Features | Festivals

The Intonation Music Festival, Pt. 1

By Edgar White | 20 July 2005

Everyone has a price. Reunited over alcohol, Dom and I stare blankly at each other before he slaps my back and asserts that we’re “retying the shoelaces of our friendship.” I snort and plant my palm squat on the bar. I know that I have a price: $30: $22 for Intonation tickets + $6 for three PBRs + $2 for a measly tip.

After the incident in June with Spoon, I refused to talk to Dom for a month. Then he sends me an envelope filled with a 2-Day pass to Intonation and a post-it note with a frowny face on it.

Dom asks me to write another concertlogue, talking about the Intonation Festival as Chicago’s own and carping about Pitchfork being indirectly in competition with CMG, and he doesn’t want to cause grudges and how people seemed to like my Spoon thing and how he’s sorry and he’s paid Julie back. I relent, glad he hasn’t brought up the iPod.

The following is not about Dom being a royal cock or ruining anyone’s good times. It’s about Pitchfork’s big deal, the disappointment of hype, and dealing with the obvious. Despite effeminate aloofness, we all felt part of something rebellious and groundbreaking, ushering a fantastically new and throbbing indie locus. So, this is kinda about dance pop and white people in the sun.

Even so, since every moment with Dom is trying on the very fabric of space and time, the following only makes sense chronologically.

12:25 PM
Chugging south on the Red Line, Dom looks at his friend Jen and discusses feces in general, a turd on his bathroom rug after their Halloween party in particular. His roommate, Boom, tells Dom that Jen already knows about the poop on the floor that one time, and to knock it off. Jen tugs at her ponytail. I glare at Dom, thinking as I’ve always thought that he was the one who crapped on his own floor, especially since he wore a purple ball gown that night and declined to wear anything else. I decide to watch a group of four girls at the other end of the car.

One of them has long strawberry hair fanned out and down from a handkerchief wrapped around the crown of her head. She wears a thin skirt and smiles a lot and seems to be glowing more loudly than her friends.

12:56 PM
The five of us (there’s this dude, Paul, with us too) stand in line along Ashland, outside the gates of Union Park. It’s fucking hot. The community pool next door actually sounds cold and already we realize that bringing water would have been a good idea. Dom laments this out loud, but I watch what I assume is Head of Femur gathering at the front of the stage perpendicular to our line. This, we learn soon enough, is the Holiday Stage. We move a few feet forward.

At exactly 1, the band sets the theme for the rest of the festival. “Jangly and fey,” Dom whispers, elbowing me in the kidney. “Well, what did you expect?” I say back, trying to peer through the fence and enjoy the right speakers’ residue. I give up, tired of the heat buffering the music, and continue sweating. Dom asks me why I didn’t wear shorts.

1:35 PM
We get in. Things are running smoothly. In fact, as soon as Head of Femur finishes clanging apart their umpteenth instrument, Pelican jumps into it on the Decimal Stage, directly across the park from the gate. Jen has a purse that’s searched half-heartedly while we get beer bracelets. Dom grabs a program—sensibly designed, I might add, with a cartoon graph paper mess of Jay Ryan art—and says, “I wish I prepared better.” Boom states the obvious, “I wish I brought a backpack.” So many pockets left unsearched.

We gather, stand around dazed trying to take it all in, and Boom sighs. Dom darts for Pelican, so I follow, even though both of us have never heard a Pelican record.

Dom’s other roommate, Karl, on festivals: “Usually, for the amount of money you’re going to pay at a festival, including the tickets, you’re going to have a feeling of obligation. You need to see everyone, even though that’s impossible, and you’re bound to get a sense of guilt trying to decide between a new hyped group and a dingleberry personal favorite. There’s more stress in a festival than you want to admit. Especially for assholes like Dom who believe in some grand, cosmic bandwagon.”

1:59 PM, Saturday, July 16th
Pelican is crashing and full of hair, but their chapters in each longwinded song are acrobatic enough to excite the meager audience before everyone realizes how slow the day will be in the heat. Their barreling prog loses a handful of clout as it winces into the middle of Union Park, into the oasis of dirt flanked by a baseball diamond, and half the crowd wanders off to watch the M’s set up on Holiday or to find a place in the shade.

Dom decides he doesn’t give a shit about the M’s, so the group splinters. Boom and I decide to check out food. We’re as far from Holiday as possible, strolling along the food trailers and tents (or, in the case of Xbox, the spaceship from Flight of the Navigator). The “Biz3” DJ Tent is working something; Holiday is squeaking something; the Green Line is loudest.

2:12 PM
I give up on trying to pick up girls. They all seem to be paired with lanky, confident counterparts. Monogamy is cool.

We get big plastic cups of strawberry lemonade from Izze and some meat from Robinson’s. We’re told refills on the lemonade are “only $1.50” if we still have the cups. Lines are short, workers are smiling and cordial. The world is in sync, and I’m not drunk yet. Dom emerges from the Goose Island beer tent with a golden cup and a polish sausage. “You’re a vegetarian,” Boom tells him.

2:50 PM
AC Newman fucks up, and the charm of playing a step outta tune will follow him for the rest of his life. He calls it “the jazz version” of “On the Table,” and the crowd unanimously agrees to suck his balls. But anyway, the set is marvelous, and Nora O’Connor stays the whole time, singing backup and being pregnant. Andrew Bird, Chicago’s own playboy nebbish, joins Nora at the microphone for “Drink to Me, Babe, Then.” Her voice sounds unprepared but effortless; he whistles, his cheeks bloat grossly, and pixies spit sunshine out of his teeth. “I love him,” Boom smiles. I tell him that Nora will be back for Andrew Bird’s set tomorrow. Dom explains Bird’s back catalogue, band members, etc. I watch Boom’s eyes move to the left side of the stage. “I imagined Ryan Schreiber being fat,” he says.

Newman’s moments with “Battle for Straight Time” are scissored. He pounds at the chorus and the crowd jars into the stage, growing and volleying the glee over toward Magnolia Electric Co. “Secretarial” gains a tribal bloodline. I imagine Jason Molina being all, “We have slow music.”

4:00 PM
“I wish we brought a blanket.”

Most of Magnolia Electric Co.’s set is spent in the cove of trees between the port-o-potties and the food avenue. Jen and Paul over at the stage, the remaining three of us sit on trampled grass and forget about listening to the distant band. We stare at everyone and squint when it becomes clear that everyone is staring back at one point or another. The lines stretch into tails that clash with the tails of bathroom lines. We sit somewhere in the mesh and suck on ice. Dom drinks more beer. “312,” he licks his lips.

I’m in the DJ Tent, Laurent from Pelican is wearing square-frames and bopping over some tall turntables. Everyone is standing around, drinking, swaying a bit. I sit against the flap of the tent and watch a really cute Pitchfork photographer dolly around the stage. The '70s psych rock becomes indistinguishable, so I leave.

Adam calls me. We meet at the Record Fair entrance. He’s swarmed by a throng of friends from Dayton.

Karl on WLUW’s Record Fair: “Too crowded. Too narrow. A fair is about the browsing the indiscriminate crates filled with God knows what. I don’t like having to stand and wait, all the time sidestepping anyone and everyone that’re trying to move past. A festival like this isn’t about patience, that’s what Lollapalooza’s for.”

“Festival’s are about patience,” Adam tells me, brandishing a Frisbee. We claim the tiny baseball diamond, which is difficult because the crowd is huge. Two shirtless thirty-somethings join. Whenever the disc strays toward someone wearing eye shadow, they are unable to throw it back. Adam almost decapitates a big girl sleeping against a tree. Four Tet stands and occasionally jitters on the Decimal stage. “I saw him open for Super Furry Animals,” Dom says, even though Adam was there too, and he stops to sip his beer. All we can hear is a vicious haze of drowning synth, but my throws feel empowered.

5:30 PM
Broken Social Scene look huge, move like fissured chalk, and have black, greasy hair. The Do Make Say Think horn collective screams over “Capture the Flag” into “KC Accidental,” allowing Amy Milan (from Montreal’s Stars) to step up and quench the audience’s need for an epic set. Syncopated guitars transform “Almost Crimes” and “Stars and Sons” into thundering portent until “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” simply warbles and kicks complete ass, bouncing ever so good between Emily and Kevin Drew. We even get to hear some new material, which sounds like You Forgot It In People, only pluckier. BSS become the first band to truly fill out the unassuming immensity of the park. For the first time, Dom isn’t nursing a 312.

We hear about Dave Newfeld’s violent run-in with NYC cops, and the hipsters sense the call for radical cheering. It’s an exciting salvo, but I get the creeping suspicion that mosta the kids here just identify with the pot part. Jen and Paul leave quickly, and for a moment, I crave the comfort of a seat on the air-conditioned el.

6:40 PM
Miraculously, all the bands are starting right on time. Getting a good spot for a good band means missing a whole other set, even as the later bands are granted hour long timeslots. Dom picks Will Oldham and Jean Grae’s first set over the Go! Team, and I’m deadly curious, so Boom walks with us over to the snuggled intimacy of the DJ Tent. Once again, no one’s moving, and Jean and Will don’t seem to give a shit.

Karl on DJ Tents: “Sitting and listening to a DJ’s mix is dumb and boring. Seeing it live is the same, unless people are dancing, or trying to dance, or running into each other. Then you can feel the meticulous splicing, ya know, become a part of something spontaneous and fluid. Red and blue lights aren’t straightaway problem solvers for generating that kind of understanding between an audience and a DJ.”

So Dom says, scratching his beard, “This is what I was waiting for? Will looks dumb in that hat.” An anarchic slime of noise, folk, R&B (I almost leave when that bastard throws on R. Kelly. Smug!), rap, and countrified pop. The mixing is boring. Clumsy. I think Jean and Will were going to make out the way they whisper and cavort behind the tables they rarely touch. I wonder how much they’re getting paid. “They should have performed,” Boom declares. After eight minutes abreast of the duo, we leave and stand in line at Goose Island.

6:51 PM
The Go! Team is all candy canes and balloons, and I get sick of them too soon. We hop up and down and eat up the groove that Ninja slops on us. But the swath of electronic beats and blips and the incessant call-and-response reassuring all that, yes, this is the Go! Team, gets blurred. Anticipation gobbles the happy so much that when a line of dancing sprouts from the pool next door are invited on stage, Boom yells, “We know you’re the Go! Team already!” and keeps dancing off beat with half the crowd. Adam’s crew has a blanket. We finish our beers under a glorious tree and lay with our ears to the ground.

8:00 PM
Karl shows up after work, with his car, and meets us through the gate. We sprint to the edge of the mass at the Holiday Stage and push our limbs into the middle. Karl is bursting with energy, and we’re tired, so it’s not hard to feed off him and welcome Death From Above 1979. One dude, Sebastian, gleams like a soccer hooligan. He sits at the drum set and conjures up heroin nightmares. The other dude beats the hirsute fervor out of his axe. Every song sounds the same, the festival’s white noise charging against the wall of speakers, but it grows dark and people grow lusty. I grab Dom’s arm, he motions to Karl and Boom, and we fight against the crowd’s sex to get ready for Tortoise. Adam stays because he wants to kick someone in the head. I volunteer Dom. Boom says, “Kick Dom in the face.”

9:00 PM
Tortoise is the only band to use the back screen of the Decimal Stage. Sometimes there’s fish, sometimes blue lava. The audience—too young, maybe, for Chicago legends, feeling, like I do, that the band’s golden years happened during our infancy—is genuinely startled by the opening of “Seneca.” But the set is seductive, gooey, and undeniably bone solid. John McEntire’s biceps flash mythology on the left drum kit, John Herndon grafting sinew on the right.

Karl on Tortoise and headliners: “Something inimitable and wholly right was going on there. They were doing some free jazz, bossa nova shit, mixing it up and moving together, and it all sounded so damn good. I’ve never been aware of their music before, but they took care of that. And then when they thrashed through some mess at the end, after the cops came about curfew, that was sweet. All this talk about revolution and the ‘into-nation’ doesn’t make sense with any other band but Tortoise. They both claimed the night and made sheep of every other band before them.”

10:12 PM
We get outside of the gates in a time befitting the efficiency of the first day. We say goodbye to Adam and such, and walk away from Ashland towards Karl’s car. A group of big guys on the corner yell to Dom, “You’re in deep, eh?” Dom looks puzzled. “Good show, eh?” Dom understands and gives them the thumbs up.

Dom gets in shotgun, after calling it of course. “They asked if you’re too deep,” I tell him, lunging from the back seat. He doesn’t seem to get it, so I drop it.

Tune in next week for Part 2, where Dom buys a tee-shirt, we introduce the most annoying festival host in history, Nora O’Connor doesn’t show, the Decemberists cop spirit from Les Savy Fav, and meaningless drama wraps itself up.