Animal Collective - "Brothersport"
Slight snag on the photo-uploading front, so I've opted to include some of the early fan videos from yesterday's fest while I get my technical issues worked out. Above, you can see that Animal Collective's headlining set was not as stoic and intellectual as I expected. But we'll get to that. There was lots more to see on the first day of Chicago's mostly forward-thinking, occasionally backward-looking indie music extravaganza.
Don't forget to keep following on Twitter @chrisdeville for minute-by-minute updates. Here are some slighty more developed thoughts on Friday's action.
My day began with tUnE-YarDs (above), whose spazzed-out "w h o k i l l" is among 2011's best and whose performance ranked so highly on my SXSW rundown. Merrill Garbus was going hard again Friday with an ebullient live show that's 100 percent unique and 0 percent forced. She builds loops with drums, vocals and her uked-out mini guitar thing, then welcomes a bassist and two sax players into the fold. Topping off the super inventive musical approach are unhinged bleats that blur the line between righteous anger and joyful insanity. Go see her live if you ever have the chance.
Side note: There are two main stages called the Green Stage and Red Stage. tUnE-YarDs played on the side stage (Blue Stage), which is smaller but draws just as thick of a crowd (and for most of the day, an even thicker cloud).
Thurston Moore - "Benediction"
I roamed over to the catch the end of Battles' set but did not find the dense technical rock jams particularly stimulating. Luckily it wasn't long until that storm passed and gave way to Thurston Moore's soft but menacing performance. ("You guys wanna hear some songs about rape, incest and carnage?") Strumming an acoustic guitar, the Sonic Youth frontman performed songs from his folky solo album "Demolished Thoughts" with the help of another acoustic player, drums, violin and harp. It was a bit meeker than your average Sonic Youth set, but the guitar parts, textures and slacker narration was much the same as you'd expect. They even had some pretty serious noise excursions. Intriguing stuff, but hip-hop was calling my name.
Curren$y - "King Kong"
Curren$y was already holding court at the side stage when I rolled up — and no, that's not a euphemism, though that cloud I mentioned was in full bloom by this point. Slight disorientation was a guarantee. That's how it goes with Curren$y, though. He's constantly baked out, which is maybe the only way to reign his frenetic, childlike energy into easily digestible bursts. The former Young Money associate knows his lane, and he stays in it with satisfying results.
Friday he would usually start rapping one of his songs, let the beat drop out and finish the tune a cappella. This could be obnoxious with a less talented rapper, but Curren$y's mellowed drawl and clever boasts are strong enough to stand on their own. Plus his cult was rapping along in full force. Super glad to see him getting recognition.
Next up were Ohio indie rock legends Guided By Voices, in the final leg of their "classic lineup" reunion tour. GBV began with a surprise guest: Neko Case singing backup and shaking a tambourine on opener "Echos Myron." That was pleasantly unexpected, but so was Bob Pollard's entire demeanor. He looked trim, limber (high kicks are back in full force) and even stylish, rocking an Homage "OHIO" T. Don't chalk up the vim and vigor to a cutback in drinking, though; he was swigging from a bottle of Jose Cuervo and made sure to lecture us about how other tequilas just won't do.
Musically, GBV was super sharp, and obviously the songs are unimpeachable pop masterworks. It was difficult to peel away, but I wanted to see at least a little of Das Racist's set at the Blue Stage. Dudes are free-associative rap geniuses, big enough talents that I could imagine their influence rivaling GBV's someday. (I'm not joking.) So I wasn't about to sleep on 'em.
I was rewarded with a song from their upcoming "Relax" album entitled "Brand New Dance" (video above), which was hindered by a poor sound mix that kept me from hearing what I can only imagine were hilariously clever. The hook was pretty funny, though: "It's a brand new dance/ Give us all your money/ Everybody/ Love everybody." Having Dap there as a hype man brings so much to the table; his dancing and mugging is the visual equivalent of their goofy, hyper-intelligent lyrical spiels.
I couldn't resist the temptation to go back for more GBV, though, and I was rewarded with a hit parade that included "Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory," "Game of Pricks" and "I am a Scientist." Kick out the jams, boys!
Here's where the heresy comes in. Neko Case is a transcendent siren, a gifted songwriter and a gorgeous redhead. She and her band sounded in top form yesterday. But I just didn't care that much. I left after two songs.
Maybe I wasn't in the mood for Americana. Or maybe I was just really stoked for James Blake.
Blake is one of music's more polarizing figures in 2011 — a wunderkind pinup dubstep producer turned Starbucks-ready pop songwriter. He makes brainy mood music that rarely communicates in the sort of visceral jolts we demand in this short attention span generation. Texture and repetition reign. Haters have decried him for being too poppy, and I'm sure plenty have spurned him for being too noisy.
I, for one, often find his music difficult to get swept up in, but certain key tracks have been particularly stirring. One of those, "I Never Learnt To Share" (video above), was a pinnacle of Friday's set and proof positive that when Blake is at the peak of his powers, he's a force to be reckoned with. His vocal was striking, both the melody and the single evocative, oft-repeated lyric ("My brother and my sister don't speak to me/ But I don't blame 'em/ I don't blame 'em"). The shifting landscape around it was as tumultuous as the sibling relationships in question, building from droning keyboards to a cacophonous wall of sound. It was immensely beautiful and effecting, and it proved Blake isn't as dreary a performer as I suspected after my first go-round with him at SXSW.
Animal Collective - "Did You See the Words"
The night capped off with Animal Collective, which I expected to be rather snoozeworthy. I thought these dudes were the anti-Phish: you gotta hear the albums, but skip the live show, and look out for hippie freaks. Barring one tremendous performance at the Wexner Center in 2007, every encounter I've had with them has been a sleepy, antisocial exercise in dudes huddled over knobs emitting formless dirges. And they tend to use live shows as a venue for new material rather than throw the audience a bone with their favorite tracks.
Friday's set was nothing like that. Their performance was as colorful and lively as their stage setup, their drones and grooves replete with traditional rock instruments and a steady stream of "hits" from beloved albums like "Feels" and "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Squawks and screams abounded, as did primal melodies and emphatic grooves. When Animal Collective decides to throw a party, they do it right. Here's to more performances like this in the future. It's not a crime to skip the cerebral every now and again.