John 5 has seen almost everything in Rock music. He's toured with David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie (with whom he's currently rockin') and been credited on songs from a wide range of artists — from Saliva to Salt n Pepa to k.d. lang to an upcoming collaboration with Rod Stewart. The guitarist has gained the reputation as a musical genius and one of the most action-packed guitarists in the world. He has just released his sixth solo album, God Told Me To, which mixes acoustic Spanish guitar along with Metal riffs.
CityBeat caught up with the guitar player to talk about the new album and some of the darker aspects of what goes into his writing, as well as the lighter aspects help put him to sleep every night. John 5 will take the stage with headliner Rob Zombie this Sunday at Rock on the Range in Columbus.
CityBeat: Can you tell us about the name of your album, God Told Me To?
John 5: The name, it is funny because … I am from Michigan, I am from Grosse Pointe. I was upper class growing up there. I was brought up in a really nice environment and home and I remember the night before I was leaving for California to really give it my shot saying, “I am going to try this. I am going to try to be this musician type of thing.” I remember I was saying my little prayer. I never wished to be a “rock star.” I just wanted to be a working musician. My dreams didn’t even go past a session player or a working musician. It was too far beyond my dreams. That’s kind of what the title means, that kind of thing, but also you can look at in the negative way, like when someone does a horrific murder, they always say, “Oh, God told me to.”
CB: I have read a lot of discussion in your recent interviews about serial killers and even the song “Night Stalker” being written about Richard Ramirez. Do you have an interest in serial killers and the history and stories behind them?
J5: I think it is interesting to me about how the mind works and how someone is wired, how their mind works, how it is completely OK to do these things, which I could never even think of doing something like that. It was always so interesting to read about this or watch documentaries. It is so odd for something like that to happen, so I have always had this little fascination with it — not that I am pro-for that kind of thing or anything but it is just very interesting to see something like that.
CB: I got a copy of the album and have been listening to it today. I love the acoustic Spanish-style versions on some of the songs. I know you are a lifelong learner. Did you take specific lessons around Flamenco or Spanish-style guitar lessons?
J5: Yes, I have always tried to learn, it is what keeps me sane. I love to learn and I started doing a lot of studying of Spanish-style music and really started getting into it and how it is just a completely different form of guitar playing. It is just like if you started speaking in a different language like Japanese or something. It is something that you have to study and work at a lot. That is what I enjoy because I love the guitar so much. Yes, I did a lot of studying and research on that.
CB: What current music is inspiring me right now?
J5: What current music is inspiring? You know what, and this will be a surprise, but I usually am very honest. I have had a little epiphany and this is very shocking. I was watching some movie or something like that and a N.W.A. song was on and I am no fan of Rap music, I really am not because I like the guitar. So I heard this N.W.A. song, I think it was “Gangsta Gangsta,” and I was like, “This is really, really, really good.” It was eye-opening to me and I appreciate it now. I was pretty taken back by it. I would have to say N.W.A. (is a current inspiration), which I can’t believe I am saying but it is the truth.
CB: There are a lot of bands right now collaborating outside their genres. Korn has collaborated with Skrillex and trying to create a lot of different sounds which would traditionally maybe not be in Metal music.
J5: Sure, and I think it is very important for that to happen because of the fact music has to always evolve and if it doesn’t, it has failed. It is good that it is evolving.
The Bonnaroo Whirlwind kicks into high gear on Saturday afternoon. Today it was hardly half past twelve when Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears ripped the Other Tent in half with 60 minutes of high fructose Funk and Gospel that had the surrounding throng speaking in tongues.
Archer’s paradox, according to Wikipedia, is the phenomenon whereby "in order to strike the center of the target with an arrow, the arrow must be pointed slightly to the side of the target."
Archer’s Paradox, the band, according to the two members I spoke with on a hot Thursday — much the same.
“It started about a year ago. I disbanded from a band I was in earlier (with Mia Carruthers, of MTV’s Taking the Stage fame) and Stefan Wright (drummer) and I started making songs in my room by myself,” says project founder, Seth Huff, “and then Cam (Nawaz, synth and backup vocals) started coming over out of nowhere, and we started hanging out and he was like, ‘Hey, those songs are pretty good’, and here we are, a year later, with four other people, having fun.”
Originally conceived as a two-piece consisting of Huff and Nawaz performing live with recorded backing tracks, the duo realized that direction would be “the most boring thing in the world,” says Nawaz, “so we quickly moved past that. And we realized that we have numerous friends who are really good at playing instruments.”
The band was fleshed out with Wright on drums, guitarist Alex Solin, and bassist Mark Wilson.
Working with a five-song EP recorded solely on Huff’s MacBook Pro, Archer’s Paradox has a distinctly DIY vibe. Very calculated in their approach to publicity and performing, Archer’s Paradox only performed its first show this year at Rohs Street Café during the sixth The Heights Music Festival in Clifton.
“We’re all about the DIY thing. That’s kind of like our religion. If we had to pick a religion, it would be DIY,” says Huff, who writes all of Archer’s Paradox material.
More shows followed, and in “a stroke of luck”, as Nawaz says, Archer’s Paradox earned a slot at the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival, held at Sawyer Point today through Sunday. Nawaz details how, while informing friends via text of their latest project and upcoming show, Wright happened to text Ian Bolender, a former bandmate from another band (Ellison), who happened to be an employee of Nederlander Entertainment, which happened to be the company booking Bunbury Music Festival. Bolender responded within 15 minutes with the offer of having Archer’s Paradox play Bunbury.
“We make our own luck,” clarifies Nawaz. “We use every outlet of who we know and every resource to our absolute maximum potential.”
Huff agrees, relaying how other shows have fallen into place just as harmoniously. I point out that maybe instead of finding "luck," Archer’s Paradox has serendipity on their side.
“THAT’S our religion,” Huff jumps in, eagerly. “I take back that thing I said before.” We note the fact that the letters “DIY” are also in ‘serendipity’, and thusly, the band’s definition is fully confirmed.
“Work smart, not hard,” Huff continues. “Observing the way other bands do it, you can learn a lot and make a game plan from that. If you have decent music, you have a really good shot if you learn to use the machine that is the Internet.”
“We knew we didn’t want to take the ‘let’s get signed right away, let’s get distributed’ path before playing anything,” Nawaz chimes in, referencing internet-phenom bands without much substance to back up their product.
“You have to gain the respect of fans and then they’ll actually want to pay for the music,” says Huff.
At this year’s Bunbury Music Festival, Archer’s Paradox will have their biggest chance yet to do just that.
Archer’s Paradox opens up the Landor Stage at Bunbury on Sunday at noon. Listen to them here and check out this clip for the group's song "Patience."
Everybody has their own parameters for summer these days. Schools are gradually starting earlier every year, so many students’ “last day of summer” was in early August, while the calendar says it’s not until Sept. 22. But if you declare summer as “everything before Labor Day,” this is the last weekend of the season. And it seems like many “summer” music festivals are coming in just under the wire — this weekend sees the return of several fests (Ohmstead, Whispering Beard Folk Festival, Swinefest, Taste of Blue Ash), as well as the debut of a brand new one — the Feywill Music Festival, which shines a spotlight on some of Greater Cincinnati’s finest original artists Friday-Saturday at various venues in Covington’s MainStrasse Village.
How did 48 hours of exciting live music draw to a close so fast? I woke up Sunday morning with the slightly wistful feel that my whirlwind weekend would soon be over, but I quickly shook that and rushed to the “L” to get downtown for the final day of Lollapalooza 2011.
Due to my persistent caffeine addiction, I was late to Grant Park. I missed The Joy Formidable (though luckily we can all see them at the MidPoint Music Festival on Sept. 22), as well as Titus Andronicus and Fences, all bands I wanted to give a good go. I guess that’s what YouTube, Soundcloud, Facebook, MySpace, etc. are for.
"The Bubblegum Masquerade," you say? Indeed. A local gentleman named Paul O'Moore has put together the Saturday show under the banner of his Vibrant Fringe Productions group, an essentially pro bono, one-man promotions organization founded to "exclusively support local and regional music" and to be "a partner in rebuilding Greater Cincinnati's music scene," according to the Vibrant Fringe Web site.
And looking at the generous lineup of local acts that O'Moore's ambitious two-stage, twelve-hour, multi-genre Masquerade plans to offer, he's clearly living up to his own mission statement.
Asking Alexandria has a British Metal sound, is proudly rough around the edges and even prouder of its stereotypical Rock & Roll lifestyle. Nothing shows this more than the short film they just released, Through Sin and Self Destruction. They have two studio albums, most notable being Reckless and Relentless, which blasted into the Top 10 on the Rock charts in the States. In a music industry that can be so straight edge and proper at times, AA is a callback to the dangerous Rock & Roll living of yore.
CityBeat had an entertaining meeting with lead singer Danny Worsnop and discussed the band’s shaky public relations past and what the band’s attitude means to the landscape of Metal and Rock & Roll. Catch Asking Alexandria when the Mayhem Festival comes to Riverbend Music Center on July 24.
CityBeat: I took the time yesterday and watched your new short film Through Sin and Self Destruction. What made you decide to do a short film like that when most people aren’t even doing videos anymore?
Danny Worsnop: I think it was a chance to tell a story; (there had been) kind of rumors about it for a long time but it had never reached the surface. It is a very loose, over-dramatized version of what was going on in my life at that point.
(See the NSFW trailer below.)
CB: Does the film really portray the typical kind of lifestyle that you guys lead?
DW: It is exaggerated but it is my lifestyle.
CB: I talk to a lot of bands and it is being compared to Guns N Roses and the Appetite for Destruction days and I don’t talk to many bands that are able to sustain that.
DW: Most bands these day aren’t even really bands. They are just people who kind of play music. There aren’t many real bands anymore so there really isn’t opportunity for that lifestyle to sustain. I am by no means condoning the lifestyle but it has always kind of been there in Rock & Roll.
CB: Do you guys see a big difference when you tour in Europe versus touring in the U.S.?
DW: Not really. At first there was a crowd size difference but we are known to the world now. It is pretty much the same no matter where we go, besides the currency. Currency is different. And age of sexual consent.
CB: Can you tell me the process for you guys as a band to put the songs together or write the songs?
DW: The songs are based on whatever I am going through at the time. The albums are very honest and very personal. Everything that we have been doing is a story of my life.
CB: Where do you see yourself and the band in 10 years?
DW: Hopefully, in a much bigger house than I live in now driving a much nicer car with a lot of money. And hopefully still playing music in 10 years.
CB: Who are your current influences in music?
DW: The same they always have been. Motley Crue, Aerosmith, Journey, Def Leppard and AC/DC, just Rock & Roll. I would rather much listen to those bands than Metal. I am not a Metal singer. I don’t listen to Metal music. In my eyes, we are a Metal band with a Rock & Roll singer.
CB: You guys have a highly anticipated new album coming out this year. How is that coming along?
DW: It is coming along really well. It is different than the previous records. It is far more mature. I have written some real songs. Hopefully that comes through.
CB: Is it still looking like a September timeframe (for release)?
DW: It is looking to be the end of November or beginning of December right now.
CB: What has been your greatest Rock star moment so far?
DW: That is a tough one. It depends which way you want to go with it. Do you want something completely inappropriate?
CB: You could go with either or both.
DW: We opened for Guns N Roses and we felt like true Rock stars. That was definitely infamous. In terms of behavior, however it may be frowned upon, I guess the most shamed Rock star moment was the whole Seattle incident.
CB: You guys were out with Guns this year. What was the highlight of that for you guys?
DW: Just the experience of doing it. It’s such a great honor to do something like that. It was mind-blowing at times.
CB: Did you get to spend time with Axl at all or the band themselves?
DW: No, I didn’t really hang around much at that show. I left pretty soon after we played.
CB: I always ask this question of bands because I have had some pretty crazy stories over the years. Have you ever had any crazy boyfriend or husband stories?
DW: I have never had a boyfriend or a husband. I’m sorry I’m going to let you down with that one.
CB: No, with the girls coming after you guys?
DW: We have had many of the guys come up to us and ask us to sleep with their girlfriends or wives. I did once have sex with a chick and later found out she was engaged to one of my good friends.
CB: That’s never good.
CB: Did you tell him?
DW: No and he still doesn’t know. We aren’t friends anymore so it would be impossible for me to tell him. It was a friend at the time.
CB: Do you guys have any pre-show rituals. Do you come together and do anything special?
DW: No. It was always something that was natural to me just like I’m going anywhere else except there are thousands of people watching it.
CB: What can the fans look forward to at Mayhem?
DW: It is going to be a real fun tour. I am going to be wearing leather. They can look forward to that. I may take my shirt off during the show.
CB: It’s going to be pretty hot for leather.
DW: Yeah, that’s why I may take it off.
CB: It’s pretty hot. I don’t know if you’ll get the leather off.
DW: I know I’m hot. Stop telling me. Stop flirting with me.
CB: You guys have been out on the road. What is the best and worst part of being on the road?
DW: The worst part is being away and not getting to see loved ones. The best part is probably just the shear freedom from the human race. Normal rules don’t apply. It is a completely different world when you are on the road. As myself, I am a completely different person on the road than any other time in my life. I am an insane creature.
CB: Do you believe the cliché that there is no bad press?
DW: I know there is bad press. I just don’t necessarily dislike it, which is a good thing because I have had a hell of a lot of it.
CB: Some people it really bothers and gets under their skin and some people it doesn’t.
DW: I think sometimes I prefer bad press.
DW: Everyone is trying so hard to just be so nice now. I don’t want that. I want to be known as me and I am not a good person but I am OK with that. I have come to terms with it. It’s not that I am a bad person, it is just that I speak my mind and I don’t sugar coat stuff.
CB: I interviewed Alice Cooper a few weeks ago, a legend, and he seemed upset with current bands because nobody wanted to be Rock stars anymore, basically.
DW: Last time I saw him he was on stage at the Golden God Awards ceremony thanking me and for keeping Rock & Roll alive.
Our third and final day on-site at Bonnaroo was no less crazy than the previous two. I took occasional breaks during the day, sometimes in the air-conditioned press tent, and other times back at the campsite where I’d snack, get off my feet for a few minutes and pour water over my head.
The day began with an 11:30 a.m. press-tent panel discussion on changes in the concert industry since Bonnaroo’s inception 10 years ago. The panel included Bonnaroo founder Ashley Capps who reminisced about the festival’s early days. Capps and crew intentionally booked bands for the inaugural festival who already had direct contact with their fan base via the internet. By tapping into this pre-existing network, they were able to sell out the first Bonnaroo in just 18 days.
It’s no secret that Chicago is a great place for music. Pretty much any touring band of note — and no doubt many a musical outfit that need not be noted — is sure to include a Chicago stop, and the city’s local scene remains rich and diverse, aided by a host of nurturing venues and an eager, uncommonly discerning base of listeners. That it’s only a five-hour drive from Cincinnati makes it an enticing destination for those of us who yearn to catch shows that skip the Queen City.
Chicago’s embarrassment of musical riches has only grown in recent years with the addition of two high-profile three-day summer festivals: Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. The former needs little introduction — Perry Farrell’s unexpectedly fruitful brainchild is, almost undeniably, the inspiration for the explosion of summer fests over the last two decades, a trend that has grown even more robust since the turn of the century. Every weekend each summer now features at least one festival worthy of audiences’ ears. The trend has even reached Cincinnati, where Bunbury just finished its second successful year — and shared a headliner with Pitchfork. (Whether outdoor settings, marked by often difficult weather conditions and bright sunlight, is the best way to experience the type of music offered at such festivals is a different question.)
Lollapalooza is, alongside behemoths Coachella and Boonaroo, one of America’s biggest and best-attended summer fests, boasting more than 130 artists and an audience in excess of 150,000. Pitchfork, meanwhile, has quickly established itself as a singular presence on the summer circuit, a discerningly curated endeavor that’s an extension of the influential, taste-making webzine that runs it. (Chicago-based Pitchfork.com took over the business side of the fest in 2006 after curating 2005’s initial gathering, which was then called the Intonation Festival). Set in Union Park — a modest city-block space just west of downtown Chicago — Pitchfork now features nearly 50 artists, many of which are still unfamiliar to all but the most plugged-in Indie music connoisseurs. (Ironically, as a champion of cutting-edge acts on the way up, Pitchfork also serves as an early snapshot of future Lollapalooza lineups.)
This year’s Pitchfork, which ran July 19-21, offered one of its most curious lineups to date, especially as it pertains to the headliners, which included Bjork, Belle and Sebastian and, somewhat controversially, R. Kelly. Sure, there were several typically lesser-known acts on the bill, but almost all of them graced the Blue Stage, the smallest of the fest’s three stages. Whether this year’s more accessible bill might have been a reaction to last year’s fest, which gave relatively high-profile slots to such interesting but largely faceless artists as AraabMuzik, Purity Ring, The Field, Big K.R.I.T., Hot Chip and Chavez, among others, is anyone’s guess, but a realignment of sorts from Pitchfork’s powers that be seems plausible.
More proof of a possible shift in booking philosophy: There were more veteran acts than ever this year. Beyond the headliners, each of which has been making music for more than two decades, there was Wire, The Breeders, Swans, … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Low and Yo La Tengo. The only comparable 2012 act in terms of longevity — admittedly not the best gauge when it comes to creative vitality, but we’re talking audience-drawers here — was Godspeed You Black Emperor, which headlined along with Feist and Vampire Weekend. All are solid acts, but none of them are likely to perk the senses of those looking for a little “star power.” Enter Kelly, one of the era’s preeminent hit-makers (more on that later).
As usual, many of Pitchfork 2013’s most interesting artists emanated from the Blue Stage, which is the most intimate of the fest’s three stages — the larger Green and Red stages (note the refreshing lack of corporate branding, another sign of Pitchfork’s discerning nature), which are but 50 yards (or so) apart, alternate acts at the north end of Union Park, while Blue’s lineup overlaps with the other two. Tucked into a tree-laden area of the park’s southwest corner, the Blue Stage is something of a festival unto itself, its cozy confines offering a break from the spacious, open-air spots where the Green and Red reside.
Multiple Blue Stage artists delivered strong sets, including Frankie Rose, a former Dum Dum Girl whose latest album, Interstellar, is a Synth Pop gem that wouldn’t sound out place alongside Beach House; Mikal Cronin, a little ragamuffin of a guy whose latest album, MCII, is a Power Pop keeper; Angel Olsen, whose Americana-flavored songs and swoon-worthy voice and visage compelled much of the audience during her late-afternoon slot; Metz, a Canadian trio coming to Cincy for this year's MidPoint Music Festival in late September, whose terse songs roared even more righteously in a live setting (think Nirvana on fast-forward); Minnesota mainstays Low, who seemed oddly out of place but still effective in the early evening light; and Trash Talk, a Hardcore crew from Sacramento, Calif., whose long-haired frontman delivered the funniest line of the fest after noticing a number of “old people” in the relatively sparse Friday-afternoon crowd: “I like old people. Old people make the world go around. They fucking had us and shit.”
Best of all — or at least the biggest surprise — was Brooklyn-based Post Punk quartet Parquet Courts, whose playful, twisty tunes recall everyone from early Pavement to the Minutemen to a far less trashed Guided by Voices. Frontman Andrew Savage’s voice is thin but endearing, and his dynamic guitar interplay with fellow frontguy Austin Brown had more than one rapt audience member shaking their ass in the Saturday-afternoon sun.
One got the sense that the Parquet Courts dudes would have been just as happy performing on the street corner just beyond the fence behind them. The fact that they had a much bigger platform to deliver their slanted gospel is just one example of what has made Pitchfork so vital for those looking to experience something rawer and less polished than the acts that dominate other festivals. (Go get Parquet Court’s recent full-length, Light Up Gold, as soon as possible.)
Even the Blue Stage’s less successful performances were compelling in one way or another: while Julia Holter, Ryan Hemsworth, Andy Stott and Evian Christ — the latter three DJs who essentially stand behind a table — have issues in the area of crowd interaction and sometimes suffered from spotty sound mixes, each was able to convey its mood-altering music in ways that, at the very least, provided sonic respites from the relatively more conventional acts at the bigger stages, whose roar often bled into the Blue’s.
On to the two main stages, which drew large, unusually enthusiastic crowds all weekend. Long a champion of adventurous Hip Hop, Pitchfork again featured some intriguing purveyors of the form, most notably Sunday sets by Killer Mike and El-P. The pair released two of the best albums of 2012, and their stellar recent collaboration, dubbed Run the Jewels, dropped as a free download in June. After a sweaty set in which Mike ran through songs from his R.A.P. Music — including strong versions of the title track and the politically cutting “Reagan” — he joined his buddy El-P for a batch of Run the Jewels cuts that mixed verbal dexterity with a healthy dose of levity. Their record, simply titled Run the Jewels, is something of a break from the duo’s doomsday aesthetic as solo artists — Jewels is an exuberant, sonically diverse fun-ride that makes light of Hip Hop’s silly preoccupation with bling (the two performed with fake gold chains around their necks), among other Pop-culture oddities. (El-P later tweeted, “I’ll just go ahead and say @pitchforkfest is the most chill, fun ass festival around right now.)
Run the Jewels was an interesting transition into a set from the ever-vital Yo La Tengo, which mixed choice cuts from its vast back-catalog (including sweet reworked versions of “Autumn Sweater,” “Tom Courtney” and “The Hour Grows Late”) with several tunes from the New Jersey trio’s latest record, Fade. As usual, they didn’t interact much with the crowd, though frontman Ira Kaplan, who dropped in several impressive guitar freak-outs, did joke that it was “good to be opening for R. Kelly again.”
The fest’s most curious social-media-stirring moment occurred Sunday evening as M.I.A., amid a garishly colorful backdrop of spinning wheels and neon lights, unveiled songs from her forthcoming album, Matangi. A sea of cell phones rose to record her entrance; many stayed aloft throughout. It was a departure in audience etiquette — somewhat unexpectedly, much of the festival was free of such ubiquitous use of technological interference.
Clad in a flashy gold top and orange short-shorts, M.I.A. stalked the stage, often with dancers at her side, as bass-heavy Dance-Rap arrangements thundered through the ample soundsystem with almost netherworldly force. The ceaseless sonic assault pretty much drowned out whatever she might have been trying to convey in her new songs — which, based on the spottiness of her previous record and the delayed release of Matangi, might be a good thing. Only when her set was interrupted by technical glitches did she seem spontaneous or even all that engaged. It was a weird, disjointed set, the kind of whiz-bang spectacle that rarely rears its head at Pitchfork.
In contrast, Savages Saturday afternoon appearance was a model of lacerating intensity. The buzzed-about British quartet — whose recent debut Silence Yourself is a satisfying blast of atmospheric Post Punk — was one of the most anticipated acts of fest. They didn’t disappoint, delivering blistering versions of “I Am Here,” “She Will” and “Fuckers,” a new song about not letting the “fuckers get you down.”
Jehnny Beth is a captivating frontlady, her no-bullshit stare and frequent high-pitched yelps lifting the music’s familiar elements — everyone from Gang of Four and Patti Smith to Siouxsie Sioux and PJ Harvey come immediately to mind — to uncharted heights. More unexpected was the band’s tendency to evoke ’80s-era U2, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even more curious was Beth’s evocation of Ian Curtis, both in terms of her appearance (lean with close-cropped hair) and in some of her mannerisms (as if the music were transporting her somewhere beyond the stage).
Michael Gira, Swans’ longtime ringleader, was impressed,
asking the audience, “How about them lady Savages?” before clapping in
appreciation. Gira’s band immediately followed Savages, and it was an
apt pairing, like opposite sides of the same coin. His crew of gifted
Post Punk vets — which includes a hairy multi-instrumentalist named Thor
and a suave German slide-guitar player who looks as though he’d be
right a home in a David Lynch flick — conjured an unholy racket during a
truncated version of “The Seer” and offered an inspired take on
“Oxygen,” which featured Gira doing a spooky Indian-like dance
throughout. While it was odd to witness Swans’ menacing, ebb-and-flow
soundscapes in broad daylight, the outdoor setting still left those in
attendance vibrating long after the band’s final drone leaked from the
That brings us to the three headliners. The festival’s mission — it attempts to highlight the most adventurous, zeitgeist-channeling acts on the current landscape — makes choosing an anchor to each day’s events a challenging dilemma for Pitchfork organizers. Given the esoteric nature of many such music-makers, there are only so many high-profile acts that fit the typical “headliner” criteria. Past choices have included such Alt-Rock mainstays as Flaming Lips, Spoon and Sonic Youth to more contemporary entries in the canon like TV on the Radio, Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem.
Pitchfork even had Yoko Ono headline one year, which makes the choice of R. Kelly as Sunday night’s festival-closer even odder one on multiple levels. First, there’s the fact that Kelly — no doubt one of the most important R&B artists of the era, and a Chicago native to boot — is the most mainstream artist the festival has ever booked. Second, and far more troubling for many, is Kelly’s reputation as a serial misogynist who never got the legal reprimand he deserved.
The most vociferous critic has been longtime music writer Jim DeRogatis, who broke the story of Kelly’s indiscretions while working at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002. DeRogatis called Pitchfork’s decision to book Kelly and the subsequent excitement from “some (not all) paying customers” as being “fueled by irony.”
No doubt there are legitimate questions about how an artist’s personal issues should impact the way in which we experience their music, but, for better or worse, those knotty questions were not going to be answered during Kelly’s Pitchfork set.
In fact, based on the reaction of those in the massive crowd — probably the festival’s largest ever — irony was not as prevalent as DeRogatis wanted to profess. The overwhelming majority of those in attendance, which ranged from fortysomething African-American couples to teenage hipsters, seemed genuinely excited to be taking in Kelly’s sextastic jams. The performance itself, meanwhile, was largely standard-issue R&B stagecraft, as Kelly ran through much of his extensive songbook medley-style (38 songs!). Not even a steady drizzle of rain could dampen the mood, as many swayed and sang along straight through to a set-closing version of “I Believe I Can Fly,” which was accompanied by the release of dove-shaped balloons.
If Kelly’s presentation was fairly straightforward, Bjork’s closing set on Friday was anything but. Or so it seemed — unless one was within 75 yards of the stage, it was hard to see what was going on besides fleeting glimpses of Bjork’s elaborate headgear, which looked like a porcupine lit up from within. Worse, the two video boards that flanked the Green Stage were mounted too low, rendering them almost useless to those they should intend to aid.
No matter: Bjork’s expressive voice was just as fluid and otherworldly as one would expect on slightly reconfigured versions of “Hunter,” “Joga” “Pagan Poetry” and “Army of Me.” When rain and pending lightening and thunder prompted festival organizers to pull the plug after an hour, Bjork responded with this curio: “It’s calm. I don’t know. This wouldn’t be much in Iceland, I can tell you that much.”
It also rained on Belle and Sebastian Saturday night, but not enough to cut short what was the festival’s most overt nod to nostalgia. The Scottish crew ran through a career-spanning set that crested early with rousing versions of “I’m a Cuckoo” and “The Stars of Track and Field,” which had more than one thirtysomething couple embracing amid all the tuneful sweetness.