August 31, 2009

Summer Lovin' — A&E Music Festival Roundup

Print More

This article was originally published online on July 8 in a different format.
The Newport Folk Festival — having endured Dylan’s controversial ’65 burst of electricity, financial turmoil and an addiction to corporate sponsorship — has come a long way from its folksy, populist incarnation of 1959. But at this 50-year benchmark, Newport’s architects have struck gold in grafting the Festival’s roots to anachronisitc, serene Fleet Foxes and progressive-folk-rock showmen The Decemberists. Seeger’s even leading a sing-along at age 90, for Pete’s sake.
Ubiquitous NPR tents, didgeridoo crafters and hemp salesmen punctuated the festival grounds in Fort Adams State Park, situated on the outskirts of mansion-laden Newport. Along Brenton Cove, the horizon is lined by a patchwork of bleached white sails, as two scraggly folks to my right discussed the psychic and political ramifications of a “world devoid of expectation and afterthought.” Festival goers donned Birkenstocks, flowing dresses, monochrome T-shirts or just plain flesh.
Back at the main stage, a wooden old-timer lectured the crowd on fundraising quotas and Congressional imperatives, as cries of “We’re here for the music!” rang through the crowd. Finally sparing the impatient audience after 11 excruciating minutes, he tepidly introduced “Ore-a-gone” natives, the Decemberists. Fans erupted in a wild, frantic fit of applause, as the old man was driven from the stage in a frazzled huff.
Charismatic vocalist and veteran songwriter Colin Meloy, channeling the Decemberists’ unique blend of folk-rock and baroque pop, kicked off with anthemic, heart wrenching ballad “The Crane Wife 3.” Turning up the tempo on “Yankee Bayonet,” Meloy and backup vocalist Laura Veirs took turns conveying the pain of physical separation and promise of emotional union, “But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted / Though our skin may not touch skin / Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow / I will come on the breath of the wind.”
Following The Decemberists’ prog rock extravaganza, the audience took a seat for the forebear of folk, populism’s favorite son, Pete Seeger. Seeger, who helped organize the inaugural Newport Folk Festival back in 1959, did not appear frail or infirm. Gliding onto the stage, guitar in hand, Pete was ready to spread infectiously uplifting tunes and communal triumph. For nine decades, Seeger has echoed passionately that music has the power to “surround hate and force it to surrender.” Summoning all the air he could muster, Seeger sent his gaping fans into a bout of nostalgic euphoria, as he emphatically promised: “I swear it’s not too late.”
— Henry Hauser

This article was originally published online on Jul. 4 in a different format.
Bonnaroo is an orgy of excess. Cycling through shows that I would have shelled out to see individually, I was forced to cut short Béla Fleck (technically astounding), The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (fun, and Karen O’s pretty sexy), Grizzly Bear (oh so soothing and melancholy, as you’d expect), Santigold (heard only briefly on the way from This Tent to What Stage) and Al Green (the embodiment of soul). The only full set I caught the first afternoon was moe. playing acoustic at the Sonic Stage. This band’s known for their spacey electric stuff, so the show was a real treat; despite the maddening Tennessee heat, the energy was high. At times, the whole thing was a bit too guitar-geeky for me — i.e., as is often the case with artists like Buckethead or Joe Satriani, the demonstration of superior technical ability seemed to become at times the primary concern. This was not a problem, however, when the drummer shifted over to the chimes. Never in my life have I seen such a prodigious musical performance on such a silly instrument. My only qualm was the realization that this guy must have spent countless hours alone in his room playing the chimes. To each his own, I guess.
Later I caught David Byrne at Which Stage. This was imperative as, since about the age of two, I have been thoroughly saturated with the music of The Talking Heads, primarily in my mom’s minivan on the way to soccer practice. DB is like a voice inside my head, and the prospect of finally seeing him live was a little surreal. This sensation was enhanced by the man’s famously ridiculous (and incredibly self-regarding) stage show: he was bedecked in a bright white suit and played a bright white guitar, and a troupe of dancers who must have been classically trained pirouetted and slithered their way around him through “Once in a Lifetime,” “Heaven,” “Take Me to the River” (kudos to Al Green) and other tunes. At one point, the whole gang sat down in office chairs and performed a truly odd number which had Byrne at the center (as always) and his minions circling about him. The songwriter’s social commentary is great, but subtlety is not its defining characteristic.
To sum up: Bonnaroo is all about indulgence and escapism; it’s an oasis in the dull year when, for once, those things that we enjoy most — music, camaraderie, partying and irresponsibility — become the sum of our existence. It lets you believe once again, at least briefly, that life is not all about deadlines and disappointments, right-of-ways and appropriateness. People go wild. People smile. One guy even died. But, at the end of it all, it’s only a long weekend.
— Ted Hamilton

I consider myself a fairly experienced person when it comes to festivals. But nothing prepared me for the frenzied, awe and fear inspiring “ness” of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Fringe Festival. Unlike most festivals, which are devoted to one art form, Fringe is essentially an invitation to comedians (from complete unknowns to Janeane Garofalo and Flight of the Conchords’s Rhys Darby), dance troupes, actors, improvers and, in the case of one utterly absurd show I saw, improv-actors who specialize in improv musical theatre. Is that confusing? Probably. I was confused too: before our very eyes they set a classic whose line is it anyway type improv show to music … and performed an hour long improvised musical. It’s the sort of thing that usually I would stay as far away from as possible, but it was perfectly on pitch. And hilarious.
The festival can get overwhelming at times: take your average day of being quarter carded on Ho Plaza or at Club Fest, multiply it by one million people, make them all actors and then give them the most ridiculous way of getting people’s attention. One dude mooned me to get his attention; scrawled on his butt cheeks in lipstick was the time and location of his boss’ one-man-cabaret. Yet not everyone at Fringe is there to perform. Alongside the circus performers are random students and adults, from the UK and abroad who just come to see the crazy. My last day there, when I had finally become desensitized to the promoters’ antics, I met a group advertising free hugs. One would assume they were a college comedy troupe, but in fact — which I realized after being crushed in an international eight person bear hug — they were just promoting free hugs.
— Julie Block

This article was originally published in print and online on Aug. 28 in a different format.
Lollapalooza, Chicago’s annual late-summer music festival, is an experience worth enjoying at least once. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the festival, in Chicago’s Grant Park, for the second time. Working at The Sun has produced some notable benefits for me in the past, but none has been so uniquely thrilling as Lollapalooza. In the following paragraphs are listed some of my personal highlights from the festival.
We headed over to the Playstation stage where Fleet Foxes were regaling a crowd of around 5,000 with their distinct brand of textured indie folk-rock. The performance, despite lacking the dynamism and bravado that often distinguishes great performers from mediocre ones, was still a largely enjoyable experience: the Foxes’ catalogue is strong enough to carry a concert lacking even an iota of spectacle.
Other acts of note were Andrew Bird (charming and quirky), Depeche Mode (surprisingly solid), Kings of Leon (who might as well just have performed “Use Somebody”) and Kid Cudi, who spent 10 minutes performing his mediocre breakout hit, “Day N Nite,” first a-capella, then with its signature spare electro beat, and finally in its “Crookers Remix” iteration.
— Peter Finocchiaro