Having the opening set of the festival was tough going — this set was painfully under attended. I say painful because these guys should be heard by a lot more people. Their unique sound stems from the way Stephan Cook plays. You could call their music jazz-grass, but Cook plays his instrument much more like a violin than a fiddle, more classy & elegant than fast & loose. Fresh Hops has an incomparable sound that should be invading many more pairs of ears.
IndigoSun tried to go all PA on us at Abbey Pub, but it only ended up three quarters of the way. Steve Florian had to shift to his drum kit at the last minute as the rest of the band formed a dank, all-electronic layer cake. Kyle Liss and Lucas Ellman were right at home with their electronic instruments, but Mike Cantella was really impressive as he spread out a bunch of gooey synth basslines, as opposed to his normal role with a bass guitar in his hands. This set was centered around improvisation, which was really refreshing to hear and a lot of fun. I’d love to see some more PA sets from these guys in the future.
Change of pace! I moved over to the main room after Indigo’s set to see Old Shoe and this transition couldn’t have been much more abrupt. The Grateful Dead influence is strong with this band, but they featured a lot more electronic sounding keyboards than the Dead’s classic piano/organ tones. The one thing they had in common with Indigo was a propensity for jamming and they cut loose on a few really nice improvised tangents that leaned towards that Widespread Panic, southern jam energy. These guys are pretty sharp.
It was back to the small room for one of Chicago’s best up and coming groups. These guys are one of the only bands I know of who blend hip hop and electronic music this perfectly. They feature some fantastic samples (KRS-One, OutKast, and Ratatat on this day) and keep the set moving the entire time. The really cool thing about this group is how talented each individual is on their respective instrument, but how well they all seem to fit together. My favorite part was Jeremy Williams’ use of Moog distortion with his bass guitar, creating this devilishly gooey sub-bass that seemed to surround the entire sound like a puddle of delicious jelly. This is one of Chicago’s truly underappreciated bands.
Wait, who? Freek Johnson was the only band on the Saturday lineup that I’d never heard of. But I definitely won’t forget them now. These guys came out and did a jazz fusion cover of a Bela Fleck & the Flecktones song that pretty much blew me away. The most insane part was that the bassist, Buddy Pearson, played Fleck’s banjo parts on his bass guitar! This guy was an absolute madman on the bass, coming out of nowhere to put on one of the most impressive presentations of bass guitar playing I’ve ever seen. No joke, this guy might be some sort of bass guitar wizard.
The pleasant surprises were all over the place so far and Zmick came along with yet another one. I hadn’t heard them in a couple of years, so I really had no idea what to expect. But I certainly didn’t expect this level of razor sharp & brutishly strong prog rock. Right away, they struck the Umphrey’s chord with me as they tore through all sorts of quick changing sections that shuffled through genres with precision. Prog rock into reggae into pure metal, they never really seemed to take their foot off the gas all that much. This set was a lot of fun.
And then it was time for The Twin Cats, a band I’m very familiar with and have grown to really love over the past couple of years. They are a funk band, that much is certain, but they have such a uniquely deft yet aggressive approach to funk that really sets them apart from many of their counterparts. They played some new (at least to me) material that sounded fantastic. Plus, it’s always fun to watch the bubbling energy of Cam Reel contrasted with the deadly serious gameface of “Nasty” Nick Gerlach. And I have to mention Brent Nixon, because it’s incredible how well he knows their music. Every lightning fast move of the sound is perfectly framed by brilliant lighting. The Twin Cats and Nixon are a devastating package that could blow up just about any stage with the dirty dirty funk and cornea-melting illumination.
I’d never seen Sidewalk Chalk before this night, but it was remarkable that literally 100% of everything I heard about this band was completely glowing. And I have to say, it’s all 100% true. This band is a beautiful blend of hip-hop, R&B, and funk that has a level of polish that you just don’t often see in a room as small as the Abbey’s Green Room. They have such a comfortable, radio-friendly sound that felt like something that would come out of Los Angeles — young but immediately ready to be thrust into stardom. This band left me with the sense of some true commercial potential, which was a rare thing at this jam-dominated festival. They could have stuck out in a bad way, but they didn’t at all, they sounded damn good and were so much fun. They sounded sexy, they looked sexy… Sidewalk Chalk is not going to be playing rooms this small much longer.
And now for another wildly abrupt shift in musical styles. But even though Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was on a completely different musical world than Sidewalk Chalk, they were equally as impressive, in their own way. Their brand of intensely weird, avant garde space jazz isn’t going to be used in any commercial applications anytime soon, but there is no denying their uncanny chemistry and entirely individual style. The combo of the lap steel and upright bass is just so damn awesome, and combined with adroit drumming, strong saxophone and a maniac keyboard player, creates a wildly inventive band with a sound that you will find nowhere else. JFJO is jazz that even people who claim to hate jazz could get into.
It could seem that Elroy was the ‘token’ DJ thrown onto this lineup to add yet another dimension to the array of music. But that would be overlooking how much this dude has established himself as one of the best DJs that calls Chicago home. He’s all over this city, working in multiple projects, has in hand in many pies, and has many influential friends. He’s pretty much engrossed in the Chicago music scene like few other people can claim. And his set on this night was mightily impressive. It began with an astounding five-minute beatbox display that was probably the best I’ve ever heard in person. Then he spun up an hour of sexy deep house/nu disco jams that had the crowd flying around the room. This was easily the most excited audience of the entire day. Elroy is the fuckin’ man!
With such a densely stocked lineup of awesome music, at first glance it was tough to say that Strange Arrangement was a clear ‘headliner.’ I mean it was their festival, but how much would they really stand out amongst the flock? After this performance there’s no doubt that this band absolutely owned the weekend, filling the role of headliner completely and without hesitation. It’s astonishing to me how much this band has grown since I started seeing them a few years ago; their evolution would even stun Charles Darwin. This set was highlighted with a horn section led by Nick Gerlach, which was a really nice touch. A cover of “Electric Avenue” was cheeky fun and it was awesome to hear a staple song like “Bed Bugs” re-worked with horns. For all the incredible music on this day, Strange was unquestionably on top of the heap. It made me wonder how they could possibly match or exceed it on Sunday…
At this point in the night the crowd was large and feelin loose, and this was the most packed the Green Room had been all day. And for good reason: Eumatik was in the house and brought a huge energy with them. Their set was a relentless barrage of electro-step that had everyone raging. But for me, it felt a little too aggressive in the greater context of the festival. They were really the only group that even dabbled in the realm of dubstep, and I guess it was good to have a little slice of it at SD — especially since they use the wobble button very diplomatically — but it just wasn’t keeping my attention all that much. They’re definitely a fun group but I want to see them again in a different setting.
I’m not gonna belabor this too much, but this was my least favorite set of this entire day. Family Groove did what they always did to me: suck me in with Adam Lewis’ great guitar playing, then spit me back out brutally, snapping my interest like a twig every 10 minutes on the dot. I’m a big fan of Lewis’ style on the axe as he leads leads through some tasty jams, but it isn’t enough to get me through a whole FGC set, mainly because every time they begin a song it’s just stereotypical, weak & sugary jamband dreck. Meh.
It was pretty late at this point, a long day of music, and Young General brought a raucous show to match everyone’s loose attitude. Rob Watson’s got this hip hop thing down, with some awesome Chicago-centric lyrics and a smooth delivery. But when you add in a stupidly talented band like Marcus Rezak on guitar, Alex Austin on bass, Greg Fundis on drums, and Elroy on production, it raises the whole thing to another level. The details of this set are pretty hazy, but everyone in that room was gettin the fuck down. This was a fantastic set.
And to close the book on day one of Stranger Danger was the newborn baby livetronica group Cosby Sweater. These guys have been together, oh I don’t know, like 10 minutes? So it’s simply amazing how polished and together they sounded. I seriously couldn’t believe how tight they were, and how incredibly well-produced it all was — it felt like they’ve been together for a really long time. They sounded like how Big Gigantic used to sound before they went to the dub side, if maybe just a bit more aggressive. Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed by what I heard, but I was one of the only people left. By this time I think everyone was pretty hosed and there weren’t many people still at Abbey. A shame, because I think Cosby Sweater is about to blow up.