By Mark Guarino
Chicago’s evolution from a swamp has resonance in a music festival that each year evolves from a garbage truck depository. In this city, beauty can be cultivated from unlikely places and the 12th annual Hideout Block Party may just be the unlikeliest
The Hideout’s charm is presenting music against the backdrop of a grade school pageant, an aesthetic that’s super-sized when club organizers move the programming out the front door and onto the neighboring grounds of the city’s fleet management complex. In a crowded music season when sleek, corporate festivals tend to resemble one another, the homespun spirit of this weekend festival makes it the most eclectic and enjoyable.
Saturday’s bill was stacked with world music, the most exciting entry being the Plastic People of the Universe, a seven-member ensemble from the Czech Republic that, at the start of their 40 years together, battled Soviet rule to emerge as heroes of free expression. (Their struggle is central to “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the Tom Stoppard play that will arrive at the Goodman next year.) The group played a compelling hybrid of punk and jazz, trading vocals among its members and switching from big rock riffs to spacey interludes, driven by the psychedelic counterpoints of saxophone and violin. When Vancouver’s Black Mountain followed with a similar approach, they backtracked into hippie clichés.
Monotonix, an Israeli trio known for gonzo theatrics, lived up to their reputation when, in the midst of garage rock chaos, singer Ami Shalev took to the crowd while half-naked inside a garbage can; It was a sweaty, obnoxious hit. More subdued was the charismatic Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure whose bluesy guitar leads flickered against a two-beat dance rhythm.
Neko Case, a Canadian whose musical life took off when she lived in Chicago, returned home to headline. New songs from an album-in-progress didn’t stray far from her signature sound that evoked open skies, desert horizons and post-midnight laments. Unlike her role in the New Pornographers, the Canadian band that closed Sunday, Case’s solo work begins and ends with her honeyed and giant vocals, immediately summoning both the yearning and sorrow of country gospel.
Yet the day’s highlight was uniquely Chicagoan. Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks hosted “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” a quasi-variety set honoring Michael Jackson’s 50th birthday year. Fulks, Chicago’s most fertile musical mind, presented songs from a lost album he recorded but never released of Jackson covers starting from The Jackson 5 days to a rootsy transformation of “Billie Jean.”
Guest vocalists, puppets, young tots drinking “Jesus juice” and day-glo jumpsuits were topped by South Side rapper Rhymefest who led the “Thriller” dance, with bar staff as zombies. Downsized, the King of Pop became just one of the regulars on Wabansia Ave.