Mission Creek 2018: A look back

It is impossible for any one person to offer a complete perspective on the Mission Creek Festival (MCF), as even the avid attendee is still limited to one body and one set of guiding preferences. More than most years I became aware of my limitations as a reviewer and the radically different possibilities for what MCF means, is and becomes. As the festival has matured, I’ve become increasingly impressed by the staff’s prescient attunement to artists and alignments that allow the events to showcase individual aesthetic greatness in ways that simultaneously recognize the context of the surrounding world and offer opportunities to find joy within it.

Overall, I think that, as a whole event, the 2018 MCF was the best that has yet been presented — and this is despite the fact that the lineup lacked something like Warpaint or Ben Frost that thrilled me when announced. One thing that helped, I think, was that the festival itself was more manageable. Although I love the Trumpet Blossom and do not dislike Blue Moose, having the vast majority of the performances housed among the Mill, Gabe’s and the Englert consolidated both travel among venues and helpfully limited the things I wanted to see. I realized this year that having only one body and an abundance of good things only means that much more that I will need to miss.

Xylouris White performing at The Mill as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Wednesday, April 4, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Two stand out acts that were the kind of unexpected delights that I’ve come to recognize as the true genius of MCF were Xylouris White at the Mill, Wednesday and Algiers at Gabe’s, Thursday. Xylouris White, comprised of two master musicians, invited audience to sit in the space between two worlds that would occasionally overlap in a powerful surge, but more often would invite audience members to create the song within the space between drum, lute and voice. It was a form of storytelling, a plot of passion and the rise and fall of conflict into a resolution that sounded familiar even though the lyrics were in Greek. It showed how defamiliarized contexts provide an excellent, entirely new way to appreciate the stories that music tells and made even more powerful the times when the musicians seemed to intentionally fuse their visions for musical genius. Something gentle and beautiful shone through the tones of the songs, especially those with the audacity to reach toward a crescendo before collapsing into catharsis.

Algiers was a gift: insanely talented musicians who were willing to howl beautifully about the injustice of the world. I still cannot say what kind of music they play; their relentless openness to the truth of the sound they make together moves from gospel to rock, from soul to jazz. Although I tend to stand at the back of most performances, Algiers didn’t make sense to me until I moved to the front and watched Franklin James Fisher, the lead vocalist, pray his songs into the microphone. Like Xylouris White, Algiers was able to open me to a kind of sound I never would have known could exist until they invented it. The opportunity to watch these men create music were true gifts.

Dessa closes out night one of the Mission Creek Festival at Gabe’s. Tuesday, April 3, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

That said, what was most impressive to me, was the way that the festival foregrounded female performers. Especially in the shadow of #metoo, which has highlighted how male artists fuel their art in dehumanizing ways, this curatorial emphasis was in itself a potent education about how women make art. Within this subset, of course, there was an amazing range: Dessa, on Tuesday, showcased how women can provide powerful, muscular performances. She was hyper-articulate, playing to a packed house as she dropped rhymes and held notes over a delicious blend of band and sample, bridging a space between hip hop and jazz singer that was previously unknown to me. What impressed me most about the performance, however, was her skill: she was incredibly self-aware and moved with precision and grace; her hands, face and body became instruments as much as her voice.

Wednesday night’s conversation, featuring Roxane Gay, Amber Tamblyn and Jessica Hopper allowed me, as a white man, to witness how art and humor are born in a way that I often cannot. The conversation was frank, vulnerable, witty and insightful, and it dealt not only with general issues that face artists passionate about creating honest art, but also specifically with the particular problems that women still face today. As Tamblyn pointed out, getting a contract means that a woman is granted a reprieve from being rejected by a room filled with men. Because men were welcomed into the Englert, I appreciated that the women on stage had the courage to speak with candor about what they face and how they deal with it. Because most popular culture assumes heterosexual, cisgender, white men as the default audience, it was refreshing to hear an entirely different perspective and set of assumptions than what the world too often reflects.

Authors Amber Tamblyn, Roxane Gay, and Jessica Hopper in coversation at Englert Theatre. Wednesday, April 4, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

One specific example was a set of comments concerning representation. Tamblyn mentioned trying to remain aware that white women have tended to lead with blindspots and to remain attentive to doing differently. Gay, commenting on both her work with Marvel Comics and the backlash against her response to the new Roseanne, mentioned feeling it “awesome that a black woman can control the conversation,” and how few men seem willing to allow a woman have things to say that they don’t agree with. Hopper discussed the heartbreak of having people act like she had succeeded in being liberated from white male corporate oppression — which forces her to choose between being a token woman who speaks for all women or (as she has realized) finding that female voices are altogether excluded.

Thursday night was revelatory of the genius of Mission Creek: I found that I arrived to each location only to be asked by an awed friend if I’d seen the show that had just concluded. But even on this night, when I stumbled into solid performances and was too late to see genius, I found myself content. I stayed too long at the Weepies, whom I’d long heard praised but had never seen. The performance was exactly what I thought it would be, from candlelit shrines at the front of the stage to childlike pictures projected on the screen and walls. The songs seemed like the Platonic ideal of pop radio — better than what you’d hear, but anchored in that dimension, with catchy and easily understood hooks and choruses. There was something weird about the comfort that it caused, though, as though I had fallen into a Wes Anderson movie without any irony to balance the sweetness of the perfection.

The Weepies on stage at Englert Theatre as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Thursday, April 5, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Seeing this made me miss Counterfeit Madison, whom I had very much hoped to see and very much regretted missing, as many told me that it was the best show Mission Creek has ever hosted. I made it to see Horse Feathers provide a solid, if overly poppy, version of their songs. Eventually, things congealed and I heard the tones that seem most proper to the band: warm sunlight on a frost-cold ground with something raw and rooted tapping down, deep, toward vernal warmth, where a hope that nothing is lost and everything aches to be found persists. I left the Mill to descend into the unfortunately brightly lit basement of the Yacht Club, whose silence announced loudly that I had missed Laurel Halo. By the time I made it to Gabe’s, Cakes Da Killa was concluding a set that the crowd, like remnants of ghosts eager to dance longer into the night despite denying the sun, was reluctant to allow to end.

Friday night I arrived to watch Margaret Glaspy, who had impressed me two years ago opening for the Milk Carton Kids. Her voice opened textures within notes, set off with sparse notes of a guitar so delicately caressed that it allowed the audience to hear the space of connection where the two sounds met. It was a riveting performance, including the best rendition of “Harvest Moon” I’ve ever heard. The set preserved joy in melancholy the way that a golden leaf in autumn reflects the sun that once nourished it.

Margaret Glaspy performs at Englert Theatre as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Friday, April 6, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Wye Oak followed, and Jenn Wasner belted out both new songs from the album released just that day and old favorites — hearing “Civilian” and “Holy, Holy” performed live was excellent consolation for missing Horse Lords playing at Gabe’s at the same time. If Glaspy’s voice was a sunbeam, Wasner provided a potent furnace of sound and joy, an unavoidable warmth that met listeners without delay. After they concluded, I moved over to the Mill to watch S. Carey perform his gorgeous sonic haze, his falsetto floating over a repetition of chords fusing into a horizon of light that seemed similar to, although gentler than, the source of inspiration familiar to Wye Oak.

I started my Saturday with a visit to the book fair, which seemed smaller than past years but still filled with a buzz of curiosity and camaraderie. I left to Big Grove in order to catch Alexis Stevens, singing with John from Nadalands and Lonelyhearts. Arriving early allowed me to watch Alexis perform her “Unsteady Youth” with some of the women from the Family Folk Machine, a gorgeous performance of a beautiful ode to Iowa City and the dream of living well. I returned to Big Grove later to watch Tristen, who headlined the free musical showcase there. The Nashville-based band’s performance was unfortunately overshadowed by the atmosphere, which had transformed the venue into a bar first and stage second. The band did not wither with a lack of fans, but they did seem like an oasis in a desert of inattention.

Returning downtown, I peeked into the Englert to watch a few songs by Squirrel Flower before moving to Gabe’s, where I confronted a massive crowd packed in to watch Built to Spill (although I kicked myself for missing BStar, whose performance added to the growing swarms of fans). Doug Marsch’s band, a three piece in its iteration here, unveiled hit after hit to the happy audience. Although their records are excellent, the band truly shines in live environments, when Marsch’s guitar prowess comes to the foreground and the musicians can meditate on a theme within a song, deepening it and expanding the core of the whirl of sound. The lack of two guitars made the band less overpowering, but no less incredible.

Julien Baker perfoming at Englert Theatre on the fifth night of the Mission Creek Festival. Saturday, April 7, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

I left early in order to catch Julien Baker at the Englert. Baker was the performer I had been most excited to see, and she did not disappoint. Like Glaspy, her instrumentation is often sparse, which the Englert reflected in its choice of lighting: The few bulbs or spotlights did more to illuminate darkness than dispel it. This is Baker’s music as well: Few artists have found the raw courage required to carry the beauty out from sorrow and illuminate everyday life with something simultaneously fragile and potent. Her stage banter reflects this deep attunement: In apologizing for a small technical difficulty, she stated: “Mistakes shatter the ruse of having it together so we can all just be vulnerable with each other.”

Baker bared herself on the stage with guitar and keys, and the addition of a violinist did more to add depth than to create a sense of clutter. Baker’s genius comes with poetic lyrics that detail the crisis of anguish and self-destruction with a music that holds the joy of overcoming. The notes and words sustained to the perfection of cracking and spilling their light into the room, falling into a silence that was exposed as the foundation underneath each note in every song. This tension unfolded most vividly in “Rejoice,” which married the secular and the sacred in a humble prayer of gratitude, and which is a moment in my life I hope to carry with me until my body disintegrates into dust: It is a testament to the conviction required to live well, and the creative ways that humans can still attest to what is holy even in a broken world. The whole of the theater was silent, rapt, unified, undone. Time passed too quickly.

Sunday night was a culmination of everything that made MCF 2018 the treat that it was, showing how featuring women and people of color allows everyone access to dynamic modalities of making and experiencing art. Ancient Posse, the first opener, was revelatory for me in showing the importance of dance and embodiment in the creation of music. I had always dismissed dance as part of the spectacle of the kinds of music that hopes to distract from the inadequacy of lyrics or the formulaic nature of the song structure. In this case, dance took the space of the chorus in a way that allowed even me to understand how it belonged. Psalm One, a growing community favorite, expanded on this foundation by singing sex-positive songs that celebrated the female body rather than showing it as an object of consumption or degradation. This was not done at the expense of masculinity, or whiteness; instead, the whole of the Englert joined together to dance, to laugh, to sing, to celebrate.

Jamilla Woods closes out the Mission Creek Festival at Englert Theatre. Sunday, April 8, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

Jamila Woods was the perfect culmination, both of the evening and of the festival as a whole. Supported by incredible musicians, her songs and stories featured a smooth, warm delivery that encouraged and activated the community to gather together, dancing and singing along. What impressed me most, however, was the conscious way that Woods appropriated various elements from popular culture into something new and beautiful. Whether the song was inspired by the Cure, Rage Against the Machine or Nirvana — or if it was one of her own creation — was irrelevant. Her delivery and arrangement showed that the song was fully appropriate to her and her band. The incorporation of poetry into music — noticeable different from the hip-hop and her songs — was an excellent tip of the hat to ways that Woods is on the forefront of popular culture. Woods’ performance defied categorization in a way that reminded me of both Xylouris White and Algiers — music that built on the black experience but saw the value in white American culture and reintegrated it in a way that was open and accessible to everyone in the crowd.

Having attended Mission Creek since its second year (and I still regret missing Tapes n’ Tapes as the inaugural show), I feel confident in saying that this year marks an important shift in the maturation process of the festival. More slender, the programming was far more refined, more intentional, more cohesive. While not every show was the best ever, almost every performance and reading left people talking and thinking about the nature of art. Rather than a festival filled with empty calories meant to be consumed unthinkingly, this year presented a line up of authors and musicians that culminated in a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. It did so in a way that was not reactive against the hatred, vitriol, lies and confusion that dominate the political scene but in a way that proactively showed a corrective.

I have always enjoyed Mission Creek but have never before left feeling edified, as though I was a better person for having attended. That happened this year, and it makes me even more excited to see how MCF 2019 will continue to build upon and develop this foundation. More than merely showcasing artists from marginalized communities, MCF 2018 showed that it was also capable of creating a community worthy of appreciating cutting edge art and artists as collaborators in making the world worthy of courage. It did so by neither ignoring nor attacking problems, but by showing how joy and peace arise in the midst of turbulence through remaining creative and innovative. MCF 2018 as a whole was worthy of the best of its performers, which is the highest compliment that I can think to pay.

Until next year: think, create, observe, dance, dream. Rejoice.