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Hideout Block Party Thu Sep 12 2013

Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest 2013: Exploring the Themes

By Sarah Brooks and Timothy Schuler

The Hideout_9705167904_l-web.jpg
(photo by Joshua Mellin)

Given our snapshot review of this year's Hideout Block Party and A.V. Fest, there are a lot of reasons why this festival is so wonderful and unique. No other large-scale festival places such an emphasis on local talent, frequently bringing artists that were once in a fledgling state, playing late night sets at the Hideout to get their start, as headlining acts that garner a massive crowd to match their amassed following. We look into the themes of each evening's performances, as the festival truly shows us a conscious reasoning behind the choices for headlining acts, and the message they wanted these choices to send.

World's Best Dancer owns Guitarkestra!_9701941901_l-web.jpg
"The World's Best Dancer" at Guitarkestra (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Friday: A Night of Lady Power and Wisdom
Friday night brought us a stellar back-to-back lineup of two veteran singers who have traveled amazing journeys throughout their lives, who both have a strong connection to the city of Chicago. In concert with one another, they played off of the vibes that each put out into the audience. Such immense musical talent truly brought about a special energy in the air, as two female powerhouses were paired together not only to showcase their incredible skill at their craft, but also to impart their own pieces of wisdom to the crowd, too. If Friday night were to have a theme, soul-seeking wisdom would be it.

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Mavis Staples and her throne (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Mavis Staples's life has been nothing short of laden with experiences. Born in Chicago in 1939, Mavis began performing with her family's band, The Staple Singers, in 1950. The group emerged as a spiritual musical force, especially evident during the Civil Rights Movement. Each song they sang carried a message with it, seeking out activist ears to hear them. She released her first solo album in 1960, full of wisdom for her eager followers. She's worked with Bob Dylan, she's worked with Prince, she's worked with Curtis Mayfield, she's worked with John Scofield, she's worked with Ray Charles. The list goes on and on, and as Mavis has collected the emblems of consistently working with others, she has shared her message and her musical talent with the world. Her latest album, One True Vine, released this past year, is deep and spiritual, grappling with themes of faith, love, and adversity.

Her set was no different as it explored various themes in depth, with only music as her guiding force. Mavis took us to her church and preached her message to us, allowing it to sink into our souls and permeate our minds. She was literally glowing as she emerged onstage, humbled and elated by the crowd that had stretched out to the venue's boundaries, obscuring the lines of where the festival begins and ends. Opening with "Can You Get To That" with a large band backing her, Mavis created her set right off the bat as more than an exploration of her music, but a celebration. Frequently engaging with the crowd and inserting hilarious chitchat between songs, Mavis kept the crowd smiling and content. A prime moment of her dialogue with the crowd occurred when she discussed her recent knee surgery and how much she adored her new knee.

"I'm gonna name my knee The Hideout," she chuckled with a large grin forming on her face, as laughter rang out from the audience. She mentioned that she could do the Dougie with the knee, or maybe, the Tootsie Roll. Her easygoing demeanor made it seem like we were all great friends, catching up on our lives and filling each other in on things that were important.

Her set weaved through her discography, as she played "I Like The Things About Me," which imparted the message to the audience that we are as we should be, a message that people can oftentimes forget. That's the thing about Mavis Staples; none of her songs are packed with fluff. Each one has substance, and is lifted up by universal themes that we can all take into account and apply to our lives. She interspersed these heavier pieces with bass-thumping, toe-tapping covers of "For What It's Worth" and "The Weight," causing the crowd to turn into a singalong party. Ending with a cover of her own family's tune, "I'll Take You There," she invited us to be a part of her musical family, as she beamed while she sang and grooved across the stage.

The reasons for The Hideout designing an elaborate throne for Mavis in years past is evident; she is an impeccable musician. She's faced adversity and fought it with music, establishing powerful messages that resonated with her listeners for time to come. Setting Friday off on the right note, Mavis showcased her own wisdom for the crowd, leading the way for Neko Case to share hers.

"Wow. Her pristine. I don't know what to even say," the woman standing next to me spoke softly to her friend just after Neko Case began. A new listener, she seemed astounded by the pure quality of Neko's voice. That is what originally hooked me when I began to listen to her with group The New Pornographers years ago, and moved to her solo material shortly after. Captivated by her voice, there's truly nothing like it. It can morph from blissful, to haunting, to completely soul-shattering, forcing the chills to emerge when you hear a song lyric that especially tugs at your heart. As I stood in the front of the crowd after Mavis's set, I soon could not see the boundary walls of The Hideout anymore, just an expanse of listeners, waiting for Neko to emerge.

Neko Case_9701931353_l-web.jpg
Neko Case (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Like Mavis Staples, Neko Case has been practicing her art form for a long time. Born in Virginia, Neko Case moved to Washington at the mere age of 15. Studying at a school in Canada, Neko added her talents to a batch of groups, mostly punk and country outfits. She joined The New Pornographers for their first release, Mass Romantic in 2000, which became a surprise hit for members of the group, who decided to continue recording with one another for decades. She's toyed with country music styles on each of her releases, and the songwriting and style seep into her musical production. Her first album, The Virginian, was released in 2007, as she also recorded under Neko Case & Her Boyfriends for several years. She parted ways with Washington to come to Chicago, where she released her first solo EP, Canadian Amp. She's released six solo albums since then, the most recent being The Harder Things Get, The More I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You this past month. Though her musical stylings have become more layered and more intricate, Neko never loses her signature sound: typically utilizing unique song structures and featuring intimate lyrics, Neko continues to keep it personal with her listeners as she imparts upon them her own wisdom that she has accrued.

Opening with "This Tornado Loves You," her voice belting out into the crowd echoed past the expansive space and beyond.

This tornado loves you / What will make you believe me? she crooned out, as individuals in the crowd could be found lip-synching along at every turn. She emerged in a simple outfit, to which a snide concertgoer behind me murmured, "She really dressed up for the occasion." But that's the thing about Neko Case: she doesn't have to. She doesn't need an ornate stage set, decor, and backup dancers. She doesn't need the frills of an elaborate costume or modern hairdo. No fog machines, strobe lights, or lasers. Her voice does all the talking, and these things would only serve to distract us from what she's truly trying to show us. I'm certain that most people didn't care one bit about what outfit she was wearing, as her voice was full of so much crystal-clear tone and power that her wardrobe choice was truly unimportant in comparison.

Hideout Crowd_9705178358_l-web.jpg
(photo by Joshua Mellin)

Kelly Hogan, another Hideout veteran, joined Neko Case onstage as her backup vocals. Their banter as old friends was hysterical for the crowd - honestly, I would listen to a whole set of them talking, as I frequently could be found laughing at basically everything they said.

"Can somebody turn on the Old Style light? It's like lighting a fireplace," Neko said of the light adorning The Hideout's front entrance, now faded away. Neko and Kelly both have a special connection to the Hideout, which made the set just that much more special. Most of her set featured songs from 2007's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, 2009's Middle Cyclone, and her new release, including crowd favorites "Man", "Night Still Comes", "Hold On, Hold On," and "Lion's Jaw." She and Kelly decided to try an a cappella version of "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," which she was admittedly nervous about trying in a new environment. However, this was one of the highlights of the set. You could literally hear each breath of those around you, or a pin drop, as everyone was so enthralled by their voices ringing out into the night as the two songstresses sang the haunting tune. Ending with an encore and singing "I Wish I Was The Moon" under the night sky, Neko Case shared her themes of love, heartbreak, and life with the audience throughout her set.

Friday night featured two female powerhouses, both with different musical styles, but linked by the messages they were sending. Linked to Chicago and The Hideout, Mavis and Neko share their musicianship together, which is pretty special. Though they walked different paths throughout their lives, their messages merge together as they created one night of wisdom at the Hideout Block Party.
-Sarah Brooks

Hideout Block Party_9705164992_l-web.jpg
(photo by Joshua Mellin)

Saturday began with a question. Who was Young the Giant, and why were they headlining the Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest? Several people asked me, first in an email a few days before and then repeatedly throughout the weekend. Who was this indie-rock act plopped into the same slot as Wilco last year and Andrew Bird the year before that? Those are known entities, the kinds of artists you've at least heard of even if you don't own their records.

No one seemed to know much about Young the Giant, not even my friends tend to know everyone. Why not one of Saturday's other artists? The Hold Steady, the Walkmen, Aimee Mann, Superchunk--those were headliners. As my friend Jason put it, "Isn't every single other person playing that day a bigger name than them? Am I missing something?" I hoped to find an answer, but it's easy to get distracted at the Hideout Block Party, which is not to say I didn't find an answer--I did--but that it took some time.

The Hideout Block Party, in its 17th year as an event and its third with The A.V. Club (the group behind the nonfictional entertainment insert you find in the Onion) is a festival unlike any other in Chicago. Two days of world-renowned music where tutu-wearing teens are thankfully absent, and before we dive into the play-by-play of Saturday's performances, let me recommend two things: 1) Go. Go to the Hideout Block Party. I'm not being paid to say this, and I have neither carrot nor stick with which to compel you, but I will say this: I don't know anyone who's come who has not come back. 2) Go on Saturday, and go early. This is when many of the weekend's most interesting acts perform. Like Guitarkestra.


Guitarkestra, or Vision Celestial Guitarkestra if we're being officious, is not a band. It is an unholy assortment of ragtag rockers armed each with an amp and their axe. It is ad hoc. An open-to-the-public jam session that, though they do it every year, I'd never actually witnessed. Twenty-some guys (and a few gals) in a circle with two drummers in the middle, someone sets the key, and away they go.

Guitarkestra (photo by Joshua Mellin)

I'm on the outside edge of the circle, watching. Levels of engagement vary. Show-offs toss their guitars up in the air and try to catch them. Experienced musicians stoically shred. Novices look intently at their fret boards, quietly picking out chords. I see a white guy wearing Rasta colors and booties holding his Peavey right up against his guitar to create feedback while he noodles high up on the neck. A woman in similar booties has an accordion, which I'm surprised I can pick out of the guitars' collective distorted belch. There are acoustics, electrics, acoustic-electrics, Flying Vs, Steinbergers. One guy plays a chrome-plated electric mandolin with a violin bow.

Guitarkestra (photo by Joshua Mellin)

The funny thing about a jam session so profoundly devoted to the guitar is that the drums (and I'm not just saying this because I'm a drummer) are vital. People call a drummer the backbone of a band, but they are a jam band's entire skeleton. Without a beat, the music can't quite heave itself from the ground. Drums give it direction, animate it, speed it up and pull it back. And it's the drums that finally end it. A shuddering finale. Twenty-three amps are packed up, and within minutes the lot is empty save for the crowd gathering for Girl Group Chicago.

Guitarkestra and Girl Group Chicago (background) (photo by Joshua Mellin)

And that was an amazing switch, really. As if the Hideout's Fairy Godmother tapped Guitarkestra and turned its two dozen dudes into ladies with beehives and matching powder-blue dresses. One moment it's all Led Zeppelin, the next it's the Ronettes. Girl Group harkens back to the era it's named for, a time in the 1950s and '60s, and I do feel sucked through a time warp save for the small bits of evidence that ground me in 2013: the tattoos on the arm of the center vocalist, the bass player's black fishnets--not to mention the fact that the entire band is made up of women. That's different than in 1963. There's not a man on stage. Behind the trumpet, trombone, keyboard, both saxophones, both guitars, both violins, the cello, the drums, the auxiliary percussion, and all five mics are women.

Halfway through the set, a long-haired man to my left says, "If you turn around now, you'll see Tim and Katie dancing." Sure enough, the Tutens, co-owners of the Hideout, are getting down behind me, with a little help from the Revelettes, the go-go dancers that a few songs earlier made a guest appearance on stage in gold-sequined shorts and gold knee-high boots (bumping the total number of women on stage up to 26) and who were now working the crowd. Someone makes Tim pose with the girls, and I'm right in the shot, directly behind them. I decide not to photobomb.

Girl Group_9705159142_l-web.jpg
Girl Group Chicago (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Girl Group is attempting to reclaim these retro tunes, which were originally performed by women but written and produced (and profited off of) by men. But the words are the same, and that makes you feel weird, as if five decades of progress are being erased. There's a whole song about seeing a boy across the street, and the singers detail his good looks and hope for a kiss, all of it sung it cutesy voices. But maybe the point is that at least it's a choice. These women aren't being forced to sing only about trite romanticisms (and many of them usually aren't: they're busy in other bands like Mucca Pazza and Rabid Rabbit). No, these girls do whatever the fuck they want. No one's calling the shots from backstage.


Near the entrance to the fest, I discover a young boy offering to draw people's pictures. Portraits By Beckett, his sign reads. Pay What You Want. He's raising money to buy a bike for a boy in Africa. Fundraising goal: $134.00.

A guy in a T-shirt occupies the seat of honor. There's a line behind him. An older boy who looks like Beckett hovers nearby. I ask if he knows the artist. "He's my brother," he says. I ask him how long Beckett's been drawing. "He got his caricature done last year and he drew a caricature of his caricature. Then he drew our whole family. He's been doing it since." I ask the brother if he draws. He says yes, but not people. "Landscapes," I suggest. "Yeah, landscapes. And I like to draw aliens. Our cousin is really good at drawing. Like people fighting and stuff."

Portraits by Beckett_9705156464_l-web.jpg
Portraits by Beckett (photo by Joshua Mellin)

I watch Beckett finish a portrait. A big geometric swatch of brown for a beard. He colors the whole background green, hands it off. The subject thanks him, and a girl takes his place. He has an outline in seconds. Looks about like the guy. Oblong head with a skinny little neck, bright eyes ringed with lashes. It reminds me of those Stupid Factory characters. Beckett colors the girl's body pink even though her dress is black and white.

I decide to begin my inquiry. I go into the Hideout and ask a bartender in a turquoise jumpsuit who I should talk to about booking. "Do you wanna play next year?" she asks hesitantly. They must get a lot of yahoos wanting to drop off demos. I tell her I'm covering the festival and she says to email somebody on Monday. "Or talk to Jamie Proctor," she adds. "I think he's up front." I thank her and head that way but am intercepted by my friend Derek. Fortunately, Jamie finds me.

Jamie Proctor happens to know Derek too, which makes sense — Derek is one third of Strange Victory Touring Company and books a ton of bands at the Hideout. After some small talk I bring up Young the Giant (who for the remainder will be known as YTG). I'm surprised to learn Derek is as curious about them as I am. I'm even more surprised when Jamie admits YTG wasn't on his radar either. This guy works at the Hideout, but he's never heard of this year's headliner? But, Jamie says, they may be bigger than any of us realize, at least among a certain demographic.

YTG was the A.V. Club's pick, Jamie says, and the A.V. Club's fan base skews a little younger than the Hideout's. Among 22-year-olds, Jamie says, YTG is huge. With the festival trying to attract a bit more of that age bracket, YTG became the yang to Neko Case's yin. I can't argue with the rationale. All that's left is to wait for their set, see how they do. And see what kind of crowd they bring.


The Both, Aimee Mann_9701937541_l-web.jpg
Aimee Mann (photo by Joshua Mellin)

By the time Aimee Mann takes the stage with Ted Leo as a new band called Both — one of the better names I've heard in a while, once they dropped the hashtag (it was once #BOTH) — it's like we've experienced some sort of human mitosis. The crowd doubles in size almost instantaneously. So when it's announced that Mann and Leo have an official Both album expected "February-ish," there's a roar of approval. For good reason: their brand of rock is refreshing for its refusal to indulge in gratuitous showboating. Guitar solos feel intentional and almost scripted (in a good way), and jams end as quickly as they begin (again, in a good way).

The Both, Aimee Mann & Ted Leo_9701918035_l-web.jpg
The Both (photo by Joshua Mellin)

I spend a good portion of their set listening solely to the vocals. Will a voice like Mann's mesh with one like Leo's? His is wide and bright and he uses his whole mouth to shape it; it floats out like a balloon loosed into the atmosphere. Hers sounds solid, like a speaking voice set out to dry in a brick-shaped mold. That it is somehow still malleable and warm (though never as warm as Neko Case's) is magic. When the two sing together, the sound is greater than the sum of its parts. The mystery voice reminds me of Ben Gibbard's, but not cartoony.

The Walkmen_9705149554_l-web.jpg
The Walkmen (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Later, the Walkmen's vocal performance similarly wows me. It's sunny and yet raining lightly, and I'm with a friend who worries at first whether or not Hamilton Leithauser can sustain his vocal style for an entire set. "He shreds his voice every song," he says. Leithauser pulls it off. The only detectable rasp is when he talks. "He sounds like a smoker," my friend's wife says.


Hideout Fans_9705180128_l-web.jpg
Crowd during Superchunk (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Let me come clean right now. I don't have a lot to say about Superchunk. Supertramp? Yes. I could say a lot about Supertramp. But as important as they may be to you, dear reader, Superchunk is not my brew of choice. They sound like PBR to someone who happens to love hops. (Yes, I'd been drinking Lagunitas's Fusion Ale all day. They were brewed especially for the Block Party.)

Superchunk (photo by Joshua Mellin)

You protest: Hasn't Superchunk been around since before you were born? The answer is yes. And weren't they important to the continuation of the DIY aesthetic of indie rock? Yes. And doesn't their founding bass player suffer from hyperacusis, which causes everyday sounds to sound painfully loud, and is that not tragic yet endlessly fascinating? Yes and yes. And did this super-awesome band not just release a new album (their second after a nine-year hiatus) that has garnered critical acclaim? Okay, yes. Yes, alright? I should love Superchunk. My friend Jason saw the band two years ago and became a believer, and maybe they would've converted me too, but I was busy making the week's grocery list with my wife.

While I'm making confessions, let me just get this off my chest too: I'm not a big Hold Steady fan either, which means at this point in the night, I'm out of acts I'm dying to see. I'm really just waiting for YTG. My curiosity is at a ten. Will they pull this off?


If I thought my first question would take some digging to answer, once YTG begins playing I'm confronted with more questions. By this point it's dark and my handwriting is increasingly illegible, as much from exhaustion as from the Lagunitas. I make a note about the rhythm of YTG's first song. It's nicely syncopated, in 7/8 time and natural in the atmospheric skin they've fashioned for it. They sound good. Production is a little muddy, but later, friends who were at the show will tell me they liked the set.

As I start to pay attention to more than the music, the questions begin. Did Gadhia just say this was their first show outside Southern California? And is he wearing a Blackhawks shirt? Every comment seems aimed at making us feel good about ourselves and our city, a city he doesn't know. Feels like he's pandering, my wife points out. Is the band nervous?

Young The Giant_9701944141_l-web.jpg
Young the Giant (photo by Joshua Mellin)

Then I look around and find an even bigger question waiting in the beer lines. Wait, there is no beer line. That's the question: where is everyone? Last night these lines were 30, 40, 50 people long. The lot had been a can of sardines, as tightly packed and similarly scented (the wind was out of the south and Kelly Hogan, singing back-up for Neko Case, had made at least one remark about "dumpster juice.") But when Gadhia tells the crowd to sing along if they know this one, there is a small roar in response, but it comes from the innermost ring and sounds feeble back by the sound board.

Is YTG not as big as everyone thought? Music blog Consequence of Sound reported that YTG was "more globally popular right now" than others on Saturday's bill. If that's true, their global fan base must be busy tonight. Or--and this requires a leap down the rabbit hole; stay with me--is this a consequence of the persistent thinking (among some) that city's aren't safe? Could it be that younger indie rock fans from outside the city weren't granted permission to attend the Block Party simply because of its location? Parents willing to send their kids to Millennium Park and the bustling, tourist-filled Loop may check Google Maps and see a tiny club sandwiched between the highway and the river in an industrial no man's land. Where is this place?

Or could it have been timing? The Block Party is late enough that YTG fans may have left for colleges downstate or elsewhere. Or perhaps it comes down to competition. If the Hideout wants more of the 18-to-22 crowd, it will compete more directly with Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, North Coast, Riot Fest, and the other big festivals. None of these were on the same weekend, but college kids aren't rich; they may have chosen The Postal Service or Belle and Sebastian over YTG this year.

Hideout Kids The Right Stuff_9705148712_l-web.jpg
Just kids, or future astronauts? (photo by Joshua Mellin)

The hardest questions to answer are the ones I ask myself. Am I subconsciously rooting for YTG to fail? Do I harbor some hidden grudge toward the A.V. Club? There was something in the way Jamie Proctor spoke of their partnership that had poisoned me against it, even though TimTuten told Chicagoist the Hideout and the A.V. Club were "a perfect match."

I decide I need to check my ego a little bit. Whatever love I have for the Hideout Block Party, it's still only my third year. Which means I've only been to shows co-curated by the Hideout and the A.V. Club. And I'm far closer in age to Sameer Gadhia than I am to Neko Case. It could very well be that I'm part of the younger demographic the Hideout is trying to attract.

I'm left with far more questions than I started with, and I don't think I'll ever answer them.


Hideout Kids_9701919843_l-web.jpg
(photo by Joshua Mellin)

We make a pact. It's late afternoon, I think. My wife and I shake hands. For as long as we live in Chicago, we say, we'll come to the Hideout Block Party every year. It's a silly promise, of all the vows two people can make to one another, but I hope we keep it. And I hope the Hideout and the A.V. Club will continue its partnership, as long as it makes this festival possible. I think about Beckett's portraits, Guitarkestra. They wouldn't find a home at Lollapalooza or Pitchfork. That's always been the Hideout's gift, creating a home for artists just slightly left of mainstream. As long as it continues that tradition, things will be just fine.
-Timothy Schuler

Mac McCaughan, Superchunk_9705147774_l-web.jpg
Mac McCaughan, Superchunk (photo by Joshua Mellin)

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By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

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