It was a weekend of humidity, heat, pop culture and doing nothing. At three o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, July 17, while the sun reached its peak of ground coverage and intensity, and air temperature approached 100 degrees, masses of Chicagoans fixed tall glasses of iced tea, positioned their recliners in the direct flow of their air conditioners and relaxed while ravaging through their new copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The more adventurous trekked to the beach with their copies and passed out under umbrellas; the more adventurous still ditched their books, braved the bacteria and actually went for a swim. The lazy just hopped on a cool bus and spent their afternoon in an icy theatre watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With the anniversary of the deadly ‘95 heat wave in mind, people barely moved, and if they did it was in attempt to find water, shade, a chill of any kind.
But in the middle of Union Park, a parched field of dead grass and sand and maybe a dozen (or what felt like just a dozen) shade trees, stood hundreds of sweaty, pasty indie kids raising their hands to the air, convulsing and popping their bodies. A deaf person would have looked upon the seen and thought it a revival of some suicidal cult devoted to Ra. Even most of the hearing world would have thought them all insane freaks. And they probably were. But really they just loved to boogie to Out Hud.
"When it’s this hot, the only think you can do is get hotter," Nic Offer, decked in his soaked "muscle" tee, enlightened the crowd at Pitchfork’s first Intonation music festival. He played the part of our evangelist, dancing primitively, erratically, and musing about the inane presence of Teddy Grahams on the stage. What he looked out upon must have seemed like a rave ripped inside out, perhaps sans X, but not lacking in hallucination and endorphins. While the rest of Chicago was idle we jumped and flailed about under the sun, realizing that Offer knew what he was talking about: once you forget the sun, once you think it is your own body’s energy that is making you heat to such a dangerous level, you become calm, euphoric, cool.
On Saturday morning we didn’t know it would come to this state of ecstasy. Among the swarm of Green Line poseurs I could hear (and made myself) the declaration: "I want to see every band today. Fuck Lollapalooza. I can see every band today." At Ashland the trains emptied, hundreds of people stepped their flip-flops and New Balances onto the platform and into the sun that would strike and seethe and destroy the determination of the biggest of music geeks. By two o’clock the general attitude changed from optimistic exploration to resigned floating, and bands were chucked to the wayside left and right, becoming sacrifices for a fifteen minute wait for ice cream or a half hour nap in the shade.
But the same heat that made us forget intriguing acts not at the top of our pantheon could also transform our darlings into gods. You haven’t experienced Death From Above 1979 until you’ve experienced them so close to your own demise, with a body burnt and tortured by a sweltering sun and seven-hour suppression of urination and defecation. You haven’t had your ass kicked until it’s been kicked by a scantily clad Tim Harrington, kicked so easily because your flesh has been liquefied and your will annihilated. Indeed, after hours of exposure there’s nothing for it but to give up or give in; with water a buck a bottle dehydration was no excuse, and so last weekend in Union Park enough vitamin D was absorbed to last every indie kid, every punk, every hipster in Chicago well into the next decade.
No one was in her or his right mind; not Thax Douglas, Chicago poet extraordinaire who apparently has written (at least) four poems about Andrew Bird, not Tim Tutton, whose overzealous mantras of an anti-corporate, anti-commercial, Canadian-worshipping spirit did little to rally the sizzling masses. At 2:45 A.C. Newman took the stage, apparently having forgotten to tune his guitar. He strummed obliviously through "On the Table." No one wanted to say it, but we were all thinking it: Can this be? Can this indie pop icon really be a charlatan? Can he really suck? Thankfully, when the tune ended someone pointed out his folly. He tuned up; we geared up for the next song, which turned out to be "On the Table."
The Go! Team romped through their set like they were the Spice Girls and Intonation was in the United Center rather than Union Park. Only insanity could make hundreds of underground music cool cats wave their hands back and forth in the air, shouting Go! Team! Go! Team! like maniacal preps at a high school rally. At the end of the set they invited the girls and boys from the local pool onto the stage; we envied their position among the Brit charm stars and also their privilege to dip back into the pool once they’d had their fill of dancing.
As eight o’clock approached a low rumble of feet and mutterings spread across the park. Prefuse 73 rocked through their jammin’ beats and double drum drive; unfortunately much of the crowd hovering about the Holiday stage at this point were not paying attention. But can you blame them? The sun and temperature were going down; the slight relief brought with it the return of the ability to have conversations beyond, "It’s so frickin’ hot!" And also some crazy band of convicts was due to hit the stage.
Death From Above 1979 started twenty minutes late because, as vocalist/drummer Sebastian Grainger so tactfully pointed out, the fact that there are only two of them is deceiving, and the set-up time of bands great and small takes equal time and care. Heretofore the sets went back and forth between two stages, allowing for the quick succession of shows, but the odd number of artists on day one called for the doubling-up somewhere to allow Tortoise access to the main Decimal stage that night. So someone somewhere decided DFA 1979 could prepare in about ten minutes.
When they finally started thrashing, all were gutted immediately. Most of us found the sensation--one of having a fist shoved down your throat and your blood and tissue and all that hadn’t been incapacitated already from the heat removed--quite pleasurable. But others were less happy. Downright offended, I’d say. While the kids in front were lost in mosh like this was Lollapalooza a la ’94, from the back I was able to witness the mass exodus of people with scowls and perplexity and disgust plastered upon their faces. My thought: How can you not get off on this? You crazy!
But the day wasn’t all about pain and frenzy, and the late afternoon and evening brought with it the paradoxical sanity of Four Tet, Broken Social Scene and Tortoise. Four Tet a.k.a. Kieren Hebden provided a clear and calm presence despite the pulses and crashes of his sampling maelstrom; he was a dark solitary figure upon the stage mixing it with vigor and grace, summoning the academic vinyl geeks from the WLUW record fair with his cracking rhythms climaxing to tones and pitches that delivered the sickest and most dazed of the lot. Broken Social Scene beckoned the freer of spirits to kick off their shoes and twirl and put the "hippy" back in hipster. And Tortoise blanketed the night with a sheen of electronic pop beauty, playing in front of a screen that flashed motley geometric screensaver-esque images. Many took the opportunity to relish the respite that nightfall brought and collapsed onto the grass while the cool tones created an ambiance we forgot could exist. I wouldn’t have been surprised if silent fireworks had started exploding above our heads or if a thunderstorm materialized from nothing and poured upon us rain and lightning and all the wind we could savor. As it was, kids started making out, falling asleep, remembering hunger and the inconvenient need to go home. And no one could believe that just a few hours earlier we were being seared, and no one wanted to think about what wrath the furies had in store for day two.
It’s Dungen, people. Not Dunjin. The Swedes took the Decimal stage at 1:30 on Sunday, looking like the Scandinavian chapter of the Peter Frampton fan club, and sure we all knew they were Swedish, but did we all know that they sang in Swedish? It took me a couple of songs to realize it. The sun climaxed, the heat climbed at a rate such that we knew it would surpass the hell of the previous day, but we tried to deny it. Dungen threw full bottles of water into the crowd, ricocheting them off lights and the occasional fan. I was too far back to enjoy their generosity and had to ditch the set early to enjoy some time in the shade. I couldn’t be bothered with Xiu Xiu. I ate a Strawberry Chill and both cursed and delighted in the quick ticking of the seconds until Out Hud. At about 2:30 we slowly emerged from the trees and there was a collective groan at the sun. In an hour the temperature must have climbed ten degrees. It really was up to Out Hud; we needed to be convinced to stay.
Nic Offer’s Zen philosophy was unilaterally adopted; we fought through the afternoon and at 4:30 found ourselves still in Union Park, determined and contentedly exhausted. We’d reached the home stretch and discovered that we weren’t dead or even passed out; a satisfied calm overcame us as Andrew Bird stepped onto the stage. Booking Andrew Bird for an outdoor summer music fest is a little like throwing a monk into the midst of a gospel choir. It’s not offensive, but it is incongruous and disobliging; however, for some reason it worked. Even in the scorching sun the serenity of Bird’s set surpassed the tranquility of Tortoise’s twilight ramble the night before. He was small, modest, and languid; the only hectic moments came when he switched between his guitar and violin. Still his music carried powerfully across the park, and while some remained too agitated to be bothered with enjoying beautiful music, most of us listened intently, chilled by his smooth whistling that hung eerily on the air.
The earnest tone established by Andrew Bird carried through The Wrens’ performance. While we anticipated their start one could feel among the crowd an energy of reverence. Even those of us less familiar with these veterans sensed we were becoming a part of a special scene; during the set bassist Kevin Whelan revealed, "This will be the biggest day of our career." They gave us an honest, dignified, yet insane concert, highlighted by Whelan deftly and repeatedly throwing his bass into the air, and also the guest percussionists pulled from the crowd to shake maracas and bang drumsticks on the floor.
Around seven there was much internal strife brewing inside of me and I assume many others. We didn’t know whether to stay at the Decimal stage to watch the end of The Wrens’ show and stake out choice spots for The Decemberists, or to abandon our posts, make our mad dashes to the Holiday stage to be immersed in the sick spectacle that is the splendor of Les Savy Fav. Let’s just say that those who chose the latter did not regret it.
Andrew Bird and The Wrens calmed Intonation like the aloe slathering our sunburns and dusk easing our heatstroke. They prepared us for the epic folk rock pop of The Decemberists, the grand conclusion we’d been working so hard for. Leave it to Les Savy Fav to fuck up the dénouement, to thrust us back, deeper into the outrageous mayhem we thought we’d crawled out of for good. Tim Harrington strutted around the stage, removing an article of clothing it seemed during every song (except when he fashioned a hat from the roll of tin foil he was brandishing) until he was in his skivvies. Apparently he was still a little warm and for relief poured a bottle of beer down the front of his briefs. He threw wet sponges and an inflatable raft into the crowd. He wanted to teach us a dance that would most definitely result in passionate lovemaking, and preceded to convince us all to have a seat so we could watch his moves closely. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, but we knew we liked it, and so we all took a knee. Well most of us did. Those too cool remained standing and got chucked in the head with water bottle projectiles. I foresaw a riot. The cops threatened to shut down the fest if we didn‘t calm down. I didn’t think I’d make it out alive to see The Decemberists.
But I did.
About the most unoriginal, pompous thing you can do is be in a rock band. Almost as hackneyed and pretentious is headlining a summer music festival. But this is Intonation we’re talking about, and the ostentation of The Decemberists doesn’t go beyond Colin Meloy’s spectacles and odyssean lyrics. They began with "The Infanta" and moved spotlessly through songs old and new, sounding nearly as polished live as digitized, even when playing their guitars behind their heads. In a bizarrely coincidental move, we were once again beckoned to take a seat, but this time not in an effort to catch a better glimpse of the band but for the sake of taking a breather. Of all the atmospheres created by all the various bands over the course of the two days, this was the only show that felt downright fraternal, like a large crew of scouts careening by the campfire. Neither frantic nor indolent, The Decemberists played, in every sense of the word, and carried the weight of Intonation gracefully. They closed the fest with "The Mariner’s Revenge Song," a tale of survival and mania and we were invited to scream at the point in the song when the whale swallows the hero. Like veteran comrades we banded and howled and shrieked, gratefully unleashing all of the sweat and madness we had procured during the festival.
Afterwards was sheer relief. We settled back into our right minds, made the trek back to the Green Line as college students and young urban professionals and music geeks, obviously spent and already looking back with nostalgia. Intonation wasn’t perfect. There were sound problems, short sets, rough transitions between bands. There were long lines and few vegan food selections. The Clap Your Hands Say Yeah disc sold out by the end of Saturday. Not one cute little indie boy asked me for my number. It was a little warm. Yet in spite of all the pain we’d endured I heard no complaining on my way home, which left me to contemplate what the hell had been so good about what I’d just gone through. Perhaps it was just the oppressive, hallucinogenic heat that made me feel that something exceptional had happened. After all, large-scale outdoor concerts can as a rule and at best produce mediocre performances. So it must have been the heat distorting my senses that created the transcendence and satisfaction. Then again, this upcoming Sunday the temperature is supposed to top 100 degrees, and several bands I love more than anyone at Intonation are going to mutilate Grant Park. And yet I haven’t the slightest desire to go to Lollapalooza. I think I’ll create more magic by sitting in my stuffy apartment and reading my new Harry Potter book.