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Noise Pop 2000 -- Chicago
May 10-15, 2000

Wire's Newman and Gilbert

Wire's Lewis

Unwound unwind

Blonde Redhead from afar...

...and up close

OK Go, going okay

Expectant father (and head Apple) Robert Schneider

Grandaddy bring some rock

Brokeback: are you sitting comfortably?

Pan*American's Mark Nelson -- see him down there?


Practically every city has some sort of high-profile music festival these days. It's only a matter of time before some greedy promoter devises the Boise DeathMetalFest or the Tuscaloosa Rap-O-Rama.

Many would argue that Chicago doesn't need a festival, but that's because the city has more than its share of burgeoning-yet-insular sub-scenes. Tortoise fans don't necessarily want to mix with the alt-country folks, or vice versa. Even so, San Francisco's popular and enduring Noise Pop Festival decided to expand in an easterly direction, hastily organizing a midwestern version of the fest in the Windy City, ostensibly to showcase bands who couldn't afford the trek to San Francisco in March (like Wire, who played there a couple of days before the festival). And really, the reasons behind the festival are immaterial; what we care about is several nights of eclectic live music. Put some emphasis on that "eclectic", for in a curious but encouraging move, Noise Pop extended its aegis to cover the Fourth Annual Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, giving music risk-takers a chance to sample something a little different while offering indie rock kids a chance to joke about seeing GŁnter "Baby" Sommer.

For those accustomed to SXSW or CMJ, Noise Pop Chicago posed a few challenges. With its shows divided between five venues, none of which were within realistic walking distance of each other, Noise Pop Chicago forced listeners to make choices. For most, there would be none of the venue-to-venue flitting that characterizes larger-scale fests...which is fine, really, as music deserves more attention than the large-scale festival mentality usually permits, but the urge to check out new stuff (especially the improv/jazz stuff at the Empty Bottle) was often quashed by the realization that better-known artists would quickly sell out their venues.

Though the Splendid staff had high hopes to catch as many shows as possible, we wound up missing several of them due to illness and exhaustion. Shoehorning a music festival into an already busy week can be tricky stuff, as we found out.

WEDNESDAY: Seam and Wire at Metro

The most ballyhooed event of Noise Pop Chicago came first: the much-talked-about, hotly-anticipated reunion performance by UK art-punk icons Wire.

An a post-soundcheck interview (which we'll be publishing in a couple of weeks), Wire's Colin Newman made it clear that the band has no desire to be seen as a bunch of old fogeys milking their fans for cash. The group dusted off some of their "greatest hits" for a high-profile UK performance earlier this year; it proved artistically satisfying, and Wire rose to the challenge of reinterpreting its music for a new millennium. And of course, with Mute having recently reissued the band's entire catalog, the time was right to raise their profile.

The crowd at Metro was encouraging -- roughly equal doses of twentysomethings who'd recently discovered Wire, and fans in their thirties and forties whose vinyl copies of Pink Flag or The Ideal Copy were well nigh worn out. Opening act Seam had plenty of fans in the house, too, and their feedback-laced rock tunes seemed to go down well with Wire fans.

Wire themselves rocked with more ferocity and conviction than they did in the midst of their "second coming" in 1988. The modernized versions of Wire classics -- new arrangements bolstered by electronic underpinnings and stomach-twisting bass -- left a few tracks less recognizable, but classics like "12XU" shone through. Colin Newman and Graham Lewis attacked their instruments with the ferocity of men half their age, while Bruce Gilbert played rhythm guitar with quiet intensity and drummer Robert Gotobed beat the skins with aggressive confidence. An urgent, raging take on "Drill" -- a song the band has recorded in so many variations that tinkering with it must seem de rigeur -- provided the perfect encore, though few in the audience would have protested another hour of music.

Colin Newman was scheduled to DJ downstairs at Smart Bar after the Wire show, undoubtedly peppering his set with low-impact electronica from Swim~, the label he runs with wife Malka Spigel. But by 1:00 a.m., Colin still hadn't claimed his place behind the turntables...so we left.

THURSDAY: Silo, Unwound and Blonde Redhead at Metro; Oranger, OK Go, Versus and The Apples in Stereo at the Empty Bottle

Staffer Jason Broccardo caught the Blonde Redhead show. We'll let him tell you all about it.

Without hesitation I can say that Blonde Redhead is one of the best live acts around. When you get that buzz-drunk feeling of euphoria during a show, the band is doing something right. And when a band can do that every time you see them play, the band is what's right.

Opening act Silo, from Denmark, is a band I was unfamiliar with before tonight. Take your favorite Fugazi instrumental of the past few years, slow it down a touch and lay an electronic rumble underneath it and you are close to Silo's sound. Though not the most exhilarating band to watch, you can't help but be drawn in by the play of repetition between the bass and guitar. The drummer breaks any possible monotony with touches of texture and nice, heavy bass kicks.

Unwound were having a slightly off night musically, but that did not prevent them from having a damn good show. In fact, before Blonde Redhead took the stage, I was afraid that Unwound might walk away with the night. This is a tight trio, so even when a bit of sloppiness creeps into the act, it almost seems intentional. Drummer Sara Lund might miss the snare or the high hat, but she makes the mistake work, with a nod to her partner in the rhythm section, Vern Rumsey. Singer/guitarist Justin Trosper is a fairly commanding person to watch, standing upright at the mic and clutching his guitar, but Rumsey gets the second place award for "Rock Star of the Night". Rumsey was a blur of motion behind his bass, but he never let the song get away from him.

First place for "Rock Star of the Night" goes to Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead. Her sense of theatrics, drawing on the swagger of Mic Jagger and Robert Plant, is one of the things that makes this band so moving to watch. Holding the mic in both hands as she channels a series of yelled cries and lyrics, she slithers before the drums and monitors. I can't tell if she practices this stuff at home in front of the mirror or if it comes naturally, but she does it so well, why question it. Guitarist and singer Amedeo Pace is no slouch in the rock department either, yet unlike members of some bands, when he drops down into a total rock star crouch with his guitar springing from his hip, you have no choice but to laugh with him as he pulls it off. Yet a fantastic cock walk is not the whole of Blonde Redhead live. The heart of the band on stage and the model for what they are -- an expert, time perfect musical entity -- is drummer/keyboardist Simone Pace. Simone is a virtual wallflower behind his drum kit, but Kazu and Amedeo seem to draw from him. Each song begins with Simone's drums and keyboard riffs. The guitars follow the drummer's snare patterns, shaking up and down in volume and drive until a whirlwind of sound moves in and around each member of the audience. There are times when you almost feel outside of yourself. The best example of this came during "In Expression of the Inexpressible", the title track of Blonde Redhead's last album. Beginning almost a cappella save for a rumbling keyboard loop, Kazu brought in the song, but Simone led it to its end, the sound of sound being torn apart to an excellent rhythm. Also of interest tonight were the three new songs worked into the set. I'll have to wait to hear the new album, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go), set for release later in May, but this is a new sound for Blonde Redhead. Imagine Chicago House music, circa 1979, played with grinding guitars and poppish hints, but with Kazu singing. It is hard to imagine and even harder to place when you are seeing it, but it works. That is what Blonde Redhead does.

Meanwhile, a ten or fifteen dollar cab ride southwest of Metro...

As descendents of Overwhelming Colorfast, Oranger have been associated with Noise Pop since the San Francisco fest in 1993. Under the circumstances, we can't help but wonder if they're miffed to have the first slot in this evening's performance. The modest crowd seems to enjoy their feedback-slathered pop songs, but the room is still relatively empty when they leave the stage.

We've been eager for another chance to see Chicago's white-hot OK Go, and tonight we got it. Unfortunately, after opening their set with their usual rousing cover of Toto's "Hold the Line", OK Go never quite seemed to match the energy of past performances. However, this is partly due to the Empty Bottle's layout. Sitting at the bar or standing at the merch table places you at a 45 degree angle to the stage, and somehow out of the direct range of the room's sound system. If you choose to watch a band from the least crowded area of the club, their performance is likely to sound a bit anemic.

We also missed a portion of OK Go's set while outside attempting to interview The Apples in Stereo's Chris McDuffie. That was ten minutes of our lives that none of us will ever be able to get back.

Versus takes the stage and dishes out a killer set of...well, just imagine I've thought up another cool new way to say "feedback-drenched power pop". How about "jangly melodic dissonance"? Yeah, that'll do. They dished out a killer set of "jangly melodic dissonance". Fontaine Toups is looking surprisingly healthy these days. We've acquired some seats at the bar now, and the sightlines are great, so we stay at the back of the room, where we drink.

Sleater-Kinney arrive at the Empty Bottle and are immediately surrounded by fans.

Which brings us, of course, to the Apples in Stereo. As fans of Robert Schneider's studio wizardry, we're never quite as thrilled with the Apples in a live setting. Still, the band gives a winning performance, cranking out old favorites and tunes from their newly-released opus The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. Schneider performs the high-pitched, Jackson-5-stylee vocal of "The Bird that You Can't See" without the aid of any technical enhancements, which is kind of creepy, and Hilarie Sidney sits behind her drum kit and glows like the pregnant woman she is. Chris McDuffie looks as if he's still recovering from an interview gone terribly, horrifyingly wrong.

The combination of too much hard cider and two hours of sleep moves us to duck out, just as the band is leaving the stage.

FRIDAY: Chris Mills, Verbow and John Doe at Schuba's

Ditching work for the day, we spend an afternoon hitting record stores, then grab dinner at Schuba's adjoining restaurant, the Harmony Grill. We love the Harmony Grill. In fact, we love it so much that one of us, in a fit of enthusiasm, eats something he shouldn't. The result: a sudden feeling of not-at-all-wellness during Chris Mills' set, followed by a hasty trip home. How embarrassing! We're particularly bummed because we've been listening to the John Doe Thing's forthcoming CD, Freedom Is..., all afternoon, and we love it -- especially "Too Many Goddamn Bands"...but the risk of being violently ill all over Schuba's was too great to justify staying.

SATURDAY: Grandaddy, Brokeback and Pan*American at Schuba's

Some of us make it to another Listen.com party, where there are still plenty of complimentary Listen.com Versace leather jackets and a buffet of filet mignon is kept warm by bales of smouldering hundred dollar bills. Actually, we're exaggerating, though the usual abundance of food, drinks and free t-shirts is in effect. Mekon Sally Timms covers a few tunes for a small but appreciative audience; Archer Prewitt played earlier.

Returning to Harmony Grill to make some wiser culinary choices, we wind up chatting with Bruce Adams of Kranky, who'll no doubt be annoyed at being mentioned in this article. We can't tell you anything of what he told us because it's all top secret, even the bits involving Sigur Ros. Heh heh. We love starting non-rumors.

Meanwhile at Metro, Modest Mouse are drunk and sloppy, but the kids seem to like it.

Schuba's is a great place to see a show -- their music room is small, intimate and adequately ventilated. Though placed in the curious position of being a major label band opening for two indie bands, Grandaddy manage to win over most of the audience with their electronically-spiced pop songs. Their tunes are sweet and brittle, loaded with Speak-and-Spell ambience, but ultimately not quite as memorable as they might have been. Schuba's earns the ill-will of many audience members by cutting the band off after 30 minutes, even though an encore is clearly desired.

Doug McCombs' bass-intensive side project, Brokeback, follows swiftly. The trouble with Brokeback, frankly, is that there's not a whole lot to watch, and their sound gets lost in larger rooms. Theorizing that Brokeback goes over better when you don't have to waste so much energy standing up, I sit down against a wall and close my eyes. Sure enough, it's far easier to enjoy Brokeback this way. I'm not kidding. If McCombs did something visually interesting, like engage in witty banter with a sock puppet designed to resemble Jim O'Rourke, that'd be one thing. But since all he does is play his bass -- and doesn't exactly get his pulse racing doing that -- viewing the act is unnecessary. Viewing Grandaddy fans who have no clue what to make of Brokeback, on the other hand, is priceless.

Not everyone notices when Labradford's Mark Nelson, the creative force behind Pan*American, begins to play. His music melds seamlessly with the between-acts DJ set. Seated with his equipment at one corner of the stage, concentrating intensely, Nelson is hard to see from the audience. A projection screen displaying vague-yet-fascinating computer graphics captures many listeners' attention. The lush, ambient soundscapes Nelson created for 360 Business/360 Bypass expand to fill the room. Everyone drifts about in a dreamy haze; they can feel the bass vibrating their wisdom teeth. While some members of the audience continue to talk, many are thoroughly mesmerized; when the relatively brief set ends, they look lost without Nelson's undulating beats.

In all, an interesting and diverse evening.

SUNDAY: Rebecca Gates, The Aluminum Group and a collaboration between Jim O'Rourke and Jeff Tweedy at Double Door

Despite such the promise of histrionics, sophisticated pop melodies and unstructured experimental wankery, we decided to take a pass on this performance.

The verdict on Noise Pop Chicago? A success, though next year -- if there's a next year -- we hope they mix up the bands a bit more, add a few more venues (the Hideout would be an obvious choice, and with it the Bloodshot bands who so frequently play there) and a few more early shows. We're already looking forward to it.

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Wrap-up and photos by George Zahora and Jason Broccardo.

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