This weekend, the Vice Records-curated Intonation Festival kicked off Chicago’s musically saturated summer at Union Park on the West side, with a hip-hop- and indie-rock-heavy, 26-act bill split across two stages. Headliners included the Streets, Bloc Party, Ghostface Killah, Jon Brion and Lady Sovereign. At the end of July, a Pitchfork Media-sponsored superfest will follow with an even longer parade of buzzy acts; and early August brings the expanded, three-day Lollapalooza in Grant Park with heavyweights like Kanye West and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
More modest in scale, the Intonation Festival nevertheless netted an eclectic crowd — think young families with kids meet rap aficionados and indie fans — and drew some thrilling performances. Even better, Chicago’s summers are notoriously sweltering and humid, but temperatures over the weekend dipped into the high 70s, which just meant one thing: The hipster-heavy crowd could be comfortable (and dry) outside in their blazers and tapered jeans.
Saturday night’s headliner, fame-hungry (or is it weary?) British rapper Mike Skinner, a.k.a. the Streets, fronted a live band for a surprisingly subdued, R&B-flavored set. Skinner energized the throng despite relaxed, silky smooth arrangements that at times veered perilously close to Club Med-friendly, beachy orchestrations. Perhaps it was just the flutter keyboards and dub-like grooves that accented songs like “Let’s Push Things Forward” — which Skinner and his band completely remade — but live, some of the Streets’ songs lost their skittish, homemade edge; it’s that extra zest that makes his music feel unique, compelling and a bit reckless. Still, he turned in a professional set and even had some fun, splicing lines from the Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” into his “Don’t Mug Yourself.” And his hook singer bared some toned abs while riffing on the Pussycat Dolls’ hit “Don’t Cha,” tweaking the lyrics to more X-rated fare, singing, “Don’t you wish your boyfriend licked your pussy like me!”
Before the Streets, dynamo British rapper (and sometime Skinner collaborator) Lady Sovereign, joined by a live bassist, riled up the crowd with an aggressive set anchored by her rapid-fire, assured delivery. She previewed “Love Me Or Hate Me,” the first single from her debut LP, Public Warning, due in October, which featured the defiant chorus “If you love me then thank you/ If you hate me then fuck you!” Throughout her seven-song set, the self-proclaimed “biggest midget in the game” exuded a winning “don’t fuck with me” charisma.
In contrast to Skinner, Sunday’s headliner, British post-punk outfit Bloc Party, bristled through an hour of material drawn heavily from their 2005 debut, Silent Alarm. The Kele Okereke-fronted four-piece has been recording its sophomore album in Dublin, and the band unveiled two new songs during their set. “Uniform,” offered midway through, rode on a tangle of moody guitars — very Cure-influenced — and then motored up with Okereke and bassist Gordon Moakes issuing echoing, tag-team vocals. The effect was haunting, especially given the misty, rainy night. Otherwise Bloc Party played like a well-oiled rock outfit, and hits like the rattling “Banquet” closed out the festival with velocity and style.
Earlier on Saturday, Roky Erickson, frontman of the influential psychedelic rock band 13th Floor Elevators, played his first major show outside of Texas in a decade, sporting a fierce, frizzy mullet. Unlike his hair, though, Erickson’s set was all business, loaded with sober, bluesy rockers like “White Faces.” Saturday’s bill also supplied blip-heavy sets by Japan’s the Boredoms — featuring four drummers facing each other in brightly colored T-shirts — and original Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface who, after a slow start, turned the stage into an all-out dance party filled with gyrating crowd members.
On Sunday’s overcast afternoon, emerging hometown rapper Lupe Fiasco brought a promising show, though his showmanship and performance still needs a bit of fine-tuning. He will release his debut album, Food and Liquor, on August 29th. The album is preceded by the single “Kick Push,” which the rapper performed Sunday, and it was easily a set highlight, buoyant and string-soaked. But Sunday’s best rap performance came from politically charged Dead Prez who brought an impassioned set that intelligently interrogated contemporary political issues like government-endorsed wire tapping and policies on terrorism while still heavy on fist-pumping beats.
Despite the festival’s mellow and friendly vibe, the closest thing to a little brawl came as Jon Brion, best known as a producer, played a loose and frankly rambling set of covers joined at times by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ piano master Benmont Tench. As a soundcheck for former Guided By Voices singer Robert Pollard’s set commenced across the field, Brion chided that pesky drummer to at least “keep it steady” and support his tunes. In the end, Brion stretched out his set and delayed the crusty but thoroughly rocking Pollard who remarked from stage: “I don’t know that guy who played before us was, but how dare he cut into our set!” Then, undeterred, Pollard barreled into his next number, embodying the festival — and Chicago’s — m.o. this summer: Don’t stop. Just keep the tunes flowing.