Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Intonation Inundation

I'm way late in blogging about the Intonation Festival in Chicago last weekend - it's been met with a variety of overarchingly positive reactions (barring Kelefa Sanneh's ax-grinding snarkfest in the NY Times) in the mainstream press, focusing on how smoothly it ran and how spectator-friendly it was. My feelings on it echo Tom Breihan's musings here and here, and David Raposa unpacks the problems with Sanneh's article here. I think David nails the sort of insidious assumption inherent in Sanneh's argument, the "anti-rockist" stance that reacts against the discredited indie one of "unpopular music is better than popular music" - namely, that only music of the highest profile is worthwhile. It echoes a comment made by Xgau (who, make no mistake, I usually respect) that the Pitchfork staff is comprised of "tyros opining for chump change." I've got no real beef with the tyros part, but the insinuation that relevance is directly proportional to payscale is disappointing, coming from someone usually possessed of a more complex intellect.

I'm late in blogging about Intonation because I'm sick as hell - started coming down with a cold on Friday, held it at bay with beer, adrenaline, medicine and massive doses of water all weekend. But when I got home, sobered up, and calmed down, it blossomed into a full-blown fluish thing that's burning through Chapel Hill like a brush fire. I'm thankful that it only slowed me down a little over the weekend. My flight was delayed coming in to O'Hare on Saturday, and by the time my friends Brent and Tana (who were kind enough to let me sleep on the floor of their bedroom all weekend, and who were just amazing hosts, going out of their way to make my trip to Chicago a good one) met me at the airport, took me back to their place to clean up, and took me to lunch at a great restaurant called Earwax, it was nearly four o'clock before we made it to Union Park. The highlight of day one had to be the Go! Team, who gathered a bunch of local children (who I'd noticed dancing outside the festival gates during Broken Social Scene's set) onstage to dazzle us all with an unspeakably adorable dance party. Although my body felt battered and bruised, I rallied for long enough to swing by the staff afterparty at a remote bar called The Hideout, then collapsed on Brent and Tana's floor to sleep more deeply than I have in years. Day two was even stronger - although I arrived late again (missing Thunderbirds are Now!'s reportedly scorching set), I caught amazing sets by Dungen, Xiu Xiu (rocking the autoharp like a Strat), Out Hud (dance fucker dance), the Hold Steady (fake arena rock gone real arena rock), Deerhoof (intense and unhinged), and Les Savy Fav (the usual near-nudity and sense of impending violence). I skipped the Pitchfork hangout that night to catch up with an old friend at the Bucktown Pub. The coolest thing about it all was that while people usually only see Pitchfork's snarky, snooty side, here a truer picture of the people who make the site was writ large on the broad apron of Union Park - a bunch of people who seriously love some fucking music.

I spent Monday taking in the amazing Toulouse-Lautrec/Montmartre exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago: A collection of paintings, lithographs, proofs and drawings by artists who frequented and immortalized the vibrant, bawdy, bohemian environs of late-19th-century Montmartre, a hilltop fringe region of Paris dotted with windmills, brothels, cafes and music halls (including the iconic Moulin Rouge and Chat Noir). Besides T-L, it included works by Cheret (an important T-L influence, often credited as the father of the modern poster), Degas (T-L was a huge admirer of Degas, although the feeling was apparently not mutual), van Gogh (we can see traces of van Gogh's colorful crosshatching in many of T-L's drawings and paintings), Picasso, Casas and Steinlen (a Swiss painter and lithographer who created the iconic black cat image for Chat Noir). Through these some 250 works, a vivid picture of this precise historical moment emerges: Most striking is the despair lurking just beneath the surface of these exuberant, lurid images, a tension born of class conflict. Upper-class Parisians could escape to Montemarte for a bit of thrilling slumming, but for the brothel-workers and barmaids, there was no escape: What was a seamy diversion for the upper class was the sum of their lot in life, and the isolation and weariness undercutting the endless party is a subtle but undeniable feature of many flyers and paintings that celebrated the period.

The buzz I acquired from the exhibit was soon enough dulled by the trip home, which I mentally refer to as the "hell-berth." We boarded the plane at a little before five, but due to bad weather, we didn't take off until about eight. My seatmates were a nurse from Kansas named Bunny and her granddaughter Rainy Day, who was brutally insane. We got off to a rough start - Bunny asked if I was a Marine, and I recoiled in horror. Do I look like a Marine? But after that we chatted pleasantly enough - Bunny told me she was returning Rainy Day to her mother, a tattoo artist and musician (I did not get the whole story here, although Bunny's elliptical telling of it had elements of the sinister). Things took a turn for the worse when Bunny and Rainy Day began playing games like Rock Paper Scissors over and over, and another that I call "You're the Fishy", which pretty much entailed Rainey Day sticking her finger in Bunny's face as if it were a hook and screaming, "You're the fishy!" Having overdosed on music over the weekend, I put the Album Leaf on my iPod, which is about as close as music can get to silence. But then the battery died and I was defenseless. This was all in the first hour of the five I would spend in close quarters with Bunny and Rainy Day. At this point Bunny decided she would read Harry Potter and the Bucket of Mystery or whatever the fuck the new one is for the remainder of the trip, ignoring Rainy Day's frantic questions until the child had asked them, with increasing shrillness, at least twenty times apiece. Upon finally reaching the airport, I ran into my friend, the poet Chris Vitiello, gibbered at him incoherently about the ordeal for a few minutes, and went home to curl into the fetal position and quietly weep myself to sleep.


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