Mission Creek Retrospective
Unlike the past four years, when Mission Creek has brought in the artist(s) responsible for my favorite albums from prior ten months (see: Exit Music, Warpaint, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Ben Frost), this year’s lineup announcement had left me feeling oddly indifferent. I had enjoyed Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp when it was released, but it wasn’t an album that struck me enough to garner frequent repeat listens. The same was true of Kurt Vile’s b’lieve i’m goin down, which seemed a pleasant but unnecessary addition to his oeuvre. I had been a fan of The Joy Formidable’s first album, but hadn’t bothered getting their latest two.
At the same time, my past (and extensive) history with the festival had taught me that my favorite performances were often from bands I had not previously encountered (see especially: Wye Oak, Kurt Vile). I recognized the quality of the literary side of Mission Creek, which was stacked with rock stars, but have found that I tend to be more transfixed by the magic of making music than hearing words read aloud. The week turned out to be a pleasant surprise to me, and what I offer is not an objectively critical review of the musicianship or quality of each band nor even a subjective account of my week. Instead, this is a poetic response to the bands that I saw — an attempt to recreate written snapshots of the moments I found most (and least) satisfying.
Tyondai Braxton and Dawn of Midi:
Something prayerful permeated the Englert’s atmosphere before Tyondai Braxton took the stage, which held a black table with white cords. A smoke machine emitted fog. The backdrop was stark: white dots on a black curtain like snow stuck in time. Lights streamed from the sides and the top, painting the stage with streaks of dim white. The devotees in the audience were silent as the somber bass erupted out, waiting for the arrival of something more. Their patience was rewarded: Minutes into the song, joyful sparkles of sound melodized from the keyboard. Bouncing rhythms accompanied these, introducing a physical anchor to a rapturous experience. Tones like spherical globules of light exploded into the ears, moving the audience into a sensory abundance that seemed to illuminate the still stark surroundings. The experience revealed a depth to prayer not often found in my experience of churches, a joyful depth perhaps accompanying a mystic’s realization of forgiveness. Braxton stayed anchored in place before the table, but one sensed the intense thought required to hold the songs together through the disparity of sounds.
Dawn of Midi’s performance built on this opener, as the redlit trio offered a response to Braxton’s sounds. Their three instruments merged together with intricate precision, marrying the simple sounds into a symphonic burst of profound complexity. The repetitions that anchored each song invited the audience in deeper with each recurrence. In this, the simplicity of the bass and drums allowed the melodies to become more welcome, more pronounced, more distinctive. They exerted no new visible effort as they quickened their tempo, but the effect was a richer experience.
The Mill was filled with onlookers, chatting and drinking. The heat from the standing room only show fell short of oppressive, but outer layers, shed, littered the interior. While I was present, the band played a more relaxed set than I had witnessed before. By the fourth song, I still had not found a spot in the Mill’s interior that seemed suitable to sustain the length of the set. Thus, when I was notified that Son Lux, at Gabe’s, was the show not to be missed, I left. Such is the blessing and curse of Mission Creek and instant communication. The talk after Deer Tick was that it had been incredible, but the memories are not mine to offer.
I had not heard of Son Lux before Mission Creek, and had not planned to watch their set. I ascended the stairs to the upper level of Gabe’s and saw the band beneath cosmic lights. The crowd’s energy was infused with that of the band’s. Some of the songs seemed almost reminiscent of an ’80s’ movie soundtrack from another planet, heavily synthesized cosmic jams anchored by precise drumming and deftly delivered vocals. A lone hula hoop-er spun in solitary circles toward the back of the crowd, engaged in the performance in a more solitary way.
This was the set that I had been most excited for during the night. The last of the headliners to perform, and starting a bit later than the announced time, meant that the crowds had thinned by the time she began. The brick walled basement of the Yacht Club offered the best backdrop for the set, quickly apparent as she unleashed a raw, beautiful blues set. She is young, but talented, with a voice far more rough and wise than her years would indicate. Talent emerges like this, it seems — an unearned mastery developed in practice, opening like a gift to the crowd from unfathomable depths. The backing band provided a perfect complement to her vocals, which crescendoed and crashed with a visceral beauty. More than anything else I saw this night, her performance itself added to the quality of the sound produced. She stared at the crowd with an intense gaze that merged a southern gothic power with a sense of intense vulnerability.
The anguish that spoke through the songs was explicitly rooted in the injustices of 21st century America: her powerful “Helling Shame,” which started with the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” was dedicated to Emmett Till — a black boy murdered following the rumor he had flirted with a white woman. Ending the performance with the statement “Black Lives Matter” provided the perfect counterpoint for the continuing need for the blues, and songs that speak to the suffering of those whose voices are too frequently ignored. The set was not dedicated solely to suffering, however — the power of the performance was transposed into more upbeat blues songs as her voice lifted above the keys, drums, and guitar with a whispered gladness.
Everything Everything and The Joy Formidable:
I was wholly underwhelmed by Everything Everything, whose repetitive band name became clarified as they attempted to fuse parts of a variety of genres into their overlong 45 minute set.
The Joy Formidable, following, also lived up to their name. They performed beneath a Ralph Steadman-esque sign, splattered with their name, as their music pounded and soared and the red, white and blue lights pumped through the haze. The sense of jubilant bliss that had attracted me to their record initially came through even more clearly in a live setting, as the audience in the Englert gladly left their seats to move toward the stage, filling the aisles, jumping, clapping, singing. The graceful urgency that motivates much of their music infected us. They started with hits from their first album but quickly moved to new, and even unreleased, material. Unlike Everything Everything, whose loud frenzied songs seemed artificial, The Joy Formidable delivered sounds that were generally anthemic without bombast.
The Wandering Bears and PHOX:
I had heard The Wandering Bears play a few years ago, and appreciated the opportunity to hear them again — even though it meant missing the encore of The Joy Formidable. I took the brisk walk to the Mill and found my way to the side of the stage where the band, three-quarters of the way done with their set, were clearly having fun. While I didn’t regret watching The Joy Formidable, I was impressed enough by the final twenty minutes of the set to acquire one of the Wandering Bear’s albums, and have been impressed, since, with the unhurried splendor in which they invite me to indulge.
PHOX appeared next. I had first heard of PHOX when they were named as a headliner for The Witching Hour and, for no apparent reason, had decided that they were not a band I would enjoy. I decided to listen to them on Thursday, anyway, and was glad I opted to give them a chance: The sextet is warm and charming, in a genuine way. A lightness and warmth permeates their songs, emerging honestly from the depths of the collected instruments and vocals. The sweet texture of the sounds reminded me of honey as it settles into a hot toddy on a cold winter night, or, better: The way the twilight feels in June, when the air retains the remains of the sun, lingering pleasantly through the wafting fragrances of green growth. This effect was induced primarily through the rich performance of the pianist, whose grace notes set off the vocals against the rest of the band, adding complexity without distracting from the songs. What I found most special about this performance was a sense of grace. For PHOX, grace emerges most clearly in their sad songs — they’re written from the perspective of forgiveness. The vocals emerge with a sense of merciful recognition as they detail the hard things humans do to each other, especially in the context of love — there’s no fear, no pain, no anger, no shame, no punishment. I was left feeling inspired, myself, to become more courageous in accepting the tragedies that befall us as we move throughout the world.
GOSH! and Waxahatchee:
I got to the Mill in time for dinner and a table, which meant appearing in time to hear GOSH!, a Rock Island band that opened for Waxahatchee. GOSH! provided an attempt at minimalism: two drums, two guitars, two vocalists. Unlike Dawn of Midi, who had used the repetition to develop a complex tapestry, the effect of GOSH! was one that was distractingly boring. I would lose the ability to focus on a song, turn away and then return once again to remembering that they were playing.
Waxahatchee, a solo show featuring Katie Crutchfield and a guitar, presented a far richer example of minimalism. Her songs feature melancholic resignation from a perspective that has seen the broken features of the world and realizes that little new will interrupt this. As she began her performance, I was still sitting on the outskirts of the crowd — but I quickly realized that not everyone in the crowd cared to appreciate the rich nuance of fingers on nylon strings. I moved away from the conversations and laughter at odds with the sounds she provided and moved closer to the stage. Relieved of that jarring backdrop, I could hear her voice — rich and thick vocals in the air. She sings with more quick words than long vowels, telling stories rather than using her sound to create images.
Esme Patterson and San Fermin:
From The Mill I went to Gabe’s, in time to see Esme Patterson. Her voice was strong and her ideas worthwhile, although her vocal range did not seem to captivate the crowded space. It was unfortunate, given the talent and earnest openness she and the band delivered. A mix of new songs and old favorites went largely unheard beyond those true fans standing within the first thirty feet of the stage. The last song, infused with more punk than pop, caught the attention of the larger crowd and it showed a hopeful direction for a band whose softer sounds seemed insufficient for this night, in this place.
San Fermin was a generous band that shared the stage better than most ensembles, instrumentalists taking turns at the front of the stage. The baritone sax and the low tones of the male vocalist reminded me a bit of Morphine, at times, although the eclectic melodies and rhythms dispelled this just as quickly. The female vocals soared over her counterpart’s offerings providing a striking, although not wholly integrated, offering. A top pop sensibility or accessibility seemed at the foundation of the band in spite of its varied instrumentation, transforming its sound into an interesting and pleasant blend of what one might find on the radio at 2 a.m. The band fused their sounds idiosyncratically, making them their own, within an internal frequency that I enjoyed but was not gripped by. Although none of the songs stuck, the nature of the band and their open style of performance did. It left me hopeful that San Fermin would continue to explore beyond pop formulas in future recordings and performances, that they could brave weirder territories than they seemed ready to do at this point.
Purling Hiss and Kurt Vile:
I had seen Purling Hiss perform twice before, and this performance was the best yet. Playing without his band allowed the talent of Mike Polizze to emerge into the foreground. As usual, his vocals were mixed into the background as his looped guitar, intricately timed, flooded the space of the Englert.
Kurt Vile drew the largest crowd of the festival, far larger than his first appearance at Mission Creek a few years before. The set began at a languid pace as his vocals, too, were mumbled beneath the noise of guitar and drum. There was an unsteadiness to the first part of the set — it sounded as though the band was enforcing control over an urgent song emerging beneath it, as though they were steering the crowd over turbulent waters without fear or worry. The band allows no space for concern or anxiety; a mellow mood spread among each person present. The first portion of the set provided an atmosphere that held me rapt, but not enthralled: It was as though the barrier they laid over the tension within the music kept me distant from both it and others around me. Many stood in the front and in the aisles, but with a stillness that contrasted with the corporate frenzy that marked the explosive gathering engineered by The Joy Formidable, or last year’s Sunday performance by Father John Misty.
Halfway thorough, the band began to meld together as though some internal barrier had finally relaxed. Their sound became a hazy pillow upon which I could float, propelled upward by the slow bass vibrating the walls and floors without punishing the ears — it was a perfect frequency to feel the sound without being tormented by it.
The band left Vile alone with a guitar, and it created a renewed sense of intimacy with the performer — and within the crowd, also, whose movements seemed to match that of the band. When the band returned, they maintained the intimate spirit Vile’s softer songs allowed. They performed in a more united spirit and the crowd sensed this, responding far more enthusiastically to the ends of songs. The languid creature that had clung to the beginning of the set seemed to have relaxed its grip, allowing a more rich sound and experience to slowly seep into the Englert’s spaces.
The encore was a fourth kind of show. Vile appeared on stage, alone, and offered a virtuoso performance. No barriers of any kind seemed to remain. Rejoined by the band, they built an encore faithful to the relaxed nature of Vile’s performance but appropriating all of the power of this chilled foundation to provide the audience with a unifying sense of having witnessed something great.
Overall, this year’s Mission Creek was a very different experience than its earlier incarnations. I was not as floored by any individual performance as I had been by bands I had been more familiar with, or more prone to love. Even as the literary side drew more impressive names, the musical side seemed smaller — more intimate, more diverse. I appreciated, nonetheless, the work of the committee in providing Iowa City with a range of spectacles and aesthetic opportunities. Not least among them was inviting a host of performers — some which I saw, others that I did not (including the majority of the hip-hop offerings, and the performance by Saul Williams that I was sad to miss) — that broke away from a music industry that continues to be dominated by white men.
As a middle aged white man, I’m perhaps overly familiar with and attuned to sounds and experiences provided by an industry that caters to my demographic as central, or given. This year’s Mission Creek allowed me the experience of remaining on the periphery, both in terms of the music I generally gravitate toward and the background of the musicians. Although it was not the kind of gift I have enjoyed from the ridiculous richness of past Mission Creek lineups that seemed designed around my personal playlists, it was a gift that left me thoughtful, grateful, and more humbly aware of my limitations than I had been before.