Day 1 of the trek into Chicago's Union Park began rather unceremoniously, wolfing down burgers at a suburban joint in Naperville and then hopping on the highway praying that somehow Second City traffic would be different that day (it wasn't). Parking (as it almost always is with concerts) was a nightmare, but my friend Adam and I managed to find a spot, and we were off to the festival. Our pace quickened when we heard the tender plucking of harp strings and Joanna Newsom's recognizable warble wafting through the night air. We carefully weaved through the crowd, but the work was for naught. We managed to catch the last half of "Sawdust & Diamonds," before Newsom bid the crowd adieu for the night. But there was still Björk to come down from on-high and salvage our waning expectations.
"Yeah, this is going to be weird," were the last words I managed to speak before Björk came out on stage. An extremely obvious statement on paper, but one you almost can't keep from uttering once Björk announces her presence on stage. The set itself was an adept mix of new and old, tracks like "One Day" from her Debut perched alongside the Tesla Coil spectacle of "Thunderbolt." An immediate highlight was "Jóga," the throat-shredding tale from Homogenic of a relationship heightened to a "state of emergency." Björk's powerhouse performance here especially masked every one of her 47 years. For all of the power a Björk concert conveys, Mother Nature is stronger still, and cut the set short after "Mutual Core." Without missing a beat, Björk put the weather panic into context, "It's calm.... I don't know. This wouldn't be much in Iceland, I can tell you that much..."
Day 2 was much less panic-stricken than Friday night's festivities. Parking was no longer an Arthurian quest and there was plenty of time to peruse the endless stacks of records available in the record tent. But there were still shows to see, so we jaunted over to the Blue stage to see Julia Holter in action. Holter's sound is impossible to pigeonhole; featuring the occasional sax squall, violin pluck, and tender piano figure, it's a yearning blend of: Grouper's quiet solitude, Joanna Newsom's whimsy, and any number of electronic influences. It was music better suited for midnight than high noon, but our premium spot under a shade tree was a welcome substitute.
Next up was the fury of post-hardcore heroes ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, which did not disappoint. The band's been blazing since 1998 and their midday performance letting everyone know the fire won't be dying any time soon. We then meandered over to see Savages, a melange of post-punk stylings and gothic overtones. After such raucous shows, refreshments were in order, and they came in the form of sweet heavenly nectar masked as lemonade. Sipping the last savory drops of sweet lemonade as we marched towards the red stage, only the bitterness was left clinging to my tongue for the start of Swans.
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead
Count the number of times you've considered the angular motions of the Breeders or the antics of ...And You'll Know Us as "peaceful melodic breaks." I'll wait. Answer?- They don't exist, unless they're acting as buffers to the aural onslaught Swans unleash. The band trots out an amp as weathered as "singer" Michael Gira's voice. A lozenge would do him some good I think during the stormy "To Be Kind," but every nicotine filled blast is a prophetic warning to be heeded. The industrious clatter of the nearby L is drowned out by the death burble of the band. The howling wind and rain give way to the laser-guided buzzsaw blasts from bassist Chris Pravdica on "Oxygen." Gira's arms flutter around the stage like an apocalyptic tornado while clarinetist/percussionist Thor Harris stabs at the drums in the manner of a musically inclined Norman Bates. In the midst of all this chaos, Gira raises his hands towards the heavens and sends his band into a further ecstatic fit; a cult-leader mixed with Carlos Kleiber if there ever was one. Phil Puleo displays a Luddite proficiency on the drums and that rampage continues throughout 2012's title cut "The Seer." Harris takes to bashing the hell out of a wood block, hoping to send it into splinters. Gira circles into an unholy trinity with the other two guitar players sacrificing everyone's ear drums in the process. Before the show began, someone in the audience yelled out "TURN IT UP!" He got his wish.
We were fortunate enough to catch some of The Breeder's anniversary set of the still-fresh Last Splash, a welcome trip down memory lane. "Cannonball" was the entry point for so much of my current musical fascinations and to hear it razing the ground of Union Park was one of the most memorable moments of the entire festival for me. My fandom must be called into question however as we decided to push on to find the best possible spot for Solange. It was a party from the first second of the show, "Some Things Never Seem To F***ing Work" rendered joyous in a live setting. Solange effortlessly strutted and glided across the stage throughout much of the set, nostalgically urging everyone to "turn this into a high school dance." "Losing You" was prefaced by a PSA from Solange to essentially enjoy every moment of the song without any interruptions from phones or peripheral distractions. Even though it's a song I've heard countless times since its initial debut, I tend to have an adverse reaction to the subtle melancholy of the song, but that wasn't the case live. Any suggestion of a stormy was blotted out by the song's sunny groove.
From Solange, we sought out a spot for Belle & Sebastian, sitting down and waiting for the pithy chamber popsters to announce themselves. Soon enough, Stuart Murdoch (decked out in snow-white pants) and company took to the stage, beginning with the jokey "Judy is a D*** Slap." It was steady march through the discography, stopping off at "Piazza, New York Catcher" from Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the more recent "I Can See Your Future" from 2010's Write About Love. Murdoch was affable throughout the night, labeling himself and the band "your aunties and uncles." When the rain began to fall for a second night and you could see the golden lighting shining through the droplets, the subdued "Judy and Her Dream of Horses," became transcendent. It was a moment to make anyone "smile when you're down."
Belle & Sebastian
(Photo courtesy of Pitchfork Media)
Day 3 began with gravelly rasp of local MC, who couldn't help but grin from ear-to-ear at the prospect of being in his hometown for a show. The defining moment was "The King" as clear of a definition of Tree's self-termed soultrap genre as you're likely to find. Adam and I stayed defiantly seated at the green stage for Killer Mike, hearing only the occasional riff or joke from Foxygen over at the nearby red stage. Soon enough, the wait was over and Mr. Michael Render was raging through "Big Beast" as the crowd screamed "hardcore g-s***" right back at him. It was insightful, bracing, and at times touching, Mike tearing up before the start of one song when he spoke of a Chicago woman who inspired him to become a community organizer. "RAP Music" was the ultimate in sermonizing, as I looked around the sweat-drenched crowd, smiling faces could be found throughout. In moments like this, any facade of showmanship or posturing disappeared, and all that was left behind was one man with a microphone; tearing down the city of Chicago and then building it back up.
After one-two-gut-punch of Mike and El-P we sought refuge back in the shade of the blue stage, and got lost in the folk-informed punk of Waxahatchee. It was an assured set, without time for a pause or even applause, Katie Crutchfield ran through her set eying the prize of the finish line. There were clear fans in the audience, and anyone that wasn't was converted by the time the last chord cut through the thick air.
We crept back out from the shadows and into the sweltering heat as Yo La Tengo began. There's a reason this band is one of the most revered in all of "indie rock" and it's their insatiable appetite for innovation and invention. They traded seats and instruments early and often, and careened through a catalog stuffed with tender dream pop and droning noise rock. Ira Kaplan so barbarically mutilated his guitar throughout their performance, it was a small miracle there was anything left by the end.
Yo La Tengo
Lil B was up next and neither Adam nor I knew what to expect, other than an extremely based performance from "The Based God" himself. As his start time of 5:15 got closer and closer, a mini-panic started inside of me. "There's nothing set up on the stage," rumbled through my mind. Focusing on that conundrum was almost impossible with the screams of "swag" and "thank you Based God" that enveloped me. "How can he do a show with nothing on stage?" That question was quickly answered when Lil B walked out on stage to perhaps the most uproarious applause of the entire festival. The crowd cooked, moshed, (two people even hopped on my shoulders) and gleamed with excitement the entire time Lil B was out on stage, reverent of his every word. Picking a highlight or even naming off all the songs that were performed is an exercise in futility, similar to sifting through his seemingly infinite music library. This was a performance for the converted; those that already bask in the glow of "The Based God."
My back was in disrepair after Lil B and the rumbling in my stomach became cacophonous so I headed back to the food tents for recovery. Finding lemonade an appropriate substitute for water, I swilled down two in quick succession. Being the boost I needed, I met back up with Adam and we began jockeying for position at the green stage for R. Kelly. We caught the back-half of Toro y Moi laid-back funkified set which had every toe-tapping and head nodding by the end. Chaz Bundick could hardly contain himself behind his keyboard, getting lost in his lush swirling grooves.
Toro y Moi
Now all that was left was the wait for Mr. R. Kelly. At various times my eyes were affixed on the stage, trying to imagine what we could expect. Even the Sri Lankan Christmas (Adam's own pitch-perfect description) of M.I.A.'s genre-defying set couldn't distract anyone over at the green stage from the impending performance. The crowd's mettle was tested when the earworm of "Paper Planes" slithered through Union Park, but some still managed to avoid shooting along with the song's now legendary chorus. After a run-through of "Bad Girls" all that was left was Kells and the crowd couldn't wait.
The stage was meticulously assembled and just when the impatience became palpable, a robotic voice announced over the loudspeaker "R-Minus 9 minutes to show time." A collective scream broke out and the countdown was on. "R-Minus 4 minutes," and Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" begins. I'm lost in that eternal croon for a time, but snap back and check the time. "R-Minus 30 seconds," and the scream becomes a seismic roar. "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1," and then "Ignition" (Remix). Kelly didn't even break a sweat during the song and moved through the iconic song like it was just another piece of ephemera. It was that kind of show. He strutted through "Hotel," reimagined "Flashing Lights" for his own purposes, had the crowd "Slow Dance"-ing, and served up "Sex in the Kitchen" while avoiding so much as a chuckle. He soundtracked himself grabbing a towel to wipe sweat off (take that South Park) and steadily scooped up the entire crowd in the palm of his hand. Kelly's silky-smooth croon became a soulful wail as the set neared the end with "When A Woman Loves." By this point, the crowd hung onto his every word, mesmerized by the unparalleled showmanship on display. One song was noticeably absent for the first hour-plus, but "I Believe I Can Fly" arrive in full-flight. The spectacle was at its apex here, Kells again backed by a gospel choir while white balloon doves shot out into the night sky. Any inclination to dismiss the song as overly sentimental is obliterated the moment you experience it live. The perceived schmaltz is soon replaced by treatise on living life to its fullest. When someone like Kelly has this much confidence in himself, there really is "nothing to" a concert of this magnitude.
Expect updated links and photos on this page as they become available on the Festival website page. I wanted to get out an initial draft to everyone while it was still relevant.