In its 11th year, the Pygmalion Festival is as big as it’s ever been. This year’s incarnation included a tech portion, with panels on everything from streaming revenue to sports wearables to sustainable agriculture. As always, the fest’s Lit and Made components hummed beneath the surface with frequent tie-ins to music: I saw two poets talk about the influence of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on their work, and the weekend craft fair peddled handmade vinyl shelves, along with a generous variety of witchy jewelry (taxidermy eye rings, anyone?). But the festival is named after a shoegaze album, after all, and the music remains its living core.
This year’s lineup struck a sharp balance between emerging acts and well-established mainstays. Shoegaze legends Ride played alongside up-and-coming metal bands from the festival’s hometown of Champaign, Illinois, and two young rappers largely unknown outside central Illinois got to open up for Run the Jewels. Both Champaign and Urbana, sister towns connected by University Avenue, have strong cultural infrastructure: Urbana is home to the University of Illinois and its beautiful Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, while Champaign lines up venue after venue on its downtown blocks with a solid all-ages outdoor space to boot. Chicago’s southern neighbor has incubated acts like American Football and Hum, and it’s easy to see how bands can still get their start here.
Plenty of artists passed through at the end or beginnings of larger North American tours, and some flew out especially for Pygmalion. The festival’s five days were stacked with great sets, but these were our favorites.
Before she even appeared, Merrill Garbus had people crowding the lip of the stage, standing at attention and ready to dance. The Krannert Center auditorium wasn’t exactly designed to receive her freewheeling afro-pop, but the fans gathered for tUnE-yArDs made it work, leaving their seats to get as close to the band as possible. Compared to some of her other festival sets, Garbus’ stage setup was fairly austere, but her looped, bursting songs more than made up for the relative lack of visual stimulus. Singles like “Gangsta” and “Water Fountain” boiled over with the energy in her voice, while solo set opener “Rocking Chair” took on an especially melancholic quality as we watched Garbus piece the whole thing together with the drums and gear within arm’s reach. tUnE-yArDs closed with “Bizness”, and Garbus’ three backup singers performed its instantly recognizable vocal cascade entirely live, each of them hitting every third note of the phrase. That must have taken some practice, but in the last dates of their tour, tUnE-yArDs approached the seemingly impossible with confidence. –Sasha Geffen
9. Wild Ones
Danielle Sullivan’s stage presence screams clarity. It’s in her crisp, pristine voice, her crystalline gaze, the sure, steady way she moves and rubs her hands together onstage. Her calm charisma carried Wild Ones’ set at Pygmalion, which came near the beginning of a long tour promoting their new EP Heatwave. Originally intended to be a new album, Heatwave became an EP after the band culled their five strongest songs after a long process of writing and cutting. “[Heatwave] is really just us deciding to be more decisive and dramatic, a little bit more alluring,” said keyboardist Thomas Himes. So it was no surprise that songs from the EP were the most resonant live, particularly single “Dim The Lights” and “Show Me Islands”, which got a respectably-sized audience dancing and singing. –Karen Gwee
“You’re goddamn right — Caspian are great,” one exuberant fan affirmed as the post-rock band from Beverly, Massachusetts tuned their guitars and twiddled knobs in between songs. He said it loudly, surely loud enough for the band to hear, but they said nothing. After all, they were focusing on not screwing up. That alone takes up 60 to 70 percent of their headspace when playing live, said guitarist and founding member Philip Jamieson when I spoke to the band before the set. There’s also self-consciousness and wondering what the audience thinks, but then there’s the brief, fleeting moments of euphoria. “It disappears before you can even circle around it,” said Jamieson, “but it’s long enough to keep me wanting to do this forever.”
I’m not sure at which point in their Pygmalion set Caspian hit that zenith, but if I could hazard a guess, I might pick the climax of “Halls of the Summer”, when the guitars crested and the exhilarating comedown sounded like what falling from a cliff towards the ocean must feel like. Or the times where Caspian’s music forged a physical unity within the group; when the intricate, interweaving guitar lines had four out of the five men onstage lurching forward and leaning backward together; or when the band slowly converged around drummer Joe Vickers to pound out the heart-stopping apex of closer “Sycamore” on additional toms and snares. The drums exploded and the lights disappeared. The crowd roared with approval and burst into applause. –Karen Gwee
You get three guesses as to Resinater’s drug of choice. The Champaign-local stoner metal band, who recently put out their very own brand of rolling papers, performed Sunday afternoon at a venue that could barely keep in their sound. They played downtown Champaign’s last remaining record store, Exile on Main St., for what has to be the loudest in-store set I’ve ever witnessed.
The three-piece earned their right to rumble the vinyl, though. Instead of assuming the power rock trio of guitar, drums, and bass, a common formation even in extreme music, Resinater showed up with two basses and a tricked-out drum kit. Frontman Darwin and auxillary bassist Sam switched off playing their p-basses like a bass and like a regular guitar, strumming out bottom-heavy chords and shredding a few solos, bends and all. Filling in the treble was Teddy, whose cymbal-heavy kit balanced out the earthquake invoked by his bandmates.
Resinater was heavy but more importantly they were fun, like they’d been waiting their whole lives just to play a free show to a couple dozen people in a record store. For their last song, Darwin handed over his bass to a teenage boy at the front, who instinctively strummed wildly at it while Darwin mashed his pedalboard. The two hadn’t met before, but the impromptu collaboration proved that anyone can make some gut-shaking noise if you just step into it. –Sasha Geffen
6. Pure Bathing Culture
Before seeing them play Pygmalion’s main outdoor stage on Saturday, I camped out with Pure Bathing Culture in their tour van to talk about the album they’re putting out in a month, Pray for Rain. “We have a lot of stuff that we’re trying to figure out,” said multi-instrumentalist Dan Hindman. The band, which at its core still a duo, recently began playing with a full live band, straying away from the drum tracks that powered their 2013 debut and moving into a more fluid, rootsier sound. “This record’s more of a pop rock experience,” continued Hindman. “There’s a starkness to it. It’s driven more than our first record.”
Live, the chemistry between Hindman and singer Sarah Versprille was palpable as the two cruised through a mix of old and new songs backed up by their new bandmates on bass and drums. Versprille’s vocals took on a serenely cinematic quality as the sun set and the stage lights grew brighter than the sky. As an electronic duo, Pure Bathing Culture tended to favor atmosphere and ambience; now, as a full band, the project has taken a turn for the dramatic. “I feel like this band is this entity in and of itself that just reveals itself to us as we keep going,” Versprille said. “We get to keep going, which is amazing, and it’s constantly changing.” –Sasha Geffen
5. Beach Slang
There’s nothing enviable about playing a set at 12:45 a.m. except for the fact that the late hour weeds out the more lackadaisical crowds. There were few fairweather fans to be found at Beach Slang’s warm and homey set on Friday. The Philadelphia punk group were goofy and relaxed; jokes were cracked, sloppy starts and song transitions laughed off and tried again. Despite his blazer that recalled Angus Young, frontman James Alex Snyder led Beach Slang through a performance with all the careening charm and camaraderie of a basement show and none of the histrionics of rock ‘n’ roll. “I can’t believe how sober I am,” he said, astonished at the tameness of the whole affair.
Snyder sings in a hoarse, grainy whisper that occasionally scales up to a yelp or evaporates into gentleness. His voice lends the heart-on-sleeve, desperately emotional lyrics of Beach Slang a deeper honesty. Singing like this hasn’t come easy for Snyder. “I suppose I’ve always been a little guarded writing,” he mused when we spoke before the show. “You sort of never let your full self come out because who wants that rejected, right? So if you hide a little bit of it, and if it gets rejected, you’re like ‘That’s not all of me. I still have this part of me that’s safe.’”
With Beach Slang though, it’s all or nothing. Their fans at Pygmalion knew it and appreciated it, adjusting setlists when they got moved in all the action, yelling encouragement (“We’re glad you’re here!”) and speaking up when levels got too low. The crowd’s affection, coupled with the fact that Urbana is home to Beach Slang’s label Polyvinyl, made it feel like the town had adopted the band, if only for a night. –Karen Gwee
Ride performed twice on Sunday: once for their headlining set, and earlier during a surprise acoustic performance at Exile on Main St. Andy Bell and Mark Gardener sat on the LP-shaped stage with acoustic guitars as the store filled up with people. It turns out Ride’s overdriven rock songs work just as well when stripped of their feedback; the chords and harmonies wafted through the room as half of Ride spun through a mini-set that included both “Chrome Waves” and “Drive Blind”.
They’d play both those songs in their full versions beneath a lunar eclipse later that night. Ride might not exactly be known for their stage presence — Gardener’s stage banter mostly nodded to the moon — but the British shoegaze pioneers compensated with volume. Ride has both a gentle sound and a massive one, with their gear perfectly calibrated to produce maximum swells of distortion. The crowd on Sunday night was smaller than Saturdays, but the dads and the moms and the college students who did show up got to sway to some of shoegaze’s loveliest tunes while the moon disappeared under our shadow. –Sasha Geffen
Calgary band Braids are riding a wave of critically-acclaimed success right now — they were nominated for this year’s Polaris Music Prize alongside Drake, Caribou, and eventual winner Buffy Sainte-Marie, and recently performed at the awards ceremony. It was no doubt an honor, but the “political weirdness” of this year’s awards (no thanks to the band formerly known as Viet Cong) made it a strange experience.
The band must have been so relieved to perform at Pygmalion away from the controversial politicking surrounding Polaris. After all, their music comes from a pure, richly emotional place that the band has labored for months to translate to a live setting. Drummer Austin Tufts physically took on much of that burden, amping up the percussive force of Braids’ songs with aggressive fills and flurries. But it was also a team effort: they performed in a matrix of wordless communication, meaningful stares, coordinated nods and gritted teeth.
It gets draining to draw up that much energy night after night. “You’re putting out so much for the audience every night and with your band that there isn’t a lot for yourself at times,” said Standell-Preston before the set. That emotion all came to a head on the closer and lead single “Miniskirt”. It’s a song that both interrogates the larger patriarchy and works through personal trauma, and to perform it, Standell-Preston needed to muster as much of herself as possible. She stepped away from instrumentation to move and dance, her eyes glittering and her voice never wavering. She was riveting. –Karen Gwee
2. Mother Nature
Klevah and T.R.U.T.H only just released their first tracks together as Mother Nature earlier this month, but their onstage rapport felt like it had emerged from a lifelong friendship. The Champaign-based MCs took the second-to-last slot of Saturday night, finishing a combustive set just minutes before Run the Jewels were scheduled to take the main stage. Pygmalion puts a lot of trust in its young locals, and Mother Nature more than earned it.
Ferocious, political, and life-affirming, Mother Nature’s tracks unwound at a dizzying pace throughout the evening. An early song honored the #SayHerName campaign, listing female victims of police brutality and calling for an end to state-sponsored violence against black women, while the duo’s newly released single “Afro” took the shape of a love song to girls with natural hair. Both T.R.U.T.H and Klevah commanded the stage with rattlesnake flow, but the most engaging part of their performance was the way they’d play off each other’s energy. When they hugged at the end of the set, their shared joy at a job well done radiated out to the rest of us. –Sasha Geffen
1. Run the Jewels
Sometimes rap seems too effortless. There are the glib rhymes that make you reconsider what you know about language, the way words and beats unspool and tumble into your ears, the breathless stories of a rapper stepping into a booth, freestyling and just killing it. But a live show can puncture a myth and reveal the flaws smoothened over by studio recordings. Either this makes you lose all confidence in your favorite rapper or adore them for their hustle. Run the Jewels’ headlining performance at Pygmalion fell firmly in the latter category. When Killer Mike’s and El-P’s breathlessness and fatigue turned the thrilling, tongue-twisting lines of “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and “All Due Respect” flat and garbled, you couldn’t blame them. Opening with a salvo like “Run the Jewels”, “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”, and “Blockbuster Night Part 1” takes work.
The fierce fraternal bond that fuels Killer Mike and El-P’s collaboration was also on full display at Pygmalion, manifesting in hugs, jokes, and most of all the shit-eating grins on their faces when they weren’t rapping. It’s one big reason seeing Run the Jewels live is not just a rush, but also a joy. “Thank you for singing along to the stupidest chorus of all time,” El-P told the crowd after “Love Again”, and Killer Mike followed up with “And thank you for downloading the stupidest album that ever meowed,” referencing their cat remix album Meow the Jewels which had dropped the night before.
All proceeds from the sales of Meow the Jewels will go to the fight against police brutality, and though no cat sounds made an appearance at Pygmalion, Run the Jewels demonstrated their commitment to the cause by inviting musician and activist Tef Poe up onstage for “Early”. Poe took the mic after for a shout out to his advocacy efforts. It was a heartfelt and slightly sobering reminder of the work still left to be done. After all, a cat remix album can’t solve everything. –Karen Gwee
Photographers: Sasha Geffen and Karen Gwee