The best weekend of the year in Champaign-Urbana wrapped up Saturday night, and left bands like Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors marveling at the line-up founder Seth Fein was able to produce. We were there for it all, traveling between Krannert Art Museum, Canopy Club, downtown Urbana outside of Black Dog, and downtown Champaign behind the High Dive. So without further ado, here’s the third part of the four part ACITM Pygmalion Roundup (the Pyggy crown will be the finale coming this Wednesday), highlighting Saturday’s shows in downtown Champaign at the High Dive outdoor annex and late night inside the High Dive.
Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal, a guy who a year ago was singing at L stops and street corners, is a true blues revivalist. Joined on stage by his two wonderful assistants – two mannequins dressed in lingerie – Beal really got down Saturday night. His erratic movements around the stage make you feel the electricity of his voice. Each chord he sings feels stronger and stronger than the last one, each reverberation hitting you harder and harder. Stepping onto his chair at the center of the stage and wrapping himself in a giant “Nobody” blanket, the tag he loves to role with just doesn’t work anymore. He’s definitely someone that’s making his stake in the music world that soon, everyone will have to recognize. His voice provides a howl of assurance, stage presence only further pushing the self confidence. Maybe the lyrics show that he’s anti-everything, his playing songs with a reel to reel tape machine a big fuck you to the music industry, but he’s a love torn musician that used the time where he felt he had “no logical reason to be hopeful” (taken from the cover of his debut Acousmatic Sorcery) to become successful. “Let’s hear it for the band… big nobody on guitar, big nobody on drums,” Beal said as he closed up his set. He forgot to mention himself though – so let’s hear it for Willis Earl Beal, whose falsetto makes your eyes open wide and feel the struggle in his voice. Bravo Willis.
Guitar God J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr were next up Saturday night and Whoa. Getting a pretty bad ass introduction from Champaign mayor Don Gerard, the set was LOUD. From the beginning, Mascis entranced the crowd with dizzying solos accompanied with fuzzy guitar riffs. A man of few words, Mascis left most of the talking to bassist Lou Barlow, who entertained the crowd with jokes in between songs, including questioning whether or not Grizzly Bear were actually from Brooklyn. Barlow even got the band to play a song from their first group together, metal band Deep Wound, called “Never Go to College.” With Barlow singing, the crowd followed the change of pace with an impromptu mosh-pit ending in chants of “School Sucks!” When it was time for more Dinosaur Jr songs though, Mascis had the eyes of the audience glued to him. As 3 full Marshall stacks stood behind him (Mascis once said he turns up the volume so high because the instrument itself is “wimpy”), the quiet-loud dynamic of the music coupled with the feedback and distortion heavy guitar filled out the sound of Mascis’ upbeat melodies. The muffled vocals were at times hard to make out, but that could have been my ear drums blowing after taking pictures in the photo pit without ear plugs. Overall, it was evident the influence the band had on many of the different groups that performed at the festival throughout the weekend. They laid the groundwork for indie music today, allowing bands to intertwine the heavy distorted sounds with soft vocals. For me the highlight was the bands closer, a cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” With the abrupt stop and all, it produced the first crowd surfer of the festival and showed us why the band was still able to sell out shows all across the nation. All hail Mascis.
Wow. This show was insane. In the photo pit fences were crashing up against us as diehard fans sang every word that came out of Dylan Baldi’s mouth. The audience swung their bodies like wrecking balls to the fast and fuzzy music, cymbals crashing as Baldi transitioned through riffs and and jumped around stage. You could tell the band was feeding off the energy of the rowdy crowd, since a normally paced indie sound turned into an all out punk show. Vocals filled with angst at times found Baldi shouting into the mic, as guitarist Joe Boyer and bassist TJ Duke moved around the stage swinging their instruments up and down. The band was like a well oiled machine. And boy did the crowd respond. Reinforcements of security guards came in to hold back the gate, which started about 6 feet away from the stage and ended at one point touching it. Crowd surfers, mosh-pits, the crowd was loving every second of the Ohio band. Baldi loved every minute of it, smiling into the crowd in between songs, realizing Champaign was a hotbed for Cloud Nothings fans.
Everyone’s favorite current indie band closed out the outdoor portion of Pygmalion 2012. Grizzly Bear garnered the biggest crowd of the weekend and delivered a spiritual like performance that left Champaign raving. The band was seen in the crowd before their set enjoying the different acts playing Saturday and repeatedly thanked Seth Fein for allowing them to play, truly honored to share the stage with Dinosaur Jr, Unknown Moral Orchestra, and others. When they got going it was clear why they were headlining the festival. The band really plays off of each other well, and with tons of musical talent on the stage (they basically all play multiple instruments) there’s not really a lone frontman you can identify. Ed Droste sparks the vocal section with a strong raw voice straddling the line between pop and folk. Daniel Rossen offers a nice change up to Droste, calming things down a soft, ballad like voice. The band is strongest when the trio (Droste, Rossen, and Chris Taylor) sing together though, the harmonies sending chills down the spine of the audience and making their screams get noticeably louder. In a mini-homecoming for Chris Bear, the drummer from Frankfort (I guess Lou Barlow was right) energized the sound with crashing drum breakdowns with flourishing funk infusions. With the addition of Aaron Arntz playing the synths in the background, the band played hits such as “Two Weeks,” “Lullabye,” “Knife,” and “While You Wait for Others,” making me like their music more live than on my iPod. Grizzly Bear is the perfect band for the festival setting, warming up the Champaign crowd that was taking in the cool fall weather. The texture of each song is amazing, and the band displayed the many facets that make them great. Each member could carry the band, but the mix they have going now is a site to see.
Big Freedia and the Divas
ASS EVERYWHERE ASS EVERYWHERE ASS EVERYWHERE! Big Freedia, the popular transvestite bounce artist from New Orleans, stormed onto the stage at the High Dive and had the place shaking within seconds. Backed by two dancers that spent 99% of the set bent over shaking their behinds for the audience, Freedia energized the packed venue and proclaimed that all she cared about was “helping people have fun and get laid.” Not a bad philosophy to go by. Inviting anyone on stage that had the courage to turn around and shake it, Freedia’s set was one of the most fun experiences of my life. There wasn’t a second to catch your breath, as booty poppin track after booty poppin track was played. If you ever get the chance to catch a Big Freedia show, I would say it’s something you HAVE to do before you die. Just as an aside: As “Azz Everywhere” played while I was drenched in sweat, booty poppin left to right, pretty sure Freedia gave me a nod of booty poppin respect. And with that, I have used the phrase booty poppin 4 times in one paragraph. Big Freedia rules.
Check out all the photos in a HUGE gallery from Saturday below.