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A.V. Fest/Hideout Block Party 2014: From Worst to Best

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Call The Hideout Block Party & Onion A.V. Fest the anti-Lollapalooza. Whereas the Chicago festival juggernaut has been criticized for choosing fads over talent in recent years (an accusation that’s not completely true), the Block Party values longevity over buzz. Only that’s not completely true either.

Sure, this year had a latter-day incarnation of funk legends the Meters, but it also had trendy electropop from Sylvan Esso and the otherworldly Appalachia of Valerie June. Death Cab for Cutie and The Dismemberment Plan gave the weekend some much needed populism, and The War on Drugs are the indie kings of 2014. I’m not sure if the festival promoters considered longevity, buzzworthiness, reviews, or anything else really when curating the lineup, other than just inviting musicians they liked.

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

And that’s what a Block Party is, right? A shindig where you invite all your friends and see who shows up. It’s crowded (but never too crowded), everyone gets drunk (but never too drunk), things get messy (but never too messy), and maybe Travis Morrison accidentally breaks something. But he feels really bad and apologizes for it. So it’s all good.

These traits could apply to any of the Block Parties, not just this year’s, and that suits us just fine. Unlike Lolla and even Riot Fest, it’s a Chicago institution that always stays the same size — after all, The Hideout parking lot is only so big. It’s reliably ramshackle. It’s a tension-free festival. Everyone’s welcome, even though there’s no way everyone will come. In other words, it’s a block party.

Missed it? Here’s the whole weekend, from worst to best.

–Dan Caffrey
Senior Staff Writer

Mac DeMarco

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

How chill is too chill? If his Saturday set was any indication, the answer is Mac DeMarco. Although his Epic Stage Dive proved worthy for hundreds of Instagram accounts, the surrounding 50 minutes was fully stocked with Jimmy Buffett noodling, tepid stage banter, and half-baked covers that may or may not have been laced with irony — that was the problem. For a guy that has the craziest sense of humor in music today, the afternoon set was a confusing snooze fest. What the hell happened? –Michael Roffman

Bad Luck Jonathan

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

Jon Langford is a Welsh-born, Chicago-based musician and longtime friend of the Hideout who has performed there with various bands for several years, but early arrivers (and early-ish arrivers – the fest’s start time was pushed back 50 minutes due to vicious afternoon storms) got to see him perform with a brand-new outfit. Bad Luck Jonathan, whose name is a fittingly shit-eating nod to the president of Nigeria, ground out a few songs of professionally belligerent, lampshade-on-head punk for the fest’s opening, designated Hideout-insiders’ set. “We will only play again when it rains,” Langford signed off, despite having just seen rain shorten and repel people from his set. –Steven Arroyo

Handsome Family

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

As storms swept through the Chicagoland area on Friday, a friend remarked that the Handsome Family’s somber, gothic folk might sound excellent against roaring thunder. Sadly, the band’s early evening set felt more soggy than ominous, perhaps due to the lack of stand-up bass, which co-founder Rennie Sparks revealed was a victim of the evening’s frustratingly intermittent downpours. Still, the band finished strong with the beefy “All the Time in Airports” and “Far from Any Road”, as haunting here as it was in the opening credits of True Detective. Blame it on the rain, cuz’. [Gotta blame it on somethin’.] –Randall Colburn

Hamilton Leithauser

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

Every act on Friday night was hampered by the inclement weather, but none as much as Hamilton Leithauser. For starters, the former Walkmen frontman was forced to whittle down his set to less than a half hour, allowing for only a handful of songs off his one and only studio album, this year’s Black Hours. Surprisingly, the record’s quieter, more minimal melodies were best suited to the sound issues and moody clouds above, with a small string section and Leithauser’s gutter-Sinatra vibrato delicately pushing through the gloom on “5 AM“. Like other bands in the evening, though, his more distorted tracks, such as “I Don’t Need Anyone”, sounded muddy due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. We know it’s not your fault, Hambone, and look forward to catching you next time. –Dan Caffrey

funky METERS

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Note: This entry was written by 55-year-old guest reporter Gunther Guthrie.

Wow, here I am again, on the music beat, covering one of the last festivals of the summer. Consequence of Sound enjoyed my Lollapalooza coverage so much they invited me back! Looks like I’ve come a long way since sitting cross-legged on the floor in the family den, listening to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s first record with my Uncle Dave. He doesn’t get out to shows very much these days on account of his gout, but he’s a monument of a man and is solely responsible for getting me into classical crossover. Love ya, Uncle Dave!

Anyway, this festival was called The Hideout Block Party & Onion A.V. Fest (try saying that 10 times fast). Even though I hadn’t heard of most of the bands, I’ve got to say, these guys know how to put on a show: a single stage, polite crowds, and an MC who stresses the importance of safety and education. I’d like to meet him! Okay, there were some teenagers, but they were dressed respectably — none of that midriff or highlighter paint crap (seriously, girls, no one wants to see your belly button, okay?). And what is with the guys and their hats? Bend the brim. I don’t care if some guy named Mack De Marko does it; that doesn’t mean you have to, too. That is, unless you like looking like you’re getting eaten by a giant duck. Oh, you do? Well okay then!

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

But I digress. CoS Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman (hi, Mike!) tells me I need to focus on the music at these festivals, not the idiotic fashion of today’s youth, and he knew the perfect band for me to write about: the funky METERS. Back in my day, these guys just went by the Meters, but hey, what do I know? Gotta change with the times, man.

Now, I have to admit, I didn’t actually get to see the METERS (jeez, I should just keep my caps lock on for the rest of this review!), thanks to that pastrami on rye I got earlier from Jersey Mike’s. Right as that nice teacher guy introduced the band, the pastrami hit me, sending a rumbling across my gut that I knew wasn’t going to end well. I don’t want to get gross or anything, but let’s just say I had full-blown diarrhea.

Luckily, A.V. Fest’s port-o-johns were right near the stage. Even better, they were clean. This was toward the end of the day, but the seat was dry, and there was plenty of room in the bowl for more waste. It didn’t even smell! Without hesitation, I pulled down my swim trunks and did my business. Now, most of the time when you’re in a port-o-john, you can’t wait to get out. You feel the steam of a thousand other peoples’ bowels rising from beneath you, like some sulfurous portal to Hell. Not the case here. I felt as comfortable as I would have in my bathroom at home, so I decided to make the most of it. After I was sufficiently evacuated (it didn’t take long) and the METERS started to play their delicious second-line grooves, I pulled out my Louis L’Amour novel and began to read. As I flipped through the pages of my sci-fi Western, a light breeze passed through the vents of my new private restroom. I felt at ease. The METERS played on (I could hear them perfectly through the ventilation), and all was right with the world.

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Until they started playing Bob Dylan.

I’m sorry, I know the METERS are legends and all, but did they really have to cover a song whose chorus is “Everybody must get stoned“? What kind of message does that send? I tried to ignore it and finish the next chapter of The Haunted Mesa, but it just wasn’t happening. Look, I get it. Rock stars like to party. We all know that. But the kids at this festival were so upstanding and impressionable, a far cry from the debauched youth at places like Lollapalooza and North Coast. I seriously began to question the effects this “classic” song would have on them.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I hiked up my swim trunks, put my novel back into my backpack, and stormed out of the port-o-john, letting the door slam behind me. I’m pretty sure the METERS heard my message loud and clear. Hopefully, they’ll reconsider their setlist at the next gig.

After hitting up The Publican’s food stand for a spicy Porchetta sandwich with pork loin, sweet mustard seed, cucumbers, and onion, I felt a lot better. And two funnel cakes later, I heard that a band called The War on Drugs would be playing eventually that night. That sounded more up my alley, as they surely hate narcotics and Bob Dylan. At least someone’s got their priorities straight! –Gunther Guthrie

Sylvan Esso

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Sylvan Esso is a lovable synthpop duo from Durham, NC, that envelops Nick Sanborn’s thick, muscular beats around the acrobatic vocals of Amelia Heath. The band’s sun-soaked afternoon set was catnip to a crowd just starting to buzz on those cold Lagunitas brews, with bangers like “Hey Mami”, “Coffee”, and “Dreamy Bruises” raising arms, waving hands, and bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. Sanborn expressed a sense of displacement, saying the band isn’t used to playing outside of black box clubs. It shows, too, since their onstage presence consists mainly of a laptop, some knobs, and the duo’s negligible dance moves. A drummer couldn’t hurt. Just sayin’. –Randall Colburn

Death Cab for Cutie

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

Soon to be former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla once talked about the band’s music as having an “urban meadow” feel. It’s an absurdly accurate description and yet one that’s always been hard to replicate live. While many musicians thrive from roughing up their polished edges onstage, Death Cab’s strength has always been in their subtle studio tricks; the explosion from tinny to full drums on “Title Track”, the bass backing harmonies on “Title and Registration”, and the underwater vocal filter on “Doors Unlocked and Open” — not to mention Walla’s sneaky isolated notes on just about every song — all bring a nighttime sublimity to the music. Without these nooks and crannies, the melodies lose some of that starlight, the sense that everyone listening is connected by not being able to fall asleep.

Death Cab’s set this weekend didn’t break from this dynamic, meaning it was full of transcendent rock songs made standard. Whereas a more muscular band could make up for the absence of bells and whistles with raw energy and showmanship, the aforementioned tracks all lost some of their meditative luster without them. However, there were also flashes of brilliance, especially the audience sing-along to the “I Will Follow You into the Dark”, a bare-bones tune that’s always been designed to make cynics begrudgingly mouth the words. Hell, it encouraged me to head down to Reckless Records the next morning to replace my Kazaa-sourced college mp3s of three of their albums with fully legal, physical copies, just so I could get those gorgeous transitions on We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes without any gaps and a Photo Album that actually had “Why You’d Want to Live Here” on it.

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

On Saturday, I even listened to the records on my computer when I had to leave The Hideout for a couple hours to get some work done. There’s something to be said for a concert that has you constantly thinking about the music the next day, even if it’s the headphones version. –Dan Caffrey

Empires/Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Let’s be honest; no one actually listens to the Guitarkestra. Every year, it opens the second day of Block Party, and every year early festivalgoers mill around as anyone who wants to bring a guitar stands in the parking lot and creates drone music. As much as the amateur cacophony’s a noble and welcoming experiment (people who bring an instrument and amp often get into the fest for free), it can also be a little boring sonically. Thankfully, the formula got elevated this year due to a team-up with Chicago indie stalwarts Empires, who matched their opening notes with the Guitarkestra for a few minutes, then launched into their own set of anthemic garage rock. Brand-new material like “Glow” was great, but nothing beat those first few seconds, when Saturday kicked off with communal Chicago spirit and glorious white noise that snapped into something linear. –Dan Caffrey

Dismemberment Plan

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Travis Morrison’s spirit was far more “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight” than “What Do You Want Me to Say?” on Saturday night. Between ruminating on the effect of drinking Boxed Water while expecting it to be milk, delivering a hearty introduction for his band’s introducer (A.V. Club editor Josh Modell’s toddler son), and complimenting the “hot” crowd for all its “milfs and dilfs,” Morrison was talkative and goofy (and drunk) to no end. He had to be: it was the showman’s saving grace for an otherwise sloppy set. Morrison botched his own lyrics from the very first verse (from maybe their most popular song); he botched his own setlist, cracking up his bandmates when he led into “Time Bomb”, which was clearly supposed to be something else; and the sound could have been much better. Even so, at the end of the day, very, very few things are going to beat a full-hearted live performance of “Back and Forth”. Like that song’s lyrics say, it indeed wasn’t “just another Saturday night,” not with Morrison converting sloppiness into the Dismemberment Plan’s best live asset. –Steven Arroyo

Valerie June

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

“Home home home time time time love love love,” Valerie June, a Memphis-bred songwriter, said near the end of her set. “These are the things I’m singing to you about today.” She’s not lying. June’s themes are as timeless as her influences — folk, gospel, bluegrass, etc. — but her music feels fresher than bedsheets drying in the sun. Oscillating between acoustic guitar, uke, and banjo, June punctuated lovely, feather-light songs like “The Hour” and “Somebody to Love” with the sort of lived-in banter you’d hear around a kitchen table. By the time June eased into the gospel standard “The World Is Not My Home”, the burgeoning crowd was as rapt as any I’ve seen at a festival. –Randall Colburn

The War on Drugs

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

I’m glad Adam Granduciel opted for “Brothers” over “Buenos Aires Beach” as their encore. They didn’t have to even come back to the stage, and probably shouldn’t have since it was minutes after the festival’s curfew, but they did anyways. Even better, they opted for the song’s more meditative rendition off 2010’s Future Weather EP, which may have been a subtle nod to their A.V. Club interview with Aaron Dessner that was published three years ago. “It feels like your music is more organic on record than our music,” Dessner then told Granduciel. That’s true, and I’d argue that applies on stage, too.

For a little over an hour, The War on Drugs turned everyone’s festival pass into a blockbuster ticket. They rolled out all of Lost in the Dream, sans the instrumental “The Haunting Idle” (someday, Mike), and squeezed in a rare gem like “Comin’ Through”. The setlist and the performance itself were excellent and what everyone hoped to hear, which is why the Philadelphia rockers are (likely) the happiest band touring this year. People want to hear their new album. They’re intrigued by the sound and with good reason. In a wasteland of agreeable LPs, Lost in the Dream reigns supreme, offering layers of musically astute emotion.

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Photo by Steven Arroyo

Onstage, those feelings grow and grow and grow. From Granduciel’s yelps, to the caked-in saxophone, to the way every member creates something magnificent without ever looking like they’re creating something magnificent. It’s an organic attitude that comes off so casual, leading any passersby to think, That’s a fucking rock band, alright. Before “In Reverse” set off, Granduciel paused, fiddled with his guitar, added a “Thanks everybody,” and escaped into whatever world he goes to when he’s moving his nimble fingers around that fret of his. That tranquility is so palpable.

Not to be a total starfucker, but I caught an insanely private show of theirs at the Chicago Music Exchange the night before. It was the greatest experience I’ve had in a live setting all year, and perhaps one of the best in my short life, but I’ll be the first to admit that intimacy isn’t really needed with a group like this. They wire everything you need in their music, if only because their music is just as flesh and blood as its makers. “Ooh what am I feelin’,” Granduciel sang at the end. The thousands that sang along probably didn’t have an answer for him. He probably doesn’t, either — and maybe that’s for the best. –Michael Roffman

Gallery

Photographer(s): Amanda Koellner, Steven Arroyo

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