Indie Bash


July 18, 2005


Q. How many indie rockers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. I have that one on vinyl.


The current indie-rock world can sometimes seem geeky, shallow and way too poseur-cool for its own good, and there was much to quibble about with the 11 main-stage acts that bastion of indie hipness,, presented on Saturday at day one of the Intonation Music Festival in Union Park.

The festival itself, however, was an unqualified success: a great day of music in an incredibly pleasant setting at 1501 W. Randolph -- kudos to the Park District for finally opening our parks to rock fans! At a bargain price, the fest offered good amenities and excellent sound, and was the product of solid planning and flawless execution. Its first-rate team of volunteers found 90 percent of this city's independent music community pulling together to create an extraordinary event for an impressive turnout of 15,000 fans.

In fact, Intonation was so well run that even though it had a mere fraction of the multimillion-dollar budget of professional promoter Capital Sports and Entertainment, next weekend's Lollapalooza Festival in Grant Park will have a hard time topping it.

As for the music, it was a mixed bag, at least on Saturday.

I arrived at 2 p.m., too late to catch openers Head of Femur and Pelican, two of the strongest underground bands in Chicago today, but just in time for locals the M's, whose jangly power-pop was accomplished but uninspiring.

Actually, that description, along with the word "twee," could stand for several performers, and this sameness in the booking was the problem. The influential Pitchfork Webzine is entirely too fond of delicate, sensitive, jingle-jangle pop bands that occasionally tart things up with a bit of trumpet or violin.

Witness A.C. Newman, the moonlighting leader of the New Pornographers, who brought Andrew Bird onstage to guest on a whistling solo, and Broken Social Scene, a 13-piece Canadian band that was more successful in capturing this pseudo-ork-pop sound, but not nearly as unusual as, say, the Olivia Tremor Control.

Magnolia Electric Company slavishly imitated Neil Young and Crazy Horse but never gave us a song as strong as "Cortez the Killer," while Four Tet, a k a "laptronica" artist Kieran Hebden, created sensual, psychedelic waves of sound but was a snooze to watch. A guy pecking at a computer is just a guy pecking at a computer; I could play the CD, you could watch me type this review, and it would be just about as exciting.

Prefuse 73 and Death From Above 1979 both hailed from the more avant-garde end of the indie spectrum. The former mixed electronic samples into its noisy grooves, and the latter was a straightforward but chaotic noise-rock duo. The people-watching and the other activities, including the WLUW Record Fair, were more enticing distractions.

The musical highlight and the band that best fit the outdoor festival setting was a New Wave-influenced dance-rock group from Brighton, England, the absurdly energetic Go! Team. Singer/rapper Ninja was an electrifying presence, and the day's best moment came when a dozen preteen girls from the neighborhood, fresh out of the Union Park swimming pool, joined her onstage to gyrate and shimmy during the group's final song.

Chicago instrumental art-rockers Tortoise closed day one with their mix of improvisational jazz, electronica, spaghetti Western soundtrack music, bossa nova and the kitchen sink, which is always better on record than in concert. Unfortunately, even though the band just recorded a new album with Will Oldham on vocals, and Oldham performed two sets Saturday in the festival's DJ tent, he did not join Tortoise onstage, apparently because "they hadn't rehearsed."

Since when is rehearsing important in indie rock? Jeez, is this Kenny G.?

Again, though, these are minor quibbles, and the festival's primary promoter and talent booker, Mike Reed, was himself frustrated by some of the fest's shortcomings.

Among the major disappointments Reed suffered in compiling the bill was losing the Arcade Fire to Lollapalooza, having the Fiery Furnaces cancel their tour, the pairing of De La Soul and MF Doom (which would have made the welcome addition of some hip-hop) demanding too much money, and a glimmer of interest from the legendary leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jeff Mangum, evaporating.

But there is always next year, and the Chicago music scene will indeed be all the richer if Intonation becomes an annual event.