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Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

on September 30, 2014, 7:30pm
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As I strolled into Champaign-Urbana early Thursday afternoon to collect my press pass — surveying which venues would be used within the massive Krannert Center for the Performing Arts — I had a few things on my mind. Where was I going to stick the temporary tattoos I’d just been given as press swag? Where was all the money coming from for the new building developments on Green Street? The mafia? International students? Both? And most importantly, what was it like to be a British sound engineer?

The University of Illinois is a great place for questions, most decidedly more profound than the ones I was pondering. I should know. I spent four years there contemplating the entire spectrum, from shallow deliberation on how best to get a pretty girl to come back to my dorm to deep adolescent nihilism and feeling swallowed by the inevitable blackness to which we all return, all the while growing up with and around one of the most incredible artistic oases in the Midwest.

Champaign_AerialTo understand why Champaign-Urbana (or C-U) is commonly ranked in the top places to live for young adults, it helps to have a working knowledge of the city’s development. Through my conversations with established members of the community, I started to see the bigger picture. Many say it started around the mid-2000s when students simply began to stay. Aspiring entrepreneurs and artists who deeply valued their free time were drawn to the cheap cost of living and bustling nightlife brought on by an unending supply of 18-22 year olds. And while they came for the cheap rent, they stayed for the community.

Walk around the University of Illinois and you won’t see too many aesthetic treasures. More likely, you will find cracked streets, broken glass, and shabby apartments. Downtown Champaign and Urbana both respectively offer more appealing scenery, but in themselves neither are remarkable sights. C-U is not home to mountains, or transcendent architecture, or even Uber (yet). Its occupants find solace in street fairs, art galleries, and well-stocked music venues. The growing number of musicians, artists, and small businesses has removed the area’s ghostly visage and replaced it with a bustling bohemian playground, a trend local musician Cody Jensen has dubbed the “Urbana Renaissance.”

pygmalion1 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

Pygmalion for its part has been along for every step of the way. It began in 2004, growing from performances in bars to a full-fledged citywide event that’s hosted the likes of Cut Chemist, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Grizzly Bear. This was my fourth PYG, and its growth was noticeable. The acoustics were on point. Hiccups were minimal and well-handled. Local emo heroes American Football returned to play their first official show in 15 years. With the help of a wonderful staff and worryingly perfect weather, 2014 was a complete success. It was a perfect storm, distracting me to the point that I forgot how nostalgic I was supposed to feel. It saved otherwise doomed ears from my incessant whining, and for that I am thankful.

–Kevin McMahon
Contributing Writer

Elsinore

pyg003 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

For 10 years, Elsinore have played Pygmalion’s stages. I became very familiar with the Champaign staple during my time at the University of Illinois. Lead singer Ryan Groff has the vocal power and sustain of any top indie pop group, and their 2013 release, Push/Pull, showcases his talent with song after song full of blasting choruses. “The Art of Pulling” is the album’s standout track, one with the perfect balance of lyrical quality and emotional tenderness. Live, it plays like an anthem, and the crowd’s response was palpable on the first night of this year’s Pygmalion. Elsinore’s popularity in Champaign could easily be seen from the attendance of the show, which might have even surpassed that of Real Estate who took the stage 30 minutes later.

Bands that thrive in mid-markets such as Champaign-Urbana are often brimming with talent that never reaches the masses. As Elsinore enters its 10th year, that’s surely something that Groff recognizes. Without major label money behind them, it’s hard for pop music to make its way to more mainstream ears. Don’t get me wrong, Elsinore are far from jaded. The band has set down its roots in C-U though, and are vocal supporters of the thriving artistic community that is on display for more than just the four days of Pygmalion. Groff expressed his love for the city to me, saying, “The community at large goes to shows, buys records, and is a constant reminder to all of us working hard at our craft that they do care and that they will come see us play. All of that is definitely why I chose to move here in the first place and why I’ve planted such firm roots for the future.” –Kevin McMahon

Tycho

 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Pat Levy

Seeing Tycho as the sun sets was a bucket list thing for me that I figured might never happen, knowing it’d take a decent amount of serendipity on some festival promoter’s part. But Pygmalion came through in the best possible way, slotting the San Francisco act in the early evening before The Range and Chvrches took the stage. Scott Hansen’s brainchild proved to be the perfect soundtrack for such a moment. The synchronicity between Hansen’s video backdrop and the group’s fleshed-out sounds was chilling, and it was easy to tell that the combination enraptured much of the audience. I’ve never seen so many glazed over eyes that I knew weren’t from smoking pot, but just an entire audience fully engaged with what they were watching. The gentle tones and beautiful environment proved to be an amazing live show, just as I had expected. Bravo to Pygmalion Fest for getting this one so right. –Pat Levy

EMA

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Photo by Sasha Geffen

EMA’s new album The Future’s Void has been in the world since April, but Erika M. Anderson keeps finding ways to supplement it. She just put out an e-zine on Newhive that illuminates her thought processes behind the songs, and the feelings of alienation and dissociation from the self that technology inevitably inflicts, especially on women in the public eye. She’s also tightened up her live show since I saw her last at SXSW, bringing a row of monolithic screens onstage that project abstract human figures and, at one point, a flashing circuit of brand logos.

As one of the only rock bands that address the looming dystopia so literally, EMA has become something of an icon for anxiety about the future. Anderson seemed to accept this role gratefully as she took the stage at Urbana’s Canopy Club just off the University of Illinois campus. Backlit by the swirling images on the screens, she sang with her blonde hair curtaining her eyes. The band opened with “Grey Ship” off their 2011 album Past Life Martyred Saints, but quickly transitioned into newer, more paranoid cuts like “Cthulu” and “Neuromancer”. By the time they rounded off their set with “Dead Celebrity”, it felt like some tether to capitalistic paranoia had been severed. EMA wrangles anxiety, but she also spreads a kind of freedom by snarling at her barriers. Sometimes singing about what keeps you from freedom is freeing in itself. –Sasha Geffen

Twin Peaks

tpeaks Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Pat Levy

Chicago natives Twin Peaks very recently escaped their teens and seem poised to be the next Chicago indie punk act to escape the swarms of similarly branded groups. Frontman Cadien James’ antics — burping into the microphone and thrashing around the stage as though his foot wasn’t clasped in a plastic boot — were testament to their youthful energy. They brought fresh lungs with a tint of nihilism to the Pygmalion stage, ingredients necessary for the high energy shows they play. This year’s Wild Onion was met with strong reviews and the live transfer was equally satisfying. Interestingly, the concert offered songs with fronting vocals by each of the three non-drumming members of the band. Clay Frankel and Jack Dolan’s singing abilities give the group a variety of options and vocal colors that, moving forward, will allow Twin Peaks a diverse sound. –Kevin McMahon

Real Estate

pyg009 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

After the success of Atlas, I was a tad surprised to learn that Real Estate would be playing in the lobby of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Surely, one of Krannert’s many stages right out of an acoustic wet dream could have accommodated the band. However, much to my delight, the space worked perfectly, holding the crowd of a couple hundred with ease. The show had the easy vibe typical of an introductory day of a festival — a position Real Estate were similarly slotted in during Bonnaroo this year. High points could be felt during “Talking Backwards” and the meandering extension of instrumental track “April’s Song”.

As is typical of Real Estate tracks, there was a large sonic blend. I could have sworn I heard a reprise of “It’s Real” somewhere between my second and third beer, but it ended up simply being a verse from “Had to Hear”. While that can border on monochrome, it’s not necessarily off-putting. Like smooth jazz with moments of attitude, it was easy to enjoy from anywhere in the room. –Kevin McMahon

Gardens & Villa

pyg068 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

Playing in the back patio area of a bar is something usually reserved for Eagles cover bands and dads living out their rock dreams in a local setting. But, on the closing night of the festival, Gardens & Villa took the small garden spot extending from Mike ‘N’ Molly’s and rocked it as hard as any band possibly could. The small area proved perfect for an intimate show to wind down the weekend, and the Santa Barbara five-piece made the experience special for the crowd of 60 or so people that made it out to the late show. “Black Hills” stood out as a crowd favorite, arguably the band’s biggest track, and the energy they poured into it was palpable. I mean, I was sitting comfortably with a beer in hand and as soon as the recognizable synth riff started I jumped up, ready to groove along to the infectious melody. –Pat Levy

Alex G

pyg069 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

For the last few songs of his set, I couldn’t see Alex Giannascoli. There was a fog machine going at Memphis on Main, a smaller bar just outside the main festival area, and the out of place stage effect amused him and his band. “More fog!” he insisted a few times between songs, until finally the stage manager gave up and humored him. Fog swallowed the stage, blocking out the band even while their music rang out over the PA.

Alex G has a presence that initially seems at odds with the devotion of his growing fanbase. He’s nonchalant to the point of self-parody, only I don’t get the sense he’s doing anything ironically. He chewed gum through his whole Pygmalion set, playing song after song with a neutral expression except for the rare moments in “Icehead” and “Animals” when he let out a chain of inhuman shrieks. During solos, he’ll sometimes sway back and forth like a metronome, with his legs apart and his knees locked, a childlike tic that colors him more like the guy from your sixth grade gym class than a budding songwriter. But the songs are great, and they sounded wonderful at Memphis, where fans trailed in to sing along after the last day’s headliners had loaded their vans. Giannascoli’s total comfort with playing how he wants to play makes his live show magnetic, and there’s a lot of complicated feeling packed in the space between his drawls and his screams. Who hasn’t wanted to shriek in the middle of polite company? Giannascoli starts with the cadence of small talk, then breaks it with the angst that everyone has to hide. –Sasha Geffen

Single Player

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Photo by Kevin McMahon

Perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises of the weekend was caused by XXYYXX’s unexpected cancellation. More than 1,500 flights out of O’Hare were retracted after someone attempted to set fire to an air traffic control sector of the airport. This ended up being good news for Sean Neumann, who performs under the moniker Single Player. After having his set moved three times, Neumann finally ended up at 12:15 a.m. at Urbana’s Canopy Club, a slot that found him playing to several hundred as opposed to merely several people (which would be all that could be accommodated by the original venue, the tiny Red Herring Café).

I don’t think any of us minded the end result,” Neumann said of the change. “We were originally playing a pretty rough set time on Sunday in the early afternoon. Plus, the original show was supposed to be outside — I absolutely hate playing outside. When they asked us to play inside on Friday night, I was really relieved.”

Single Player handled the crowd with poise and the band was thoroughly impressive. Neumann’s short-form pop punk songs play like clips from a stop motion movie. Live, he lets them play into each other to avoid the jarring effect of too much pause.

I asked Neumann about his writing style after the show. “I’ve tried to pinpoint where the change started to happen and I think the best explanation I’ve come up with is that I started writing shorter songs after seeing hardcore punk shows around Champaign-Urbana when I got to college,” he said. “Seeing bands like NEED and Lumpy and the Dumpers play all the time had a pretty subtle, yet drastic effect on me. I grew up wanting to write alt country stuff because that’s what I grew up listening to and still love to listen to, but people get bored with things really quickly, especially now when there’s so much shit to listen to or watch, so it just made sense to me to not write such long songs.”

The junior from the surrounding University of Illinois certainly made some fans this weekend, this writer included. — Kevin McMahon

Speedy Ortiz

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Photo by Sasha Geffen

Stepping in for the unable-to-attend XXYYXX at Urbana’s Canopy Club, Speedy Ortiz delivered one of the most powerful sets of the weekend, tearing through the majority of 2013’s Major Arcana during one of those sets that you wish was about three times longer because the band was so on point. The Massachusetts natives endured a longer than usual soundcheck, bashfully taking and leaving the stage twice before actually kicking off the show. But, if a 20-minute soundcheck is what you need for a show this good, then by all means, take 30. Sadie Dupuis has really masterminded something special, a group that sounds both eternally lost in the sounds of their ’90s influences and so perfect for the current musical landscape that their existence is becoming more and more essential. If they keep this up, and I can only assume they will, their albums and live shows will be mandatory experiences for just about everyone. –Pat Levy

CHVRCHES

pyg034 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

CHVRCHES have moved around the world a whole lot since they released their debut, The Bones of What You Believe, last year, but their performance at Pygmalion marked the last show they’ll play in Illinois in support of the record. For the thousands of attendees gathered at the headlining set, it was a special kind of goodbye. Singer Lauren Mayberry stalked the stage in front of an LED rig that flashed the pattern on the record’s cover in bright hues. With both her bandmates elevated on platforms on either side of the stage, she had most of Pygmalion’s biggest stage all to herself. But she’s got the presence to fill the multiple city blocks where the festival was caged.

No longer newcomers, CHVRCHES played out their set like seasoned professionals. Mayberry’s voice careened flawlessly over the bright, colorful beats set off by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty. Explosive synthpop cuts like “Gun” and “The Mother We Share” boomed from the stage; outside the festival grounds, you could hear it settle over Champaign’s entire downtown. Just one year after their album’s release, CHVRCHES played like performers who had spent a whole career perfecting their material. –Sasha Geffen

Deafheaven

pyg056 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

A few hours before he climbed onstage with Deafheaven, George Clarke gave a much quieter performance at Exile on Main St., a record store that was, sadly, no longer actually located on Champaign’s Main Street. He read poems from a black composition notebook, his trademark laser glare replaced with quiet enunciation and an admitted nervousness. Reading is scarier than screaming for him, it turns out, especially since poems don’t usually get a roar of black metal guitars to bolster them.

“In Deafheaven, though I am giving myself, I can treat myself as a performer onstage,” Clarke told me behind the store after his reading. “I don’t feel like it’s me, necessarily. I take on a sort of alter ego. In a situation like this where I’m reading and there’s no buffer at all, it’s much more nerve-wracking and soul-baring.” I asked him about the difference between his poems and his lyrics, which when heard are more or less indecipherable but still contribute in a big way to Deafheaven’s latest album, Sunbather. “The poems I read today were all fiction-based. They had tinges of storytelling, whereas anything Deafheaven-related is my personal response to a situation that’s happened to me,” he said. “Obviously you filter parts of your personality and experience into whatever you write, but Deafheaven’s never been about storytelling. It’s been about my own perception of things that happened in my life.”

Later, on Pygmalion’s outdoor stage, Clarke stood in costume and in character in front of a riled-up audience. The sun set behind them as Deafheaven muscled through a mix of songs from throughout their discography, including their latest single for Adult Swim, “From the Kettle Onto the Coil”. The dusky air made a fitting backdrop for the band and the moshing crowd, who Clarke almost seemed to conduct with the idiosyncratic gestures he made between howls. He stared down the audience like he was burrowing holes in their skulls; even in the dimming light, it was hard to look away from him.

“It’s just energy. It’s a weird power trip, in a way,” Clarke said of Deafheaven’s performances. “We take on this bizarre, almost religiously-tinged power. I think there’s something to be said about giving all of yourself in the performance. I just know that when I go on, it’s an hour of raw intensity, and the moment I go off, I’m like this again. I deflate.” –Sasha Geffen

Panda Bear

pbear Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Kevin McMahon

From my friends’ fruitless searches for tickets on Craigslist, it was clear that the Panda Bear show was one of the most coveted of the weekend. The Panda Bear vs. The Grim Reaper Tour has amassed serious anticipation for the forthcoming album, hopefully to be released later this year via Domino. Noah Lennox uses the same strategy as Animal Collective, using the live space as a sort of testing lab for new material. While Lennox’s new material is loose indeed, it has the cohesion of songs in their final stage of production. They are highly accessible for anyone with an inkling of what to expect, and offer a sense that there is concrete forming around his transition to more pulse-centric grooves.

One of the most upsetting parts about the show was that it took place in a seated venue. The Tryon Festival Theatre — located neatly inside the Krannert Center — was the optimal acoustic choice for the show. The space was designed to favor operatic performances, and the permeating nature of Lennox’s vocals was suited nicely as a result. Yet the 1,000-person seated space relegated those moved by the break-based rhythm of working titles “Garage” or “Boys Latin” to the role of view-obstructor. Visual collaborator Danny Perez’s kaleidoscopic accompaniment cycled through everything from candy to naked blue aliens to vomiting figures in Oddsac-esque body paint, making the show a complete sensory experience. –Kevin McMahon

American Football

pyg062 Pygmalion Festival 2014: Top 13 Sets + Photos

Photo by Sasha Geffen

The 10th anniversary of the Pygmalion festival would have been a moment enough in itself, but then it went ahead and hosted to the first American Football show in 15 years. Throughout the entire festival, you got the sense that the Sunday headliner was the band everyone was waiting to see. Mike Kinsella played an intimate show as Owen on the backyard patio of Mike ‘N’ Molly’s the night before American Football’s set, and the venue soon filled with Champaign-Urbana locals giddy for the full-band show to come.

After all, Champaign-Urbana was the town where American Football got their start. The house on the cover of their one self-titled LP sits miles from where the band played Sunday. I’m told by a friend who visited it that it’s a frat house now, populated by bros who probably don’t know they’re living inside an emblem of late ’90s emo. American Football hung a banner-sized print of the album cover from the fest’s largest outdoor stage all day on Sunday, and then, shortly after sundown, they finally picked up their instruments and played.

“Is it working or no?” Kinsella asked the audience after playing “For Sure”. “Not fishing for compliments. I’m sincerely curious.” If he felt rusty, he didn’t show it; if anything, the decade and a half of making music since American Football broke up only made its players better equipped to handle the sad, poignant rock they perfected in their 20s. Kinsella looks older now, gently greying, heavily tattooed, but he carries a spark that makes it hard to believe he ever shelved these songs. Any doubt he had about the band still working was soon brushed aside by the thousands of fans who gathered to celebrate American Football’s return. They cheered and sang along to “Never Meant”, and I know I’m not the only one who welled up during an extended and lovely rendition of “Stay Home”. American Football never lost it. I’m so glad they were willing to share it with their hometown again. –Sasha Geffen

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