Features | Festivals

The Intonation Music Festival, Pt. 2

By Edgar White | 21 July 2005

Dom believes in redemption, he’s told me so.

He uses this anecdote often, a story of inspiration kept predictably vague. It goes, verbatim: “I met this girl, she was sixteen. Still is, I’d imagine. Wasn’t anything sexual, I just lead a book discussion she attended at the library. Weird girl, more asexual than anything, but frighteningly brilliant. I dunno why, maybe I was the umpteenth person she told this to, but she said to me, supposedly in confidence, that she wanted to commit suicide. She shaved her head, I figured in some kind of penitent Hebrew ritual or something, because she talked to me quite a bit about Orthodox Judaism. And books, she reviewed books for a blog she directed me to. So, I gave her the address to CMG and told her what I did. She wasn’t impressed and said she doesn’t listen to music. I assumed religious reasons. So, I say, ‘Music is the only thing that helps me connect to something bigger than myself.’ And she smiles, and she’s alive the next time I see her.”

I believe in retribution. Getting what you deserve. It’s not very idealistic; it’s also not cynical because it supposes some sort of balance. But that harmony’s just miserably subjective anyway, soured by a lack of a definable base. Like, who actually deserves what? Thinking in terms of money, I can’t even grimace my way out of a plastic cup.

The first day of Intonation was a success: an incomparably cheap outdoor festival set in crappy heat that went off splendidly, on time, boisterous, and optimistic despite a crowd normally swarthy with dolor. The most well-fed egos of our charming indie world came unremarkably together to just be cool.

Dom’s sister met this dude in Michigan who went, “And the first day we were pissed because we thought there would be water tents solely for selling water and we yelled at some of the park people for not having water tents and the next day they had water tents so that was impressive.”

Dom: That was you guys?
Boom: I don’t remember water tents.

1:42 PM, Sunday, July 17th, Hot as Fuck
I’m with Boom, Dom, and Karl, as Karl doesn’t have to work, Jen doesn’t want to go early, and Adam and I decide to make it in time for Andrew Bird. We take the el, once again amassing a honeycomb of kids before all trying to press through the turnstile at the Ashland stop. We get in line outside the gate, expecting the same efficiency as the day before. Dom’s already pissed because Dungen’s started playing. He blames it on Karl.

Karl, on carrying bags to a festival: “I have room for one blanket, which is just an old sheet from Dom’s bed, three water bottles, Edgar’s pretentious little notebook, an official Knob Creek flask of whiskey, and Edgar’s and Boom’s plastic lemonade cups. Any more is overkill. We only have this one last day to make sure everything is perfect, so I’m not going to burden myself with extraneous weight. Don’t even think about those baseball mitts, Dom”

Dungen looks immaculate. We only catch two songs, “Panda” being unexpectedly blissful because Gustav Ejstes seems stronger than the heat and the band is smaller than their sound. Gustav pulls out a flute while his bandmates toss waves of water bottles into the crowd. We try hard to soak up the euphoria, but already Karl wobbles on his feet, saying something about momentarily blacking out.

Karl, on drugs: “The mystery of most indie kids is not in their esoteric abuse of music knowledge, but in their drug use. Pot’s a given. When a joint’s lit up in the crowd, everyone turns slightly to look for the culprit, but only out of jealousy. Cigarettes are common, black lungs and black hair. But would some dude on shrooms be acceptable? What about acid? I think indie kids usually don’t like to unanimously get behind something they can’t smell.”

2:15 PM, Holiday Stage Surrounded by Bleached Dirt
We set up our flowered bedsheet behind the tiny crowd excited for Xiu Xiu. I’m not looking forward to the bevy of new songs off La Foret, and Jamie Stewart under a powerful sun does not allow for much more confidence. He comes out with his girlfriend. She hunches behind a cacophony of noisy knickknacks, and he mounts the microphone in an outfit from the latest Phil Elvrum Forever summer line. She—“That chick’s a cutie,” Dom says—twiddles something and “Crank Heart’s” opening shamble assaults the impatience of the crowd. Boom and Karl noticeably cringe when Stewart rocks up to the mic and does his gaspy thing. “Bog People” maintains the pace, and I realize how much I really like that song, especially when the fuzzed-out parts overstay their welcome and Stewart taps the belligerence out of a lone cymbal.

I sit down after Stewart’s girlfriend gets up next to him with an autoharp and a dedication to swaying like a pixie. I was afraid of this, I murmur, and stare at a cadre of sweating asses.

Karl, on Xiu Xiu: “I don’t know if I thought it was reassuring when that guy grinned over his own ridiculous lyrics. Half the people in the audience were grinning too. I wasn’t expecting such great arrangements, but I was still pissed off. Like the dude knew he was trying our patience and thought it was real fucking funny.”

2:50 PM, Ignoring Out Hud
We all agree on one thing, and that’s beer. We’re proud of staying hydrated, but it’s time to become intoxicated. 312 in tow, admitting he knows nothing about Out Hud, Dom relents and creeps around the merch table, committed to spending money. Karl and I wait for pulled pork sandwiches, noticing the lines lengthening exponentially. Boom holds camp under a maple tree a fart’s distance away from the DJ Tent. “I’m thirsty,” he tells us when we return.

The penumbra of slouching hipsters that bleed off of our scuffed bedsheet do not smile and they do not wear shorts. A beanpole in tight jeans pulls at his sopping wet beard and chain smokes. He snorts a puff of smoke when he notices me looking at him. He’s staring at my Birkenstocks. His friend, swimming in a cardigan, holds out a yellow hand and takes a drag from the cigarette fit between his longest fingers. From behind the hairy scarecrow grows two tattooed arms, squat and chubby pressed around the dude’s waist. This, I think, must be the girlfriend. Her makeup’s turned to soot on her cheeks. They all heave back a gaze, so I viciously scratch my nuts.

Dom’s standing over me. He also refuses to wear shorts; half-moons of sweat crown his knees and support his buttcheeks. He’s holding up a bright yellow tee-shirt. “They’re making out,” Boom says, squinting against the shards of light lucky enough to make it through the trees. “I think it’s Tom Selleck and Eddie Murphy. The moustache and Detroit Tigers hat give away Selleck,” Dom smiles. “But we weren’t even here for Thunderbirds Are Now!” Karl reminds Dom. I know why he got it, and stay quiet.

Karl, on meat: “Would it be considered ironic if there’re very little vegetarian options here and PETA2 is all up on my case every time I even get close to Biz3?”

3:37 PM, Ignoring the Hold Steady
Dom takes a nap under our tree, his purchase folded neatly in his lap. Boom says, “That shirt’s too small on him.” Karl looks up when something’s announced about the Steady being on Conan later that week. Craig Finn’s voice maims through the crowd at the Holiday Stage and surprises us sylvan babies. The guitars are flattened incomprehensibly by the distance, leaving Finn’s obnoxious voice the sole translatable piece of their songs, which is, as one might expect, more obnoxious live than on tape. Karl wonders out loud, “Sex must be despicable with that dude,” getting up to head for beer. I watch a guy in a Mohawk pluck up his waifish gal after springing back from an Xbox station and shaking his hips. I feel jealous. The green line competes with Finn.

4:30 PM, Allow Me to Gush
We make sure we’re close to the front for Andrew Bird. He’s setting up on the Decimal Stage.

Throughout the festival, each act was introduced by a squirrelly head honcho in meek frames and light camping gear. I assumed him to be part of Intonation, but not affiliated with Pitchfork. He was geeked, I’ll give him that, pouring out clichés about brotherhood and repeating the phrase “In-to-nation,” deeming this the beginning of “our” nation. I didn’t really get what that meant, but I appreciated the dumb warmth. All of the mispronounced band names and flaccid descriptions of upcoming acts didn’t bother me until he came out with an Andrew Bird spiel. First he quoted the opening lines of “Nervous Tic,” butchering any subtlety in Bird’s lyrics, squeezing every bit of cadence out of them, and then postulated on Bird’s obsession with “science.” Thax Douglas was there too, and his incomprehensibility was genius next to Intonation’s Lawnmower Man. When some smartass behind me started mimicking the guy, everyone tolerated the lame joke because everyone so despised the man.

Until he told us about Michael Dahlquist dying in a car crash. I’d never heard of Silkworm, felt guilty about that, and felt even guiltier when I heard one album at Reckless and thought it was boring.


It’s apparent that Nora O’Connor won’t be joining drummer Kevin O’Donnell or Bird on stage. “She better be giving birth right this minute,” Boom whines. Bird is flustered, and O’Donnell watches him calmly, shifting slowly when Bird trips by the drum kit to rest his violin case. But the set starts soon enough, and Boom says, “God, I love this guy.”

Andrew Bird’s approach isn’t anything original. He initiates each song with a series of loops, sometimes plucking a tangled torch song out of his violin, sometimes weaving three or four strokes of melody into something easily beautiful. “Sovay” begins, because that’s what it should do, only after sucking the wind out of the trees with a forlorn intro. And he whistles in each song, he whistles like a cat licks its crotch, soothingly but racked with an inhuman difficulty. For “Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” he matches his whistling with a xylophone, premonitorily in sync. “Tables and Chair” builds and crashes before the audience can react; they follow the spasms of his head to follow the songs, maybe because they’re a bit behind, or maybe because Bird could collapse at any point. The set is careful, he introduces a new rambling epic of a song called “Armchairs of the Apocalypse” or something, within an hour he backs off the stage. “What the fuck,” Dom stammers, “He could keep going.” Karl says something about Bird and the heat. “I feel good about humanity, too,” Boom agrees.

5:33 PM, Deerhoof
I failed to write much in my notebook that day, partly because I knew it annoyed Karl to keep asking for it. Afterwards, I had only two notes from Day 2: “bunny bunny bunny bunny what the fuck” from Jen, who showed up silently and guarded our bedsheet with her friend Britney, and “Tom Selleck and Eddie Murphy? making out.” I like to think it’s a testament to the festival that I didn’t have to write anything down and still recall so much. I recall how I waited for beer and waited for meat. I recall standing outside the DJ Tent trying to figure out how James McNew and EL-P would work out. There was a huge crowd, so I got confused, but what I did hear was the smoothest mix I’d found yet at the festival. The crowd was moving.

The Wrens come on the Decimal Stage and we wait for Les Savy Fav at Holiday. Karl hears something about a bass breaking. Dom worries he’s going to get lynched by not being over there. Boom assures him, “I don’t get the Wrens, man.”

7:29 PM, White People Move When They Are Told To
Tim Harrington is mighty close, and everything I’ve ever heard about Les Savy Fav rings unmercifully true. “The Sweat Descends.” Speedo. Beer. Crotch. Adam appears! “We’ll Make a Lover of You.” Harrington counts LSF’s position on the Intonation banner. “Pretty good,” he says, and dons a straw garden hat. The band, which grows and shrinks and combines, always taps out hairy electric breakdances, tightly keeping time. At one point, we’re told to bend down, and we all follow, some remaining to stand to see Harrington bound through the first few rows of fans. The people that remain standing are pelted with water bottles.

8:30 PM, We Refuse to Admit Disappointment When Colin Meloy Rips Off Tim Harrington’s Rapport With the Audience
The Decemberists are disappointing. We stand at the far left side, and every song sounds muddy and furiously bass-heavy. Meloy’s voice is one of the few things that reach through the murk. No one seems to really mind, so we agree that it’s just in our head, and continue to dwell on the much better March appearance. During “The Chimbley Sweep” we’re prompted to bend down. The version of the song is pulsing and hokey, but really sounds pretty fantastic, and then at the last chorus everyone jumps up and cocks back and forth. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is a buoyant encore, drums circled by impish band members, and the audience screaming when the whale swallows us all, even after the over stimuli of watching Chris Funk and Meloy “duel” with their pansy acoustic guitars.

Exactly at 10, it’s over. Eh, the Decemberists were nice. We pile out, this time sprinting for the el. Dom doesn’t say a word the whole way home, switching lines and sitting on trashcans above the platforms. He says two, “all” and “right.” I tell him thanks. Boom reminds Dom to wash the bedsheet later.

Dom’s sister’s friend said, a few days later, “Another thing that I thought was amazing is how many people from all over the United States came to Intonation. I honestly didnt know that the ‘indie’ scene was growing that fast. On the L, on the way to the concert, on our 2 hour voyage outside of the city to the bad side of town, we met these students from the University of Missouri, which was crazy because I used to live right by that campus, and then we saw the groups from Canada and whatnot.”

Karl, on festivals: “Warm whiskey is a sacrament.”

and

“We were given something great here. Everything happened flawlessly, the beer was good, meat was good, and we saw some startling stuff. I think deep down I wanted Pitchfork to fail. I wanted all these indie kids to stay pissed off and self-absorbed. But we got something new. This’ll stay in Chicago, it’ll become our festival, and soon enough it’ll have, well, some hip hop on a main stage or just a better showcase of Chicago artists. I want this thing now more than I did when I was there. So, maybe it wasn’t as special as I hoped. Or, maybe I’m misanthropic, and everyone’s coming together to cheer up.”