Diversity reigns at Intonation fest


June 27, 2006


Intonation overcame that dreaded scourge of all outdoor music festivals on Sunday -- the weather -- to provide some 10,000 to 12,000 Chicago music fans with a second historic and rewarding day of challenging underground sounds.

After a foreboding and soggy morning, the skies eased shortly before the first act kicked off the final day of Intonation's second year at 1 p.m. Actually, Chicago's Tyrades started 10 minutes late, having declared that their allotted half hour was too long for punk rock; they only needed 20 minutes.

It turned out to be 20 of the best minutes of the music-filled day. The quartet tore through a ferocious set of chaotic but anthemic rock, with Jenna Tyrade's frenetic vocals and the short explosions of song interrupted only by the bassist's shouts of "Go!" (This group pares down even the Ramones' minimal intros of "1-2-3-4!") To end the set, the guitarist first smashed and then tossed his axe into the crowd, prompting the festival's lawyer to panic, and then -- after realizing that no one had been hurt -- question whether he'd have to retrieve the instrument like a game-winning ball.

Another Chicago artist who captivated the audience with his dynamic stage presence was Rhymefest, the well-known battle rapper who co-wrote "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West and is gearing up to release his debut album "Blue Collar" on J Records on July 11. Fluidly rapping over undeniable grooves that, like West's, sample some unlikely sources (the Strokes?!), Rhymefest infused his set with humor, warmth and political outrage. He noted that the song "Bullet" was inspired by an army recruitment ad to "Drive a Hummer for the summer," and at one point, he bounded offstage and into the upraised arms of fans, just like a punk-rock stage diver.

Also pegged for a national breakout, with his Atlantic debut "Food & Liquor" due in August, Chicago's Lupe Fiasco wasn't nearly as powerful a performer as Rhymefest, though the skateboard enthusiast underscored that his single "Kick Push" -- with its indelibly catchy refrain of "Kick, push/Kick, push/Kick, push/Coast," -- has all the hallmarks of a smash summer hit.

The alternative-rap duo Dead Prez provided the day's final hip-hop highlight with a set marked by its musical invention (they covered Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2") and radical politics (the chant of the day: "George Bush is way worse than Bin Laden"). Florida-reared, New York-based rappers M-1 and stic.man also invoked a recent local controversy by noting that "we don't need a city street sign to honor [slain Black Panther leader] Fred Hampton," and they urged the mostly white, mostly indie-rock crowd to join in a protest sign raising on Aug. 30, Hampton's birthday.

The coup of the festival's bookings, sonic wizard Jon Brion is best known for his production work with artists such as Kanye West, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright, as well as his scores for Hollywood films such as "Magnolia" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." He also hosts a cult-favorite one-man hootenanny, augmented by surprise guests, at the Los Angeles club Largo, but he rarely tours, and he had never performed in Chicago before.

Brion's 1920s jazz-flavored originals weren't much to get excited about, but he has a knack for picking cool covers -- Sunday's set included a Billie Holiday tune and the Beatles' "Baby You're a Rich Man" -- and his working method is a marvel: He would start a groove on the drum set; sample and loop it; do the same with a melody on the upright piano; then add live vocals and guitar on top of the instant electronic mix. He also got some help from some impressive guests, Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.

Former Guided by Voices bandleader Robert Pollard played a tight, concise and awe-inspiring set of his British Invasion-flavored indie rock; he was relatively sober and unusually focused, and I've never seen him better. Toronto's Constantines had much more energy onstage than on album, building to a hard-rocking climax with a cover of the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner," while the Austin quartet the Sword filled the role that High on Fire played on Saturday, injecting a welcome dose of loud, heavy yet fluidly grooving stoner rock.

Unfortunately, one of the founders of that genre, Blue Cheer, proved to be a let-down, falling on the wrong side of the Spinal Tap/state fair line of self-parody with its indulgent, jammed-out, proto-metal blues. Sixties heroes named for what is said to have been acid chemist Owsley Stanley's "best batch ever," slightly fried, white-haired bandleader Dickie Peterson, the only remaining founder, was especially disappointing after the vital, immediate and non-nostalgic set from fellow psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson on Saturday.

Ending the Sunday bill and the festival was the British New Wave of New Wave revival band Bloc Party, which generated as much atmosphere from its stark white lights -- it rented an extra $3,000 worth of stage gear -- as it did from its angular, moody music.

All told, with 18 hours of sets by 26 bands over two days -- including a dozen that rank on my personal tally of the best shows I've seen this year -- the second installment of the Intonation Music Festival was a gift to Chicagoans who love adventurous and diverse music, and it set a high standard indeed for the rest of the summer's festivals, including Pitchfork (July 29-30) and Lollapalooza (Aug. 4-6).