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12 Grades for A.V. Fest & Hideout Block Party 2013

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    av fest 2013 web1 12 Grades for A.V. Fest & Hideout Block Party 2013

    “Am I cool, kids?”

    “No.”

    “Good. I’m glad. And that’s what makes me cool: not caring. Right?”

    Omit the last word of that quote from The Simpsons, and it could have been said by The Hideout’s co-owners, Tim and Katie Tuten. Their annual Block Party—in conjunction with The A.V. Club (possibly our favorite pop culture site out there)—has never been about what’s buzz-worthy, but rather community, as well as bands the storied, ramshackle venue knows and loves. Funnily enough, the above quote is also from “Homerpalooza,” a Simpsons episode that skewers the commercialization and outlandishness of larger-scale music festivals.

    Now don’t get us wrong. We love Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo as much as anybody. But it’s nice to end the summer in a more relaxed fashion, in a parking lot that still feels like someone’s backyard. Yes, it’s much smaller than pretty much any other festival in the city. Yes, there’s only one stage. Yes, it’s kid-friendly. Yes, there’s an emphasis on safety. And yes, those porta-potties stay jaw-droppingly pristine throughout most of the two days.

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    But hey, we’re not here to talk about sanitation, even if The Hideout is only a stone’s throw away from the garbage truck army of Fleet Management. We’re here to talk about the music. In honor of The A.V. Club‘s house style for their reviews, we’ve given each act’s set a letter grade, in addition to including a few choice Stray Observations. The only one we regrettably didn’t get to cover was Brooklyn punk trio Nude Beach, as our work schedules only allowed us to catch the second half of their set. However, we can attest to their crack musicianship, scrappy stage presence, and the big-chord catch of their tunes.

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    Besides being just plain good, most of the other bands at this year’s festival have exhibited considerable staying power, regardless of how much airplay they’ve gotten. As for Nude Beach and their fellow younger acts? Well, only time will tell. But The Hideout and The A.V. Club like them. And for now, that’s good enough for us.

    -Dan Caffrey
    Senior Staff Writer

    Photography by Amanda Koellner

    Friday, September 6th

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    Trampled By Turtles (6:15 p.m.)

    Something I never thought I’d say about a summer festival set: I wanted more slow songs. Maybe it’s my lack of appreciation for bluegrass-inspired indie rock, but the furious mandolin picking and fiddling starts to grate on me after a while, melting into an endless, samey-sounding hoedown. Although fun at first, I can’t do it all night.

    So, true to their name, Trampled By Turtles’ swampier stuff stood out to me simply by breaking up the mood. The boggy dirge of “Gasoline” was like a sunset dipped in blood, and the galloping ending of closer “Alone” paid off thanks to the backwoods lullaby at its beginning. I also can’t name a song that isn’t made better by some strategically placed “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh”s at the climax. It wasn’t quite enough to win me over, but it sure was purdy.

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    Grade: B-

    Stray Observations:
    * Like many people, I’ve always found Trampled By Turtles’ band name to be strange, and their set got me thinking about it quite a bit. Can you imagine actually being trampled by turtles? For some reason, I keep picturing getting stampeded to death a la The Lion King by a battalion of aldabra giant tortoises, which can actually move quite fast. Frightening stuff.

    * Despite some overloud bass mixing during the Turtles’ first song and a few hiccups during The BOTH, overall the sound was surprisingly crisp for an outdoor festival. It never started to drone and distort as it does by the end of Lolla or even Pitchfork. To be fair, it’s a much, much smaller space. But still.

    * Props to the sound guy for playing Dire Straits’ Making Movies almost in its entirety in between the first few sets of the day. I get a lot of shit for owning every Dire Straits album, and hearing my favorite one blasted at The Hideout reaffirmed that maybe, just maybe, they’re a cool band. –Dan Caffrey

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    Mavis Staples (7:30 p.m.)

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    In the minutes before Mavis Staples played at dusk on Friday night, a throne was set up to the left of the stage. If that sounds like an overwrought gesture, it’s not. Not for a longstanding musical and sociopolitical icon like Staples, and certainly not in her hometown of Chicago, where her reputation is downright regal. At 74 years young, the soul legend is still intent on earning her keep.

    Although needing to walk with a cane due to a recent knee-replacement surgery, Staples was nevertheless affable, charming, sassy and plenty invigorated. Coloring her lively set both with cuts from her latest release, One True Vine, and covers from The Band (“The Weight”) and Buffalo Springfield (“For What it’s Worth”), the singer captivated the Hideout crowd with a veteran’s touch. Even though she didn’t need to take a seat on the throne, no one would have blamed her if she had.

    Grade: A

    Stray Observations:
    * The name of Mavis’ new knee? “The Hideout.”

    * There’s a lovable, cool grandma quality to everything Staples does. Even the imperfections, such as having to briefly stop her set to confer wit her band, were met with warm laughter from the crowd. There’s something comforting in a singer that doesn’t try to hide her age.

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    * Most tender moment? When she tearfully remembered singing “The Weight” with Levon Helm. – Ryan Bray

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    Neko Case (8:45 p.m.)

    Proving that one good turn deserves another, Neko Case followed up Mavis Staples’ powerhouse performance with a strong showing of her own to close out the first night’s festivities. The set was the singer’s first in support of her solid (and verbosely-worded) new record, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. There was some slight anxiety over the monitors, but it seemed to go largely unnoticed by the eager crowd.

    Case, backed by a stellar supporting cast that included a quiet Eric Bachmann on guitar and a chipper Kelly Hogan on backup vocals, split the difference between dusty Americana ballads and more spirited indie pop fare. The new record was well represented (“Calling Cards”, “Wild Creatures”, and “Night Still Comes”), but the undisputed highlight came when Case and Hogan went completely a cappella on everyone’s ass with “Nearly Midnight in Honolulu”.

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    Grade: B+

    Stray Observations:
    * Before she sang a single note, Case dedicated every one of her songs to Mavis Staples. That’s pretty classy.

    * Even with the presence of Bachmann on guitar, the number of Archers Of Loaf songs played was a disappointing 0. He and Neko could have at least done “Your Control”—their metallic duet on Crooked Fingers’ 2008 album, Forfeit/Fortune.

    * What would a festival be without a little scrappy stage banter? “That breeze feels pretty nice, even if it smells like dumpster juice,” opined Hogan, referring to the garbage trucks next door. Oooooooh. In your eye, Chicago! In. Your. Eye. – Ryan Bray

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    Saturday, September 7th

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    Vision Celestial Guitarkestra (1:30 p.m.)

    Any concertgoers taking the Red Line probably weren’t even over the North Avenue Bridge when the epic, intentional clusterfuck that was Vision Celestial Guitarkestra got underway. But those in attendance were treated to the most unusual display of musicianship the weekend had to offer. A collection of 20-some odd guitarists plugged in and gathered to play in a circle, stringing out one note for a half-hour while two drummers played in the middle. Those who participated won free admission for the day, so if nothing else, it was cool to see regular spectators engage in the performance. Beyond that, it was a harmless experiment, but one that quickly wore thin.

    Grade: C+

    Stray Observations:
    * Note to the guy playing acoustic guitar: we’re sorry, but no one heard you.

    * For all the sonic mischief, the true scene-stealer was a guy sporting a bandanna, knee pads, and some serious bike-shorts camel toe. Guitarless, he was content to just let his freak flag fly amidst all the atonal chaos.

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    * We hope that anyone who preferred to hear the droning from a distance checked out the wax at the Saki Records‘ merch table. Some notable fest-related finds: three separate Superchunk albums, a copy of the new Neko Case record that was $8 cheaper than the ones on sale the day before, and the vinyl version of Ideas For Songs—the early bedroom recordings from Case’s New Pornographers cohort Dan Bejar. Its cover (NSFW) always freaks us out because it looks like a naked painting of Bejar, even though it’s not. –Ryan Bray

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    Girl Group Chicago (2:00 p.m.)

    Sixties girl group songs sung and played by female musicians. If the gender reversal was the only trick up bandleader Shana East’s see-through sleeve, it would quickly become a gimmick. But Girl Group Chicago’s Block Party set further cemented them as serious players in the local music scene by pulling out all the stops. In addition to their usual matching outfits, throwback choreography, and full horn and string sections, they were joined by The Revelettes—a troupe of go-go dancers/hype women—and Gina Bloom of emerging soulsters The Congregation for two songs.

    While The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”, The Shirelles’ “Last Minute Miracle”, and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” all lived up to and expanded upon the originals’ walls of sound, the watershed moment came at the finale. A brass-heavy version of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love” (Soft Cell be damned!) thinned to a whisper, then morphed into a slow and sweet rendition of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”, led by Bloom on vocals. The volume rose and rose before exploding into a breakneck mashup of the two songs.

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    Grade: A-

    Stray Observations
    * I counted 19 musicians onstage and eight Revelettes, although I could be wrong. Either way, that’s a shit-ton of people.

    * While the choreography from The Revelettes and the five vocalists were great fun, the Best Dancer award goes to auxiliary percussionist Mia Park. She really gets into it when wailing on the triangle, güiro, and, of course, the cowbell.

    * The band went over their time limit and almost didn’t get to perform their final (and best) song. Luckily, bassist Andrea Jablonski (also of sludge metal act Rabid Rabbit) told one of the crew members something to the effect of “Come on, man, this is our big fucking show!”, which was pretty funny. —Dan Caffrey

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    Jon Langford (3:00 p.m.)

    Jon Langford has been a mainstay of the Hideout Block Party since its inception, and his role as the festival’s resident artist of choice is fitting. Rarely does a weekend go by where Langford can’t be found gracing a stage somewhere in the city, so he’s certainly earned the right to an annual return and a late-career role as elder statesman of the scene. The crowd was still relatively thin by the time the Mekons/Waco Brothers renaissance man took the stage, but he was embraced with open arms by his adopted hometown.

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    We prefer the grit of Langford’s earlier punk sound, which he’s more or less discarded for a second skin as a country folk-rocker. Tunes such as “Summer Stars” take on a pastoral quality, albeit one that’s gently roughed up by his sandpaper bark. He’s even reworked some of his older songs in this vein, with vocal support from two of the city’s finest singers—Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome. Still, Langford proved he still has plenty of rowdiness in his heart by wildly swinging his guitar toward the end of his set, nearly whipping his drummer in the face with his cable.

    Grade: B

    Stray Observations:
    * I walked by The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn on my way to the stage, and determined that in 20 years, he’ll look almost exactly like Jon Langford.

    * Bicycle shorts guy is back! He began a solo game of hacky sack during Langford’s set, and continued playing with himself throughout The BOTH.

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    * Around this time, a little kid named Beckett set up a booth where he drew pay-what-you-can portraits of festival-goers. All of the proceeds went to the Village Bicycle Project, which supplies bikes to impoverished communities in Africa. We hope you reached your goal, Beckett! –Ryan Bray

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    The BOTH (4:00 p.m.)

    Hey, it’s Eugene Mirman! “Just wanted to say hi,” the comic said by way of intro to Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s mid-afternoon set. As it would turn out, he wasn’t the only comedian in the house. Operating as The BOTH, Mann and Leo, before even getting into the music, mastered the art of playful, between-song ribbing. Whether they were taking jabs at each other’s clothes or arguing over whose mic was louder, the two exhibited an effortless interplay and chemistry like they were an indie rock Nichols and May (Wiki it). That goes double for the music. The news of a Mann/Leo collaboration raised eyebrows for many who wondered where the two would meet in the middle, but it’s a potent mix. Who knew Leo’s caffeinated power punk would mesh with Mann’s mellower pop sensibilities? Leo’s restraint with The BOTH might initially disarm Pharmacist fans, but it’s refreshing to see him step out of his comfort zone. And he still managed to sneak in a Thin Lizzy cover.

    Grade: B+

    Stray Observations:
    * Mann: “Does anyone know how much time we have?” Guy next to me: “Til’ Tuesday!” Zing.

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    * Leo is a master when it comes to working the crowd. When they collectively yelled “More vocals!”, he simultaneously defended his sound guy and silenced their yelling with his wry, affable humor. The mixer found the proper balance a few songs into the set.

    * Aaand it’s official. Look out for The BOTH’s debut release (a full-length!) in February. – Ryan Bray

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    The Walkmen (5:15 p.m.)

    You can keep the Western dirge of “Blue As Your Blood” and the spooky patter of “On The Water.” Contrary to Trampled By Turtles, I prefer The Walkmen at their most optimistic. And it was the optimistic songs that shined in the late afternoon sun during their set. Okay, the lyrics to “Angela Surf City” aren’t exactly giddy, but the catch-a-wave instrumentation will always be danceable, especially at a festival. And that’s to say nothing of set closer “Heaven”, the thankful title track off an album that’s almost exclusively about optimism from a familial standpoint. It was damn near impossible to keep from smiling as the band left the stage.

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    Strangely enough, the rest of their show felt a little chilly. Maybe it was jet lag (they had flown in that day from Europe), or the near absence of stage banter from frontman Hamilton Leithauser, or just the setlist. Tracks like “In The New Year” and “Woe Is Me” are jangly enough, but they don’t overflow with warmth like nearly every cut off of Heaven, which only had two songs represented.

    Grade: B

    Stray Observations:
    * The Walkmen always look snazzy, but they pick the worst clothes to wear while performing in the summer. Similar to their Lollapalooza set last year, their dress shirts were drenched with sweat by the end of the second song. At least Leithauser wasn’t wearing a suit this time.

    * Once again, I’m a sucker for the “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh”s. Actually, make that “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”s. There’s no “w” in “Heaven.”

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    * I do have to give Leithause credit for his vocal performance. Seriously, whether playing in a tiny club or an outdoor stage, he oozes intensity. Yowl on, man! —Dan Caffrey

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    Superchunk (6:30 p.m.)

    It dawned on me during The Walkmen’s set that this year’s festival was a relatively subdued affair. The volume and manic energy were kept to a medium boil, even late into the afternoon on Saturday. But all it took was the first few chords of “FOH” for Superchunk to rev up fans for the rest of the evening.

    The spritely indie rock heroes, led by kinetic frontman Mac McCaughan, packed their set of live-wire power pop with plenty of tunes from their new record, I Hate Music, while also sprinkling in a handful of older fan favorites. The absence of Laura Ballance’s onstage pogoing was impossible to ignore, but Jason Narducy (who, along with animated Superchunk drummer, Jon Wurster, makes up two-thirds of Bob Mould’s current band) more than held his own in relief. Although The Hold Steady would later garner the most crowd sing-a-longs, Superchunk gave them a run for their money when they closed with “Slack Motherfucker”, a title that will never, ever apply to the restless band.

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    Grade: A

    Stray Observations:
    * “That’s the last time you make fun of me, motherfucker!” Shit, Jim Wilbur only needs to tell me once.

    * Drummer’s note: Wurster played overhand, apart from his more traditional match grip. Also, he goes wide-eyed and mouths a different sound for every one of his drum beats.

    * Virtually every publication has remarked on the ironic title of Superchunk’s latest album, but it somehow sounded fresh coming from the ever-huggable and chatty Tim Tuten during his band intro. “I Hate Music? Don’t believe it for a second. Superchunk!” –Ryan Bray

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    The Hold Steady (7:45 p.m.)

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    My fiance made an astute observation about The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn when he took the stage. “Every time he starts singing,” she said. “It looks like he’s coming back from the dead.” Hyperbolic? Sure. Accurate? Absolutely. As Finn gazed over the crowd, he looked surprised that so many people had shown up, then even more shocked as he started flailing about during the druggy history lesson of “Positive Jam”, as if he was suddenly remembering how to move his limbs.

    In a way, maybe he was. It’s been written about to death, but the 2010 departure of keyboardist/backing vocalist Franz Nicolay severely affected the songs, and thus, the reception of their last record, Heaven Is Whenever. But the band has since gotten its groove back. As much as I still miss Nicolay’s anthemic piano on pretty much everything from Boys And America and Stay Positive—most noticeable on reliable crowd pleasers “Stuck Between Stations” and “Sequestered In Memphis”—The Hold Steady have regained their footing as a guitar-centric outfit. Even better, the handful of songs from their yet-to-be-released sixth album feel charged and fully comfortable with their lack of ivory.

    By the end of the set, Finn wasn’t just surprised; he was genuinely touched, on the verge of tears as he thanked the crowd during the bridge of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”. “This rock ‘n’ roll thing…” he told them. “…it has its ups and downs. But on some nights, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. This is one of those nights.”

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    Grade: A+

    Stray Observations
    * Although I personally dig Heaven Is Whenever, even its best songs don’t have the live power of The Hold Steady’s other albums. The band apparently thinks so, too. They didn’t play a single song from it.

    * Steve Selvidge really has settled nicely into his role as the band’s third guitarist. It’s always fun to watch him, Tad Kubler, and, on some songs, Finn, trade licks. The best three-axe attack was set closer, “Southtown Girls”.

    * Is there any bassist who makes delightfully goofy facial expressions than Galen Polivka? I wonder if he and Jon Wurster have ever played together. It’d be the world’s funniest rhythm section, hands down.

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    * We weren’t sure if A.V. Club Manager Josh Modell was imitating Craig Finn or Tim Tuden when he introduced the band, but either way it was funny. –Dan Caffrey

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    Young The Giant (9:00 p.m.)

    From the get-go, Young The Giant seemed like an odd choice to headline The Hideout Block Party & A.V. Fest. Sure, the Irvine, California quintet performed a delightfully sincere take on R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” on A.V. Undercover while wearing fur coats. But as a band, they don’t have much of an identity yet, especially when compared to other acts in the festival. Where s Superchunk has majesty shredding, Young The Giant has U2-cribbing reverb. Whereas Hamilton Leithauser moves up and down the vocal scale from anguish to exuberance, Sameer Gadhia seems chained to his pleasant tenor, occasionally filtered by an effect. Even Guitarkestra has a shtick that’s easily definable.

    Then again, YTG is also more globally popular right now than anyone else that played this past weekend. I just don’t think their fans are the fest’s main demographic. Nearly half the crowd skedaddled after The Hold Steady, and while the remaining numbers were nothing to sneeze at, only the first few rows seemed to be singing along, even during smash singles like “Cough Syrup” and “Apartment”.

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    Oddly enough—and this should be good news for the band—the audience was most enthusiastic about Young The Giant’s new material, opting to hear the foggy waltz of “Firelight” over an older song when Gadhia gave them the choice. Relying more on slow-dance chords than effects pedals, “Firelight” felt resonant and deliberate, as did the toothy aggression found in some of the other unreleased tracks. It would be interesting to see them return to the festival once they’ve developed a more distinct personality.

    Grade: C+

    Stray Observations:
    * Even Gadhia’s stage banter seemed rather lost. Several times, he thanked the city of Chicago, then began to make a humorous statement that had no punchline, instead just devolving into mumbling or sharing an inside joke with his bandmates. Brownie points for wearing a Blackhawks shirt though.

    * More praise for the sound guy: his playlist before Young The Giant included “Stay Gone” by The Get Up Kids. Thanks, sound guy!

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    * Sadly, Bicycle Shorts was nowhere to be seen. We’d like to think he’s alone in his apartment playing a nice, quiet game of solo hacky sack. The perfect end to a perfect weekend. —Dan Caffrey

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    Overall Festival Grade: A-

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