Friday, May 20, 2011

Pygmalion Music Festival: Day 1

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

Pygmalion Day 1

"This is an interaction!" announced the man in the top hat and tux at the opening of Champaign-Urbana's Pygmalion festival. "Get your tweeting and your facebooking out of the way because you will be needing your hands free for this interaction!" The PA system boomed and the crowd screamed and with that as a cue, two gigantic projections of Janelle Monae's head appeared on screen and told us the story -- the legend -- of the ArchAndroid. At the end of this Oz-like encounter, One commandment was levied on the crowd: "you will dance or die."

And we did. And it was good.

Pygmalion kicked off last night at Canopy Club and when I say kicked off, I mean kicked off. Janelle Monae was incredible. Her record ArchAndroid is groundbreaking, but her performance of the material is truly outstanding. The key word there, I think, is performance. There is no shoegazing here, no moments in between songs with awkward banter. From start to finish (and not unlike a theatre performance), Monae and her band perform. It's refreshing and the music is great, so it is also fantastically fun. Part of that fun had to do with the visual projections that accompanied the performance. During "Cold War" images of Muhammad Ali in the ring were projected: punches thrown and paint splattering to the beat which then modulated into a lightsaber fight. Boxing and lightsabers? Yes! I also loved the tune "Locked Down" which manages to mix Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson in a single bundle, and of course "Tightrope" moved the crowd from thrilled into ecstatic. A mid-set cover of the old standard (By Charlie Chaplin, which seems appropriate) "Smile" was also an appropriate and palate cleansing number.

The only moment of her set that sagged for me was her duet with of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. His presence on stage seemd a bit forced and opportunistic and, frankly, his voice is so outstripped my Monae, that it ends up kind of difficult to listen to.

Which is part of the reason I left before of Montreal's set. Watching a band get upstaged is always a little awkward.

My last word here is this: if you have the opportunity to see Janelle Monae, take it. Her show is worth the price of admission and then some.

From there, I made the short journey over to the Highdive in Champaign to see Built to Spill's set (because as an avid indie-rock fan, I can't live too long without my shoegazing and awkward stage banter).

It was my first time seeing Built to Spill who had, until a year or so ago, flown beneath my radar. And, to tell you the truth, for me their records, while good, leave something to be desired dynamically. They are the kind of band that has me pining after a live performance where I know things like volume and messiness and noise translate so much better and feel so much more authentic.

Built to Spill didn't disappoint in this regard. When the band opened with 1999's "The Plan," I immediately had that "Now I get it" moment and it carried throughout the evening. Their sound strikes me as a distillation of everything I loved about "alternative" rock in the 90s (dichotomous heavy/soft guitars, chunky solos, etc.) with what eventually became the "best" of indie-pop in the 2000s (messiness, complex simplicity [if that makes sense], etc.). I left feeling bad that it's taken me ten years to see them--they seem like a crucial touchstone between the old(ish) and the new.

It's impossible to listen to Built to Spill and not hear their influence on other successful acts. I was especially struck by how much Doug Martsch's vocal style is Ben Gibbard-esque. Maybe Death Cab was the original Owl City. Ruminate on that one for a moment. Boise and Seattle are only a day's car ride away. (Actually, I think that those kind of influences are of the more friendly, apprenticeship variety. Don't they call that the "Northwest Sound" or something?)

Here were a few of the standouts from the night on Built to Spill's setlist: "Randy Described Eternity," "Liar," "Twin Falls" (not just a Ben Folds Five song!), "Time Trap" (maybe my favorite of the night), "Distopian Dream Girl"

And they also covered the Grateful Dead's "Ripple." I had to look that one up, Ryan.

I look forward to seeing them again soon.


Tonight I'm looking forward to our local string band, the Mean Lids and, of course, Those Darlins. The later evening will be full of more great bands as well. More tomorrow!

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