Wicker Park Fest 2016 (Pictorial Review)

by Steven Spoerl

Spaceblood II

A few weekends back, Chicago quietly hosted one of the most stacked festivals of the summer. While Pitchfork (understandably) got the bulk of attention, it was Wicker Park Fest that offered the best deal. For a suggested $10 donation, any interested parties could explore a wide variety of vendors and take in three stages worth of acts like Diet Cig, The Coathangers, PUP, Yeesh, Pile, Jeff Rosenstock, The Mountain Goats, Rocket From the Crypt, Ought, Alvvays, Cloakroom, Bad Bad Hats, and so many more.

I arrived late into day one, hoping to catch the end of The Sidekicks’ set. By the time I’d entered the grounds, the band was already packed up and the weather had begun to turn ominous. Less than ten minutes into walking through the gates, a torrential downpour erupted and caused several attendees (myself included) to take shelter in the warm, familiar confines of Reckless Records.

It was a surreal scene inside the store with people lined up to see the storm demolishing vendors’ tents outside, Christmas music being played over the store’s system, and people frantically checking for updates on the status of the festival. For a brief moment, the power went out. No one was sure what the next steps would be and nearly everyone was keeping their fingers crossed for the storm to blow over definitively enough to allow for the scheduled headliners sets.

Fortunately, the storm did wind up receding and, as a result, I got to catch an abbreviated six-song set from Jeff Rosenstock (one of the highlights of the festival, even in that small window) and a solid set from The Mountain Goats. While there were some sound issues that plagued The Mountain Goats set, there wasn’t much else to complain about. Both acts were very tight (particularly Rosenstock, whose entire band played with the kind of explosive, pent-up energy that seemed to be as cathartic for them as it was for the audience) and either won the crowd over, played into their hands, or both.

After arriving well before any of the stages hosted any bands on day two, it was easy to see that storm from the preceding night hadn’t dampened the festival’s spirit. One of the School of Rock acts officially kicked things off, alternating members and making their way through a set of crowd-pleasing covers. Not too long after they’d begun, KO took the south stage and unleashed an inspired set that created more than a few converts while sounding spectacular in an outdoor festival setting.

While all of that was happening outside, Double Door was wisely hosting the ancillary Fuck Fest, which featured more than two dozen bands, inside. The venue exists inside of the festival grounds, allowing Fuck Fest to take on new life. When the heat and humidity started bordering the unbearable, Fuck Fest offered a nice reprieve from the swirling mass of bodies outside while still offering up a solid selection of (mostly local) acts.

At Zero was the first band I managed to catch at Fuck Fest and they tore through a tightly-wound set on the main stage that energized the crowd inside the venue. Right outdoors on the south stage, Spaceblood was confidently making their way through a set that drew in a large crowd, heavily featured a merchandise hype man (who promoted the band’s salsa, handed out chips, and threw out Ziploc bags of a terrifying substance called “space goo” which children were warned not to eat), and left the bass/drum duo — who are heavily inspired by Lightning Bolt — understandably exhausted.

Kodakrome was up next on Double Door’s basement stage and the duo-turned-trio did not disappoint. Last year the band put out an extremely promising demo and later expanded those two tracks into a full-blown EP. They’ve been hard at work ever since and their dedication shows in a live setting. Guitarist/vocalist Aaron Ehinger’s a commanding stage presence, exuding a confident calm that manages to be at odds with the band’s hyper-spastic approach to basement punk but also somehow fits perfectly.

Several yards from Double Door’s entrance, The Brokedowns were flying through a powerful set and reaffirming their status as one of Chicago’s great punk bands. Nothing was off limit for their banter, either, which was highlighted by an extended riff about the Costco communion wafers (which were thrown into the audience). As the band kept their charge lively, Bad Bad Hats were finding their groove across the festival grounds on the south stage. The trio’s Psychic Reader was one of 2015’s most pleasant surprises and the band more than lived up to that record’s irrepressible charm in the live setting.

Towards the end of Bad Bad Hats’ set, site favorites Cloakroom were launching into their own set at full power. Slow, heavy, and smothering, the trio were undoubtedly a force but couldn’t help feeling a little out of place in the sweltering midday heat (they’re best suited for darkness). Slow Mass kicked off the proceedings at the center stage (which had been outright cancelled on day one, following the storm) with gusto, blazing through an impressive set of hairpin turns and overwhelming tenacity.

Anyone that frequented this site in 2015 more than likely saw a sizable amount of coverage dedicated to Diet Cig‘s live show and the duo were in exceptional form down at the south stage. Guitarist/vocalist (and principal songwriter) Alex Luciano is now running her telecaster through a split amp system and the additional heaviness rounds the band’s sound out nicely. They tore through old favorites and a select handful of incredible new material (with the obvious highlight being their first “slow jam”) and brought all of the rambunctious energy that’s turned them into unlikely critical darlings.

Not too long after Diet Cig’s powerhouse set, another vicious storm intruded on the festival and made its presence known with an unexpected vengeance. Before long, the wind had hit a velocity powerful enough to literally derail a train from the blue line. As vendors were watching their tents get lost to the wind, Fuck Fest found a new influx of fresh blood due to the inclement weather. Inside Emporium, there was a power outage. Inside the Double Door, Montrose Man were turning all kinds of heads in the basement with an extraordinary set that posited the trio as one of Chicago’s finest emerging acts and a very real candidate for the city’s next breakthrough success story.

Pinto saw the audience inside Double Door grow close to capacity and impressed most of the new arrivals with a sound that fell somewhere between Joy Division and Manchester Orchestra. The band provided a nice moment of grace to a growing amount of anxiety among concerned festivalgoers who were keeping a wary eye on the storm that was threatening to derail more than just blue line trains. Fortunately, for just about everyone, the weather cleared. Unfortunately, the set times for PUP, Pile, Yeesh, and more became casualties of the maelstrom that seemed poised to decimate the festival.

Alvvays and Ought headlined the center and south stages at nearly simultaneous times. As maybe the most intense scheduling conflict of the entire festival, the prospect of Ought on a small, outdoor stage won me over to their side (as well as a well-documented love for the quartet). The band rewarded that decision with a set that unfurled in rapid succession, hitting an apex as “Men For Miles” practically bled into “Beautiful Blue Sky” (which was one of this site’s picks for the best songs of 2015). They sounded tight and seemed relieved to be playing after getting a scare from the weather as well as dealing with travel cancellations, delays, and a series of other mishaps. I think I can speak for their crowd when I say that we were happy they got to play as well.

Shortly after the band wrapped up “Beautiful Blue Sky”, I went over to the swirling mass of bodies that had set up camp in front of the south stage for Alvvays, whose winsome penchants were on full display. The band were mixed beautifully and played with an easy confidence that only served to make them even more impossibly likable. After a few songs, I turned back to Ought and caught strains of the band hitting a climactic moment, spurring me towards the band with a fervor before the opening notes of “Archie, Marry Me” stopped me in my tracks.

Caught between Ought getting swept up in the moment and Alvvays’ seemingly perfect rendition of one of the best songs of this current decade, it became the definitive moment of what makes festivals like Wicker Park Fest so beautiful. For little cost, the organizers managed to further enliven local institutions and give back to the area by facilitating extraordinary examples of what can be accomplished with the right beliefs. Around every corner, there could be something unforgettable happening. No matter which direction anyone turns, it’s easy to find victories on a multitude of scales. Even caught between those moments can provide a level of gratitude and clarity that no amount of money could purchase.

As Ought and Alvvays both tore down, Fuck Fest was still going strong inside Double Door. At that point in the night, the festival started leaning even more heavily towards their emo-leaning acts (a trait that seemed to be a common running thread) but still found a way to offer plenty of variety. Of all of the bands that I managed to catch in the aftermath of Wicker Park Fest, legitimate standouts came in the form of Typesetter, whose emphatically-mean-every-word set felt refreshingly sincere and provided the band with a well-deserved spotlight moment. Easily one of the strongest post-Wicker Park Fest sets belonged to Salvation, a noise/punk trio that skyrocketed the levels of energy, feedback, and general viciousness.

Of everything that I saw during the festival’s run nothing was more impressive than the moment Salvation’s bassist (who looked to be several years older than the other two members) found his foot catching the load-in steps of the stage at an angle that sent him somersaulting backwards down the small staircase, bass in tow. He never stopped playing. After the fall, he righted himself (still attempting to play as the cable cut in and out), stormed back up to the stage, and began swinging his bass around in an effort to create as much noise as possible. The song ended, staff and audience alike made sure he was okay, the cable was replaced, and the band carried on like nothing had happened.

A few songs later, Salvation were done and I was too exhausted to continue. The band had provided a perfect, chaotic ending to a weekend full of sudden changes, ambiguous directions, and oscillating levels of comfort. They’d also given one of the best sets of the two days. Feeling fully satisfied and more than a little overwhelmed, it felt like the perfect time to end a weekend full of challenges, madness, nerves, and inspiration. See you next year, Wicker Park Fest.

Look through a gallery of the festival below and keep an eye on the Heartbreaking Bravery YouTube channel for live captures from the festival.