The second annual Intonation Music Festival in Union Square was a successful mashup of old and new, rockism and hip-hop. While not as well-attended as a roster of this caliber might deliver individually, the anything-goes format catered to the strengths (and weaknesses) of each act in the lineup.
Curated by the Vice magazine/record label and featuring a good chunk of their artists, the non-roster invitees outshined the label substantially, making its clients seem tepid, or at best darkhorse candidates for mainstream success.
Chicago MC Rhymefest, whose debut album doesn’t arrive until July 11th, was the star of the weekend, such was the power of his Sunday afternoon slot. Though his voice has taken a beating from a spate of recent shows (with fellow Intonation guest and Chi-town rapper Lupe Fiasco), the passion in his delivery was undeniable. Freestyling a cappella and at will, the social consciousness in his rhymes eluded the preaching of the backpack set and underlined the frustrations of watching youths eaten by penitentiaries or the military. He emphasized his unpretentious M.O. by jumping down from the stage and doing a trustfall into the front row — the debut is called Blue Collar — hoarsely burning through “Bullet” and “More.”
He joked midway through that his Kanye West connection would not result in an artist cameo this afternoon, carefully dogging himself and doing some between-the-lines boasting. But it was his closing remarks — apocalypse prose that surged heavenward — that left the impression, planting seeds in an audience ill at ease with accepting some jive-ass hustler.
It’s doubtful it was on Rhymefest’s mind, but hip-hop needed to save some face a day after Ghostface’s embarrassing performance. The Wu-Tang rapper has won raves for his unconfined LPs and for being the most consistent of the collective’s scattered forwards, but after sloughing his way through some unsustainable medleys, Ghostface devolved into spring-break bullshit. Before a compelling chunk of “Biscuits,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck Wit,” and “Run” could turn cold, he invited female ticketholders to join him onstage. From there, he demanded they “shake ass” during a salute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “I Want Pussy” and for the remainder of his set, reminding them if the festival were indoors he’d make them show their “titties.” Hardly the message you’d expect after Northwest feminists Erase Errata played earlier.
Another awkward moment came during producer Jon Brion’s set, a rare occasion when he has performed outside of his ballyhooed, late-night sprees in Los Angeles night clubs. Brion, due to the infrequency of such a gig, was championed as a main draw for Intonation, but drew the ire of half the audience and scheduled performer Robert Pollard, by cutting nearly 20 minutes into Pollard’s set and sending the entire festival off its axis. Brion, who chided the crew soundchecking Pollard’s drum setup during his stage time, started as an unknown and quickly won the crowd. He began alone onstage, drumming a pattern he would lock into a recorded loop, before switching to piano and guitar, repeating the feat. Before long, he was backed by a full band of himself playing Beatles (“Baby You’re A Rich Man”) and Billie Holiday (“I’m Just Fooling Myself”) covers in his Presley’s-upper-register tenor. It could have been the highlight of Intonation — Brion was aided by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche — if he didn’t seem so smug while stretching past his posted limit.
The expanded performance also didn’t sit well with Pollard, who referenced it a handful of times between his own songs, though it was ironic: There was no better victim for such shenanigans, since Pollard has made a career of indulging his every whim. (An aside for Brion: If you can find the time, record with Sondre Lerche.) Fully gray yet still limber enough for flying kicks and sneaking pulls off a Cuervo fifth during “Gold,” he gave his loyal followers a gracious patch of Guided By Voices cuts (“Game Of Pricks” and “Girls Of Wild Strawberries” among them) in between obligatory nods to his first proper solo album, *From A Compound Eye.
While Bob Pollard marches into his 50s, he was hardly the oldest fogy at Union Park. Blue Cheer, “reunited” as the original volumed-out power trio, managed a workable Sunday set climaxing, predictably, with “Summertime Blues.” But any attempts to rewrite rock history with a more prominent place for them are shortsighted, because “Second Time Around” and “Parchment Farm” belong more on the Foghat, county-fair circuit than cutting edge festivals.
Anyone looking for clues into the mysteries of psychedelic rock were probably disappointed by Roky Erickson’s set, who nonetheless delivered a prismatic 40 minutes. The legendary 13th Floor Elevators frontman, who hadn’t played outside Texas in 20 years and has suffered severe psychological illnesses, was not the shamanistic, lysergic soul belter of yesteryear by any stretch. His singing voice came off as a raspy Neil Young most of the time, managing a scraping bark for the explosive stretches of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Yet despite that minor disappointment, the reinvention of himself and his band (Explosion) as Texas blues rock worked admirably. “Red Temple Prayer,” “I Think Up Demons,” “Bermuda,” “Starry Eyes,” and “Don’t Shake Me Lucifer” reacted well to the new readings, and Erickson’s astonishment at his warm reception put a priceless grin on his pus.
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