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More Pygmalion recap!

| September 30, 2010 | 0 Comments

Friday the 24th and Saturday the 25th were the last two days of the 6th Annual Pygmalion Festival in Champaign-Urbana. They were also – entirely unsurprisingly – fully loaded, with music running night and day over nine venues. As with festivals past, Pygmalion mixed up-and-coming and/or popular national niche draws with local and regional bands. So local bands like Duke Of Uke, Elsinore, and The Delta Kings* returned to Pygmalion 6 from last year’s 5. Both Elsinore and The Delta Kings are touring behind a new record (Yes, Yes, Yes and Four Chords And The Truth, respectively); Elsinore had the unhappy slot scheduled against Cut Chemist across town, but The Delta Kings turned in a headlining set of solid, straight-up, rock ‘n’ roll. Mostly new material, it was more authoritative, varied and lyrically stronger than their set even a year earlier. They followed Nashville’s The Kopecky Family Band, who have the good taste to branch off the Gram Parsons/Byrds country-rock tree instead of the current Nashville Big Production Pop-with-fiddle country weed patch. The Kopecky Family also have the songwriting instincts to find a melody and stick to it. But they were hampered by drowned-out vocals and a looseness that spoke of immaturity. Still, they are a band to keep an eye on.

Not so Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. They came out ready to rock like a hurricane and they certainly do hearty, party rock well. Leo’s vocals are strong, the band is rhythmically solid, and loud enough to let you know you’re supposed to be having a great time (are you ready to par-tay?). We’ve all been there, done that. It’s a well-worn road. The band try to make it sound interesting, but the material isn’t there. The songs are only melodic enough not to be unmelodic, strikingly similar in tempo and style. Ted Leo is that local house party band who makes you happy to be alive and hangin’ out on a Saturday night, but isn’t compelling enough to seek out on Sunday.

They could be Unwed Sailor. Imagine Secret Machines stripped of vocals, melody, and sophistication, saddled with a bassist who thought he was the lead and a lead guitarist who never met a guitar cliché he didn’t like (put the guitar – no, wait, make that axe – next to the speakers to get feedback? In 2010? Really?) Now turn it all up to 11. That was Unwed Sailor: pointless to almost cosmic proportions.

The buzz draw was Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, although Owen and Cut Chemist were the artists the cool kids talked about. How one felt about the Erickson show depends entirely on your tolerance for watching damaged goods try not to be damaged. Erickson is the walking wounded. He looks like a homeless Santa, his voice is raspy, his guitar chops are all but gone. He called off the same song, “Forever,” twice: once electric, once acoustic. But it’s a hell of a song. So is “Don’t Slander Me,” “Red Temple Prayer,” and even the ridiculous – and ridiculously charming – “I Walked With A Zombie.” And Erickson knew every line and every chord. He hit every note. It helped that he had Okkervil River behind him. One of those incredible bands that Austin seems to sprout on every street corner, they filled the same function that The Wondermints filled with Brian Wilson early in his comeback: they supported a legend with tact and love. They brought energy, musicianship equal to the task (particularly Lauren Gurgiolo on lead guitar), and pushed where Erickson needed, backed off when he didn’t. They treated him with respect, not kid gloves. It wasn’t a transcendent show, but it also wasn’t the train wreck it could have been. It was a better-than-good start.

Owen (a.k.a. Mike Kinsella) played solo with acoustic guitar in one of the galleries of the Krannert Art Museum. The show was both formal and casually intimate, with rich, round acoustics that were occasionally overshadowed by PA glitches from the carted-in technology. Owen was surrounded by modern art and fans eager to like him. As Owen, Kinsella works in the introspective-yet-ironic singer/songwriter vein — Ben Folds without the piano. His songs are short vignettes and, at their best, they resemble Raymond Carver stories. At their weakest, they assume we care as deeply about Kinsella as Kinsella cares about Kinsella.

And then there was Cut Chemist. The headliner of the electronic night, he was also one of the highlights of the festival. Four turntables and a microphone that became a revelation, Cut Chemist treats mixing and cutting like the art form it could be. Recorded material becomes like so many bolts of cloth, there for Chemist to slice from and then put back together into something new and entirely different – pants, a suit, overalls, lingerie. The imagination of Cut Chemist is boundless. Videos, music, dance – it’s all one giant sandbox and Cut Chemist is playing with it all gleefully. He’s having a great time. So are we. Unlike most DJs, Chemist gets out from behind the Macbook (that position was taken by a fellow DJ) and plays the turntables, scratching solos, interweaving new and recorded. Chemist rarely repeats one phrase too much, doesn’t fall back on a familiar beat too often, doesn’t bludgeon the audience with volume. What he’s creating can be heard, and it should be because there is nothing lazy or expected about his work. It’s complicated, complex – and fun as hell. Art you can – no, make that must – dance to.

— M.S. Dodds

[*Full disclosure: my husband’s band.]

Category: Featured, Live Reviews, Weekly

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