Acting as a final curtain call on summer festivals in Chicago, the Hideout Block party was back for its 13th installment, but what a difference a year can make. If it could be said that last year’s festival had come a long way from its humble beginnings, then this year’s fest proved that it can always be a quick trip back. For better or worse, the Hideout decided to scale things back a bit this year in both size and scope. While the reasons for doing so were not entirely clear, in an announcement about the scaling back, the Hideout Block Party website begged to ask “Is bigger always better?” While most people outside the state of Texas could probably agree on the answer, it was not necessarily an answer all were happy to agree on. Although in the Hideout’s defense, it would have been pretty difficult to top last year’s festival. Last year took place over a weekend, and offered up more than 20 bands on two stages and included one of the most diverse lineups of any festival that summer, thanks in large to the festival teaming up with the Chicago World Music Festival. This year’s Block Party was centered on the 15th anniversary of the local label Bloodshot Records and it served up a handful of the label’s artists on one stage over the course of a sunny Saturday.
One of the sets I was most interested to take in was also one of the earliest and so sadly I was unable to arrive in time to catch the reunion performance by Chicago’s the Blacks. Although, I did arrive just in time for another act I was looking forward to seeing, Bobby Bare Jr. Bloodshot refers to their music as “insurgent country” and while I can’t say precisely what type of music falls under such an umbrella, I tend to think Bobby Bare Jr. fits that mold rather well. Son of a country great, he was on the Grand Ole Opry stage performing around the same time most kids are learning how to roll around in the dirt. Joined by David Vandervelde on guitar, Bare Jr.’s set was one of the highlights of the day. As comfortable alone with an acoustic guitar as he is thrashing away on his electric, his music is a mixed bag. Although he got his start in country and Americana at an extremely early age, Bobby Bare Jr. spent most of his time in the ‘90s with his rock band Bare Jr. Thus, he began the unraveling of the thread that seemed to run through most of the Bloodshot artists that would take the stage throughout the day. Nearly all of them seemed to come from some background in music that does not immediately lend itself to the country or roots music they are playing today.
The next band up was a reunion performance by Moonshine Willy, a band of which I knew very little. As it turns out it was the very first band signed to Bloodshot records and it may have had something to do with the fact that their old lead guitarist eventually left the band to start the Bloodshot label. They played a sort of barroom rockabilly that began to grow a little bit stale by the set’s end. To be fair though, the Bloodshot website claimed it would be their first show in “a whole lotta years”. The fest was a block party in the most literal sense, as it had moved from the large vacant lot across the street from the Hideout bar and now occupied only the street out in front of the bar. The smaller size did make for a more intimate, exclusive sort of environment but that came at a price for beer drinkers. Inexplicably, the only beer option at the whole event was rolling rock, a beer I thought I had left behind after my high schooldays. Other options were available inside the actual bar but these ran out very early in the day. Honky Tonk BBQ, a restaurant in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood provided the food for the day.
Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
Another local Chicago act, Scotland Yard Gospel Choir took the stage next, playing just days before the release of their third album …And the Horse You Rode in On. The band has been on the Chicago scene for several years but it was actually my first time seeing them live. The band underwent some lineup changes a few years back, which led one of the co-founding members to go off and form another band that seems to generate a good deal of buzz around the city, Brighton, Massachusetts. Lead singer Elia Einhorn, the founding member who remained, is the main songwriter as well as their presence on stage. While the band’s dark but whimsical pop approach is not my particular cup of tea, they definitely put on one of the more energetic, spirited performances of the afternoon. The band also had one of the more vocal followings and towards the end of their set they even invited a few members of the audience up on stage to dance and sing along with the band.
Scott H. Birham
Scott H. Birham then took the stage as the sun was slowly beginning to set. From beneath a trucker style hat and seated alone on stage, he launched into some aggressive, growling, stripped down country blues music. Using an old school mic and a 1959 Gibson hollow body guitar, his music sounds like it comes from another era entirely. Extremely aggressive and confident in what he does, the music comes across like something that might suddenly appear on your crackling car radio after a lengthy search through some white noise, as you are making your way across the state of Texas in the middle of the night. It would also prompt you to then pull over at the nearest bar to wet your whistle with the appropriate whiskey of your choosing. The music also provided an appropriate soundtrack to some of the day’s events, particularly the sand belt racing.
Hailing from Detroit, the Deadstring Brothers played their set to the last of the sunlight. The six piece band delivers on some pretty solid southern style rock and their releases on Bloodshot, Starving Winter Report and Silver Mountain, are sure to at least please those who are fans of ‘70s rock, particularly the Stones output during that decade. Live, the music was able to set a pretty rollicking background and fit the mood of the day, but the band does suffer from seeming a little overly derivative. They never really manage to take the music in a new or surprising direction and while this approach is fine for those who like this style of music specifically, it does not make a good sales pitch to any new or prospective fans.
There is something about Alejandro Escovedo that reminds me of a slightly countrified version of Tom Petty. Sure, Escovedo’s vocals can bare a slight resemblance but it is more in the music they itself. And by that, it is not so much the actual style of music but rather some quality that lies therein. While there is nothing that seems overly daring in their musical approach, located somewhere within the music is something utterly indefinable that managed to draw the listener in close. I would even venture to say that while Escovedo’s music at times appears a little bland, it manages to fill a need that I was not even aware I had; although perhaps the music itself is the one creating that very need. Escovedo has been at the game for a long time, releasing over ten solo albums, not to mention his work with bands early on and throughout his career, so this is more or less a snapshot impression of the live performance rather than some all encompassing statement on his career. Closing out the night was the Waco Brothers, fronted by the always animated Jon Langford. The band proved an excellent choice to close out the day. The band has been associated with the Bloodshot label from very early on and the live set offered up their hard country rock with a kick, both figuratively and literally, as they delivered the most energetic performance of the entire day.
The pairing of Bloodshot, a local Chicago label, with the Hideout for their 15th anniversary was inevitable; the Hideout stage has essentially been a home away from home for many of the artists on the Bloodshot and the label certainly deserves its featured “day in the sun.” This was not the first time the Hideout focused their party on a label either, as Touch and Go was featured a few years back, but this fest did at times feel a little limited. Perhaps it was because thoughts of last year still lingered. Although, surely anyone going to something dubbed the “Bloodshot 15th Anniversary Beer-B-Q” should know what they were going to get. Bloodshot as a label does have a strong, seemingly definitive vision in what they like in their artists which is not a bad thing but a little contrast to their offerings might have helped complete the day a bit. Free from the fetters of comparison to past years though, the day was a success. It was easily a better day spent than at any of the other numerous weekend festivals that litter the Chicago summers. It was cheaper, less crowded, more relaxed and more sincere in its reason for being. Even still, I can’t help hoping that next year’s fest finds a better middle ground between this year and the last.
The Waco Brothers
Closing out the night was the Waco Brothers, fronted by the always animated Jon Langford. The band proved an excellent, if not the only, choice to close out the day. The band has been associated with the Bloodshot label from very early on and the live set offered up their hard country rock with a kick, both figuratively and literally, as they delivered the most energetic performance of the entire day.
The pairing of Bloodshot, a local Chicago label, with the hideout for their 15th anniversary was inevitable; the hideout stage has essentially been a home away from home for many of the artists on the Bloodshot label and Bloodshot as a label certainly deserves its featured “day in the sun”. This was not the first time the Hideout focused their party on a label either, as Touch & Go was featured a few years back, but this fest did at times feel a little limited. Perhaps it was because thoughts of last year still lingered because surely anyone going to something dubbed the “Bloodshot 15th Anniversary Beer-B-Q” should know what they were going to get. Although, Bloodshot as a label does have a strong, seemingly definitive vision in what they like in their artists which is not a bad thing but a little contrast to their offerings might have helped complete the day a bit. Free from the fetters of comparison to past years though, the day was a success. It was easily a better day spent than at any of the other numerous weekend festivals that litter the Chicago summers. It was cheaper, less crowded, more relaxed and more sincere in its reason for being. Even still, I can’t help hoping that next years the fest may find a slightly more middle ground between this year and the last.