Monday, July 8, 2013

80/35 Festival: 2013 Recap

“That band from Cedar Falls is playing 80/35 this year.” Advised my father, a bastion of knowledge concerning Des Moines’ entertainment schedule.  His database is the entertainment section of the Des Moines Register and another local weekly that he keeps close at hand, usually underneath a decretive bowel that holds his remote controls.

The “that band” he was referring to is House of Large Sizes, a now defunct power trio that provided the Hawkeye state with some of the most intuitive and original blend of rock music during their initial run. Since going on hiatus over a decade ago, the band has re-formed sporadically for quick Iowa/Minnesota weekend reunions and for special occasions like headlining the Kum and Go free stage, one of three areas at the 80/35 festival with live music offerings.

The comment I made to my dad went something along the lines of “I don’t want to diminish the memories that I already have,” which is partially true as H.O.L.S. would qualify as a band that I’ve seen more than any other, beginning with their second gig ever over a quarter century ago. There is nothing like watching a band start from uneasy footing and progress into a remarkable one, and H.O.L.S. turned into exactly that.

With a year, House of Large Sizes became a very potent live band, and I can safely tell you that, while not every performance was transcendent, a large portion of them were and I can’t ever recall a moment where I wasn’t disappointed in attending.

Probably the only performance that came close to qualifying as a disappointment would have been one of those weekend reunions where many Iowa natives returned home to witness H.O.L.S. reunite. There was nothing to complain about from a music perspective, but from the audience it was quite unsettling watching your peers, visibly older, pretending to be in their 20’s and navigating the Mevlevi Order directly in front of the stage.

That’s a problem for me to address. Not the band. Not the 45 year-old fellow caught up in the time machine, screaming “I used to walk to school! I used to walk to school!” while H.O.L.S. tore through their first hint of awesomeness with their early standout track, “1½ On A Hill.”

The visuals obtained from these gigs were enough to have me keep my memories of this great band intact by abstaining from any further reunion shows or one-off engagements.

So when Dad dutifully mentioned “that band from Cedar Falls,” I confessed my predicament and admitted that there were really only two bands in 80/35’s schedule that I wanted to see this year-Wavves and Deerhunter-and out of those, only Deerhunter made me want to get my wallet out and purchase a ticket.
The two headliners this year were David Byrne/St. Vincent (Friday night) and Wu Tang Clang (Saturday night), both of which were not enough to save 80/35 from their lowest paid attendance since the festival’s first event, six years ago.

When I went to that inaugural show, I was a buzzkill. I was suffering from the belief that I had grown beyond the challenges that any festival event prevents (drunkenness, heat, lack of manners, etc.) and that somehow the festival needed to adapt to my expectations.

It’s a ridiculous complaint, and the only way around it is to simply make the choice not to attend, which I have done in the past. But each year the festival presents at least one or two acts that I would like to see, so I’m forced to make some form of compromise if I want to see them.

This year, that challenge came from the band Deerhunter, a band that I admire a great deal and one that has not touched Iowa soil since their inception.

I bitched and whined about my choices until the last day of the festival, where I finally headed over to Des Moines without a ticket, hoping to score “a miracle,” to use Grateful Dead parlance.

Leave it to my mother to save the day, handing me $50 bucks from her purse and telling me just to go and buy a ticket at the gate. I didn’t see the value in spending $45 for what would have been one band, two if I felt inclined enough to battle the heat and check out Wavves mid-afternoon.

But as temperatures hovered in the mid-90’s and my parent’s two new kittens falling asleep on my chest after a hard afternoon play, Wavves didn’t make the cut.

That left the agenda wide open, and only two bands remained in the running.

For everyone else, it was the Wu Tang Clan, who I enjoy to a certain degree haven’t paid attention to since O.D.B. died. This isn’t to suggest that his input isn’t as essential to the Wu as a creative unit, but you know, when does the point of a collective turn into the whims of a few select members? When does all of it turn into a money-grab after the solo efforts begin to not get the attention that they once did?

And when does it all turn into an ungrateful booking where the remaining members finally hit the stage 45 minutes after their scheduled start time?

I was long gone before this, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt. But I do get a bit defensive when an act comes in to my state without any evidence of respect towards the people who paid to see them. That includes festivals, county fairs, and any opening act that gets on stage and mocks patrons like those fucks in Los Lobos.

I’m glad Paul Simon ripped off your shit and you don’t make a dime off Graceland. You don’t deserve it, you smug fucks.

The sun had begun to set when Deerhunter-specifically frontman Bradford Cox-fought with some unruly guitar pedals and barked orders at the soundman before the set began. When the music did finally start-right around the scheduled time, so fuck you, Wu-the soundman had apparently done his magic, appeasing the crowd and Cox with some very luscious sonics.

Beginning with “Cover Me (Slowly)” > “Agoraphobia,” the set pulled heavily from Halcyon Digest, which is fine, because Halcyon Digest is most awesome. For some reason, I felt the need to tell anyone near me that I had driven from Cedar Rapids (2 hours) and paid full price ($45) just to see Deerhunter. “Really?” said one of my neighbors standing next to me, feigning interest. He moved before I had a chance to tell him that my mommy bought the ticket for me and pushed my curfew to Midnight.

Cox is looking older these days, and he was nowhere near as flamboyant as I would have liked him to be. He made the curious decision to wear a black Cramps t-shirt with dark green corduroy highwaters and sandals. It was the look of someone who merely woke up in Atlanta, GA, hopped on a plane to Iowa, played 60 minutes at a festival and then flew home.

This is exactly what happened, probably. But I’m sure the shocking blue Teisco Del-Rey he was manning came with him on the plane. Most awesome.

Bassist Josh Fauver is no longer in the band, apparently having grown tired of this type of thing (touring). This was a concern at first, since he had a hand in one of the most awesome Deerhunter songs of all time (“Nothing Ever Happened”) and it meant that it probably would not be a part of the set list that evening.
New bassist Josh McKay has a pretty nifty look about him, and as far as I could tell, filled Fauver’s shoes nicely in terms of the band’s increasing reliance on strong 4/4 rhythms
All the girls love guitarist Lockett Pundt, who worked “Desire Lines” into the evening’s most memorable moment. Fans of his reverb-laden Jazzmaster are advised to check out his band Atlas Sound, although I’m sure I’m speaking to the converted if you’re a fan of Deerhunter already.

Don't you cry, Timmy. There's a heaven above you, baby.
They have an additional guitarist, Frankie Boyles, who is actually the drummer in Atlas Sound, so go figure.
Drummer Moses Archuleta is pretty solid player, and I was impressed with his consistency.  His timekeeping was critical in matching the band’s more extended pieces into credible forms of translation. When they were on, they were perfect. When they were off-which was rare-they were nowhere near the troublemaking persona that made this show such a must-see-with-your-mother’s-money event.

The most tomfoolery that took place was Bradford’s banter with the timid crowd; most of their fans stood towards the front while the sourpusses waiting for Wu Tang Clan sulked in the back, discounting the weird white boy singling out audience members for some gentle ribbing.

“What’s with Nic Cage?” he asked, noticing that a member of the audience had taken the time to attach a big picture of Nicolas Cage’s head to a broom handle and brought it to Deerhunter’s set.

“What happened to Nic Cage today?” he continued to ponder, looking for an explanation as to why someone would find the need to bring a big picture of the star’s head to a rock concert. “You guys in Iowa like irony and humor, don’t you?” finding out that the gag really served no purpose other than to confound.
He then noticed a young man wearing a Black Flag t-shirt, who he promptly named “Timmy,” and complimented him on his attire. “Timmy” then suffered regular dedications and even a few alterations to song lyrics (“Don’t Cry” from Halcyon Digest became “Don’t Cry, Timmy” for example) on his behalf. Then Bradford noticed another youngster in a Swans shirt, complimented him on his choice, and then dedicated the next song to him.

“You guys have cool music t-shirts here in Des Moines.” He noted.

You could probably tell that I didn’t hang around for the Wu set, although I could sense it was going to be a long night for those that promptly made their way to the front of the stage just as Deerhunter’s fans were moving away from it. It would be an even longer wait thanks to the Wu’s poor time management skills.

Courtesy of David Byrne's journal. 
As is the case with any 80/35 main stage act, Deerhunter’s set was restricted to the allotted 60 minutes and it was clear that there would be no encore when the stage crew began shutting of the amplifiers still omitting feedback and tearing down the microphones.

The night was still young and the early July evening was shaping up to be a very beautiful thing. I decided to take a look at some old friends at the Kum & Go stage, a poorly named convenience store here in the Midwest that even David Byrne noticed when he was in town the night before, performing and riding some of Iowa’s extensive bike trail systems.

House of Large Sizes had already begun when I made the three block trek to the stage. The street directly in front of the stage was packed. There was a higher proportion of older people at this show, but a pretty big crowd for an act that hasn’t been together for the past decade.

The band tore through a catalog now measured in decades, and it seemed like they were trying to cram everything into an abbreviated set (again, one hour). I remember a few early gigs when HOLS was gaining popularity in the region when I loudly lamented to their drummer at the time that the band was losing speed by the end of the set.

He didn’t appreciate that comment from me, and I probably had no right in saying it.

I can safely say that this is never a problem with drummer Brent Hanson, who keeps the proceedings fit ‘n active by propelling a bunch of these classic cuts into double-time territory. Seriously, it was like those stories about the Ramones and how they managed to trim the fat on every tour, to the point where they would keep tabs at how quickly they could pound through a set, often ending a tour a full quarter-hour faster than comparable sets towards the beginning of it.

Hanson spends his time these days laying the foundation for metal bands in the Twin Cities area (see the badassed Bastard Saint for more insight into his skin work) when he isn’t commuting down to Ioway for HOLS practice on one of their regular reunion shows.

Good thing too: Hanson exudes enthusiasm with nearly every beat, transforming HOLS into a clarion of ass-kicking rock that’s inspiring to the crowd under the age of 30 who hasn’t been swayed away with EDM soundtracks and safe surroundings. House proved to be incredibly dangerous during their set and just as powerful as any other gig they may have implanted into our collective memory.

Barb Schlif. Tuck-and-Roll.
Bassist Barb Schilf jumped and twirled her braided ponytails around like a woman possessed, and I caught at least a few moments where she turned to face her ginormous Kustom cab like she was challenging it, the speakers pushing the air with so much intensity that her eyes began to roll back. The music was literally transforming her into La Dame Blanche right before us in a transfixing display of performing from a completely different space and time. That moment alone made the brief walk to the Kum & Go stage completely worthwhile and it made me miss the fact that House was no longer around  full-time  to recreate this kind of supernatural magic on a regular basis.

I was reminded of when this band started. Barb was still learning the instrument, and many performances found her looking down at the frets, making sure her fingers were on the proper location of the neck. There is none of that anymore, as Schilf has the notes embedded inside of her, but it’s the joy of executing those rumbles that practically make her the focal point of House’s live show.

This fact takes nothing away from the band’s designated driver, Dave Deibler, who commandeered the proceedings like an old pro. He joked with the crowd concerning his age, fibbing that he recently celebrated his 40th birthday recently. After receiving a few bits of audience approval, he then admitted that he subtracted 10 years from the figure, which only made the speed that HOLS was chugging along with that much more impressive.

What I feared would turn out to be just another nostalgic offering was instead an honest attempt at getting old-school natives like yours truly to miss the possibility of what this band could accomplish with just a few more years of navigating the circuit. Mission accomplished, but with Dave and Barb now committed to their family and their businesses, it would be hard to have them justify a return when they’re making a bigger impact with the gear tucked away.
Big as a house and twice as wide, indeed!

Not only was my opinion of House of Large Sizes changed, but so was my overall opinion of the 80/35 Festival. It is a small-scale festival that regularly brings healthy support from fans of music from across the state. And while that may not seem like much to any fan of music that has a major music festival within a short drive of their home, for us in the Hawkeye State our options are limited based on our population and perception.

The only way around this is through events like these, where financial supporters and the festival organizers put their money and time on the line and we come out and participate, even when we have multiple reasons not to.

Iowa is hot around the 4th of July and it can stay brutal like that for weeks afterwards. But it can also be a place where we use excuses like that to stay at home, only to whine when the heat breaks that nobody ever comes here to play. Des Moines is changing that with some really active venues, and the organizers of 80/35 are a big part of putting our state on the radar.

My issues with the event are of my own prejudice-a natural part of the aging process that grows tired of large crowds and drunken shenanigans. But the moment you have confined yourself from opportunities simply because you're unable to control the actions of others is a sign that you’re moving away from the very appeal of music: the ability to enjoy the human experience through song.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m in the middle of a heat wave, I’m going to find shade (and if there are no shades like there wasn’t during Fucked Up and Dinosaur Jr.’s 100+ degree performances during last year’s 80/35Festival, then I’ll lather on sunscreen and drink water like it’s going out of style). If there’s drunken revelers, then I’ll stand clear of the mouthbreathers and find a calmer area.

And if I can’t find a cheap ticket, I’ll ask my mom if she can grab her purse and help contribute to one our state’s best outlets for good music.

No comments: