Underground comes up for a party at Intonation


June 26, 2006


The first Intonation Music Festival was guaranteed to be a tough act to follow. Along with the retooled Lollapalooza, last summer's two-day destination festival in Union Park was a test case to prove that diverse and challenging underground music can work in the city parks.

An artistic and commercial success, Intonation Mach I drew nearly 15,000 people per day, paving the way for even more music this summer. Without the powerful promotional engine of the Webzine Pitchfork -- which this year split off to run its own festival in the West Side park on July 29-30 -- attendance at Intonation's encore was down, with 10,000-12,000 people out Saturday for the first of two days of concerts.

Yet the weather, the organization and the vibe couldn't have been better, and while there wasn't one shining moment that symbolized the event as well as the neighborhood children who joined the Go! Team to dance onstage in 2005, there were certainly plenty of musical highlights, as well as one emotional musical rebirth.

Erickson returns

As he fought a long, sad battle with schizophrenia exacerbated by psychedelic drug use, Roky Erickson largely avoided the music world for the last two decades: Before Saturday, he had not performed outside his native Texas since 1982, and he had never played in Chicago. Encouraged by his younger brother to seek the right medications and take control of his life, the singer is a new man at age 58 -- healthy, happy and ready to reclaim one of the richest legacies in rock history.

Erickson beamed as he took the stage and basked in the adulation of fans who never thought they'd see him perform. Backed by a crack band of his Austin peers led by the fiery guitarist Cam King, he delivered a generous set that included many of his best songs, the titles of which illuminate the frightening struggles of his past: "Don't Shake Me Lucifer," "I Think Up Demons," "Don't Slander Me" and, of course, the 13th Floor Elevators' classic 1966 hit, "You're Gonna Miss Me."

Erickson's voice, notable for combining the best attributes of his heroes James Brown, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, was in fine form, its power diminished only slightly by the passing of time, and he augmented King with ferocious guitar riffs and churning rhythms. In contrast to Brian Wilson, who battled similar problems before his recent comeback, Erickson seemed genuinely enthusiastic about returning to the stage, much more involved in the music and much happier to be surrounded by fans who hugged him, took photos with him and left with autographs.

The height of heavy

The other stellar musical moments of day one included the Bay Area trio High on Fire and the long-running Japanese noise-rock band the Boredoms. With a terse "Hello, f---ers," stoner rock god Matt Pike took the stage with High on Fire and proceeded to mercilessly pummel a generally meek crowd with some of the best truly heavy music being made today -- monolithic in its intensity, but with an unparalleled fluidity in its massive grooves. Pike dedicated his song "The Face of Oblivion" to Erickson, one of his inspirations, and the trio later watched the Texas legend from the side of the stage.

For their part, the Boredoms have reinvented themselves with an emphasis on incredibly complex yet ever-flowing polyrhythms. They set up in a circle with three drum sets, including one attacked by veteran member Yoshimi Yokota, and bandleader Yamataka eYe jumped, screamed, howled and added a disorienting sonic swirl of looped samples and analog synthesizer.

Wu Tang Clan veteran Ghostface offered nothing new during his performance, but his hard-core gangsta rap remains some of the best music that genre has produced. After 45 minutes, he'd shown us everything he had, but the set reached a giddy climax when he began pulling women from the crowd and ended up gyrating with two dozen ladies who clearly weren't put off by his swagger or sexist braggadocio.

Swedish-based Argentinean guitarist, singer and songwriter Jose Gonzalez provided a mid-afternoon chill-out with a beautiful set of acoustic folk songs, including an inspired cover by Kylie Minogue, and the evening ended with a one-two punch of some of the best in British hip-hop, with Cockney bad boy Mike Skinner/the Streets, fresher and more energetic in concert than on his third album, taking the stage after a spirited set by Louise Harman/Lady Sovereign, whose charmingly bratty persona and celebratory sass masked a relative paucity of musical ideas.

Dude sings like a lady

The rest of the acts were more generic and less inspiring. Favourite Sons kicked things off at 1 p.m. with a rote set of New Wave revival music, heavy on the Smiths; Erase Errata tore through some riot grrrl punk, with a lot of attitude but little melody, and Devin the Dude belied his reputation as a funny and fluid rapper with too much singing on too many slow jams, including a weird cover of James Taylor's "Handy Man."

Too much, not enough

Chicago's 90 Day Men injected too much Rick Wakeman keyboard virtuosity into their math rock; Montreal's Chromeo had one intriguing idea -- mixing vintage disco and modern hip-hop -- but they flogged it for 45 minutes, and the once-hyped Stills upped the quotient of heartland rock in their music but still failed to distinguish their unremarkable, heard-it-all-before jangle-pop.

From an organizational standpoint, the only downsides of Intonation II came via two of its corporate sponsors. Vice Records did an admirable job curating the acts, but its sister enterprises, Vice magazine and Vice TV, injected their obnoxious, base and unfunny brand of humor into the proceedings via the promotional literature and emceeing by some of the asinine cast members from the mock-reality cult film, "Windy City Heat."

Also an unwelcome presence: BBC America, which hired a troop of scantily clad models to chase a Benny Hill lookalike (who didn't actually look like the late British comedian) through the field throughout the day. If only we'd had Monty Python's giant foot to stamp out these annoyances.