Daily Arts takes on Audiotree Music Festival


“Wait, is that Diet Cig?” Sean said, pointing at a duo as we walked past a mineral water booth. Over the course of one weekend at Audiotree Music Festival, each of us asked a variation on this question about a dozen times. Although it’s common to see musicians hanging out at festivals, something about being in a small crowd in Kalamazoo’s Arcadia Creek Park made these encounters feel even more unique.

2018 marks the sixth year of Chicago-based Audiotree’s annual music festival. Taking place in Kalamazoo, Mich. — which Audiotree’s two founders, Adam Thurston and Michael Johnston, call home — the mid-sized festival brings in a wide range of indie acts, many of them featured at one point or another in one of Audiotree’s various sessions. This year, in addition to the main stage, Audiotree introduced a smaller stage that featured a variety of local bands from Mich. and Chicago. Named the WIDR stage, after Western Michigan University’s (WMU) student radio, the additional performance space ensured that there was never a dull moment in between sets on the main stage.

It seemed like an amazing opportunity for a lot of local bands. Every group on the WIDR stage was either from Mich. or one of its neighboring states. Because the festival takes place in an arguable mecca for DIY alternative music, it is uniquely positioned to choose from a slew of talented bands that just haven’t yet had their moment, despite an abundance of talent.

The WIDR stage was also a result of WMU’s increasing involvement with the festival. Starting last year, Audiotree also partnered with WMU students studying visual arts, organizing a competition in which students could submit art meant to represent an artist playing at the festival. The winners of the competition got to see their work printed on quality 24″ by 36″ cardstock and sold over the course of the weekend.

All weekend long the sun shone brightly and spirits were kept high by a seemingly limitless supply of free bottles of Topo Chico. Once the sun set each day, temperatures dipped to a chilly 55 degrees or so, but headliners Local Natives on Saturday and Father John Misty on Sunday kept us just warm enough. Khruangbin and Real Estate were featured as sub-headliners, and many of the smaller acts managed to draw their own crowds. The Chicago-based Post Animal garnered a healthy audience despite their mid-afternoon time slot on Sunday, and English rock group Basement certainly benefited from being the only pop punk-inclined group to play the fest.

In addition to seeing every band on the main stage, we also got to speak with Common Holly, Diet Cig and Palm. Each interview proved to be unique in its own right: We engaged in some serious astrological philosophizing with Diet Cig, pondered memory and uncertainty with Common Holly and tried to discover how Palm pulls off sounding like Palm.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Melkbelly

Chicago’s Melkbelly was the first act I remember being excited to see. The band, led by guitarist/vocalist Miranda Winter, embodies a unique sound that brings in the perfect ratio of pop to noise. Their debut album, Nothing Valley, plays with strange tonalities, noisy guitars and some catchy yet almost dystopian-sounding vocal lines.

The band played one of my favorite tracks, “Middle Of,” early on in their set, and I found myself becoming seemingly hypnotized by the animalistic drums and the aggressive-sounding guitars in the descending, chaotic pre-chorus. They were absolutely bringing it. However, after a few songs, the band lost a bit of their initial energy. The metaphorical space between the band and the audience grew larger from the beginning of the set. In their defense, they were playing pretty early on in the day, and I overheard that they did play a different setlist than at Pitchfork, so either one of these things might explain the decline in the performance. Although they had an incredible opening, it seemed that Melkbelly couldn’t quite satisfy the appetite for noise-rock I had that day.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Diet Cig

Last semester, I took ENGR 101, my first coding class. And as much as I liked that class (sort of), I resented the final project because it kept me from seeing Palm and Diet Cig play the Union. So when Diet Cig was announced on the Audiotree lineup, I was incredibly excited to right the wrongs of ENGR 101.

And what a wrong that was.

Diet Cig not only had an incredible amount of energy on-stage, but they had an incredible connection with the audience. Despite wearing a leg brace caused by a torn ACL, Alex Luciano, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, was dancing around on the stage, kicking her leg up to the stars to show off her seemingly robotic leg. The now-three-piece had a huge live sound, despite their limited instrumentation, and, in some cases, sounded as good as their recorded material, if not better. Hearing Alex’s voice belt out her choruses with Noah Bowman pounding the skins of the drums felt earnestly powerful live.

Before the music even started, Alex addressed the audience, ensuring that everyone was comfortable and the environment was kept positive and safe. She also took some time to emphasize how important it was for everyone to register to vote and actually go out to the polls, an issue that she believes, especially in this political climate, is overwhelmingly important.

I found myself dancing throughout the entire performance, but more importantly, I found myself listening to every single element intently. Although the group may have an uncaring DIY look, their sound is extremely intentional. For a group with only three people, Diet Cig produces an enormously huge sound, aided significantly by Luciano’s powerful vocal performances.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Palm

This might have been my favorite performance at this festival.

I was exposed to Palm last summer with the release of their Shadow Expert EP. I had no idea what to think. Blending elements of so many different genres, sticking one label on this band would be a huge mistake. I was worried about how their sound would translate to a live environment, but to slightly surprisingly, they sounded extraordinarily clean and almost exactly like their records. Whether it was the timbre of the guitars, the rhythmic complexity of the rhythm section, or the mesmerizing, chorus-heavy vocal lines, every nuance was present. There were a few times where I caught myself marveling at how the performance was actually happening. I felt like I was slipping in and out of a trance. The band was extraordinarily tight, despite the chaos present in their performance. I frequently caught myself noticing elements of the performance at a micro level, like how drummer Hugo Stanley seamlessly transitioned from live electronic drum samples to the acoustic kit, or how guitarists Eve Alpert and Kasra Kurt subtly played off of each other’s guitar riffs and vocal harmonies.

As the art-rock group finished their six-song set with a track from their new album “Dog Milk,” I finally started to realize that what felt like five minutes to me had turned into a 30-minute set. As the band concluded their extended jam-like outro to the song, I found myself turning to Sean and simply mouthing the word: “Wow.”

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

Father John Misty

I’ve missed seeing Father John Misty more times than I can count, despite being a massive fan of not only Josh Tillman’s music and lyrics, but his personality as well. I had a friend see him shortly after the release of I Love You, Honeybear and show me a video of him picking up her phone from the stage, recording a video of himself making snarky comments to the audience before finally returning her phone. His weird fascination with Taylor Swift, whether it be through a quick name drop or covering her songs in the style of Lou Reed, is a weird quirk that I find absolutely hysterical. I used to really love this man, despite his disappointing third studio album Pure Comedy.

And while I’ve heard of all these crazy things Tillman has done at shows, he really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary at Audiotree. Aside from a few sarcastic comments about how annoying the beach balls at festivals are, a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly, there wasn’t a huge amount of audience interaction. But what was so amazing about the performance was how good it was despite Josh failing to go into some long rant about nothing or cover some crazy Def Leppard song following a slightly more vulgar “Screw you” to the audience.

While he did have a rather large ensemble behind him, certain songs featured differing instrumentations: The trumpet solo at the end of “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” was replaced with a slightly more aggressive guitar solo. Tillman’s voice sounds fantastic live, and with the release of his fourth studio album God’s Favorite Customer, he had an abundance of songs to pick from, both new and old.

For me, the highlight of the festival as a whole was hearing Tillman yell the lines, “Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity, but I fail to see is what that’s gotta do with you and me” right before the weekend ended. I could feel my high school self sneak out and remember, even if for just a few seconds, a time when that album accompanied a very transformative period in my life. It made traveling to Kalamazoo a pilgrimage of sorts; it felt like returning to a childhood home.

— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer

NE-HI

NE-HI

The Chicago-based NE-HI have been on my radar for some time and, despite having been disappointed by them at Pitchfork Music Fest back in 2017, I was impressed by their performance. More or less led by the illustrious guitarist-vocalist Jason Balla, the four-piece plays good ’ol fashioned modern rock‘n’roll. By the time Audiotree weekend rolled around, though, I was a biased audience — over the course of the past year, I’ve come to love a good handful of NE-HI’s Chicago contemporaries. Balla actually plays in another group called Dehd, a group whose bassist also plays in Lala Lala (who just came out with an excellent record). He also released a solo album, Blue Tape, under his Accessory moniker at the end of this past summer.

Either way, you’d be forgiven for thinking Balla were truly possessed on stage. When he’s not busy providing vocals, he’s like a miniature version of one of those wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men, with one key distinction: He’s not stuck in one place. I spent almost the entirety of NE-HI’s set captivated by Balla’s antics, but that’s not to dismiss the rest of the NE-HI crew. Bassist James Weir, drummer Alex Otake and guitarist-vocalist Mikey Wells’s more-than-solid musicianship is the only reason Balla can afford to be so free. Leaving the stage after NE-HI’s far-too-short half hour set had me wondering what had put me off just over a year earlier. I never quite figured it out, but I knew I’d never go back.

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

Local Natives

Local Natives

For better or worse, I’ve long adored the Los Angeles-based Local Natives. Pandora radio led me to Gorilla Manor back in high school, and I eventually became enamored with its boisterous energy and instrumental intricacies. I latched onto the band’s oh-so-sweet harmonies and followed them right into 2013’s Hummingbird, where they were, yeah, sadder, but again so good. When the group’s third album Sunlit Youth came in 2016, I lost no small amount of faith. Their sound became “more full” in the way indie outfits typically do when they reach for wider crowds. It also seemed as though they decided they were going to be a Socially Conscious Alternative Rock Band,™ with clunkers like “How can we quit drugs if you’re gonna watch like that?” or the poorly aged “I have waited so long, Mrs. President,” a line their vocalist-guitarist Taylor Rice insisted on singing as written during the band’s Audiotree performance.

All this being said, the five-piece reliably delivered on all of their material. Now that it’s been over two years since Sunlit Youth first saw the light of day, they worked pretty deep into the back catalog. Local Natives played an 18-song set, but only five of them came from Sunlit Youth. With their extra time, they treated the audience to six Gorilla Manor tracks — including longstanding show-closer “Sun Hands” and deep cut “World News” — five Hummingbird cuts — including a longer breakdown of “Colombia,” vocalist-multi-instrumentalist Kelcey Ayer’s ode to his departed grandmother, and the deep deep cut “Mt. Washington” — the one-off single “I Saw You Close Your Eyes” and a new song, “When Am I Gonna Lose You?”

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

Common Holly

Common Holly

Although she was the first act up on the second day of Audiotree, the act I was most excited to see all weekend was probably Montreal-native Brigitte Naggar’s Common Holly project. After hearing her first single “If After All” on NPR’s All Songs Considered last year, I was entranced. Her publicist likens her to Angel Olsen or a female Leonard Cohen, but I prefer a less pretentious resemblance — her music reminded me of Daughter’s first album, When You Leave, which has soundtracked my every autumn for the past six years. Either way, Naggar’s songwriting is uniquely fresh and unpredictably eclectic.

Five minutes before she and her band took to the stage, there were about 11 of us in the crowd. Thankfully, this number swelled to about 25-30 by noon, when the band walked out. Every note was carefully played, every melody tenderly sung and the songs, whose studio versions are imbued with a sense of restlessness, of life, became even more so played live. At one point during her set, Naggar turned to the VIP section of the audience — off to the left and on the other side of a fence — and asked them if they felt special. Her tone wasn’t incriminating, nor do I think it was meant to make them feel uncomfortable. It was humanizing to see her sort of nervously, accidentally call out the VIP crowd. Before being cut off early by the festival crew — and I will never forgive them for this, as she clearly had three more minutes left to play — she debuted a new song, leaving me more excited than ever for the future of this up-and-coming group.

— Sean Lang, Daily Arts Writer

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