With Pygmalion Festival’s conclusion already a few days in the past, we have set aside some space to celebrate the music part of the ever-expanding festival. Below are our thoughts on the performances we most enjoyed from this year’s lineup.
The first night of Pygmalion featured a notable local CU band, Feral States. They played between the glass walls of the Krannert Art Museum, which was both a rattling and powerful way to kick off the fest. Unlike Single Player, Feral States’ songs are roughly 10 minutes long and full of drastic tempo changes, plunging rhythms, elegant chord progressions, and heavy injections. It’s hard to give them a specific genre when their songs ranged from experimental metal to modern classical orchestra, but whatever it is it works really, really well. There was not a moment when I wasn’t completely amazed by their performance. Justin Peters was a monster on the drums, smashing out every complex rhythm in the book, Joseph Meland played the piano like an established composer, Daniel Hinze slayed the tenor saxophone with slicing crescendos, and that was only half the band. There were still another 3 members on top of that, annihilating the bass, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar in such a manner that I am 100% positive no band could ever replicate their music. Each musician in Feral States is a master crafter of their designated instruments, and together they possess the rare quality of being able to layer their countless complex parts on top of each other without sounding like a hazmat explosion. I mean, one bad fumble and their songs would crumble, but naturally that didn’t happen. At the end of the show I was left speechless and proud that CU is home to such talented musicians. And the vibrating applause of the crowd made it clear that they felt the same way.
Veteran solo artist Patrick Watson opened for Tune-Yards in the coveted Friday evening slot at Krannert’s Tryon Festival Theater. Between lighting tricks, smoke effects, and his band’s rounded orchestration, Watson’s set seemed tailor-made for its Krannert location, resulting in a beautiful and moving show. In all honesty, I sort of fell of the Watson wagon after 2009’s Wooden Arms (which is a fantastic album, in retrospect, but was jarringly different from what I expected from him at that time). Lack of familiarity, however, did not impact the overall effect of the concert. Watson and his backing performers wove songs together with musical outbursts and dynamic waves, crafting a greater experience than a band playing through a list of distinctly separate songs. At times, the show was casual to the point of breaking the fourth wall, with Watson and two others even jumping off the stage and performing part of a song without the aid of artificial amplifiers. At other times, see-through globes containing bare lightbulbs filled with smoke, creating an ethereal vibes. The performance, indirectly, emphasized the importance of being “in the moment,” and the set flew by.
Single Player is an indie-rock band from the CU area whose unique take on songwriting had Red Herring blasting in a different kind of way. It has nothing to do with the lyrics, rather the incredibly short length of their songs. Single Player’s setlist had twice as many songs as any other bands simply because each track was roughly one minute long. It was like putting music to the lyrics of a short poem, and it was awesome. The crowd responded to the first song with a circle pit and rumpus roars for every song that followed. Single Player’s music thrives on power chords, a rolling bass, a thrashing drummer, and simplistic lyrics that gave everyone a reason to be progressively rocking their head. Pygmalion does a great job of finding a whirlwind of different artists and Single Player is definitely a notable addition. I’ve never seen a band approach songwriting the way Single Player does, and I think it’s safe to say the CU community is very excited for their future.
Like Patrick Watson, Merrill Garbus’ Tune-Yards greatly benefited from the fantastic setting for their show, as they closed out at the Tryon Festival Theater. As usual, the band succeeded in layering percussion, bass, and vocals to create spunky and energetic songs, but their theater location further enhanced the impact of the performance. Garbus mentioned well into the set that the band’s lengthy tour would soon be coming to a close, but the band did not appear to lack enthusiasm in the way that tour-exhausted groups often do. They inspired dancing, sing-alongs, and general goodwill throughout the entire performance, proving that a Tune-Yards live show can be seen as the perfect supplement to their bright albums. Though Garbus and Nate Brenner have churned out recognizable melodies since the group’s beginning, Tune-Yards has noticeably grown in popularity since the release of Nikki Nack in 2014. Rather than growing snobby, though, the band’s recent performance showed that they are still as friendly as ever, and thrilled to share their music with all listeners, from eager fans to unsuspecting stragglers. “Water Fountain,” the penultimate song of the show and the one of the group’s biggest hits, was delivered with inviting gestures and widespread smiles, evoking goosebumps and a happiness that lingered through the rest of the weekend.
Beach slang was unfortunately awarded the 12:45am Friday slot, but was honored with the most dedicated crowd of the festival. The band took note of this, too, and gave the crowd some lovely shout-outs and a pronounced set. Beach Slang easily made the Red Herring stage their home and the atmosphere was incredibly relaxed. The lead singer cracked jokes often and found no discomfort in re-starting songs when they fumbled. It had all the bond and lure of a local garage band gig with the magnetism of a killer festival production. Beach Slang’s music offers up deeply emotional and honest lyrics with a mix of ups and downs, musically. They put everything on the line and every person in that room respected it. The fact that Beach Slang’s label, Polyvinyl, is located in Urbana gave the crowd even more of a reason to be appreciative. The show felt like a perfect welcoming celebration from the Urbana community to the Philadelphia punk rock band.
On Saturday afternoon, Sarah Jaffe brought dense energy to the Highdive outdoor area, delivering a combination of a devil-may-care punky attitude and refined vocals. Though she performed for a moderate crowd, Jaffe never relinquished her comfortable command of the stage, and put on a show that could not be overlooked. I’ve grown to despise the tendency in much music journalism to compare female artists solely with other female artists, but while watching and listening to Jaffe’s set, I could not help but think of her as some kind of fusion between EMA and Robyn. She offered mellow, yet smooth danceable beats, while still maintaining a rebellious, visually grungey vibe. She also succeeded in balancing synth ballads with heavier rock, creating a digestible flow.
Purity Ring took the stage at 8:20pm Saturday and delivered a flawlessly polished set. From the vibrant light show to perfect vocal work, everything was truly on point. It may not have been the most exciting show of the weekend, but Purity Ring definitely delivered a high-quality performance. What stood out the most were their stage decorations. The light pink lights and massive moon dangling behind the instrumentalist perfectly replicated the album artwork on their latest release, Another Eternity, but what made it one of the most aesthetically beautiful stages at Pygmalion was the addition of one-hundred twenty-eight strands of lights that hung like curtains over the stage. For such an overcast night, this scene mixed with vocalist Megan James’ enlivening voice and made it a haunting experience at times. It took hit songs like “Begin Again” and “Push/Pull” to snap the audience back to life to bounce around with the tempo of the synthetic bass beats. Even the people patiently waiting for Run The Jewels to start found themselves transfixed in the electric blasts of Purity Ring. Piercing bass soon filled the air and the last few songs of the night were nothing short of intensified grooves and high-energy music fusion. Purity Ring ended in style and riled up crowd just in time for the epic show and shot gun blast of the next performer – Run The Jewels.
Prior to their Sunday afternoon set, I had no familiarity with Diane Coffee. I have since learned that the lead singer used to be a voice actor for Kim Possible, so he is automatically worthy of a lifetime achievement award, in my opinion. The California producer and his band rocked the Highdive with a sound that harkened back to San Francisco psychedelia, with a touch of funk and just a sprinkle of rockabilly. In contrast with the music, rain started falling midway through their set. While the untimely weather change sent some people searching for cover, the charismatic appeal and groovy tunes of Diane Coffee kept a sizeable portion of their audience tethered to the stage to the end, even as the rain picked up speed. Wet hair and foggy glasses were a worthwhile sacrifice to make in order to hear the rest of what this band had to offer, and they set the bar high for the rest of the day.
The Besnard Lakes
Eight or nine years ago, I wrote down this band’s name with the intention of looking further into their discography. Alas, that research never took place, and Besnard Lakes’ Sunday performance made me instantly regret my past oversight. Unfortunately, they battled the same elements as Diane Coffee, though to a lesser degree. The band introduced their second song, saying they hoped it would drive the rain away. By the end of the tune, naturally, the rain had picked up speed. Nonetheless, the band continued gaining momentum through the show, building up their slow-burning tunes and sending sonic waves over the Highdive annex. Playing as early as they did, Besnard Lakes did not face a crowd that might, in size, reflect their accomplishments and age, but those who stuck around seemed generally pleased with the performance. And speaking as someone with very little knowledge of their individual songs, I was definitely awed by their musical precision, cohesion as an ensemble, and confident stage presence. They are a band worth looking into, and I’m determined not to let another near-decade elapse before I dive into their albums.
A quick note on C.L.A.W.– The Champaign Ladies Amateur Wrestling group put on a hilarious performance Sunday at Mike ‘N Molly’s, backed by the band Bookmobile! Like Lucha Libre, much of the enjoyment at the event was derived from the obvious staging of the fights, and the personalities that seeped from each wrestler. I cannot emphasize enough how entertaining it is to see these matches live, so keep an eye out for C.L.A.W. in the future.
Sylvan Esso may have been the only headliner of the weekend that was dying for another reason to return to Urbana-Champaign. Normally the endless cornfields and middle-of-nowhere qualities of the CU location steer big name bands away, but not Sylvan Esso. Midway through the set, producer Nick Sanborn explained to the crowd that playing Pygmalion was always a dream of theirs and continued to thank specific people who made their performance happen. Every single song they played exemplified the sheer happiness they had for living out their dream. Sanborn kept up a continuous body bounce and eye contact with the crowd, while simultaneously composing every song with one hand. It was impressive and admiring to see how personal he could make an electric-based show. Vocalist Amelia Meath also had no issues connecting with the crowd. She joked about her wardrobe malfunctions and made the audience take notice of the beautiful lunar eclipse slowly forming behind them. Loving Meath for her personality was easy, but that in addition to her flawless and powerful vocals left everyone in complete awe. The band originated in North Carolina, but Meath’s unique vocals show no sign of that. In fact, nothing about Sylvan Esso’s indie pop productions sounds like something out of North Carolina. Regardless of their origin, everyone in the crowd was ecstatic they found their way to Pygmalion. The crowd screamed along to the hit songs “Coffee” and “Hey Mami,” and made no energy-decline when the duo decided to play two new songs. There was mutual love going on between the crowd and Sylvan Esso. Anyone who did not make it to the show truly missed out on a blissful and memorable experience.