The Hideout Block Party always feels to me like the end of the summer music festival season. Last year’s event, which combined the usual block party with Touch and Go’s 25th anniversary, had a fabulous and even historic lineup, so it was going to be tough for the Hideout to match it this year in terms of signficance. I liked seeing the Hideout Block Party going back to being a little more laid-back, though. Like last year’s party, this one was on the parking lot across the street from the bar, where the city of Chicago normally parks snow plows and trucks. The stages were both on the east end of the lot this time, though, instead of spread out on the east and west ends like last year. Smart idea – it meant that you didn’t have to go very far at all to get from one stage to the other.
This year’s Block Party had a really special Chicago spirit to it, a sense of inventiveness and fun – especially on Saturday. But first, there was a fairly standard night of music on Friday night (Sept. 7). It had been pouring rain around 5 p.m., so I delayed my arrival; the music was delayed, too, and I showed up a few songs into the opening set by Britain’s Cinematics. I’d never heard this band before, and they didn’t leave much of an impression on me here. They’re another band reviving 1980s post-punk. Sounded OK to me, but I didn’t get into it.
Chicago’s own Scotland Yard Gospel Choir was up next. I had been a little worried about the future of this band when Matt Kerstein split off to form his own fine band, Brighton MA, but there was no need to panic. SYGC is carrying on with Elia taking the reins as the only songwriter now. A new record’s coming out in October on Bloodshot (another interesting non-country signing for the label), and it’s the best thing these guys have put out so far. Sure, they still have a Belle-and-Sebastian fetish, not to mention other Brit pop bands, but the songs are so darn tuneful in that off-hand way of dashed-off ditties. The group sounded good Friday night at the Block Party, though I think the subtle beauties of its new songs are more apparent on the record.
The theme of Brit-influnced Chicago bands continued with the Changes, who seem to find their inspiration in 1980s pop – not the really awful ’80s pop, but the catchy synthy stuff that was somewhere between awfulness and indie-rock goodness. At least that’s how I hear it. The Changes seem all right to me, and I think they’ve got the potential to be popular, but I can’t get really excited by them.
I can get excited, though, by the 1900s, who put on yet another excellent set. I’ve said enough about them before (Friday, I was thinking that the band must be thinking, “Oh, there’s THAT guy again taking our pictures”), but it was really nice to see them again after having had a chance to listen to the new record coming out in October, Cold and Kind. Did you notice that the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot wrote about it on Sunday, proclaiming it one of the year’s best albums? He’s right. I was going to say the same thing myself pretty soon, and Kot beat me to the punch. It’s a beautiful record, through and through, with fabulous vocal harmonies. The legendary Cynthia Plaster Caster introduced the 1900s, commenting on how she likes gossiping with the 1900s gals about sexy bass players… and she said she wants to get her trademark casts of the 1900s male members’ genitalia soon. Singer-guitarist Edward Anderson dedicated the 1900s set to the Sears Tower, which does loom scenically in the sky from the Block Party’s parking lot.
See my photos of Cinematics, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, the Changes and the 1900s.
The Hideout’s co-owner Tim Tuten says he asked Bloc Party to play at the Block Party half-jokingly, but the band cheerfully decided to go along with the joke. Actually, given how prominent last year’s Touch and Go event was, the party probably has an international reputation now, so it’s not that strange that Bloc Party would agree to launch its international tour in this parking lot with huge corrugated-metal sheds behind them. Bloc Party is a band that I enjoy for a few songs, but I’d rather hear them in small quantities than large doses. They did put on a pretty good show.
DAY TWO (Sept. 8) was when things got cool… It was a decent enough lineup as far as the touring bands that were booked to play, but what made things interesting were the unusual antics and the variety of music that you don’t normally see at a rock festival. First, there was Steve Krakow’s Guitarkestra, which has a full name something like the Plastic Crimewave Celestial Guitarkestra. Krakow, who also leads the band Plastic Crimewave Sound among countless other activities, has organized three of these events now, inviting as many guitarists as possible to bring their axes and amps for one long drone on the E chord. The idea is to make as much noise as possible and achieve some sort of transcendantal state. I missed the previous Guitarkestra shows at the Empty Bottle and Hyde Park Art Center (though I did interview Krakow about it for a story on Chicago’s drone scene, which will be in the fall issue of Signal to Noise ). Krakow fell short of his goal to attract 100 guitarists this time. Maybe the noon concert time was too early for Chicago’s droners, but some 40 people showed up, including ukulele players, drummers, singers and others in addition to guitarists. This is not the sort of music for everyone, but I have to say I did find it eerily beautiful at times, the way the music swelled up.
Cass McCombs, a California singer-songwriter who just moved to Chicago this month, played next. I’m not that familiar with his music, but what I heard sounded decent. I look forward to seeing him become a regular part of the Chicago scene. Then came the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band, which was exactly what it sounded like. We got some good old-time music complete with square-dance lessons. (I’m not sure who all was in this group, but it was cool to see Lawrence Peters, Hideout bartender, playing drums – in addition to playing country music, he’s also in Plastic Crimewave Sound, an example of how Chicago musicians cross genres all the time.)
Head of Femur, whom I saw recently at Logan Square Auditorium, played a good set, making me all the more eager to hear their new record.
And then came the portion of the Block Party that Tuten introduced as a sort of “musical” in which all of us were participating. That metaphor didn’t quite work, but it was a fun afternoon of people making peculiar music of all sorts. The New York band O’Death played some aggressively twangy country music with tons of vigor See my photos of O’Death..
Totally changing gears, Dan Deacon was next, doing his electronic pop thing. He nearly caused a riot at the Pitchfork Music Fest – well, the overcrowding nearly caused a riot, and his set there was cut off. So now he was back with a chance to play again. I fortuitously ended up standing next to the table in the parking lot where he was tweaking dials, jamming to his iPod and playing an old Casiotone keyboard. I freaked out a little when I recognized this was the exact same model of keyboard (the MT400V) that I owned in college. I long ago discarded mine, thinking it was too rinky-dink. I guess I should have saved it… Anyway, Deacon put on a highly entertaining set, largely due to his sense of humor. He got the crowd to engage in a silly countdown to set the mood and later ran a gauntlet of fans with upraised arms. He was getting ready to end his set when a Hideout volunteer wrote a message on duct tape and stuck it on his table, asking him to do another song. See my photos of Dan Deacon.
Mucca Pazza, Chicago’s alternative-rock marching band, then came… yes, marching through the parking lot. This isn’t just some rock band that uses a few horns. It is an actual marchng band, with colorfully mismatched uniforms and a couple of wacky cheerleaders. They put on a fantastic set of lively tunes, mixing some Eastern European melodies into the marching-band repertoire. It’s hard to believe this big band has played inside small clubs like the Hideout and Schubas. The parking lot was the perfect place to see them. See my photos of Mucca Pazza.
Before Art Brut played, an ad hoc outfiit calling itself “Punk Band” came onto the north stage playing the Art Brut tune, “We Formed a Band.” This was a great joke – Art Brut singer Eddie Argos has said that he wants people around the world to form Art Brut franchises in each town, and Chicago took him up on the offer. Punk Band featured a few Hideout employees, plus two Mekons, Sally Timms in a lamb costume and Jon Langford hiding under a shiny blanket of some sort. Timms joked that the band had not even rehearsed. After a couple of songs by Punk Band, the real Art Brut launched into its own set on the south stage. I have to say the new Art Brut album didn’t do that much for me the one time I listened (I know I need to go back to it), but I still think they’re one of the most entertaining bands going today, with fabulous energy and humor. This was another firecracker set from these fellows. See my photos of Art Brut and Punk Band. And check out Kirstie Cat’s amazing photo of Eddie jumping.
Keeping up the theme of general tomfoolery, the Blue Ribbon Glee Club – a choir formed by that great Chicago singer-songwriter Devin Davis – performed a cappella versions of indie and alternative songs like the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” As they were doing their show, the members of Art Brut were standing on the side of the stage, laughing their asses off. (See the above photo.)
The final two acts of the party were a little more sober, but they carried on that spirit of adventure. The Frames played a crowd-pleasing set, dropping in quotes from other songs, such as Wilco’s “Reservations.” Glen Hansard was apparently so taken by the Glee Club’s performance that he brought some of the female singers out onto the stage for the encore, reprising the Pixies tune we’d heard earlier in the night. See my photos of the Frames.
The Hideout has been one of Andrew Bird’s regular venues for years, so it seemed apt that he was the closing headliner for the whole festival. I’d just seen him recently, in a show at the Riviera, so I didn’t feel any great excitement about seeing him yet again, but he always puts on a marvelous show, and it was awe-inspiring yet again to see and hear Bird singing, whistling, fiddling, glockenspieling and guitaring. The backup from drummer Martin Dosh and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker keep the music lively, while Bird played his lovely and quirky compositions with the usual passion. It was especially cool that he did a cover of one of my favorite Handsome Family songs, “The Giant of Illinois,” during his encore. WBEZ broadcast an interview and live performance by Andrew Bird the other day on the “848” show, including just a snippet of this song. It was so disappointing when they faded that out, so it was great to actually hear the song in concert. (You can hear the “848” segment here.) See my photos of Andrew Bird.
And I’ve got one more photo gallery for you… See my other photos from Day 2, including the Guitarkestra, Cass McCombs, the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band, Head of Femur and the Blue Ribbon Glee Club.