Technically summer started on June 21, but it didn’t feel quite like it around here until Vice Records kicked it up a notch with their Intonation Music Festival this past weekend in Chicago’s Union Park. Last year’s inaugural Intonation was curated by local tastemakers Pitchfork Media, but 2006 has seen them hand the reins over to the Vice crew. Don’t worry, we didn’t lose a festival, they just splintered off like something from high school biology class and regenerated: P-Fork is throwing their own two-day Union Park party in late July. Two great festivals only a month apart from each other? Both located only a 10-minute stroll from my house? Hot damn!
I can remember being a Chicago indie kid in the 90’s: man, was life ever rough back then! Summertime showed us no sunshine. We had to get our kicks by night in the dark recesses of Lounge Ax or Empty Bottle. And we had to walk uphill both ways in the rain just to get there.
Although Intonation spanned two days, Rin and I were really only thrilled about Saturday’s second half. It’s the only part of the weekend we attended, but with The Streets, Lady Sovereign, Ghostface, Boredoms and Roky Erickson packed into it, we didn’t need anything else.
I like my live concert-going experiences to be concise. I don’t want any of this five-million-opening-bands-I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about nonsense; I just wanna cut to the business. The indie/punk era spawned this weird rock thrift, wherein we were led to value quantity over quality. I think I was about 17 years old when I first heard about how The Jesus and Mary Chain used to do 15-minute concerts back when they first formed. Apparently, so the story goes, people would get pissed off because they felt gypped by this and riot and spit and throw shit and generally go apeshit in ways that rockers always do in stories, but never do at, say, the Empty Bottle. But I wouldn’t have rioted for more, I woulda been cheering them on. I’d take 15 minutes of thrilling sonic mayhem over a bloated hour-long set (plus encores) any day.
With that spirit, we stayed home to watch Mexico lose to those dirty fucking cheating Argentineans and then walked over to the gig. Arriving during the opening moments of Roky Erickson’s set, I was pretty impressed with the space: two stages, a nice big park, lots of food and retail vendors and plenty of space to move around in. Roky’s set was a bit too bluesy – not lysergic enough for my tastes – so we took the opportunity to stroll around the grounds. I noted a place selling half-slabs of BBQ ribs, which I could sense were in my immediate future.
About midway through our questing, we passed by the Tower Records booth. I have no interest in buying CDs anymore, so I almost didn’t pay it any mind, but luckily I stopped to read their sign promoting the day’s artist “meet and greet” sessions. My mouth dropped open in disbelief as I read that from 7.30 – 8:00 p.m. I could meet Lady Sovereign! Could this be real? Like, I could meet the biggest midget in the GAME? Oh snap!
With about an hour to go on my photo op with the S-O-V, I bought some ribs for myself and some pulled turkey for Rin and we sat our asses down on the lawn for some Roky. He was starting to cook a bit now and even treated us to the 13th Floor Elevators‘ classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. Not quite the full 20-minute jam on “Rollercoaster” that I had been fantasizing about ever since I heard he was playing the festival, but it was good enough. Hell, it was good enough he was even there in the first place! The only stories I had ever heard about his past left me thinking that the rest of his days would be spent in relative obscurity at home in Texas, damaged by the electroshock therapy administered to him in the early 70’s under the mistaken notion that he was insane when really he just liked pot (who doesn’t?). Roky making a public appearance with a full band, and playing this strongly, was pretty inspirational.
Soon after I finished my ribs and Roky finished his set, it was time to get serious. It was Boredoms time. Japan has plenty of experimental noisy exports, many of who have been aurally terrorizing us for longer than even Boredoms’ impressive 20-year run. Having a higher ratio of fun to fucked-up-sound than most bands do in their live acts, their performances never fail to surprise and please.
These days their music is less random and more tribal, with no less than three drummers to bring the focus home to the rhythm section. It was Rin’s first exposure to their sound and she aptly noted its similarity to traditional Japanese taiko. I hadn’t thought of it that way, and I couldn’t help but agree once she pointed that out. And then some crazy bloops from a synthesizer washed over us, making sure that we didn’t forget the modern hidden inside the ancient.
Although it was hard to tear myself away from the mesmerizing call of Boredoms’ drumming triad, I knew that I had to answer another, higher, calling: the Lady Sovereign meet-and-greet at the Tower Records booth! It was 7:26 p.m., 4 minutes until the meeting and greeting was set to begin. We dashed over to the booth and were met with a mild queue. I could see the S-O-V already signing and posing for pictures. The only coherent thoughts I could muster were “OMG!” and “Do I have BBQ sauce on my face?”
The next few minutes were a bit of a blur, which ended with me at the front of the queue. Sovereign seemed surprised at her popularity, gazing out over the crowd while lamenting to herself and me, “Oh noooo, this queue’s never going to end!” I just sort of stood there looking at her thinking, “Uh, sorry dude, that sucks”, surprised to be having this funny little aside happening. She quickly snapped out of it, whisking around to me and quite sincerely saying, “Oh, sorry”, realizing that she was spacing out during my 10 precious meet-and-greet seconds.
And then the best thing ever happened: she grabbed my Tron jacket and said, “Hey, Adicolor! This is cool, I don’t have this one!” Having just received a high compliment from newly-crowned hip hop royalty, I said “thank you” like some five year-old that had just met the Queen of Siam and asked her which Adicolor gear she had. She said she had “the red one”, which I’m guessing is the Betty Boop jacket. No matter, Sov just praised my threads and the picture got snapped:
Wu-Tang’s Ghostface rocked the park next. Errbody loves some Wu-Tang action, but admittedly I’m a bigger fan of classic Wu-Tang than his new output. It’s probably safe to say most people are, unless you are in Ghostface’s posse, in which case your life insurance premiums go down a bit favoring the Killah over the classics.
After running through his own repertoire, Ghostface paused to pay homage to the dearly departed. We all raised our fingers up high in the air for the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, kicking off what can only be described as Ghostface Killah’z Medley Of Wu-Tang Tunez. All the classics were there, represented by a verse from one and a chorus from the other. The recitation of the “Wu-Tang clan ain’t nuthin’ to fuck wit” mantra made me realize that they just could have done that for an hour and it would have been an awesome show, because that’s how powerful that one simple refrain is. Hands were raised in the air in the shape of the familiar W but despite enjoying the music, I couldn’t shake the nagging sensation of being an extra in a Chappelle skit.
Ghostface’s biggest enemy wasn’t his new material nor his overindulgence in the past, but rather the sound engineering. His vocals felt too high in the mix with the bass failing to even remotely surround us. It’s a problem that would carry over to Sovereign’s set as well. Ghostface’s minimal arrangements, however, still gave his flow some room to breathe, whereas Sovereign’s grimy chaos left her fighting her own backing tracks.
It was still pretty damn exciting to see one of my favorite MCs of recent times take the stage. Hits like “Random” and “Ch-Ching” were as fresh as ever, but given the bad mixing job I think that my enjoyment was only facilitated by my prior memorization of the lyrics. With the subtraction of thick bass, the songs veered away from grime toward the unholy terrain of rap-rock, where no man (nor midget) should tread. I wish I could have seen her last year at Sonotheque, a tiny club near my house, instead. Her strength lies in her ability to engage playfully with the listener and to deliver lethal dosages of bass, both of which were not possible in this larger festival setting.
The first few songs in the subsequent The Streets set were all muddied up too, then thankfully someone capable took to the controls and balanced it all out. Mike Skinner’s ramblings were now bouncing happily over his garage beat, just the way they were meant to, and we soon had a new contender for the “Most Fun of the Day” title.
I didn’t really think much about The Streets having ever been fun, but they certainly were on Saturday. Sure he has his cheeky rhymes that make you smirk, and entire hilarious songs like “Don’t Mug Yourself” and “The Irony of It All”, but just around the corner from those he takes you back in where it’s dark. Live in concert, however, he’s a very different animal and soon I found it hard not to smile the entire time.
Skinner snatched up every opportunity to keep us along for the ride. His on-stage banter quickly centered on some big dude in the front row dressed in green. I’ll never forget him bringing this guy five free drinks, urging him to consume them all at once with the assertion, “We need to feed this green man some more alcohol.”
At the end of the night we were energized and thirsty for more. I don’t know if I would have felt that way had I attended for the entire day, but trimmed down to a dinner of all meat and no potatoes (ooh and ribs – don’t forget the ribs!), it was just the sort of quality-over-quantity soirée that I’d love to repeat. Guess I’ll see you fuckers at the Pitchfork weekender!