Note: I expect you've already read the account from the first day of The Hideout Block Party. If not, you probably want to do that now just for context.
The rain that tainted The Hideout Block Party kick-off was nowhere to be found when day two of the event began. Katherine and I arrived at noon to find a disorganized assortment of musical instruments strewn across the parking just in front of the South stage. Early press indicated that Steven Krakow was attempting to break some sort of record (maybe only a personal one) by bringing 100 guitars together to drone for a half hour and welcome the day (this was to be dubbed the Guitarkestra). The result was somewhat different.
There weren't 100 guitars, nor were guitars the only instruments present. In addition to roughly three dozen guitars, I noted a violin, a banjo, several basses, a ukulele, and two odd homemade instruments: one involving strings suspended over a 2x4 with electric pick ups, and the other an electrified washboard augmented by nearly a dozen effects pedals. The most startling addition was a full drum kit played by a mad man. While guitars did drone, there were also a dozen separate solos played simultaneously. Those guitarists in sonic proximity to others attempted to play together, but as I moved about the assemblage, there was certainly no cohesion – that is until the drummer took over. As if he were the Pied Piper of Hideout, when he began beating his drums, the guitarists instantly followed. Tempos rose and fell on his cues, and volumes fell to hushes on his whims. At this point the Guitarkestra sounded less like an unorganized drone, and more like one long, drug-addled Bardo Pond jam – one that I whole-heartedly approved of. Eventually the guitars and their feedback stopped, leaving the crowd to turn to the South stage for the first band of the day.
Chicago transplant Cass McCombs began his set by acknowledging the divine noise that preceded him. As if to bridge the gap, he offered the packing guitarists, "It's basically in A if you would like to play along." A quick-witted guitarist shouted back "We only know E." And with that McCombs and his band began a set of relaxed indie rock befitting of his California roots. Songs floated lightly, reminding me of Rilo Kiley, but with an inordinate amount of complex guitar noodling. Aggressive songs weren't built on loud guitars, but instead they relied on McComb's clean guitar and its quickly strummed freakouts. Some songs plodded along tenderly recalling Boston's Skating Party, but just when I thought I might be able to lose myself in the mood, I was beaten back to reality by the constant, unimaginative 4/4 drumming. McCombs' set ended quickly and without fanfare, leaving me anxious for his forthcoming album.
The afternoon continued on the North stage with the Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band. After this large band (I lost count at seven players) performed a couple of upbeat country tunes, vocalist/guitarist Annie Coleman stepped out into the crowd and began to explain the nature of the band. The band is, as its name suggests, a square dance band, and that was exactly what was going to happen. Coleman presented a quick and dubious history of the attempted destruction of the oeuvre at the hands of a racist Henry Ford, and then assembled a few groups of eight, and began teaching the giggling couples "The Texas Star." Coleman is a third generation square dance caller, and has all the patience, quick wit, and charisma that requires. Once the Texas Star was mastered, participants were added and subtracted for the racy "Dip the Oyster in the Stew." The audience took a break while the band performed an original polka about Henry Ford, which included the groan-worthy line "You can't get to heaven in a Hummer." Soon the dancers were reassembled for a final dance – "The Virginia Reel." While some dancers were better than others, everyone was enthusiastic – the dancers, audience, and band were all smiles. Coleman was expectedly democratic, helping even the most oafsome dancers with lines like "There, you got it. It's just like bumper cars!" Indeed.
The afternoon became decidedly less interactive when Chicago's Head of Femur began on the South stage. The band has a long history that includes several cities of residency, several stylistic shifts, and a rotating roster of players. While the band has always been led by vocalist/guitarist Matt Focht, the current version of the band also includes an additional guitarist, bassist, drummer, and a new full-time keyboardist. The latter seemed vital to the band's sound as otherworldly tones from his Korg synthesizer dominated the band's live sound. Describing the band's overall style is quite difficult – there are so many things going on. I suppose the base of it all is a 90s alternative rock with strummed guitars, thick keyboards, and plenty of slick backing vocals. That isn't to say the band doesn't provide an entirely different feel when the bongos and harmonica come out. Focht's voice has a timbre that reminds me of Larry Kirwan from Black 47 or even Mike Scott from The Waterboys. Why Focht reminds me of two Irishmen, I'm just not sure. When the band played "Fire Escapes" from its forthcoming album, I began to really fall in love with them. And when the drummer Colby Starck's high backing vocals were added a few songs later, I knew I was hooked.
While the day started with only a hundred dedicated music fans, by the time New York City's O'Death began, the audience was already a thousand deep. While several bands carried unbearable buzz into the weekend, O'Death was the one my friends were most excited to see. This quintet plays a noisy and raucous sort of Southern Appalachian folk that combines the soul of Iron and Wine with the frenetic energy of the recent folk punk movement. Vocalist/guitarist Greg Jamie typically sang with a high lonesome voice that cracked much like The Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, however he frequently effected a bizarre scratchy voice that reminded me of The Chickasaw Mud Puppies from 20 years prior. The band's musical acumen was, however, only a small part of the experience; the band's stage show was possessed. Never before have you seen someone stomp and twitch so much while playing a ukulele, a drummer simply howl in the middle of songs, or beat a broken cymbal hanging from a chain, and a fiddle player (Bob Pycior) go through so many strings on a bow. During every song dozens of strings were savagely sawed off, and left on the bow to be flung about until the end of the song when Pycior would chew them off, and toss them to the wind. While the audience was expectedly appreciative, I was surprised to see the kids who had clung to the South stage all morning make their way over to share in the excitement. No other band lured these kids away from their posts the entire weekend. That's all the endorsement O'Death needs.
If O'Death held sway with my peers, the hipsters were there for Dan Deacon. Deacon set up his host of pedals, his effects, and his iPod on a table in the parking lot just off of the South stage. Instantly he was surrounded by fans ten rows deep. All this for a fat, thirty-something guy in big glasses, a sweatband, and a too tight, torn, tie-dyed t-shirt? Hell yes. After a lengthy opening explanation that proved the smiling crowd was putty in Deacon's hand, he erupted with super-high bpm techno delivered with a bedroom pop aesthetic, and accompanied by his distorted voice. Soon Deacon was leading the audience in a figurative game of Simon Says. He had the crowd line up in a long gauntlet, each side with hands outstretched to the other, forming a tunnel so that the audience nearest Deacon could dance, skip, or run through it. Surprisingly over a hundred fans capitulated and the tunnel was a success. Later he had hundreds lying on the ground while he brought the show to a hushed whisper. Moments later those same hundreds would be hopping up and down to an explosion of dance music. Deacon was smart, engaging, and terribly funny. To an old timer like me, I could only think that this was the Atom & His Package for the 21st century.
When it appeared that things couldn’t get anymore surreal, The Hideout Block Party organizers delivered Mucca Pazza. Mucca Pazza is a marching band. A marching band of many colours, as each member wore a different uniform culled from the shelves of the Value Village or from the back of the keepsakes closet at their parents' houses. The band assembled somewhere near the rear of the parking lot, and then marched directly to the portable toilets to frighten a unsuspecting patron who innocently exited only to find a full marching band playing feet from his head. After the sousaphone player ducked in (instrument and all) – just to so we could all be amazed at the sight of a sousaphone player departing a portable toilet – the band continued to the North stage. Once on stage, the show continued as players ebbed and flowed forward according to his or her role in the composition. A cheerleader was stationed at each end of the stage to make sure the audience didn't get bored. Stage right stood a lovely gal focused on the bump and grind, and stage left was a gal in her best Jerri Blank/Ugly Betty affectation, seemingly angry with her lot in life. While the band may not have had a tight marching formation, musically it was spot on. The addition of accordions and violin seemed odd choices for a marching band, but they were necessary for the band's repertoire that included not only standard marching band fare, but klezmer music as well. The audience of thousands (including several delighted members of Art Brut) were just as entertained as I was.
Of course shenanigans like the inclusion of Mucca Pazza are what define The Hideout Block Party, and make it a lighter – and funner – alternative to the other music fests in town. That spirit continued as Mucca Pazza marched off the stage revealing five musicians. Three were dressed normally, but one was draped in a golden hooded cloak (Jon Langford) and another dressed as a lamb (Sally Timms). This band was billed as only "Punk Band," and only now was revealed to be employees of The Hideout augmented by members of The Mekons. The band launched directly into a sloppy romp of Art Brut's "Formed a Band" and then followed it with Art Brut's "18,000 Lira." All the while the band insisted it was the real Art Brut. Meanwhile the other Art Brut stood on stage 50 yards away, waiting to go on, and taunting this new Art Brut. After two songs it was over, and Timms declared her Art Brut was better as it hadn't bothered to practice even once. Her protests went mostly unheard as the "real" Art Brut began on the South Stage.
Again, Art Brut are a band that has been written about time and time again in every glossy magazine. If you're not familiar with the band's post-modern garage rock, shame on you. Do some research, and catch up with the rest of the class, we haven't got time to wait for you.
The band opened with "Pump Up the Volume" and continued through a quick set nearly identical to the one played at Subterranean some months back. Vocalist Eddie Argos was less chatty than he has been in previous shows, and failed to stop the set for one of the informal audience dialogs that defined the band's early live performances. Maybe I've seen the band too many times, but its stage show seems to be too rehearsed now. When lyrics were changed in early shows it was fresh, but now, they're always changed the same way. Instead of a long explanation about the real Emily Kane contacting Argos after hearing the song, we now get the same abbreviated story followed by a pat bit redefining the song to be about all Emily Kanes everywhere. Now, each time the band plays "Top of the Pops," Argos goes through the list of countries where the song has been number one, tosses in a bit of "Formed a Band", and drops in the names of the other acts performing. While the band continues to improve (guitarist Jasper Future is now the performer to watch), I'm a bit disappointed that Art Brut aren't as clever as I once thought they were. Of course is this was your first Art Brut show, I'm sure it was smashing.
Art Brut is used to being the merry pranksters on a bill, but the Hideout crew proved they could do the band one better. Not only did an Art Brut precede the Argos and crew, but yet another Art Brut followed them as well. Well kinda. Up next on the North stage was the Blue Ribbon Glee Club. The Blue Ribbon Glee Club is, as their moniker would suggest, a glee club – one that performs (mostly) a cappella renditions of indie and punk songs. The mixed gender choir of about thirty opened up their set with an Art Brut song to the delight of the audience, and then continued with songs from The Pixies, Daft Punk, The Clash, T Rex, Fugazi, & Wreckless Eric. The choir's version of "Spanish Bombs" has been in my head ever since hearing it, and during "Waiting Room" I felt a nearly irrepressible urge to create a pit. Although a few songs slipped by some of the younger audience members, every conversation I heard included at least one person wishing they could join the glee club. Hell, I've been doing a mean version of The Damned's "Disco Man" in my shower for years.
All weekend long the wait between acts had been no more than five minutes, and often the next band was introducing itself while the previous act's amps still rang with over-wrought finale feedback. That changed as the block party became serious at the last minute. When the Blue Ribbon Glee Club finished its set, Glen Hansard of The Frames began his sound check. Although this could have been out of courtesy for the relatively quiet BRGC, the timing seemed to have more to do with needing a proper sound check. So there stood Hansard, singing into a microphone at the front of the stage, eyed by, what was now, a sold out crowd, but without acknowledging the event at all. After an unceremonious song drawing reams of applause from the audience, but only confused expressions from those of us in the photo pit, Hansard walked off the stage without a word or even a nod of acknowledgement. How irksome.
Of course Hansard and the rest of The Frames returned a few minutes later and began a long set befitting a headliner at any large festival. As I mentioned, the show took a turn for the expected at this point: the audience sang out as loud as Hansard, the use of a curse word on stage drove the crowd to cheers and applause, and Hansard handled the crowd with ease from a stage that hadn't seemed so far above the audience until now.
While the band turned in heart-melting performances of its own sensitive ballads ("Pay Your Rent"), and explosive pop songs ("Fake"), it also incorporated bits and pieces – both musical and lyrical – of songs by Bob Dylan, Will Oldham, Magnetic Fields, and even Art Brut. Hansard drew the biggest fan reaction with his performance of "Falling Slowly" from the movie Once. For this song an audience member was invited up to sing Marketa Irglova's part in the duet, but when she was understandably struck with stage fright, a second audience member was brought up as well. With the strength of numbers, both singers made it through to wild applause.
The bands' encore was a genuinely spur of the moment affair, and forced Hansard to apologize for using time that wasn't his. For the first song he quickly prodded the members of the Blue Ribbon Glee Club onto the stage, so that choir could reprise The Pixies "Where is My Mind" along with his band. Whatever grouses I may have had with The Frames' earlier performance-by-numbers, was instantaneously erased. I believe the band closed with "Red Chord" which left the audience warmed and satiated.
After The Frames there was no switch back to the smaller North stage. Instead the audience held tight, and watched while The Frames' gear was removed and Andrew Birds' was put into place. Again the audience watched the band set up its gear, and check its microphone and monitor levels. Anticipation was huge, and I… well, I had never even heard of Andrew Bird. I guess he's had a big year? He's a local? What he's been around for a decade? I guess I have no excuse.
Andrew Bird stood centre stage, flanked by a drummer/keyboardist on his right and a bassist to his left. Bird himself moved between violin and a Gibson hollow-body electric guitar, with his trademark whistling appearing in a majority of his song as well. Even when working within this trio, Bird still incorporated a Memory Man (or some variant) to loop his instrumentation upon itself. His voice is forceful and direct with a slight warble that never breaks into a full vibrato. It’s a voice that reminds me of Jeff Buckley's. In fact, Bird's entire evincive set is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. Bird does separate himself from the traditional singer/songwriter set by utilizing his formal musical training, along with his background in jazz, to create song structures and arrangements that flit around playfully.
Bird's stage presence was dramatically different from that of previous performers. He seemed shy, or at least introverted, yet still assured of his performance. He didn't rile the audience as Hansard had done an hour earlier, but instead, quietly spoke to the sold-out crowd as if he were performing at a coffee shop's open mic night. While his intimate dialog may not have carried to the back of the parking lot, Bird's occasional wild arm gestures were surely visible even to residence of the adjacent building.
By this point the long day had worn on me, and the juxtaposition of seeing an intimate performer in a vast, crowded parking lot was frustrating. Katherine and I moved away from the crowded stage, through the parking lot, back through the clusters of visiting block partiers, and ultimately through the vendor's area as Bird finished his set. While Bird's performance did pique my interest, this was not the venue I would have chosen to see him. Hopefully I'll get a chance to revisit him in that aforementioned coffee shop…or at least a nice theatre.