Middlwest Fest: Friday

We cover Middlewest Fest for the first time, review Ha Ha Tonka and Smoking Popes

Many people in Illinois may not know about Middlewest Fest, an annual music festival in Northern Illinois.  Where Pitchfork and Lollapalooza seem to follow a certain chain in picking the artists for their fests, Middlewest Fest chooses artists from all genres, trying to concentrate instead on artists from the Midwest.  Writer Dominick Mayer traveled to Dekalb for the weekend to cover the festival and find the best Middlewest had to offer.


8:30 – Otto’s is the best-known venue in Dekalb. It’s actually a really cool place; the upper area is somewhat comparable to Subterranean, if it was wider on the sides. The lower level is everything you’ve ever imagined a college bar to look like. Ever.

8:40 – Chicago-area punks The Gunshy are plagued by sound issues from start to finish. Having seen them before, I know their show usually sounds tighter; the gentlemen were visibly trashed onstage (a suspicion confirmed when I attempted to say hello to frontman Matt Arbogast after the show), but there was quite a bit of feedback throughout, and Arbogast’s vocals were getting lost throughout the set. It’s a shame, because they’re usually a fine live act.

9:15 – Man, this bar is pushing the hell out of their Jagerbomb special tonight. They even have the kind of waitresses you only see in movies, the ones who are half-clothed and scarily attractive, wearing what I guess constitutes a shirt with a huge Jager logo. I think I fucked up not going to state school.

9:30 – Despite their frequent stops in Chicago, it took me until now to catch Ha Ha Tonka, a Missouri rock revival act usually seen touring with other whiskey-soaked bands like Murder By Death (also playing Middlewest, though not quite yet). They’re incredibly entertaining to watch mainly for their old-style shows, complete with harmonized gospel vocals and electric mandolin, plus the return of guitarists smoking onstage; you don’t realize how much you missed it until it comes back. Since the rerelease of Buckle In The Bible Belt in 2007, the band have toured extensively, playing Lollapalooza back in 2008 and appearing every few months locally. Definitely a show to see the next time it comes through.

10:05 – Downstairs is a second stage of sorts, with a light show setup straight out of my hometown bowling alley’s cosmic night. This breaks the cardinal rule of black lighting in a bar. Food for thought.

10:20 – “Now, I am part of you.” Bluesy, dirty alt-country troubador William Elliot Whitmore astutely makes this point after sharing an entire handle of Jack Daniels with the audience midway through his set. Onstage he’s a loose presence; he’s known (and states as much) for playing without a setlist, relying on the audience to make suggestions. This gives his set the loose feeling of a folk show; all that’s missing is the contributing musicians, which is somewhat odd given how many people on this festival lineup have toured with Whitmore in the past few years. Cuts like “Black Iowa Dirt” leave you with a sparse, haunted feeling, possessed by the dry mouths and blackened soles of the protagonists of his songs. It’s hard not to shake the feeling that Whitmore is very right, and that he is in fact a part of you once you’ve seen him play.

11:50 – For the people who remember the Smoking Popes for anything other than their appearance on the Clueless soundtrack 15 years ago with “Need You Around,” you’re probably aware that the Popes have been putting out, and continue to put out, quality pop-punk that harkens back to the early ‘90s when the subgenre was still a fresh, vibrant thing. The Popes conduct themselves as such here, tearing through an hour-plus set of a kind of radio-friendly rock that mostly ceases to exist today. The Caterers deserve ample credit for still feeling vital, and for somehow making pop-punk tropes sung by aging men sound not only less than corny, but in fact fun and vital. Case in point: “I Don’t Wanna Go To College,” a new track debuted that centers on the anxiety of the titular ritual of adulthood. In a lot of hands this would be treacly at best, ridiculous at worst. In the hands of the Popes, however, it just makes you look forward to their upcoming record, due next year. Congratulations, gentlemen.

Posted by Dominick Mayer on Sep 13, 2010 @ 10:10 am

middlewest fest, the gushy, ha ha tonka, william elliot whitmore, smoking popes