As I’ve said before, the Hideout Block Party is one of the Chicago outdoor concert season’s most enjoyable events. For the past few years, it has merged with the Onion/A.V. Club’s festival, and this past weekend’s lineup seemed to reflect the tastes of that publication as much as the usual fare you’d expect from the Hideout.
Friday’s shows were dampened a bit by the rain that fell early in the evening, with some occasional sprinkles throughout the night. Weather delays shortened the sets — I especially wish that the Handsome Family had been given more time, but their gothic alt-country songs were actually a perfect fit with the gloomy weather. Jon Langford presented the first gig ever by yet another Jon Langford band, the cleverly named Bad Luck Jonathan, playing songs that seemed to hark back to early rock ‘n’ roll. Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser played a solo show — or rather, a show backed by a new band, all of which sounded very much like the Walkmen. And Death Cab for Cutie closed out the night, playing for the last time (ever?) with departing lead guitarist Chris Walla.
The weather was perfect on Saturday for the festival’s second day, which kicked off with a Hideout Block Party tradition: the droning of massed guitars known as the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, featuring anyone who brought a guitar, all of them joining in the din from the parking lot in front of the stage. Other highlights on Saturday afternoon included the old-timey acoustic blues and gospel music of Valerie June, the electronic pop songs of Sylvan Esso, and the jamming of the Funky Meters (including a bit of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”). The appeal of Mac DeMarco escapes me, but his fans seemed to be enjoying his performance. The Dismemberment Plan is another band I don’t really get. But Saturday’s headliner, the War on Drugs, gave a strong performance, filled with electrifying guitar solos by frontman Adam Granduciel. The War on Drugs was a stripped-down trio the first time I saw the band, at Schubas in 2008; last night, Granduciel had five musicians backing him up and fleshing out the sound, but the group is still basically his voice and his guitar.
Almost without fail, the Hideout Block Party is one of the summer’s most entertaining festivals — and that hasn’t changed over the past couple of years, when it combined with the A.V. Club’s A.V. Fest. It feels like a gathering of old friends — in the middle of an concrete-block and corrugated-metal cityscape, with a whiff of trash wafting over from all of the city garbage trucks parked nearby.
The banner on this year’s stage, created by the great Chicago poster artist Jay Ryan, depicted garbage trucks tumbling in midair. And on Friday night, the Streets & Sanitation odors were stronger than usual. As Kelly Hogan wryly noted (during Neko Case’s concert, where she was providing her delightful-as-usual harmony vocals): “That breeze feels great even though it smells like dumpster juice.” The smell was worth putting up with because of all the great music, and thankfully, the wind was blowing in another direction on Saturday.
Unfortunately, the crowd was chatty on Friday night during the sets by Case and Mavis Staples. Wandering around the parking lot, it wasn’t easy to find an area where you could hear the music clearly without being distracted by nearby conversations. As usual, the audience members closest to the stage were the most attentive, and a hush finally fell over most of the crowd when Case daringly performed “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a cappella song from her new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder IFight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. The song delivers a fairly stunning emotional impact in the studio version, and it was only heightened in the live performance. That was the highlight of the night, but the rest of Case’s set was lovely, too — such a subtle mix of tough and tender. The final song of the night was her 2002 classic “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and she performed the opening verse a cappella (or nearly so) — the same way she did the song during the Solid Sound Fest this summer. And once again, Case’s voice rang out with clarity. See more of my photos from Neko Case’s performance.
Earlier in the evening, Mavis Staples ably demonstrated the power of her own voice. The matriarch of Chicago gospel recently had knee surgery, and she told the crowd, “This is my very first concert with the new knee. So I’m going to call this knee ‘the Hideout.'” Staples, who recorded a live album inside the Hideout, does genuinely seem to love the place, and the reception that she gets whenever she plays there.
Staples’ voice sounded tentative during the first song, her cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (from her excellent new album One True Vine), but there was nothing uncertain about her vocals in the rest of the set, as she gave full-throated glory to songs new and old. Closing with the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” she exhorted the audience to sing along, taunting that the crowd’s first attempt at joining in was “weak.” See more of my photos from Mavis Staples’ performance.
Friday also featured the scrappy garage rock of Nude Beach and the acoustic jamming of Trampled by Turtles.
Saturday was a festive day in the garbage-truck parking lot. I just barely missed the opening set by the Guitarkestra (though I heard the roar of its chord in the distance as I walked up to the Hideout). I arrived in time for a fabulous set by Girl Group Chicago — five singer and 15 musicians, if I counted correctly, playing big renditions of classic girl group songs, joined onstage by the dancing gals known as the Revelettes. See more of my photos from Girl Group Chicago’s performance.
It wouldn’t be a Hideout Block Party without a performance by Jon Langford, and for this one, he played with a new lineup of his Skull Orchard band, playing a new song on the timely topic of “endless war” and closing with a cover of the Faces’ “Debris.” He also played “Haunted,” the song he wrote for Kelly Hogan’s album of last year. “The royalty checks are flooding in,” he joked. “They almost match the parking tickets.”
Next up was the Both, a duo comprising Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. They’ve recorded an album together, and their musical styles blended with surprising ease during this set, despite some technical difficulties with the mix during the first couple of songs.
The Walkmen sounded as intense as ever during their late-afternoon set; lead singer Hamilton Leithauser was unrelenting.
It was bittersweet to see Superchunk for the first time without the band’s longtime bass Laura Ballance, which is still recording with the group but has retired from touring. But Jason Narducy did a fine job of handling duties on bass, even getting into Superchunk’s bouncy, jumpy spirit. It seemed like lead singer Mac McCaughan’s feet were a few inches above the stage at just about any given moment during the show, and Superchunk was as lively and exciting as it ever was. New songs, like set opening “FOH,” sounded terrific alongside oldies like “Slack Motherfucker.” And in some comments to the crowd, McCaughan paid tribute to all of the Chicago people and institutions that helped Superchunk over the years, including the Lounge Ax, Steve Albini and Touch and Go Records. See more of my photos from Superchunk’s performance.
As darkness fell, the Hold Steady launched into a loud and raucous set. The fans along the barricade by the stage clearly loved frontman Craig Finn’s shout-singing and wild gestures. Since keyboardist Franz Nicolay left the band, its sound has been all guitars, all the time. The nonstop riffing in the first half of the set was a bit much, but when the Hold Steady dug into its back catalog for some of its catchiest choruses at the end, all was well in Hideoutville.
Saturday’s headliner was Young the Giant. Who? … OK, I had heard of this group, but I’ve just barely heard its music. And I knew plenty of other people who turned out to see Superchunk or the Hold Steady and who were largely unfamiliar with Young the Giant. Judging from the people who crowded near the stage at the end of the night, most of Young the Giant’s fans are in their late teens or early 20s. And well … to my ears, Young the Giant’s music was rather bland and generic pop rock. It paled in comparison to the other music I’d been hearing all day. But I can’t complain too much, given how much fun the whole weekend was.