Tomfoolery at Chicago's “Green” Music Fest

My mother recently completed a graduate-level course on the subject of waste. She and her classmates visited landfills and processing plants, studied green architecture, and picked up lots of shocking factoids. (Did you know green-colored garden hoses have traces of lead in them? Did you know that you might have been accidentally poisoned as an infant with a mercury thermometer?) That being said, once she found out I would be attending the 2010 edition of Chicago’s Green Music Fest, she insisted that I learn everything I could and, while I was at it, pick up some biodegradable plastic bags.

The festival touts itself as reflective of the “hip and environmentally conscious West Town community” through its “[fusion] of original live music with green vendors.” I’m still trying to decide what about the festival was environmentally conscious. There was at least one power generator on at full blast. Plenty of animal, paper, and plastic products available for consumption. The recycling units were overflowing with trash. As for vendors, I hardly think independent radio and Zipcar booths constitute a “green” fest.

You know where this is going. This was hardly the eco-friendly weekend I’d had in mind. This was a glorified organic cotton tee shirt sale. And, no, I never found those bags my mother wanted.

I’ve already done my fair share of ranting without mentioning music. I understand that Green Music Fest is not some grandiose climate change conference or even a farmers’ market. It is a street music festival. Unfortunately, the quality of this year’s lineup mirrored that of the environmental initiatives.

Saturday featured music the typical self-styled, twenty-something Chicago street festival attendee would show very little interest in, if any at all. Think reggae. Lots of reggae. The Aggrolites and The Wailers (minus Bob) closed out the day. In between it was an odd mix of traditional Irish tunes and goofy clashes of folk, ska and rock music intended for small children. In addition to live music there was also a DJ stage, where would-be party starters supplied dancers with generic club beats. This is where the real show was. A solitary, tattooed punk clad in a sleeveless “Keith Richards for President” tee shirt saved the day. During his set of Fugazi, Ramones, Stooges classics members of his entourage danced with people as they entered the front gates for maximum awkwardness. It was a sight for sore eyes, but let’s face it: as a reviewer, you know you’re in trouble when the highlight of your day at a music festival is a skinny white guy with a Mac and a few choice LPs.

If Saturday was characterized by Rastas, well-to-do families and, strangely enough, PBR drinkers, then Sunday was a day of Pitchfork readers. Up-and-comers such as Fang Island–who recently received praise on said site–and Maps & Atlases meant sizable crowds and a more intriguing atmosphere relative to Saturday’s decidedly casual vibe. The bands themselves amounted to a string of mediocre opening acts, playing more so for curious listeners than to proper fans. The sounds were not wholly original but the intentions were right. These were the highlights of an otherwise unpleasant weekend. Then again, maybe I’m being too generous.

The biggest name on the bill that day wasn’t even the headliner. It was aforementioned Pitchfork faves Fang Island, the “everyone high-fiving everyone” group. Built upon meaty, arena-ready guitars, playful harmonies and boundless energy the “everyone high-fiving everyone” descriptor certainly is a fitting albeit frivolous one. Their live show is an air guitar contest with guitars. It’s art school geeks shamelessly living out their rock-and-roll fantasies. It seemed like they were trying bit too hard at times, but the crowd was receptive, or at least as receptive as hipsters can be. Fang Island knew they were playing to a tough crowd and did their gosh-darn hardest to give them something to remember. There’s something to be said for that. Look for them on tour with The Flaming Lips next month. From what their set evidenced, it should be a good fit.

Solely in terms of musicality, Maps & Atlases might have put on the best show of the entire weekend. The five-piece might seem too, dare I say it, cute upon first glance. Their bassist hides behind a large drum with a nature scene painted on it. Their frontman is the mild-mannered bespectacled type. They have a xylophone player. The group’s sound is actually far from the brand generic indie rock their image suggests. The percussive elements and interlocking bottle tap guitar parts were surprisingly well executed and the vocals maintained both body and warmth throughout their set. As for that xylophone, somehow it worked. With a new album and upcoming headlining tour, it looks like we’ll be hearing more from Maps & Atlases in the months to come. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Seattle-based singer-songwriter David Bazan initiated a brief Q&A session at one point during his set, the second-to-last of the day. The audience pressed him for his favorite author and color, to which he replied, “Time for more music.” Just before he began to play again, he added, “I’m a very funny guy.” Very funny indeed. Awkward moments such as these between songs made for an even more tedious live experience. The music itself certainly wasn’t an improvement. Bazan and his backing band churned out a heaping dose of uninspired bar room rock, dragging on far too long. There are plenty plainspoken men with guitars who know how to perform, who know how to interact memorably with their audience. I really don’t need to state the obvious here, do I?

Appearances can be deceiving, but the truth is sometimes they aren’t. In fact, sometimes they’re dead-on. As Cloud Cult, the headliner and closer of the festival, set up shop I knew that I wouldn’t care for them. As the sun set on Chicago Avenue and more people began to make their way up to the front row, I spotted too many instruments and pieces of equipment to fit on that puny stage. There were not one but two canvases set up in back. I lost count of exactly how many band members there were. It wasn’t until the group began to play that I realized just how right I was. Beginning with an orchestral instrumental and erupting into Arcade Fire-scale theatrics, the band charged through their set with two painters creating the kinds of abstract pieces your little siblings could probably top all the while. However, what I took to be embarrassing and self-indulgent much of the audience took to be anthemic and life-affirming. Which was more obnoxious, the former or the latter, is up for debate.

As I left the grounds down-tempo club beats from the DJ stage could be heard in the distance, the kind of music that made even Cloud Cult sound good. Green Music Fest might have been a bust, but I don’t have any regrets. It’s just another street festival. There will be more festivals and better ones at that.

Come to think of it, the weekend wasn’t entirely bad. I did hear one really good thing. Someone played Fleet Foxes’ “Mykonos” over the loudspeakers a few times.


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