedly the loudest band to play all weekend. At one point a lady called out for a Tom Petty cover, and the band seemed into the idea.
The festival’s most manifest reminder that, oh yeah, the internet has completely democratized music creation, Lala Lala make lo-fi indie that’s as angsty and prickly as a wet cat. But they’re also a classic case of a band with an “Album/Live Show” split personality. On record, their songs are hidden behind enough layers of compression to make even the most advanced headphones sound like gas-station ear-buds. But underneath, you can make out buzzsaw guitars and furious vocals, and live, bereft of production tricks, that’s what you get. When the lead singer opened the show saying she lives around the corner, she might as well have been prepping the audience for their escaped-from-the-bedroom sound. Personally, I prefer them loud and live; their queer, indie-overall stage presence is brand extension enough for me, and when the guitar playing is sloppier its harder to tell that two songs rip off Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Naomi.” They were also one of the only bands not to have any open alcohol on stage, which seems notable. At one point, they even asked the audience for milk.
When I say that Hide, a harsh industrial rock band, drew a larger crowd then any other non-headliner, it’s important to qualify that it wasn’t exactly the same crowd the whole time. As fast they were drawn in by the sight of the heavily tatted Heather Gabel bursting out of a stars and stripe bikini (with the price tag still on), audiences were repulsed out again by her “suffering in the pits of hell” vocals and the electronic power-violence that surrounded them. Still, fans of spectacle stuck it out. If her outfit was somewhat obvious in its anti-consumerism (and rendered her swigs from festival sponsor, Boxed Water, relatively hilarious), it was nevertheless a rather ingenious troll to the leather-packing goth audience who lined the front row. Most genius of all was the blur of black paint Gabel had around her mouth, which initially resembled a goatee but gradually thinned out to encompass her whole face. The only arena Hide didn’t come packed to provoke, ironically, was in their music— rinse and repeat even by noise standards. Certainly worth seeing at a club if you want to mosh for eight dollars.
These guys opened with the revelation that they’d never played a festival before, which seems about right because they’re a clear club act. On stage, they appeared with a drum-guitar-bass center with appendages in the form of a trumpet and string section, which is pretty much how they sound as well; the main players cook up an ambient rock din for snatches of violin and trumpet to rise above and accent. What starts as a slow, jazzy swing eventually reaches a “we’re all in this together”, post-rock explosion. Not much to bop too, admittedly, but Case fend off claims of background music with poetry to spare. Two frontmen switch vocal duties, but retain a constant lyrical theme of urban ennui and debauchery— capturing something about the confusion and glory of being young. I hope they play more festivals.