If you stepped back a bit from the stages this weekend at the Intonation Music Festival in Chicago and watched the crowd, it was a little like witnessing a social-science experiment in progress.
The festival in Union Park almost seemed designed to answer these questions: Who will show up if you schedule hip-hop rappers right next to heavy-metal headbangers? And what will fans of teen-friendly indie-pop music like the Stills make of experimental Japanese noise music by the Boredoms?
As the Intonation Fest set a new standard for eclectic programming, it did seem at times like the crowd was baffled by the sudden shifts in musical style. And although programmers hoped the hip-hop acts would attract a more racially diverse crowd, the Intonation audience turned out to be the mostly young and mostly white audience that shows up at most indie-rock concerts – with a slightly higher percentage of African-Americans, at least during the sets by Ghostface and Dead Prez.
There was some head scratching out on the lawn, especially when the Boredoms were drumming nonstop for 45 minutes with incoherent screaming as the only vocals – a great performance, but one that must have seemed strange for those unfamiliar with the group.
But by the time the festival wrapped up Sunday night, it was hard not to feel good about this show of musical diversity. Maybe everyone didn’t get everything, but enough people with open minds discovered new music to make Intonation a success.
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ERASE ERRATA – I arrived early Saturday, just in time to hear this all-female San Francisco trio play its jagged art-punk. Sort of reminded me of the B-52s, but less shticky. In the first of many marijuana references I would hear during the festival (not to mention the ever-present odor), the singer remarked, “If any of you guys have any grass, I’ll be, like, waiting around out here.”
90 DAY MEN – I missed these guys during their first go-around, so it’s nice to get a chance to hear them play again. They’re introduced as “the freakiest band in Chicago.” I’m not sure who really deserves that title, probably not 90 Day Men, but the group’s music proves to be fairly interesting art rock, with a lot of Nord Electro keyboard. I jot the following thought in my notepad: “Punk rock reacted against Pink Floyd in the late ’70s and gradually became … Pink Floyd.”
DEVIN THE DUDE – This Houston hip-hop guy’s music wasn’t bad, but his crude sexual come-ons were just annoying after a while. I’m not sure the mostly white indie-rock crowd was really the right audience for songs about wanting to stick his dick into any available orifice. “There’s got to be a few horny women out there,” he said at one point, trying to get the crowd more interested. And after his DJ made sounds ejaculation-simulating sound effects, Devin said, “All you fellows out there excuse me for just a minute. I’ve got to do something for the ladies now.” He then did a short bit of the James Taylor song “I’m Your Handyman” (OK, that was sort of funny) before lapsing back into the songs about his dick.
JOSE GONZALEZ – In one of the most shocking contrasts of the fest, the next act was the Argentine/Swedish singer-guitarist Jose Gonzalez, the quietest and gentlest performer of the whole weekend. His technique on the guitar is impressive, as are his soft vocals. Sounds like Nick Drake, though one wonders if his music springs just as much out of Argentine or classical guitar traditions.
CHROMEO – More shtick, this time funk shtick. One of the guys in this band spent most of the show with a tube in his mouth, making that robotic Vocoder sound. That’s entertaining for all of about 5 seconds. During a short technical breakdown, one of the Chromeo guys tried to keep the crowd entertained with some banter, but his dance-related jokes went over the heads of most people there (me included). “I guess indie kids don’t juke that much. You do this,” he said, pumping his fist in the air lamely. Later, Chromeo did an abbreviated cover of that awful song by the Outfield, “Your Love,” with the singer commenting, “I did it because I felt like it.” And at the end of its set, Chromeo’s guys complimented the crowd for being so “gangsta.” “Chicago’s a gangsta town.”
HIGH ON FIRE – I expected this band to play stoner rock, but it really sounded more like heavy metal to me. The distinction might get lost on some people, and I’m not always sure I can tell the difference. The music was loud and intense. Not really my kind of thing, but High on Fire seemed to be pretty good at what it does. Like just about every other band, High on Fire made some remarks designed to win applause from the Windy City audience: “I know this is a bit of a metal town.”
THE STILLS – The new album by this Canadian band is quite nice. Nothing groundbreaking, but the songs and performances are strong, and in concert, the Stills were considerably livelier than I expected. Good show.
ROKY ERICKSON – The most historic moment of the whole fest was the performance by Roky Erickson, former leader of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Erickson spent much of the past few decades coping with mental illness, recovering recently with care from his brother. He hadn’t played a concert outside of his home state of Texas in many years. And with his sad, squinty eyes and pale complexion, Erickson had the look of someone who doesn’t go outdoors very often. But when we sang and played guitar Saturday, he sounded absolutely confident. His chunky, fuzz-drenched guitar riffs were a garage-rock variation on the blues. And when he opened his mouth for the “Oh, yeah!” holler that begins the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ best-known song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” it felt like the impassioned voice of the young man who’d sung it 40 years ago was coming out of that older man’s body. Roky got a huge round of applause and came back for a two-song encore. Nice to see this guy getting that kind of appreciation.
THE BOREDOMS – Three drummers sitting in a circle, playing almost nonstop for 45 minutes. Another guy jumping up and down and screaming incoherently, making wonky sounds on his keyboard. OK, this is not everyone’s thing, but I thought it was brilliant.
GHOSTFACE – This is another hip-hop act that just didn’t connect with me. Too much of the performance consisted of calling out “Wu – Tang – Clan!” and similar shtick. By the way… the emcees on Saturday were a highly annoying bunch of shock-jock-style comedians, including one jerk dressed up like a baby in a diaper. The crowd reaction was hostile, and as these emcees were trying to introduce Ghostface, someone in the audience yelled out, “Ghostface, bust those guys!”
LADY SOVEREIGN – My, she’s tiny, a little wisp of a girl. Her sassy attitude and tongue-twisting words were entertaining.
THE STREETS – Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, is one of the most creative and entertaining hip-hop artists right now, that I’m aware of (and I admit there’s a lot I’m not aware of). His records are both amusing and musically interesting. The live show was not quite as good (it lacked some of the musical sophistication of the studio recordings), but he’s a funny guy with an entertaining stage presence. He honed in on some girl in the front of the audience, pretended to be wooing her – even singing a little of the Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.” Then, being very English, he turns around and apologizes to the girl’s boyfriend for hitting on her. In another bit of shtick (yeah, I know I criticized other acts for being shticky; this was good shtick), Skinner urged the crowd to crouch down then jump up. “I want to thank you so much for going low.” In his encore, he threw in a line or two from Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.”
I showed up a little later today, sorry to have missed the Tyrades, Bill Dolan, Panthers, Constantines, Rhymfest and Annie. Lupe Fiasco was finishing up just as I arrived. What little I heard of his hip-hop sounded pretty good.
THE SWORD – The bad emcees from yesterday were gone, replaced by comedian Neil Hamburger. He was annoying and crude, but in a way that was almost performance art, which made it more tolerable. He introduced this Austin band as “the Screaming Mimis” before correcting himself. This was another band on the borderline between metal and stoner rock. I liked it, because there was more melody and some touches of Black Sabbath and ’70s rock. At one point, the singer introduced a song by saying, “We just made a video for this next song. I am happy to report there was only one spear wound.” I’m not sure if he was joking.
BLUE CHEER – I know this band more by reputation than its music. Their cover of “Summertime Blues” is cool, of course. And they were once named the world’s loudest rock band. (Somehow, I doubt that decibel readings were taken at enough concerts to know for sure who’s loudest.) And I hear that they brought along their stacks of Marshall amps when they played on “American Bandstand,” even though they had to lip-synch, like every other act on that show. They hadn’t played in Chicago since 1970 or 1971, when they spent the night in jail after the concert on marijuana charges (or that’s how the story was told onstage, at least). “The last time we were here, they threw us in jail,” singer-bassist Dickie Peterson said. “At least this time, we’ll go to jail together.” Well, if you say so… These guys looked old, but still like Hell’s Angels. Peterson had a shock of straw-colored hair and a devilish beard, and he was wearing a beaded vest over an orange shirt. His voice was pretty hoarse. The performance seemed just OK to me, nothing too fiery, more sludgy than anything. “Summertimes Blues” sounded pretty good, though, with more interesting guitar soloing. Introducing the song “Parchment Farm,” Peterson noted that it was originally a jazz song by Mose Allison. “I think Mose dies every time he hears this version, but he probably likes the paycheck.” Peterson’s banter about peace and love was amusing, and he promised, “We ain’t gonna stop till we die.”
JON BRION – Luring Brion to perform at Intonation wasn’t quite as much of a coup as booking Roky Erickson, but it was still a rare chance to see this Los Angeles studio whiz playing outside of his home state. Brion has built a cult following with his weekly shows in L.A., where he uses tape loops to construct multilayered songs, switching from drums to keyboards to guitar and vocals. While he played a few songs simply standing in front of the microphone with a guitar and singing, Brion also constructed a few of his pop symphonies for the Intonation audience. Most impressively, the songs actually rocked, with some intense guitar solos by Brion. Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker joined Brion for a couple of songs, playing on a wee piano, barely bigger than Schroeder’s. In addition to his original songs, Brion played covers of Zombies, Beatles and Kinks tunes. (I apparently missed his encore of “Waterloo Sunset,” with Wilco’s Glenn Kotche coming out to play with him. Thinking his set was over, I’d gone over to the other stage for Robert Pollard, and I didn’t even hear this. Greg Kot wrote about it in the Tribune today. Oh, well…)
ROBERT POLLARD – Not much different from Guided By Voices, solo Robert Pollard still sings lot of obscure songs drawn from his immense repertoire, chugs alcohol, twirls his microphone and makes karate kicks. The current band (including, among other, Tommy Keene and Jason Narducy) is quite good, and the songs included newer solo tracks as well as the GBV classic “Game of Pricks.” The only shortcoming was that some of the songs went on a bit long, with extra choruses and solos. All that fat was missing from those short, sharp GBV songs in the days of old.
DEAD PREZ – Definitely the most political of the hip-hop acts I saw at Intonation. These guys were very hard-hitting with lyrics about kicking in the door of the White House, among other things. Kicking off a song about schools not teaching black kids what they need to know, Dead Prez sang the chorus of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” asking the crowd, “Who knows about Pink Floyd?” Asking the crowd to raise its fists for black power, they noted that much of the crowd was white. “That white first gotta stand for black power.” As galvanizing as Dead Prez could be, the concert got bogged down in too many political speeches between the songs, including an appearance by Fred Hampton Jr. to call for a street to be designated in honor of his father, the late Black Panthers leader, even if “Gangsta Daley” doesn’t allow it. (Funny… the guys in Chromeo used the term “gangsta” as a compliment the day before…)
BLOC PARTY brought the festival to a fitting end, with a dance-worthy set of tunes. I rather liked this band when I saw them at the SXSW 2005 Spin party, but then their CD never really connected with me. They’ve got a good sound, but they just don’t vary it that much from song to song. Seeing the band live again, though, made me appreciate them all over. A song from the forthcoming album sounded promising. It was long – almost like a multipart suite.