It turns out that there is such a thing as a comfortable music festival experience. After an exhausting, disorienting and soaked (but successful) festival season, last weekend’s Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusement at Chicago’s temporary Riverfront Theater proved that a music fest can be as rocking as it is sanitary. All it takes are some pop legends, a few $7 PBR tallboys and a circus tent.
The second year of the showcase festival received minimal buzz, which is surprising for an event that went the extra mile to bring surprising and timeless performers. Anchoring each night of the weekend respectively were John Cale, Conor Oberst and Bobby Womack, three recognized monsters of their genres and generations. Add behind-the-scenes composing genius Van Dyke Parks and rising progressive artists Zola Jesus and Helado Negro, and you have a stellar, if short, weekend lineup.
Not dissimilar to the “An Evening With…” format, the shows had a certain professionalism and reverence aspect, including top-notch sound and lighting. Performers enjoyed lengthy sets, and each were willing to bring out their deep cuts to the audience’s delight. In the highly controlled environment, performers were able to focus solely on their craft, which isn’t always the case at the larger, outdoor festivals that tend to be more about the experience and less about the music. It’s apparent founder and organizer Mike Reed (who also organizes and books Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival) set this endeavor apart from its dirty and informal peers. Expanding the performers to include circus artists and national comedians (notably Jon Benjamin of Home Movies), Reed built an event that effectively celebrates art without letting things get out of hand (see: Perry’s Stage at Lollapalooza).
Along with the positives, there were a few concessions that attendees needed to make, mostly due to the lack of performers. Although quality varies greatly, the high-profile festivals allow for maximum live music enjoyment based on quantity alone. This time around, bookers clearly went for quality, but we’re stuck with these six acts, for better or worse (but, really better). Also because of the structure of the event, openers didn’t receive the interest or attention they deserved, as the crowd stumbled in for the headliner. Lastly, in interest of getting the word out about the fest, the music press took a significant chunk of the up front crowd, myself included. The combination of the typical rampdevice usage and an army of professional photographers made keeping an eye on the performers a challenge.
Brilliant Corners is a festival for adults and serious live music fans. There’s no mud, no technical difficulties and most importantly, no dubstep. It’s a celebration of professional artists and their work. And that’s a reason to celebrate.
Read on for reviews of the performances.
John Cale & Zola Jesus
Despite never being a big Velvet Underground fan (I know!), I was excited to see John Cale, and he didn’t disappoint. I really had no idea what to expect, I’d heard just as much about his cello experiments as I have about his work on Patti Smith’s Horses. What we got was an excellent four-piece rock and roll set. The 70 year-old spent the majority of his time in his lengthy solo catalogue, playing classics like “Helen of Troy” and “Ship of Fools” next to cuts from his newest Shifty Adventures in Nookie World, out next week on Double Six Records. For doing as many drugs as he did for the better part of three decades, dude is in fantastic shape. Let that be a lesson for all you aspiring rockers.
I’ve seen Zola Jesus perform twice this year, previously at Sacred Bones’ SXSW Showcase at Elysium, where The Men proceeded to blow my mind. She didn’t do too much for me then, and still didn’t this time around. Indie-goth is an interesting concept, but she’s nowhere near as original as she wants you to think.
Conor Oberst & Van Dyke Parks
Full disclosure: Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is a personal landmark album, and because of that, I will always hold Oberst and his work awfully close to my heart. Like many other Oberst fans, I too have been scorned by an unsatisfactory Bright Eyes live performance including drunken antics, botched songs and crying drummers. Not a trace of the tormented drugged-out young adult was found Saturday night; we were instead graced with a professional and peaceful Oberst. Save some excellent additions of a marimba, pedal steel guitar, grand piano and First Aid Kit’s Klara Söderberg’s luscious voice, most of Oberst’s set was performed solo and pulled tracks from across his career, with plenty to please old school Bright Eyes fans as well as the fans of his later solo work. Best of all, he opened and ended his set with the top tracks from his 2002 breakout Lifted, or yadda yadda yadda: “The Big Picture”, “Laura Laurent” and “Make War”. I finally feel that I got the Oberst show that I always wanted, if not better. And I actually may give Monsters of Folk a shot.
Contrary the communal feeling of Oberst’s headline set, opener Van Dyke Parks failed to grab the attention of the entering young crowd. Known for his knack of blending Americana, classical, pop and psychedelic motifs, Parks and band’s performance was equally as mystifying as his recorded output, only to fall on disinterested ears. It was disheartening to see the legend who helped craft The Beach Boys’ famed and “lost” SMiLE pander and apologize to an ungrateful audience. If you were able to get close enough to enjoy the music without the talkers, you would agree that Parks is a performer that shouldn’t be brushed aside.
Bobby Womack & Helado Negro
Here’s another classic artist with an impressive resume who manages to keep himself somewhat relevant. Womack’s newest record The Bravest Man in the Universe is produced by Damon Albarn, and put out on the hugely successful XL Recordings, home to other FP faves such as: Adele, The xx, Titus Andronicus, Beck, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Tyler, the Creator, Vampire Weekend and Beck. Live, Womack is a treat, for lack of a better word. The 67 year-old cancer survivor had moves like a much younger man, full of life and swag (ugh). I don’t know his catalogue too well, but judging by the crowd reactions, he kept bringing out the big guns. It shows that there’s no substitute for 50 years of experience in the music industry.
I missed Helado Negro’s opening set, so here’s a video of him live. Thoughts?
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His ears need a rest.