Normally I try to write up these show accounts immediately after the show, and before my memory starts to fade. Unfortunately by the end of the show in question, I was already beginning to feel the effects of a horrible debilitating illness that would cripple me for the next 48 hours. Okay so I'm a baby when I get a cold. Nothing new there. All the same, this recounting may be a bit thin, often hazy and occasionally contain outright fabrications due to the residual effects of Nyquil. You've been warned.
Historically, the annual Hideout Block Party starts on Friday evening and culminates in a Saturday night dance party, but this year Chicago's quirkiest music festival shifted to Saturday and Sunday to accommodate two full days of international-themed music. While the timing was shifted, the beginning – a grand introduction from the ever-stimulated owner of the Hideout, Tim Tuten – was the same as always. So at 11:45am, in a hot, sun beaten and cracked parking lot surrounded by high fences and heavy industry, art was reborn.
The day began with the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra – an impromptu collection of guitarists (and a few other instruments) playing a droning, improvised offering for the rock gods. If you showed up by 11, brought your guitar and amp, you could have been part of this guitarkestra, and gotten to stick around for the rest of the day for free. Think about that for next year.
At 12:30, on the smaller, brightly decorated stage, the septet of Wee Hairy Beasties began a set for the young and young at heart. Lets face it, punks and indie rockers got old, had kids, and weren't going to suffer through Raffi. Instead the band (fronted by ex-Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms as well as the like-minded Kelly Hogan and featuring at least one Devil in the Woodpile player) plays songs about gross out topics that kids want to hear, but in a way that makes it palatable to their parents. Some songs have lessons, others are endearing or silly, and still others are just joyously distasteful. While listening to these venerable rockers make animal noises I couldn't help but think of the Birds Beasts Bugs And Fishes albums recorded by Pete Seeger over fifty years ago. Musically the band covers a lot of territory from pure Tin Pan Alley pop to skiffle and jazz, never shying away from solos. After debuting a song from its forthcoming Halloween themed single (entitled "Wee Scary Beasties" of course), Langford read from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as a means of introducing a rollicking version of "Wild Thing." I think we can all get behind that marriage.
Performing double duty, Langford again took the stage – this time with drummer Kat Ex – for a set as KatJonBand. This duo is a perfect blend of Langford's Mekons and Ex's anarcho-post-punk band The Ex. Not only do the two share a similar political slant, but the aggressive deconstructionist guitar of Langford (one we haven't head him play this ferociously in years) melds perfectly with the shifting yet propulsive drums of Ex. The band opened its tragically short 20-minute set with "Do You?" and continued with the most raucous cuts from its just-released album, before closing with "Machine Gun & The Ugly Doll." Just to prove that he has become an old folky, Langford did include the traditional ballad "The Unfortunate Rake" somewhere in the middle of the set. Let's hope he doesn't mix up his bands and sing that one to the WHB's "Anarchy in the Pre K" set.
At a bit after 2pm, and after an unfortunate 20 minute delay, Tucson's Giant Sand led by Howie Gelb began it's set. In keeping with the international theme, Gelb backing band was entirely Danish. I'm not sure anyone really knows why. I had never paid much attention to Giant Sand, though I must say Gelb's dry delivery fondly recalls my favourite (early of course) Tom Waits and Lou Reed moments. The piano-based, loungy, lyrically intensive (and pointedly political) songs early in the set gave way to guitar-based blues numbers that spoke to long desert highways. Although the set was billed as the CD release party, Gelb impishly began with a song he said should be on the next album. Like many other desert dwellers I know, Gelb was relaxed, poetic, witty, a bit trippy, and probably stoned. When the band comes through again, I think I'd like to see a full set, as the 40 minutes I got really wasn't enough.
While the Hideout Block Party always has a more inclusive line-up than it's cousin-fests Pitchfork or Lollapalooza, this year the diversity was amplified by its collaboration with the Chicago World Music Festival. It was this arrangement that brought Budapest's Little Cow to the stage. This six-piece band is a bit gypsy, a bit ska, impossible not to dance to, and a great deal of fun. The set met a frenzied peak as the tempo grew ever faster; the accordion could barely keep up, and second percussionist János Nádasdi left his bongos to perform some quick stepping, foot slapping, arm waving, Hungarian folk dancing for the crowd. Only at the Hideout Block Party.
Last year's Block Party featured an impressive array of hip indie artists, drawing out the teenagers who stood by a single stage all day in order to secure their view of a particular band. This year, the crowd tended to be a bit older, and that level of devotion was hardly present. The exception: Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip. This UK lap-pop/hip-hop duo features Dan Le Sac providing live electronic beats, samples, and loops while Scroobius Pip raps. Pip's delivery is rapid-fire, and lyrically dense. He's smart, very witty and quick, and an excellent frontman. The kids pressed against the barricade knew every word to every song, and frequently got to sing the hooks into an outstretched microphone. While rap isn't my thing, the poetry of the performance was compelling enough to make me hunt down the band's new CD Angles. As we heard throughout the set, the CD just received a "not point two" review in Pitchfork, and thus earned that uncharitable reviewer a substantial amount of attention throughout the band's set. During several breaks Pip read quotes from the author's other reviews and asked the audience to guess the band he might be talking about. Silly, unproductive, and fun. At least I learned that Ian Cohen hates Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip but loves Coldplay.
The focus returned to the main stage for The Plastic People of the Universe hailing from the Czech Republic. The band is, as I learned, culturally and historically significant as its music served as political protest in Czechoslovakia during the 60s and 70s, frequently landing band members in jail, or even exiled. Currently the seven-piece band is reliving a psych-influenced heavy rock from the 70s with some delightful squawking saxophone provided by a worn and weary Vratislav Brabenec. Although not my thing, it got a good portion of the audience "grooving."
Describing the performance of the next band in a few sentences is impossible. Only know that this is what happens when someone shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. And everyone in that theatre has fireworks. And instead of a theatre it's a bouncy castle. And instead of shouting it, it's a song called "Fire" being played by a garage rock trio of Israelis called Monotonix that all look like a half-naked Ronnie James Dio. Music wasn't important here as the band set up in the middle of the crowd, and soon were seen levitating above the crowd, standing on the backs of the crowd, dumping trashcans on each other and the crowd, pouring any liquid they could find onto each there and the crowd, lighting tissue paper a flame with lighter fluid, storming the stage, diving into the crowd from atop an elephant, and so much more that can't possibly be described in words. This was a glorious 25-minute clusterfuck of noise and chaos that I pray I get to see again.
The unexpectedly short set from Monotonix meant that all eyes were focused on Vancouver's Black Mountain for an agonizingly long sound check. Eyes rolled (both in the band and in the crowd) as drummer Josh Wells was instructed by an unseen soundman to continually strike his snare over and over. For the loyal fans that lined the barricade in front of the stage, this seemed to only heighten expectations. Although Neko Case was undeniably the evening's headliner, Black Mountain currently carries more cache with the indie rockers, and that demographic were primed and ready for the band's guitar-heavy, stoner grooves. Although the band's brand of Sabbath-worship is nothing new, there are enough variations to set the band apart: First the dual vocals of Stephen McBean and Amber Webber provide for nice contrast. Second, McBean's guitar may be rooted in 70s hard rock, but its flavoured by a bit of 60s psychedelia. Third the organ work of Jeremy Schmidt is natch, but his occasional shift to a Moog recalls the progressive rock of Rick Wakeman more than acid rock of Uriah Heep's Ken Hensley. Finally, it should be said that even when the band was revisiting worn territory, it did it incredibly well.
The Hideout continued its collaboration with the World Music Festival as Mali's Vieux Farka Toure took the small stage. Night had set in, and only faint glowing light came from the decorative Asian lanterns that lined the stage canopy. Although Vieux Farka Toure wore pants and a short sleeve shirt, his backing band wore the traditional dashikis. African drums, rattles, and tambourines began the set, with one percussionist even providing some traditional dancing, but soon the guitar of Toure began to take hold. First, African folk songs seemed to have Western-styled guitar work, but then the percussionist moved to a standard rock drum kit, signifying that all bets were off. Toure proved himself to be an accomplished guitarist, recalling the bluesy lines of Robert Cray. Sadly his endless guitar solos wore quickly on me (I have a surprisingly low tolerance for modern blues), and I retired to the wings. Toure's hour long set blended together at the time, and is now recalled as only one long song. Well two – he also covered U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky" dedicating it to Bono. Wait, you mean people in Africa actually appreciate Bono?
Headlining the first day of the fest was Neko Case. If ever there was a match for the Hideout's friendly Americana appeal, this was it. Case was actually a bartender at the Hideout at one point, but since then she seems to have lived all over North America. She currently calls Wisconsin home, though the majority of her backing band is comprised of Canadians from Vancouver to the midland prairies. The young tastemakers that lined the stage previously were now replaced with an older crowd comprised of fathers with VIP passes who ushered their awkward tweener children inside the barricade at the front of the stage.
Case began the set with a song from the forthcoming (but unfinished) album Middle Cyclone, and continued to pepper in tracks new and old throughout her 70-minute set. She dedicated the "deep cut" "Things that Scare Me" to the people listening to her from within the "port-o-potties." The crowd went nuts for "Margaret vs. Pauline," causing Case to muse afterwards that the audience looked so pretty "like a soybean field full of lightning bugs" as they held up their digital cameras to get a shot of the stage. Case was simply hypnotic as she performed "That Teenage Feeling" and closer "Hold On, Hold On." Throughout the night Case was conversational, relaxed, and at home, especially as she traded jokes with backing vocalist Kelly Hogan.
After a full set, Case returned for a three-song encore which included a cover of Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" which she dedicated to Andrew Bird, because (in her words) she attempts to whistle as well as he does in the song. I believe she closed with "John Saw That Number."
Towards the end of Case's set I moved to the back of the parking lot. There, patrons seemed happy to be out on a pleasant night, enjoying a beer, and visiting with old friends while the music played on. It can't be said enough that this is indeed a block party, more than a music festival. For these edgers, Case's music (or the music throughout the entire day for that matter) provided a backdrop for the day, not the reason for it. Me? I had had enough of the sun and the standing, so I quickly made my way to the gate as Case delivered her final thanks to the audience. I had the sniffles and an appointment with my pillow.