Smile Politely

The Pygmalion Festival 2015: Friday in review

Kicking off the first Friday musical performance of Pygmalion was Patrick Watson and company delivering an ethereal set in Krannert’s beautiful Tryon Festival Theatre. The first thing to catch my eye before the set even started was the interesting array of lightbulbs enclosed in large plastic orbs that had rings of light running the circumference of the sphere. Watson created a unique atmosphere — each song performed is a mini art piece in itself, from beautiful layers of guitar delays to wonderfully blended three-piece harmonies to the drummer coming off stage to pound a shield with a mallet.

Watson’s songs take on that ambient-indie vibe, his vocals crooning and melting into the background, letting the instruments shine as often as possible. The dynamic movement in each song is staggering as well with transitions from booming drums, overlaid guitars, haunting piano down to just an acoustic and Patrick’s vocals — this happening all in one song. “He’s a happier, more well-nourished Ben Gibbard” I heard someone behind me say. I laughed at first, but after watching Watson lean over the piano pushing out an impressive falsetto note, I can’t help but agree.

Patrick Watson at Tryon Festival Theater. Photo by Chris Davies.

How does one begin to describe the cacophony of sound that is tUnE-yArDs? For starters, the entirety of Tryon stood on their feet for the eclectic set put on by these New England world-beaters. Front woman Merrill Garbus came onto the stage, quirky outfit donned, and began trilling into the dual microphones set up. I previously have encountered the unique music of tUnE-yArDs, but to a first time listener, they might think, “What the hell am I listening to? This sounds like random sounds and yelling.” (Isn’t that all music?) But rest assured, there is a method to their madness.
Soon after her emergence, Garbus was joined by the rest of her band and jumped into a flurry of drumbeats, hollering and hooting. While it may seem reckless, tUnE-yArDs gives us a controlled chaos. The beats are rhythmic; they are tribal. Garbus’ chanting and whooping is the release of primal energy. She is taking us back to the roots of where music comes from, the untapped, ancient spirit that begs to come loose. Tryon was a frenzy as Garbus danced, shimmied and whooped through song after song. To try and fit tUnE-yArDs into a genre is hopeless, so I won’t even try. It’s besides the point — tUnE-yArDs is about freeing yourelf, having fun, not caring about the world around you but being connected to it through music and rhythm instead. As they moved into crowd favorite, “Water Fountain,” from 2014 album Nikki Nack, everyone (including myself) jumped and screamed along at the top of their lungs.

Tune-Yards at Tryon Festival Theater. Photo by Chris Davies.

Moving to the Krannert Stage 5, Canadian art rock band, Braids kept the festival alive and well. “We’re gonna start with a slow one and then go into power,” lead singer, Raphaelle Standell-Preston told the crowd as they took the stage, and she is no liar. Even for a ‘slow’ song, the first song came in hard and heavy. Raphaelle’s higher register slipped neatly in between layers upon layers of synth tones and reverberating guitars. With only three members, two guitars, a drummer and a couple synths/beat-pads, on paper Braids might seem like a band with a hollow sound. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: Braids is an amalgamation of ambience and sonic weight winding into melodies and chords that rang hauntingly all across the walls of Krannert.

There was tension, a nervous energy that was pervasive Standell-Preston released the most haunting of sounds and words. “Take me by the throat/Will you push me up against this wall/And spit all your hurt on me?” she sang on “Taste,” second track from their latest 2015 release, Deep In The Iris. One of the most powerful moments of the night was when Braids closed with “Miniskirt,” fifth track from Deep In The Iris. “You feel you’ve the right to touch me/Cause I asked for it/In my little miniskirt/Think you can have it/In my little miniskirt/It’s mine all mine” Standell-Preston declared. In that moment, she became the power she promised us. With the conclusion of their set, a whirlwind of applause and approval erupted from the crowd; a group of women close to stage right went absolutely nuts following such a powerful feminist statement of a song.

Braids at Krannert Stage 5. Photo by Tom Chandler.

Immediately following Braids was Zola Jesus, an eerie blend of synths, industrial sounds and some darker, gothic tones. Zola might be small physically, but her stage presence is boundless. The first song came in crashing with heavy drumbeats and enormous synth notes that blasted through the speakers. Dressed in all black, clothes tight to her skin, Zola was a shadowy specter that zipped about the stage. In that small frame she has room for muscular alto notes, her sound unaffected by the intense physical movement displayed.

Flailing her limbs and climbing on speakers, Zola and company delivered a heavy and dark sound that rumbled through the entire crowds’ bones. “I got the hunger, I got the hunger in my veins” Zola belted out to the crowd. Her power was too impressive.

Zola Jesus at Krannert Stage 5. Photo by Tom Chandler.

The final set of the night I was able to catch was that of Beach Slang. The first word to describe what it was like to watch them would be: hot. Packed into The Channing Murray Foundation without air conditioning and the ever-present promise of a mosh pit meant that things definitely got sweaty, but that was no trouble for these punk dudes who have played countless shows in small, dense spaces. A definite change from the more subdued ambient bands of the night, Beach Slang ripped through their songs with rage and angst you’d expect from a band that draws so much influence from The Replacements. “Basically when I’m writing I try to think of how to do lyrics like Bukowski, sound like Paul Westerberg [of The Replacements] on guitar, pretend that I’m scoring a John Hughes film, but still have it sound like Beach Slang,” lead singer James Alex told me as I caught him for a couple questions before their set began.

Beach Slang at Channing Murray Foundation. Photo by Stephen Kemp.

“A statement I believe in,” he said, enthusiastic and eager to play, “is that being able to play music like this means never having to retire from being alive. I realized really quick that the starch collar life just wasn’t for me.” And boy, was that room alive, every minute of Beach Slang’s set was intense and feverous, there wasn’t a single moment to catch your breath. Despite playing Riot Fest only a few weeks ago, the hyped crowd at Channing Murray could definitely give the punk festival a run for its money in energy.

[gallery pygmalion_2015_friday]

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