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Hideout Block Party Mon Sep 17 2012
Photo by Joshua Mellin
At 6p on Friday, while commuters were bumper-to-bumper on 90/94 just two blocks west of the Hideout, a band called CAVE took the Hideout's outdoor stage. I didn't know much about them; they're local — by way of Columbia, Missouri — but until Friday, I hadn't run across them. What I was doing on Sept. 15 last year, when the Krautrockers were playing a show from the back of a flatbed truck cruising down Milwaukee? (Not at the Hideout Block Party, I found out — it was later in September last year).
I quickly found out what the band is about. Though it was dwarfed by the enormity of the stage, from its first note, its sound filled the lot, bouncing off the low-rise lofts and industrial buildings opposite the stage and spinning back toward the crowd. The band powered through a set of tightly wound psychedelic rock, checking off songs like items on a grocery list. The synth riffs and hypnotic beats at times sounded almost like heavy electronica, in the way they were constructed: a base beat with repeating elements added every few returns, slowly building a layered sculpture that then morphs into variations of itself. Yet the songs were more organic than that, retaining the ability to spiral into lengthy jams at any point, the sound echoing off the City of Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management buildings that tower like tin mountains behind the stage.
That's one of the more endearing things about the Hideout Block Party: the armada of idle garbage trucks parked in a several rows just beyond the barbed wire fence marking the southern boundary of the crowd area. It's the city's main hub for streets and sanitation work. It's funny to think that all the waste from the festival doesn't have far to travel, though I also get the sense that this is one of the year's least wasteful music festivals, not in the sense that it's eco-friendly — I actually didn't see one recycle bin the whole weekend — but in the sense that it's modest. There's one stage, about five food trucks, and maybe seven vendor booths, mostly for the nonprofits that are benefiting from the event (all proceeds go to charities like Rock for Kids, Literacy Works, etc.).
The one thing that does get wasted is space, at least during early sets like CAVE's. The band didn't skimp on energy, but still, there was at least three feet between each small cluster of people populating the parking lot. I could stretch out my arms, spin around, and not hit anybody. Even up against the stage, it was almost roomy. A moat of space surrounded the folks leaning on the barricade, as if the rest of the crowd was worried they'd start moshing at any moment. A kid in dirty-blond dreads jumped up and down during CAVE's last song, a really crunchy crowd-pleaser that spanned what had to be ten minutes or more, but that's as close to violence as we got.
The War on Drugs
When I arrived for day one of the Hideout Block Party and A.V. Fest, the crowd was just beginning to fill in. The sun was still high, and individuals were just starting to gain their festival bearings. After CAVE played the opening set, the crowd was mighty full in anticipation for folk rockers The War on Drugs to entrance us with their unique sound.
This group has seen many changes during its presence in the indie rock scene; an outfit whose original band member was currently solo songwriter Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs has re-organized itself and stabilized for album releases, such as the 2011 acclaimed Slave Ambient, though during these shifts and changes, the group never lost sight of their signature sound. Layered and full-bodied backdrops with pulsing guitar lines peppered by slower, more transcendental numbers distinguish the group with a style that is all their own.
The War on Drugs took the stage on Friday evening to cheering fans, as lead singer Adam Granduciel opened up the set by throwing out a pack of cigarettes to a pleased audience member (it was listed in their rider, but he had recently quit). They had quickly established a charming rapport with the audience, as their songs continued this budding relationship further. The group chose "Best Night" as their opener, and it perfectly set the mood for the duration of their shimmering, ambient tunes. The song is vulnerable at its core, and the nostalgia-inducing guitar backing combined with Granduciel's raspy vocals induced a mellow vibe that was sustained for the rest of the evening's acts. The group launched into some crowd favorites such as percussive, quick-paced "Baby Missiles," and kept the energy high throughout the duration of the set, which included Granduciel sitting on the stage floor at one point, wailing into the harmonica with every bit of energy he could muster.
As predicted in our preview, the sun began to descend upon festivalgoers as The War on Drugs' music glided from the speakers, and several of the individuals around me could be seen smiling at the intoxicating combination of the music and the beautiful sky behind us. We stared in unison at the clouds, merging into amber, pink, and orange hues, as the sound reverberated around us. It was a beautiful scene that unfurled, and I think we became more relaxed, more at ease, more at peace during that set, as we sunk into the melodic atmosphere presented to us. The War on Drugs have a sound that is perfect for an outdoor setting, where it can travel to the far reaches of the space. Their set proved that they are truly in their element, as the sun descended while their set slowly fizzled away. It was like watching the end of a far too short-lived 4th of July sparkler, realizing that time had gone too fast and wishing the spark could be regained.
Glen Hansard came out in a beanie. America's favorite Irish singer-songwriter, frontman of the Frames, star of the film Once, and one-half of the duo that Once spawned — The Swell Season — Hansard was one of the few artists all weekend who didn't hail from the Windy City, or at least grow up in its suburbs, and the one thing anyone who saw his performance on Friday night could agree on is that he was happy to be there. And how could he not be? How could any artist not be won over by the small-town, family-reunion feel here? By the uniquely obscure corner of Chicago the Hideout inhabits?
I imagine first-timers looking out the window of their tour bus and raising an eyebrow, asking if someone made a mistake when they swing onto Wabansia from Elston. A wrong turn, maybe? Faulty directions? But by the end of the night, the Hideout's odd location becomes one of its greatest selling points. Artists leave and tell everybody they know about this tiny little venue in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the north branch of the Chicago River and the freeway, in a no man's land that no neighborhood even really claims.
Hansard had played the Hideout before, a number of years ago, but the Block Party is different. With the huge stage facing west, toward Elston's vein of defunct industry and our enormous, flat city stretching beyond it, it's not hard to imagine music reporters asking about Hansard's favorite stop on this latest tour, him thinking for a second, and then answering: "The Hideout Block Party, in Chicago."
Aside from his excitement, the other immediately apparent thing about Hansard was that he was not alone. He brought a few friends, 10 or 11 of them, practically a small orchestra. Looking at the lineup, I began to suspect what turned out to be true. Glen Hansard is an artist who sells you live. I don't own Rhythm and Repose, and I may never buy it, mainly because I'd wager its production turns all the layers that pop during the live show — the brass, the strings, the shaker — into a mash of all-too-recognizable singer-songwriter coffee-shop mash. During the performance Friday night, though, if they'd been selling the album within 10 feet of me, I'd have bought it. The backing band was talented, the parts arranged immaculately, and Hansard a man who knows how to let loose.
That's the real selling point: Hansard himself. If visible, physical passion were stretched out along a spectrum, Glen Hansard and Jeff Tweedy would be on opposite ends. Now, Tweedy has stage presence, and we'll get to that tomorrow when we talk about Wilco, but let's be honest, he doesn't jump around. He barely moves, rarely raises his voice. His power comes from other places. Hansard, on the other hand, yells. A lot. Yells and screams and growls and whines and whimpers and hollers 'til kingdom come. He bends low to the ground and stomps his feet (his beanie has come off by now) and twirls around. He strums his guitar as fast as he possibly can. Which is fast. He surprises everybody by just how much noise he can make by himself. And that's what he does: halfway through his set, the band disappears, and he becomes for those who loved Once that solitary busker on Grafton Street in Dublin, completely alone and happy for the freedom it brings.
Hansard's formula never really changes: Cinematic songs = good songs. Which is fine, because cinematic songs translate really well live, and they translate really well to film. Big songs, small songs — it's the drama in them that people love. Hansard's bare, unbridled style isn't smart like CAVE's; it's relatable. It's emotional. It connects to that human component that transcends whatever the music's doing. And judging by the crowd's response, they connected on Friday. The audience was as happy to be in that parking lot as Hansard was.
Iron and Wine
A fan of Iron and Wine since I had purchased Our Endless Numbered Days in a record shop almost a decade ago, I had fallen in love instantly with their sound. The breathless simplicity of the acoustic guitar combined with Sam Beam's vocals meshed together effortlessly, and I became captivated. I've watched (and listened to) them change throughout the years, maintaining their original sound but cultivating it, making it more expansive and available, and finally, more indie pop than folk in some regards. Kiss Each Other Clean was their most commercial release yet; I still enjoyed it, but to be honest, if Iron and Wine had played a set full of songs from their first four releases, I would be perfectly content.
Unsure of what to expect, a slight delay kept the crowd waiting and anticipation building. The group took the stage and apologized for the delay, and some technical issues had been the root cause. They quickly won us back by proving these issues wrong with their far-reaching sound, by projecting vocals and instrumentals with crystal clear intonation. Sam Beam sung an acoustic ballad first for the crowd; the group was comfortable on the stage, singing their tender ballads in front of thousands and thousands. Though their music is definitely suited for an intimate venue, their capability to completely silence a large crowd is an attribution to their immense talent and musicality. I stood in silence with those around me as we listened in awe to the sound present before us, enveloping and personal.
Sam Beam's voice undoubtedly reached far past festival grounds as he continued to croon out familiar tunes such as rhythmic and mesmerizing "Boy With A Coin," and haunting "Lion's Mane." The only thing that was more full than their sound was Sam Beam's standard beard in all of its glory. The group used this full-bodied sound to their advantage as they propelled into several newer tunes such as "Summer In Savannah," featuring a groovy saxophone riff and a strong percussive emphasis, and ending, predictably, with "Tree By The River." I was satisfied with their set, but something was missing. I realized what it was when they emerged soon after to play their encore, ending with "The Trapeze Swinger."
"It's going to be a long song," Beam stated, as the crowd excitedly cheered when the opening chord emitted from his acoustic guitar. While Iron and Wine can produce beautiful music in whatever style they choose, it is when they are showcased at their most tender, with honest lyrics and a stripped, minimalist style, that their music truly shines.