The Hideout Block Party returned this year after a two-year hiatus. Taking over the stretch of Wabansia outside of the Hideout, as well as a large parking lot — Jon Langford joked that Mayor Emanuel came down and personally moved each and every Streets & Sanitation truck out of the lot, just for the Hideout — the Block Party was a celebration of the Hideout’s 15th anniversary. It was also a celebration of Chicago’s vibrant music scene, with many of the artists on the line-up being Chicago natives, or with deep ties to our windy city. It also happened to be probably one of the last truly nice days of the year. I’m guessing the weather largely cooperated because it was afraid to anger the Hideout and its army of staunch supporters. I don’t blame you, weather.
I started my Block Party out with Chicago’s own Kids These Days. The members are all products of Chicago’s public schools, as Hideout owner and education enthusiast Tim Tuten pointed out in his enthusiastic intro. The group of recent high school grads effortlessly blends hip hop, jazz, R&B, soul, rock… you name it, there’s a hint of it in their music. Led by Vic Mensa on rap vocals, Liam Cunningham on lead vocals and guitar, and Macie Stewart on vocals and keyboards, Kids These Days wowed the assembled crowd. The blend of genres made their set accessible even to people who aren’t well-versed in what’s going on in hip hop. The group has been getting the attention they deserve lately, with a set at Lollapalooza, performances at SXSW, and a stint as support for Trombone Shorty.
Like I said in a snarky Tweet, If there’s going to be a conversation about young people making hip hop music which challenges genres and expectations, Kids These Days should be a part of it. Yes, that’s sort of a dig at Odd Future, who were in the spotlight this summer for being young and ambitious and adventurous with their music, but also for being wildly offensive to many listeners. Kids These Days seem to occupy a different part of the musical spectrum: their raps are still punctuated with curses and the n-word at times, but I also didn’t hear any lyrics about rape or murder. (I could be wrong.) There’s room for both groups to exist; I just hope that Kids These Days could become media darlings, too, and show the world that there’s more to youth and rap that what they’d previously thought.
I skipped the next band, The Eternals, in favor of finding food and meeting up with friends, but made it back to the stage in time to catch blues legend Booker T. Jones. Despite being woefully undereducated on blues, I found his set to be thoroughly enjoyable, from songs from newer releases to old classics like “Green Onions”, and yes, even a quirky cover or two, with Jones appearing back onstage to encore with an instrumental cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”. (Regular readers of How’s My Living will be well aware of my long-standing affection for quirky covers of all kinds.) The all-ages crowd seemed into his set, as well, helped along by Jones’ very dynamic backing band. Who knew the bopping sounds of an organ could be so cool?
Until Jon Langford opened his mouth, I could have sworn that he was a born-and-raised Chicagoan. Shows what I know. Langford is a Welshman who might as well be a Chicagoan, though, especially given the fact that I think he may be in just about every band that calls the city home. (Only a slight exaggeration.) At the Block Party, he was joined on stage by fellow other-Jon-Langford-projects alums Sally Timms and Alan Doughty, and, oh yeah, the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus. Langford’s set was full of sea shanties, murder ballads, high kicks and viking hats and a little bit of punk rock. Not many artists would have the guts to slow their set down with a choral shanty, sung all in Welsh, accompanied solely by guitar, but Langford did, and it worked.
There’s no way around it: Mavis Staples is a legend. She’s not just a legend, but she’s our legend. You wouldn’t think that gospel would have a home at the Hideout, but it does. Tim Tuten and company were so intent on getting Mavis for this year’s Block Party that they agreed to every last request in her concert rider, including a request for “a big ass throne”. The Hideout made her one, and it was glorious, every bit befitting the 72-year old Grammy winner.
Staples’ set didn’t differ all that much from when I saw her at Lollapalloza in 2009; she even brought the same backing band with her, all of whom performed on her live album recorded at the Hideout several years ago. Staples is such a captivating performer that her charm, humor, and intense passion are hard to ignore. Crowded at the side of the stage watching her set were many of the other performers from the day: I spotted the White Mystery kids, some guys from Booker T. Jones’ band, Andrew Bird and Nora O’Connor, in addition to numerous Hideout friends and personnel. Her set was full of old Staples family standards like “I’ll Take You There”, as well as offerings from her newest album, “You Are Not Alone”, which brought Nora O’Connor out for a spin on guest vocals. Staples usually covers The Band’s “The Weight”, and this time around, she brought out Andrew Bird to play along and pick up a verse. Even the un-religious among us couldn’t help but be moved by Staples’ triumphant return to the Hideout.
Martin Dosh, who also serves as Andrew Bird’s drummer and collaborator, played a brief ambient set before Bird took the stage. I enjoy his albums, and it definitely takes a lot of skill to be the one man band/looping machine/drummer/keyboardist that he is, but am always left a bit cold by the live performance. I guess I just like having something to look at. His instrumental set was a bit of a mood-changer after the high-spirited show put on by Mavis Staples, and most of the crowd was eager for Bird to take the stage.
If the day belonged to classic acts like Booker T. Jones and Mavis Staples, though, the night belonged to Andrew Bird, one of the many artists who called the Hideout home at the start of a career. (In Bird’s case, that’s not just a metaphor: he mentioned that he literally lived above the Hideout for a while.) Bird performed at one of the last Block Parties before its hiatus, (an event that I’m still kicking myself for missing) so it was only fitting that he return here as the night’s last act.
Bird kicked his set off with some moody instrumental pieces, as he usually does. As he played, a gigantic fabricated whale, lofted high above the assembled people, made its way through the crowd. The whale, courtesy of visual arts group Opera-matic, came with its own keening whale noises, seemingly conversing with the wail of Bird’s violin. Does that make sense? Probably not. Just watch the video; it will enlighten you.
From there, Bird launched into a set of old favorites from throughout his career. The setlist held few surprises in way of song choice — the biggest surprises were “Dark Matter”, which I’m not sure I’ve seen him do before live, and his rendition of “Bein’ Green”, which recently appeared on the Muppets tribute album. His delivery of the song is downright perfect: enough whimsy to fit right in to the Muppets universe, but with just a hint of questioning or vulnerability, perfect for our good friend Kermit the Frog.
There were plenty of treats along the way, aside from the gigantic whale. Paloma Carrasco, a high school student who is the recipient of the Rock for Kids scholarship named after Bird, came out to sing a mariachi song, accompanied by Bird and original Bowl of Fire member Colin Bunn on guitar. The crowd seemed unsure what to make of the girl at first, and there was a lot of talking which she was introducing herself. But then she opened her mouth and silenced everyone. Carrasco has a huge voice, perfect for the type of song she chose to perform. I believe she’s only a sophomore in high school, but her voice is much older and much richer than her years.
Much like his recent show in Ann Arbor, the bulk of the set was devoted to new songs from Bird’s forthcoming album, which he said should be released in March 2012. It’s a bold move: you’ve got a couple thousand people gathered, many of whom are there mostly to see you, and you play material that most of them are unfamiliar with. I felt some of the attention of the crowd waning during the latter half of the set; people wanted to hear songs they already loved. For my part, these songs are already well-worn treasures that are getting better with age. Granted, that comes with the territory whenever you follow an artist with the same sort of fervor that I follow Bird’s work, but still. Hearing the newer songs with the full backing band — in some cases with two drummers, as Bowl of Fire member Kevin O’Donnell came out to join in on several songs — was an absolute joy to me. Hearing how the songs have evolved, how the rest of the band came together to contribute to the songs that Bird had already constructed, has given me a greater idea of just what the new album is shaping up to be.
And I’m excited, folks. I’m very excited. With Nora O’Connor stepping in to provide backing vocals on many of the new songs, and with the always creative guitar work of Jeremy Ylvisaker, the songs feel fuller, more fleshed out. They’re still songs about growth, survival, moving on, only now they’re louder, more intricate, more alive, all befitting the themes that are populating Bird’s newest works. The trio of “Breeding Desperation” (about “an era without bees”), nearly seamlessly transitioning into a cover of Alpha Consumer’s “Crown Salesman”, and “I on I” (or perhaps “Eye on Eye”) was a particular highlight for me. “Crown Salesman” was absolutely a rock song compared to the previous times I’ve heard Bird do it. The song pushed along into near anthemic territory by the contributions of O’Donnell on drums and Ylvisaker, a member of Alpha Consumer. With its cryptic lyrics, it’s always felt like an Andrew Bird song, and I am secretly hoping that it’s made it onto the new album.
The night wouldn’t be complete without some post-apocalyptic snacks, and Bird closed out his main set with “Tables and Chairs”, a song which has taken on increasing relevance over the years, with its talk of crumbling financial institutions. Despite my cramped position, pressed up against the railing separating the masses from the photo pit, I danced and sang along as best I could. At this point, I’m just waiting for the collapse of our government and society as we know it, so we can get on with the snacks and pony rides and dancing bears. It’s got to be true; Andrew Bird promised that’s the way it would be.
It also wouldn’t be an Andrew Bird show without a Handsome Family cover, as he returned to the stage with the band and Nora O’Connor for a stunning encore of their song “So Much Wine”. The lyrics, like most Handsome Family songs, read like a short story, and Bird and O’Connor’s voices lend themselves perfectly to it. The night ended on that quiet note as the sound booth signaled from offstage that there wasn’t time for one more. While I’d been hoping for concert favorite “Fake Palindromes”, “So Much Wine” proved for a perfect send-off, albeit a bit of a sobering one, if you bothered to listen to the words.
Instrumental (with effects from Operamatic)
A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left
La Cigarra (ft. Paloma Carrasco on vocals, Colin Bunn on guitar)
Fitz and the Dizzy Spells
Give it Away (with Nora O’Connor)
Crown Salesman (Alpha Consumer cover)
I on I
Fatal Shores (with Nora O’Connor)
Tables and Chairs
So Much Wine (with Nora O’Connor; Handsome Family cover)