Accounting the acts and atmosphere of a music fest is serious business. I'm not so much into serious business. There is no centre spread in Too Much Rock, and with The Hideout Block Party falling in the middle of a 5-day stretch of shows, I can't devote a lot of time to hunt for subtext in order to create a "think piece" for you. Instead, I think I'll just tell you what happened, and let you wonder why you weren't there to witness it for yourself.
A steady rain began falling at about 4pm, and continued until just before six – one of those late afternoon showers that the Midwest gets just about every day as summer draws to an end. Some bring spectacular winds and pouring rain, but this one just brought dark clouds and showers. When I arrived at The Hideout at 5:30, the worst was already over; each concession area was starting its set up, the eager kids who lined the front of the South stage were beginning to shake the water out of their hair, and the festival support personal were configuring barricades, discussing security protocols, and sweeping the standing water off of the stages.
Although scheduled to begin at 6, it was 6:30 before Glasgow's The Cinematics kicked off the festival. Per the evening's stated theme, the band owes everything to the Brit pop bands that have come before it. The incorporation of frequent disco punk rhythms is the only update (if incorporating sounds from the current revival can be called that) to a sound that dominated airwaves almost two decade ago. Although the band apologised for technical difficulties, the short set was tight and professional. The live sound was quite good, despite the challenges presented by a makeshift stage set in the middle of a concrete parking lot.
Irrespective of the band's able performance, the area in front of the stage was lined with kids clinging to the barricade, and stubbornly dreaming of Bloc Party. The further one got from the stage, the older the audience got. Well actually there is actually more of a levelling curve than a strict ratio. I mean there weren't 1,000-year-old music fans out by the portable toilets. Anyway, as soon as The Cinematics had finished its polite set, the focus shifted to the North stage only 30 yards away. This stage was smaller, with less formal barricades, and without a ring of territorial teens to call its own. I was thrilled to find out that two bands would never be playing simultaneously; this meant I'd never be forced to make the hard decisions that most fests require.
Chicago's The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir were led onto the North stage by guitarist Elia Einhorn. He wore a full beard, a workers cap, round eyeglasses, and a shirt reading "Part Time Punk." The shirt was not the only homage to Patrick Fitzgerald; TSYGC contains a similar haphazard romantic balladry about it. The band is a quintet with the typical guitar, bass, and drums accompanied by both fiddle and trumpet. When songs didn't call for these textured instruments, the players picked up tambourines and contributed to charging rockers. Most importantly, regardless of whatever layers of rock and chaos had been heaped on each composition, under it all lay a real song with an awe-inspiring melody. Again the band recalled the glory days of Brit pop – particularly when the drums would bounce and the guitars would strum quickly on the edge of implosion ala The Wedding Present. When songs featured Einhorn's acoustic guitar, they often recalled the joys of Hefner. While Einhorn's voice is strong, he remained reserved most of the night, only erupting to full voice once during " Obsessions." The set ended with Bloodshot Records labelmates Stephanie Morris and Kelly Hogan joining the band for an early grand finale that also included two hyperactive dancers wearing matching white outfits.
Focus returned to the South stage for Chicago's Changes. Again the band was standard Brit pop augmented with disco punk beats. The differences between The Changes and The Cinematics seemed to be cosmetic at best, and I found myself losing interest quickly. While the band is fronted by vocalist/guitarist Darren Spitzer, it was actually guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist David Rothblatt who provided the greatest interest. His vocals were more soulful, and recalled the new romantics movement in British pop. I may need to investigate this band more before writing them off.
Anticipation and attendance grew throughout the evening. As night fell, Cynthia Albritton (aka Cynthia Plaster Caster) took the North stage to introduce Chicago's The 1900s. Albritton was as rambling and scatterbrained as one might assume, but her appreciation for the band was certainly genuine. After I witnessed the band live, this fondness only made sense – the band's nouveau-hippie rock & roll aesthetic takes no acclimation for her generation. Me, I still believe you can never trust a hippie.
As the band began its set, beach balls began bouncing atop the crowd, and the smell of pot permeated the air. This made sense too. The 1900s songs are long jams tempered only by the flowing violin of Caroline Donovan. Certainly The Grateful Dead is a touchstone for the band's neo-folk psychedelia, and the band does it quite well. Countless vocal harmonies emanated from the stage, with the two female backing vocalists being exceptionally tight. While I must bow to the band's acumen, the end product did little for me.
After surviving the 1900s, I made my way back to the South stage and into the photo pit. Staring at me were the same kids who had staked out their spots four hours earlier. They were dry now, but also visibly tired, tense and probably dehydrated. Only the promise of Bloc Party kept them on their feet. Soon, after the light cannons were adjusted to cast the correct light at just the correct place, and the stage was lit a brilliant blue, the four members of Bloc Party made their entrance.
Obviously the Bloc Party's music has been written about in a hundred glossy magazines, and in each by someone more descriptive and insightful than me, so I won’t attempt to recount the nuance of the band's music here. Very simply, the band is an arty and angular version of post-punk, smoothed out by alternative rock atmospheres, and defined by a danceable disco punk rhythm. Kele Okereke fronts the band, and he, again simply put, is a star. He's enigmatic, intelligent, physically attractive, and endearingly coy. Knowing his role, he quickly gave the audience what it wanted by crossing the photo pit, and wading into the crowd during the band's second song. Shouts of "I love you" rang out from the crowd throughout the set, to which Okereke often replied, "I love you too." Okereke took pandering to new heights, by telling the crowd that Bloc Party were named after "the famous Hideout Block Party." Whatever, it did bring cheers from the audience, and he wasn't playing for me after all. He was playing for those teens pressed up against the steel barricade who had spent their evening, if not their whole lives, waiting to see a band like this.
I had seen the band several times during its first US tour, and was now shocked at the differences. Obviously the crowds are now larger, and the fans younger, but also Bloc Party is no longer frantic and wide-eyed. This band was now one of veterans kicking off its ninth American tour.
As I watched from backstage, my view included both Okereke and the Sear's tower lit up in spectacular blue and gold. In front of me the dancers-in-white who had earlier performed with Scotland Yard, danced even more emphatically to Bloc Party's hit single "Banquet." Their audience was much smaller this time. Seeing it all together made me glad I was in Chicago.
Near the end of the show Okereke dedicated a song to the residents around the venue who were listening at home. When a band member pointed out that the area is largely industrial, Okereke revised his dedication to include "any startled homeless people" as well. Then, just to make sure the crowd was still on his side, he added, "oh and for you too."
When the crowd called the band back up to play its three-song encore, I made my trek from backstage to the exit at the end of the parking lot. While I saw very little dancing to Bloc Party, I did get the feeling of an actual block party. As my distance from the stage increased, the crowd thinned, and the music became quieter and muted by muddy reverb. Back here, 200 yards from the stage, the band provided the background music for attendees who caught up with their musical neighbours over not-terribly-over-priced beer. I suppose The Hideout Block Party has been able to retain a bit of its namesake despite its ever-growing popularity.
At 10pm Bloc Party finished its final song, thanked the crowd, and hurried off the stage. I believe a puppet show (a puppet show?) was scheduled to follow Bloc Party, however I was simply too tired. Instead, I walked out the gates, over a block to Ashland, and caught the bus home. I'm pretty sure I made the right choice there.