The Hideout Block Party is Chicago’s quirkiest music festival. Where else could you see zombies dancing to country singer Robbie Fulks and rapper Rhymefest collaborating on a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? Or audience members holding the drummer for Israeli rock band Monotonix above their heads, along with his drums? How about 40-some guitarists playing a loud E chord for half an hour in a parking lot? Several musicians sitting on top of a (fake) elephant? Nora O’Connor serenading a papier-mâché rat? Those are just a few of the playful and sometimes downright weird antics that set the Hideout Block Party apart from Lollapalooza, the Pitchfork Music Festival and all the various street festivals held in Chicago every summer.
The festival got off to a bright and early start on Saturday with PLASTIC CRIMEWAVE’S VISION CELESTIAL GUITARKESTRA, which I just described above. Wall of noise. Crescendo. Music eventually stops. That’s pretty much what you need to know. Then came a set of kids music (enjoyed by adults, too) from the WEE HAIRY BEASTIES, climaxing with Jon Langford riding the big gray elephant some Hideout employees created for the occasion. Sally Timms dryly remarked: “A first for Chicago – a hippopotamus riding an elephant.” Langford was back onstage a few minutes later for his latest project, KATJONBAND, a duo with Kat Ex of The Ex. It’s a great combination, bringing out the harder-edged punk side of Langford’s guitar playing and merging it with Kat’s eccentric rhythms. Next up was GIANT SAND, which put on a pretty decent set, ranging from old-fashioned piano lounge music to roots rock. Still, I think I like Howe Gelb better when he has a choir of female voices behind, as he did on his last solo record. PHOTOS OF GUITARKESTRA, WEE HAIRY BEASTIES, KATJONBAND and GIANT SAND.
At a few points, this year’s Hideout Block Party and the Chicago World Music Festival overlapped, including a set by the Hungarian rock band LITTLE COW. My first introduction to Little Cow was hearing Tony Sarabia play their music when I was the guest on his “Radio M” show on WBEZ. I enjoyed Saturday’s performance by the band, especially when they leaned heavily on the accordion on gave the music more of a folk sound. That’s when I felt like dancing. PHOTOS OF LITTLE COW.
DAN LE SAC VS. SCROOBIUS PIP is a UK hip-hop act I was completely unfamiliar with. I enjoyed their set (although a friend described it as “sheer torture”) because of their sense of humor. Dan Le Sac ranted between tracks about the “null point two” review the duo’s album received on Pitchfork, and his complaints were pretty amusing. Music-wise… well, if I say much about it, I’ll just be displaying my ignorance of Brit hip-hop, but it’s interesting to hear the patterns of an English accent against those beats. PHOTOS OF DAN LE SAC VS. SCROOBIUS PIP.
PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE are legendary, but they’re also very little heard in this country. Several weeks ago, I tried to track down some of the band’s early recordings, but all I managed to find were more recent live versions of the songs they wrote back when they were an underground band behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. It was inspiring to see these oldsters and a few younger Plastic People playing here in Chicago. With some dissonant sax and violin solos and lots of electric guitar pyrotechnics, the music sounded fairly thick and powerful. The sax player, Vratislav Brabenec, had to sit down after a while. It looked like the sun was getting to be too much for him. After the show over at the merch table, I bought one of the CDs that the band had brought from the Czech Republic (Magor’s Shem, 40th Anniversary Tour PPU 1968-2008 Special Edition), and I also tried a little harder in my Internet search for the record regarded as their classic, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned.. It’s available for download at http://mygeneration60s.blogspot.com/2008/01/plastic-people-of-universe-egon-bondys.html… and while I would urge you to buy a legitimate copy, if you can’t find one, at least you can hear it here first. My first impression is that it’s a lot starker and stranger than the live show I saw Saturday. PHOTOS OF PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE.
As far as all-out energy and general insanity, the set by MONOTONIX had to be the high point of the Hideout Block Party. I’d heard and read about these guys from Tel Aviv, so I was prepared to get pushed around and sprayed with random fluids. This trio plays out in the audience, and the set started with the drums in flames. Then the band moved the drum kit around, pushing it all over the place as the guitarist and singer crowd-surfed and, well, it’s hard to say exactly what they were doing, but it felt like they were playing inside and on top of the crowd the whole time, and somehow managing to keep the music going. The singer dumped a garbage can (with garbage in it) on the drummer’s head. The crowd lifted the drummer and his drums aloft, and he kept playing. It’s hard to believe no one gets hurt at Monotonix shows, but I found this experience to be a lot more fun and lot less violent than some of the mosh pits I’ve been stuck inside. It was more like a party than a riot. And what about the music? Well, I can’t say I really paid much attention to it while I was in the midst of all this insanity, but some loud guitar riffs and primitive (what else?) drumming cut through everything. PHOTOS OF MONOTONIX.
BLACK MOUNTAIN channels a lot of 1970s hard rock and art rock into its own sort of stoner rock… Not exactly like My Morning Jacket, but with some of the same spirit. Not exactly like all those countless bands inspired by the repetitive grooves of the Velvet Underground, but a similar vibe. Add some psychedelic touches, a little glam rock, some cool female vocals along with slacker guy singing… The band’s just great, and this was a rare opportunity to see them in actual light. PHOTOS OF BLACK MOUNTAIN.
Another piece of the World Music Fest was next, as Malian guitarist VIEUX FARKA TOURÉ took the stage. It was a nice set of his hypnotic guitar lines, although I think it would have been a better fit earlier in the day. After seeing Black Mountain, I was in the mood for the headliner… PHOTOS OF VIEUX FARKA TOURÉ.
NEKO CASE is always a pleasure to see and hear, and at this point, I believe I’ve seen about a dozen concerts by her. As always, she belted out those beautiful notes, leaning back her head from the microphone and closing her eyes as if she were in rapture. She played a few songs from her next album, which is apparently still a work in progress. “I’m totally jinxing myself because it’s not done yet,” she remarked. One of the new songs was a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” The other new compositions seemed to be in a similar vein to the music on her last couple of albums, though it’s hard to predict how they’ll sound on CD. By necessity, Case tends to simplify her songs a bit in concert, leaving out some of the flourishes that really made Fox Confessor Brings the Flood such a great album, one of my very favorites of the last decade. While we didn’t get the violin and dulcimer solos in concert, we did get Case’s superb signing, plus top-notch backup vocals by Case pals Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor and a fine performance by her backup band, especially Jon Rauhouse, whose pedal steel guitar often sounds to me like a bird singing a duet with Case. PHOTOS OF NEKO CASE.
The second day of the party got off to a low-key start with the lovely, loungey sounds of the JON RAUHOUSE SEXTET. Although I’ve seen previous shows were Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Sally Timms took turns singing with Rauhouse’s band, this time Rachel Flotard of Visqueen handled all the vocals, doing a nice job with some old standards. “Stay behind the barricade unless you want to get some jazz on you,” she joked. Continuing in an old-timey vein, DEVIL IN A WOODPILE played some of its backwoods blues music next. The real treat was when 93-year-old bluesman HONEYBOY EDWARDS sat in with the trio for several songs. Edwards has a strong voice for a guy in his 90s, singing a ways back from the mike, and his guitar soloing was classic Delta blues. PHOTOS OF THE JON RAUHOUSE SEXTET, DEVIL IN A WOODPILE and HONEYBOY EDWARDS.
THE UGLYSUIT, a band from Oklahoma City, shook their long hair like My Morning Jacket used to do in their old hirsute days. In fact, when the Uglysuit was in the midst of an instrumental jam, the group not only looked like MMJ but sounded a fair amount like the band, too. When there was singing, it was another story. I predict the Uglysuit could end up with a following, since their songs are fairly melodic, and since I heard a number of people in the crowd saying how much they liked what they were hearing. It wasn’t really to my liking, though. The songs and vocals just seemed bland and generic. But, hey, what do I know? PHOTOS OF THE UGLYSUIT.
I’ve been enjoying the CD Fair Ain’t Fair by TIM FITE since it came out earlier this year on Anti- records. Fite’s not an easy guy to categorize. What he does is often nerdy white-guy hip-hop, but sometimes his songs sound more like some old-fashioned singer… A little bit of cabaret, a little bit of early ’70s singer-songwriter, a little bit of folk… What the heck is this stuff, anyway? Despite the fact that Fite’s concert performance basically consists of him singing over recorded tracks, it came off really well Sunday because of his clowning and humor. This was almost a comedy act, and I found it to be a great deal of fun. I heard very mixed reactions from other people in the crowd. Some people got it, some didn’t. PHOTOS OF TIM FITE.
MUCCA PAZZA is like a marching band from some kid’s outlandish dream. The group strutted its stuff with exuberance and a bit of performance art Sunday. The musicians and cheerleaders arrived in the parking lot in small squads, and then they seemed to be communicating each other across the audience, like animals signaling with mating calls. The musicians would drop to the ground as if they’d fallen asleep then rise back up like marionettes. The play-acting continued as the whole bunch finally got onto the stage, with lots of wild gymnastics moves as the horns blasted away. It was around this time that Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten made the announcement: “All zombies must meet at 5:45.” (More on that later…)PHOTOS OF MUCCA PAZZA.
DARK MEAT was almost as large of a group as Mucca Pazza, with a slew of horn players, cheerleaders and dancing girls in addition to the core rock band. I didn’t know Dark Meat’s music before seeing this show, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. It seemed to combine the psychedelic side of the Elephant 6 bands with the big, anarchic spirit of the Polyphonic Spree. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed because the band was spraying colored confetti at us. PHOTOS OF DARK MEAT.
ROBBIE FULKS was next on the schedule, but this was not just any Robbie Fulks show. It was a Michael Jackson tribute from beginning to end. Fulks has been playing Jackson songs at his concerts for years, especially “Billie Jean,” which is sort of an unusual fetish for an alt-country singer, but what the heck – he has fun with it, and does darn good versions of those Jackson hits. He even recorded an entire album of Jackson covers, but then shelved it because Jackson was on trial at the time. Now, in honor of Jackson’s 50th birthday, Fulks put on a peculiar performance starting with some early Jackson Five music. This is when we got the rare chance to see Nora O’Connor singing to a rat. It climaxed with a re-enactment of the “Thriller” video, with a bunch of Hideout employees and volunteers disguised as zombies. While that bizarre spectacle was under way, the next act on the lineup, rapper RHYMEFEST began his set. Now who would have thought that a Robbie Fulks concert would morph into a Rhymefest show? PHOTOS OF THE MICHAEL JACKSON TRIBUTE with ROBBIE FULKS, NORA O’CONNOR, ASSORTED ZOMBIES and RHYMEFEST.
THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS were the biggest act of the day, and they did what they always do so well, bouncing through their power-pop tunes with precision and powerful vocals. I always like it best when Neko Case is with the band, although the other girl singer, keyboardist Kathryn Calder, is great in her own right, so having both of them sing together with A.C. Newman is a real treat. After running through some of the best songs, the New Pornos closed with a spot-on cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me On.” PHOTOS OF THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS.
Although the New Pornographers were the ostensible headliner, they were not the final act of the day. The New York techno band RATATAT followed… and I have to say I do not get the appeal of this group. Electronic music has to hit me in just the right way. Otherwise, I just find it dull and uninteresting, which is how Ratatat struck me. However, I could see that a lot of people were digging it, so maybe there’s something more to it than I’ve been able to figure out. After Ratatat, HERCULES AND LOVE AFFAIR played a DJ set, which was even less interesting as far as I was concerned. But hey, it came at the end of a terrific weekend that was packed with a ton of great music, so I won’t complain. PHOTOS OF RATATAT and HERCULES AND LOVE AFFAIR.