Middlwest Fest: Saturday

Dominick further explores Middlewest, sings the praises of P.O.S and Frank Turner

Middlewest's second day had some heavy hitters in the line-up.  P.O.S., MC Chris, Frank Turner, and other were on the top of Dominick's "must-see" list for the last day of the fest.  His journal through time explains who he saw, who you should see, and who you should completely avoid.


12:10 – I should take a moment to point out that unlike the first day of Middlewest, today you get to see the setup that John Ugolini and Kickstand Productions have put together. Somewhat like the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh, Middlewest is inhabiting venues all over Dekalb, both typical and less so. While known locations like Otto’s, the House Café and the Egyptian Theater all play host, there are also a lot of less seemly locations that I’ll be mentioning throughout the day. Speaking of which…

12:30 - …the first set of the day is taking place in the front of a local skate shop, SMLTWN. Mao Tzu is really just the handle for a local gentleman named Marc (he disappeared quickly and his MySpace offers few solutions) who plays a vaguely shoegaze-y brand of singer-songwriter pop. He’s not bad, and his set benefited greatly from the addition of a fiddler on some tracks. It was almost smirk-worthy, however, to watch the way in which this young man tried to arrogantly banter with a crowd that looked to be completely comprised of friends and family.

1:00 – Bogota Orkestar, the side project of Joie De Vivre’s Paul Karnatz (more on the band in a second) sets up shop near the craft fair running throughout the day, playing a half-hour set of ukulele pop. The set is fun, but what’s really entertaining is his setup, which consists of him standing on a curb next to an amplifier, plucking away. Also, apparently touring bands are now selling cassettes again?

2:10 – Rockford-based throwback emo band Joie De Vivre started over twenty minutes late at SMLTWN. (Note: This was a recurring theme throughout the day.) That said, the band is worth any wait; their excellent 2010 record The North End brings to mind the best ‘90s emo bands, but with an indie-rock twist. If there’s any complaint to be had about the band’s set, it’s that they are clearly running a little bit sloppy during this particular show. They’re a definite must-see whenever they come through this neck of the woods again, though.

2:55 – I head over to the “Against The Wall” short film festival. As far as odd locations for the festival go, this takes the cake: the screening room is on the second floor of the Debutantes School of Cosmetology, which requires you to pass through the lobby and salon, up a flight of side stares and into a room that possesses both salon mirrors and a disco ball. I have no idea what this place is used for normally. That said, the first half of the features were dedicated to short form documentaries, of which I caught two. “Running On Empty” is an interesting production credited to Northern Illinois’ Comm program, looking at the increasing illegality of dog racing in the U.S. “Legend” looks at Chicago-area jazz/hip-hop band Legend Haz It and their efforts to redefine the current state of rap music.

Though I have to head out before the shorts program start, here’s another major issue of pacing. In order to maintain a decently crowded house for the screenings, the organizers move straight into the second program. Unless there was a repeat screening I didn’t know about, the set goes on a full hour before listed on the schedule.

3:30 – Hawthorne Heights is at the House Café. The statement I’m going to make will probably come off as derogatory, but they sound exactly as you remember. This is actually impressive given the band has survived the tailing off of the early-‘00s new emo boom, the death of their drummer and a spectacular falling-out with Victory Records to continue doing their thing. Putting yourself back in a time when that was the soundtrack of your life, that’s pretty damn impressive.

4:00 – It needs to be pointed out that the Egyptian Theater is another of those fantastic art-deco moviehouses that are sadly few and far between today. Here’s hoping it sticks around.

4:20 – Sometimes, it really sucks to be the guy who has to vilify an entire genre of music based on only one example. I was not aware that “hippie-hop” is a thing, but Mod Sun has brought this to my attention. Minnesota native Dylan Smith, known as Mod Sun (short for Movement on Dreams, Stand Under None) is quite possibly one of the most jaw-droppingly bad MCs I’ve seen. The forcible nature of his lovable stoner persona emerges with force, as he throws himself all over the stage trying to get the audience to take their clothes off and spouting off gems like “Undressing America,” a song which uses the mixed metaphor of the U.S. as a stripper that needs to take its clothes off so that Mr. Sun can “see the real you.” A look at his Myspace page redefines the skull and crossbones with a pot leaf and two joints. All right, then. And yes, I realize the irony of when his set started; he did too, make no mistake about it.

5:00 – Next to the Egyptian, I’ve just learned that when a confectionary makes dipped pretzels wrong, they’re sold at half price. This is what America is all about, everyone.

5:40 – I’ve never been huge on metalcore as a genre, but I’ll be damned if Ohio natives Miss May I aren’t giving it their goddamned all. As though channeling the famous “more cowbell” SNL skit, MMI frontman Levi Benton continually demanded more stage dives of the audience, which was one of the biggest for any set of the fest. At one point a circle pit even ensued, which is impressive when you stop to consider that the Egyptian is an old-style theater with seats, and so a circle oval was worked out. The band rips through breakdowns, chunky riffs, hair twirls and double bass drumming as though it’s never been done before, and really only falters when deigning to the godless endeavor that is crunkcore at one point. Metal growling and rap hands are two things that I never thought would unite, but such is the magic of the music world.

7:00 – It’s always amusing to watch MC Chris do a soundcheck, because where most bands take their time tuning, Chris Ward simply plugs in a laptop and goes to town. The nature of his sets usually depends on how stoned he is upon taking the stage, and his Middlewest set sees him take the stage to the theme from Jurassic Park before kicking into “OMC.” As much as Chris himself has wrestled with the “nerdcore” label, he’s the undoubted king of the subgenre. Though a lot of heads are put off by the absurdity of his lyrics and his cartoon-on-helium voice, within those surface traits lie an incredible rapper, one who stays coherent no matter the speed (often rapid) or the syllabic arrangements he rips through. It also helps that, like most of his live shows, MC stages a performance that’s half-rap and half-standup, riffing on the ineptitude of McDonalds and even busting out a 9/11 joke that I just cannot bring myself to repost. It’s easy to roll your eyes at songs like “Fett’s Vette,” “Pizza Butt” or “IG-88,” but if they’re not stuck in your head for days, then pop music is just an art clearly lost.

8:00 – And now for the biggest possible departure from MC Chris. In the tradition of great instrumental prog-metal acts like Isis, Pelican and Mogwai stand Russian Circles. Unlike the aforementioned bands, however, Russian Circles trade a small amount of the earsplitting ferocity, but claim in return an assured hand and prowess that’s difficult at the least to match. The band take the stage to a minimally lit setup and tear through 45 minutes of blistering, impressive rock that had the entire audience transfixed. Additional kudos are due for managing to not only keep a set notably heavy on shoegazer-metal theatrics interesting, but for keeping it moving with nearly seamless breaks between songs.

9:00 – Coming from the famed Doomtree collective, Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. has established himself as one of the most innovative voices in hip-hop. (Nepotism alert: I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that on this site I named his Never Better the best album of 2009.) Stefon Alexander has a gift for rap lyrics that are sometimes overtly political, sometimes absurdly referential and near-constantly spit with the velocity of a rapper in his prime. Judging by the audience’s reaction, P.O.S. is poised to inherit the crossover following of labelmates Atmosphere, which is appropriate given that the latter’s street-level, humanistic approach to hip-hop is definitely shared here. It’s also easy to see P.O.S.’ punk influence in his show, especially during “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)” or “Yeah Right (Science Science),” as he moves around the stage with the assured swagger of a snot-nosed frontman, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

10:00 – Mark my words: this man is about to explode. English folk-punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner gives off a feeling that can only be described as what it must have felt like to see any of the great rock lyricists perform on the way up. If this sounds like rock critic hyperbole, then you need to catch Turner as soon as possible. Though the sentiments of “Substitute,” where he explains that “Music/Is my substitute for love” might sound trite and twee, there’s an impassioned howl either under or on top of every one of his songs that’s impossible to resist. It also doesn’t hurt that “Long Live The Queen” is as heartbreaking as eulogies-in-song come (and about as catchy, natch) or that “Photosynthesis” is a set-closing singalong for the ages. The critic rant concludes here, but I’ll just mention that Turner will be touring with Social Distortion this fall. Go.

Posted by Dominick Mayer on Sep 14, 2010 @ 11:11 am

middlewest fest, mao tzu, bogota orkestar, joie de vivre, hawthrone heights, mod sun, miss may, mc chris, russian circles, pos, frank turner