The last time I went to a music festival was two years and two months ago, AthFest in Athens, Georgia, the town I called home until a few weeks ago. And while I’ve seen live music here and there during the pandemic, I have really missed the festival atmosphere: the food trucks, the ambient music and all the moving pieces.
Moving to Iowa City feels like stepping into the bizarre-o Midwest version of Athens: both are liberal towns in otherwise red states, and home to flagship universities. Driving through miles of cornfields reminds me of growing up on a cattle farm, surrounded by endless stretches of cotton fields.
Except there are barely any billboards, so when the sky opens up, you feel a little vulnerable, like someone could be watching.
“That’s Midwest gothic for you,” said my friend, Mikaela. She’s a short Shakespeare scholar with bleached hair, unchecked road rage and a decade-long My Chemical Romance obsession. I’d been sleeping in her guest bedroom since January after my last housing situation fell through.
I spent my first week in Iowa City in an uncanny-valley daze, which made all the small differences louder. My eyes would flicker up to a traffic light only to see empty space, the lights a few feet higher than normal, or standing off to the side.
I’m disorientated. My internal compass just keeps spinning. What in the world is a Menards? Kum & Go? They sound like fake names Thomas Pynchon would write, an inside joke I walked in on after the punchline.
When my ex-girlfriend moved to South Bend, Indiana, she said the water was heavier. I had no idea what she meant until I took a shower in my apartment my first night here. I bought a water filter online. It hasn’t arrived yet, so my usually curly hair is a wreck. She says I should use clarifying shampoo.
And of course there’s less humidity. I wake up to a dry mouth and slightly sunken eyes. I considered buying a humidifier to terraform my tiny apartment, but that seems like overkill.
Instead, I carry two water bottles in my backpack, plus Chapstick and lotion. Here’s a trick to look less dead in the mornings: concealer under the eyes, blush and highlighter on the cheekbones.
None of these differences in Iowa City are terrible, except maybe the water. It’s closer to environmental jet lag. My body hasn’t adjusted yet.
There are things I already love about Iowa City — living within walking distance to bookstores, cafés and FilmScene. Is it obvious that I was an English literature student? I love walking past massive murals and seeing local Shakespeare productions. It gives the city a personality.
The Iowa River is beautiful, and it makes me feel comfortable. Calm. The grass is softer here; not Connecticut soft, but much easier to nap on than scratchy Bermuda grass. I’m excited to have regular snow, but we’ll see midway through winter if or when the novelty wears thin. I can remember each snowfall in Georgia, less than five days in my lifetime.
But what’s Midwest music like?
Athens is the birthplace of R.E.M., the B-52s and other great alterative and indie rock sounds, though my personal go-tos are Nihilist Cheerleader for angry guitar punk, Calico Vision for psychedelic slacker rock, Misnomer for jazz and finally, Linqua Franqua, the hip-hop artist and city commissioner who also spoke at my graduation.
I purposefully avoided Googling the bands ahead of Grey Area 2021, instead opting to listen to Midwest emo revival playlists on Spotify. I remember Mikaela giving me a presentation about how Midwest emo differs from post-hardcore emo a few months ago. Bands like Cap’n Jazz, American Football and Cursive have a softer, folksier sound than the heavier guitar sound of My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco. I tend to prefer the angsty coziness, but it depends on my mood.
At the start of the pandemic I fell into a David Bowie phase that I haven’t crawled out of. After finishing grad school in December, I was burned out on reading. I listened to hours and hours of Pink Floyd and Nirvana because what else can you do in eight months of unemployment?
For the past few months, I’ve been listening to Sidney Gish, Girl in Red, Left at London, Andie, Phoebe Bridgers, Snail Mail — you may be noticing a trend here — in addition to my regular hits. I added Muse to the mix after watching all the Twilight films on Netflix one weekend.
(Stephanie Meyer, as it turns out, was inspired by My Chemical Romance. And Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance personally witnessed the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, which influenced their music. In true butterfly effect fashion, you can thank Al-Qaeda for giving the world 50 Shades of Grey.)
I drove out to Grey Area with Jason Smith, the videographer for Little Village. He’s tall and speaks his mind. “It’s gonna get me in trouble someday,” he told me a few days earlier.
My phone’s GPS took us along an unfamiliar route with miles of gravel roads. I’m used to driving on dirt roads; now I felt like my car would slide out from under me.
A batch of trees stood out from the fields, which Smith directed me toward. As with most places, I’m realizing, the grounds were surrounded by corn fields. The first thing I heard walking towards the stage wasn’t music but crickets. Between the guitars, drums and general chatter, you can still hear faint chirps and other stridulations.
Grey Area is in a backyard. A large backyard, about 10 acres. There’s enough space for people to set up camp at comfortable distances. Some people had pitched their tents in the thick of tress, while others set up in the open grass.
We walked to the stage through a marshy area. I later learned from Luke Tweedy, the owner of Flat Black Studios and host of Grey Area, that there used to be a pond there. It was polluted with herbicides and pesticides, quickly becoming a lymphoma trap, so he drained it. But that explained the bugs.
The stage connects to a barn, a former corn crib-turned-recording studio. Off to the right is a T-shirt making shed, Tweedy’s house, a few rope swings and a trampoline. To the left is more trees and scattered tents.
We missed most of the first band, Awful Purdies, but I liked what I heard. Honestly, it was a relief to hear live music again. The second act was Logan Springer, from the Quad Cities.
They had a familiar Americana sound with traces of rock. My mind instantly made a Jason Isbell and Neil Young comparison. My intuition was correct, judging from his website. I saw Springer walking around later, handing out free copies of his album Coyote – “kī-yōte.”
It reminded me of music from my hometown, Tifton, Georgia. But Southern Georgia music comes from a different lineage: bluegrass. My father and uncles play in a bluegrass band called the Carpenters. It’s more acoustic, no electric guitars, sometimes no drums. Instead, bluegrass features fiddles and mandolins, or anything that gives you a twangy timbre.
The weather was hot enough, a few clouds and a slight breeze. I brought sunscreen but quickly realized that I didn’t have bug spray. They ignored Smith, but it was hard to take pictures between swatting my legs.
I carried my Canon camera with a telephoto lens, a Sony that I borrowed from Smith and a little notebook. I looked like a reporter. Cameras and big lenses can make people uncomfortable. But some people like to ask questions. As I took a break at the picnic tables, Amy Summers walked up to me. She teaches yoga in Cedar Rapids.
“Are you writing an article about Grey Area?” Summers asked. I told her I was with Little Village, and she sat down at the table beside me.
“How’s it feel to see live music again?” I asked.
“Fucking great,” she said. “It nourishes the soul.”
I told her I just moved to Iowa from the South. She said the culture must feel strange. People have a spiritual connection to the land, she explained. Different land, different people, different culture.
Truthfully, I haven’t been here long enough to say. If you squint, the outlines are the same. It’s the details that change, like a grand-scale mad lib. “Adria weaves through a group of [adjective] [university] students to grab yet another tray of Asian takeout from [restaurant.]”
A word about the people at Grey Area. It was a collection of mostly white people from the 30 and older demographic. Parents brought their kids. Others had their dogs.
I approached a man named Joshua Garr. I thought his beard was cool. He knew Tweedy but had never been Grey Area before, usually too busy. “It’s pretty good so far,” he said. “I’ve been itching for live music.”
Around this time the third band was going on, Fr. They were a guitar and synth duo with a presentation completely their own. Musicians can wear whatever they want. On the street, you’d look twice at a guy with bejeweled underwear overtop striped pants, plus knee high boots, a polka dot shirt and blue dots on his face.
But on the stage, you’re supposed to stare. It’s the whole point. I imagine that’s why people like performing — the range of expression.
I was getting hungry. There was a baby blue food truck that served burritos, nachos and charred corn marinating in butter, of course. “There’s nothing more Iowa than corn,” a woman said as I took a picture.
I ordered a plate of nachos with smoked brisket and jalapeños. I’ve been trying to eat less meat, but today seemed like a special occasion. I probably won’t become a vegetarian, but it’s worth the effort. Besides, the brisket was good.
Low Forms was playing, so I went to grab some images. I couldn’t concentrate on their brand of punk rock music, partly due to digestion. At events I find myself drifting away from the stage and hugging the outskirts, just to see what’s going on. A group tossing frisbees, kids chasing an inflatable ball, people rolling up their sleeping bags or relaxing under foldable canopy tents.
But eventually I’ll hear something that draws me back to stage. In the distance, I saw the matching primary color dresses of Karen Meat and heard an upbeat pop melody. I was enamored with their stage presence, how they interacted with the space and each other.
Arin Eaton, the vocalist, had a lackadaisical, I-don’t-care quality in her voice and stature. She would lay down on the stage and drink during songs. Later she played chords on Dana Telsrow’s guitar and crawled under his legs. “They’re not warmed up yet,” she said, staring up at Telsrow’s crotch.
They’re the type of band that made me want to set my camera aside and enjoy the moment. When I cover an event for an article, it’s difficult to be fully present. As the action unfolds in front of me, I’m thinking about how I’ll describe it. I’ll rack my brain for the right words and start patching together sentences. But Karen Meat turned off my internal editor.
Before the next set, Smith introduced me to Tweedy. Dressed in black with tattoos up his arm, he looks like a man in charge. Tweedy’s vision for Grey Area was to get bands from different genres together and cross-pollinate.
“It was a good way to get people that are part of the same community, but they’re part of a smaller community, to co-mingle,” Tweedy said. “Jazz Fest is gonna be jazz artists. Camp Euphoria is a lot of neo-soul and jam bands. I wanted a little bit of everything.”
I asked him about the impact of pandemic. Walking around, I’d overheard conversations about Moderna, Pfizer and the Delta variant. Despite the optimistic mood, COVID-19 still lingered in the air.
“Last year made me stop and think about what I wanted out of the festival,” he said. “I do feel like in the future we will maybe do more shows that are smaller like this.”
Smith’s cousin Anthony Dreyer performed next. He makes up half of Twin Wizard, a doom rock band. He plays drums while Matt Larson handles guitar and vocals. They look exactly how you’d imagine, long hair and long beards.
I don’t have any metal in my Spotify library. It’s not a genre I seek out. But the experience of listening to a song through headphones is different from watching a band perform live. Same song, but the relationship has changed. As Twin Wizard screams into the microphone and beats cymbals, you’re right there with it. The energy is captivating.
They wrapped up during the final minutes of golden hour. The entire grounds were soaked in beautiful light. I walked to the gravel road to watch the sunset. The one thing I’ll miss from Athens are the sunsets. The sky turns salmon pink with a deep purple in the east. Nothing really compares.
The temperature dropped fast, and I was shivering. I didn’t think to bring warm clothes. I’ll need to leave a jacket in my car from now on. Smith wanted to stay the whole night, and I had heard a lot about Dead Rider, so I decided to stay.
I listened to Condor & Jaybird from the bonfire, letting the pleasant pop rock fill the ambience. A small group sat around the fire talking about how William Gibson’s Neuromancer predicted our present. I haven’t read it, but it was a familiar talking point. I’d read enough Philip K. Dick books to follow along.
The conversation steered through a list of societal anxieties: climate disaster, billionaires exploiting the working class, Jeff Bezos “flying a giant metal dick to rape other planets,” COVID. “I’m not having kids,” a woman said. “I don’t want to bring them up in this.”
I left to watch Tweedy’s band, Sinner Frenz. They play electronic music from a giant synthesizer. A small projector accompanied them. At first it showed abstract kaleidoscope-type imagery. But then it turned into white outlines depicting a protest. Police in riot gear attacked the protestors. The police shifted between human, pig and KKK uniforms. For a few seconds I recognized Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd.
I saw Dead Rider setting up on stage. I remembered talking with JoAnn Larpenter-Sinclair earlier in the day. She’s a hairdresser, owner of Honeybee Hair Parlor and a frequent Grey Area attendee.
“I love Dead Rider,” she said. “They’re always really organic and spontaneous when they perform. They’re one of those bands where every time you go to see a show it’s a little bit different. The only other show I went to, everyone was vaccinated, but it was indoors. And just like, emotionally, I wasn’t quite ready to have people that close to me.”
Wikipedia says they’re an experimental rock band. I heard bird sounds during a song and realized it was one of their tracks. The highlight for me was the drum solo at the end. I played percussion in high school (I also play piano, guitar and a couple other instruments, none all that well). I appreciate when the drummers get a spotlight.
We left after that (apologies to the last act, Feel Free HiFi). I collapsed on my couch at midnight, still sticky with sweat and slightly dehydrated, despite my two water bottles. Sound echoes in my sparse living room. I’m never there for more than a few minutes. The bedroom is more bearable, except for the white walls. I stared up at the slanted ceiling.
Midwest music. Familiar, yet different — just like the rest of Iowa.
Adria Carpenter is Little Village’s new multimedia reporter.