I know, I know, I had a nice streak of consistent round-ups for the first three days of the 2009 Mission Creek Festival, and I dropped the ball. In fact, apparently we’re already talking about another Iowa music festival…damn these hyperactive news cycles. Anyway, I feel a certain debt to fans and musicians to recount some of the many, many, many (many, many) highlights from the final two days of this 4th annual music festival.
You might want to take this one in a couple doses…pace yourself this is a big ‘un.
If you’ve slept on Iowa City’s music scene, you’ve missed some real talent. Maybe more importantly, the birth and evolution of some real talent in your own little city-sized petri dish. One of the benefits of having a small but fairly fertile music scene is the almost microscopic-like precision with which you’re able to gaze upon and analyze local talent. Sometimes there are minute changes and slight augmentations, and sometimes bands switch up so fast you’re sitting in the front row with a case of whiplash.
The Western Front is almost that band, except they haven’t morphed from album to album or year to year, this Iowa City trio changes from song to song. Sometimes TWF is the torchbearer for the New Order aesthetic, others it’s more akin to Ryan Adams and still others it’s as though the two are in a drunken bar brawl. And we got a little bit of all of that on Saturday night as the Iowa Citians opened up proceedings at The Picador.
And watching the more abrasive Illini transports Birth Rites would, one would assume, less subtle, but watching the quartet hone and fine tune over the past year has been something to behold. Dudes were in fine form Saturday, blasting through material from their upcoming album (due in May on our own Mission Freak Records). The songs have achieved a certain sheen of confidence, despite the band’s gruff, rough and tumble act. Catch these guys soon (I say this as a fan, not as a shill for the label), cause they keep getting better and better and soon it’s not just going to be friends, well-wishers, and label reps at shows.
Oh and did I mention Iowa City was full of the indie creme de la creme? The fortunate few with festival passes or the financial means could have made a western bee-line from No Age to The Tallest Man on Earth to The Cool Kids, that’s one hell of a night. And the performances matched the level of expectations—even my disgustingly high ones.
No Age brought the grimey, hissy, pop blasts that every one knew they had. The LA duo was easily one of the loudest—up there with Dinosaur Jr. and Boris—that I’ve seen at The Picador, with enough high end to destroy the last lingering threads of Pete Townsend’s already battered hearing. No Age was also responsible for the oh so hilarious and awkward teenage-hipster mosh pit. (Note to Iowa City music bookers and venues: more all-ages shows, these kids have so much energy they think you can mosh to No Age.)
Thankfully the nation’s youth aren’t so starved for activity that they took the more energetic vocal performance of the Dylanesque The Tallest Man on Earth as a sign to mosh. However, every one was piled in deep in the basement of the Jefferson Building. Public Space One has never seen so many people, all of ‘em rapt by the Swedish singer/songwriter’s intricate guitar work and dynamic vocal shifts. Plus, after an amazing set of intimate, nature-inspired tunes, he closed with a barn-burning cover of the White Stripe’s “Death Letter.”
If you stayed till the rabble-rousing close of the set at PS1, you had just enough time to run down the hill and catch the last two songs of The Cool Kids’ set as well as a two-song encore. The Chicago hip-hop duo brings it too. Having missed the better part of their set (and apparently all of my favorite songs), I can still say that in a genre where live performance is a mixed bag, these two had the audience in the palms of their roof-raising hands.
For many, the Cool Kids marked the end of a very eventful week, but for those strong and brave enough to venture out in Sunday’s faux blizzard, there were still rewards to be reaped at The Cave of Spirits.
The Night-People Showcase that capped the 2009 fest may have been the full blown highlight of the week. And if it doesn’t sit high atop your list of amazing shows from an amazing week, it is bound to sit somewhere in the lofty realm of greatest house show of all time—it seems a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll provide proof.
If you strip away the illustrious headliners from Sunday night’s show, you’re still left with exceptional entertainment. Heading up the bill were NYC’s Animental, Zola Jesus (w/ Dead Luke) and Peaking Lights both from Wisconsin, and local favorites Wet Hair celebrating their latest release Dream.
To sweeten the already amazing bill: Thurston Moore collaborator Bill Nace, former Lungfish frontman Daniel Higgs, and a super secret special guest alluded to in the picture at the top!
Animental ripped the crowd from a menacing drone into a spazzed out dance party with their brief set. Wisconsin might honestly want to consider some re-branding. Instead of beer, cheese and sausages (all amazing, I know) maybe their signs should tout being home to Zola Jesus. This girl rips hard. Somewhere between Joy Division and Renee Fleming sits Zola. Her huge, soaring, semi-operatic vocals careening between static, sparse drum machine loops are honestly just waiting for a revolution to soundtrack.
Following the pleasant surprise of Zola Jesus came the known entity that is occasional Thurston Moore collaborator Bill Nace. Nace knows his game and delivered like a pro, serving up two extended pieces built around feedback and delicate-to-violent manipulation of guitar strings with various implements (e.g. paint brush, tooth brush, metal bowl). Nace’s set was inspired but short. Maybe this was due to the large number of acts on the bill, or it might have been the pro in him leaving us wanting more, but despite its length, Nace provided a gripping set.
Ex-Lungfish frontman Daniel Higgs wandered out of the forest, parked himself on a chair in Shawn Reed’s parlour, and sang songs about what the trees had told him. Actually I can’t speak with any certainty on where he came from or what inspired him, but Higgs did perform a very intimate and spiritual set in front of Reed’s bookshelf surrounded by many a fawning hipster (myself included). Higgs’ incantations were as abrasive as they were lovely. He marked his entrancing semi-stream of consciousness lyrics with drastic pitch changes and eccentric, affected vocal turns while accompanying himself on some manner of pump organ (pictured above) or an intricately picked banjo. As people wiped tears from their eyes (no joke, it was that good) and broke for smokes, Peaking Lights set up their gear downstairs for a familiar song called “Technical Difficulties.”
But following a bout with a pedal or two and rustling with some cables, the Wisconsin duo made the basement feel all warm and fuzzy (like a long night of scotch). Like the other acts that evening, the set was short and sweet, like a sample pack
Wet Hair may have had the night’s longest set, but when you’re hosting you’re own record release show you can be forgiven for taking a slightly larger slice of cake. The Iowa City duo trotted out its brand new release (out on Not Not Fun), Dream. And in keeping with that, they stuck to primarily new Dream-related tunes.
Oh Yeah, and No Age decided that they weren’t done melting Iowa City’s face. The LA duo capped off what was almost a two-man band fest with a new song—I believe it was referred to as “Ambient Jam #1″—which they laid down for the folks at Daytrotter earlier that day. Following an excursion into more experimental waters, the guys came back to the shore and slayed us with a handful of hits before politely calling it an evening and allowing the euphoric, drunken, sleep-deprived masses to stumble home and begin their return to reality.