Thursday night of the Pygmalion Festival kicked off with an acoustic set from Paul Doffing, the amazing indie folk performer traveling the world by bicycle. I got to meet up with Paul a couple minutes before his set in the quaint Cafeteria & Company. He was eager and ready to perform his music, when asked if he was nervous he smiled and replied “of course not.”
Paul Doffing is no liar. With only a 30 minute set, he blazed through eight beautiful songs, crooning and smiling all the way. Cafeteria & Company is usually filled with students studying for exams and TAs reminding their students that it is too late for extra credit or to drop a class. Paul’s performance filled the entire room with radiance and energy. Despite sometimes singing about heavier and darker subjects, Paul shows his brightness on “New Day Dawning,” a song about how there is always light to keep following. Paul finished is set with an electrifying instrumental piece that showcased his impressive mastery of the guitar. The way his fingers moved over the frets was effortless; he made it look easy, especially with the large grin that was plastered on his face the entire set.
Following Doffing, I made my way to Silvercreek Tavern only a few blocks down to catch local blues/folk singer Kenna Mae. Surrounded by family and friends before her set, Kenna was glowing and vibrant. The second she took the stage though, a hush fell over the room. There was a tangible weight in the air as she went into her first song, an intimate tune recounting her past and the loss of her innocence. When performing, Kenna channels an inner rawness that resonates in her playing style as well as her vocals, the latter of which she has very refined control over. If The xx and Florence + the Machine came together and started doing acoustic blues, they would sound like Kenna Mae. The ambience of Silvercreek, a greenhouse vibe with a miniature waterfall, was the perfect mix for the nostalgic tones of Kenna’s music. A local favorite, every song of hers was followed with thunderous applause from her family, friends and fans. Kenna’s full length album, Blue Darlin’, will be out October 10th.
Kenna Mae at Silvercreek. Photo by Chris Davies.
To close out the sets at Silvercreek, Owen came on to do an acoustic set. In case you are unfamiliar with the musical legacy of Champaign-Urbana, Owen is the side project of Mike Kinsella from American Football, heralded emo band from the C-U itself. An Owen set is a distinctive experience; Kinsella brings in the tensions and depth that he employs with his work in American Football, except these aren’t songs about growing up rather they’re songs about what to do once you’re already there. “Love is not enough, we need money,” Kinsella sang on the third song he performed. By the time he went on, night had fallen, and everyone in Silvercreek felt the same somberness that Kinsella put forth in his music. Despite his seriousness, Kinsella still kept things light-hearted between sets. As his string broke after his sixth song, he borrowed Kenna’s guitar for the rest of his set. “Your strings are all backwards” he commented, fumbling trying to tune the guitar. “I feel like this is a drunk driving test.” (Kinsella definitely had a couple to drink.) After his set, met with hoots and hollers from those that worshipped the emo king, I caught up with Kinsella to ask him a few questions. He was quite enthusiastic to be back in the C-U playing shows with Owen. “It’s stressful doing both,” he said, referring to the fact that American Football has reunited and running full tour schedules, “but I really enjoy doing both.” When asked about his favorite place to eat he gave a hearty laugh, “$4.25 burgers from Murphy’s were my thing back in the day, I’ll probably end up there after this. Maybe my friends will follow.” Thursday night of Pygmalion was soft in sound but heavy in passion. —Nishat Ahmed
Owen. Photo by Chris Davies.
One of my most personally anticipated acts of the whole weekend was one of the first acts I saw — Ryley Walker at The Iron Post. He brought his guitar, a standup bassist and a autoharpist. The sounds they were able to draw out of those instruments was testament to their talent. The autoharp usually provided a droning background sound similar to a bagpipe. The bass was plucked and bowed. Walker’s guitar was strummed and picked, and he hummed softly with as much passion as he shouted.The guys started off barely playing above the chatty crowd, but by the end of the set they built into a tidal wave of sound that silenced the audience. Walker even sold a few Primrose Green CDs after the show.
Also worth noting was the energy Bully brought to the stage in spite of their midnight set. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but I will say that they definitely have that Nashville guitar sound you hear from bands like Diarrhea Planet and the like. Hard, abraisive rock. Their brand is female-fronted and grungy as hell, and marked an end to the singer-songwriter vibe of Thursday’s Pygmalion. —Maddie Rehayem