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It's 4pm on a steamy furnace of a Friday in late July and I should be at Hedgpeth, a new indie-rock mega-festival set in the cornfields and cow pastures of southeast Wisconsin. But instead, I'm about three hours away at a garage getting my car fixed. By all rights, I should have been out of here hours ago; all I thought I needed was an alignment, but the mechanic on duty had other ideas. What should have been a simple, relatively inexpensive bit of maintenance has become a long, costly screw that is, in a word, unenjoyable. By the time it is all said and done, I feel completely used.
The bill was supposed to be about $50, but at repair's end the total had risen to $461. There was something about a cam bolt (that one I think he made up) and a couple of bearings that needed to be replaced, a few hours of labor and, of course, taxes. The work could have been put off, but because the car is a '92 Dodge Shadow creeping up on 200,000 miles, I wanted to make sure it was asphalt-worthy before heading out. As aggravating as it was being at that garage, my blood pressure would have risen tenfold had the thing shit the bed on the highway.
Really, it wasn't so much the money that was making me crazy. It was the time. I had planned to be on the road by 1pm at the latest. I still had to meet up in Milwaukee with the photographer who was supposed to accompany me. Meanwhile, at Hedgpeth, indie-pop cheerleaders The Go! Team had already left the main stage, giving way to South American rhythm kings and gypsy folk music merchants, DeVotchKa, and Cloud Cult's dreamy atmospherics were about to fade into the ether. Hulk was getting mad.
Day 1 of Hedgpeth had an amazing lineup, a veritable buffet of indie up-and-comers like the psych-rock doom-pushers The Black Angels and prog-explorers Minus The Bear. And the best part was, I didn't have to fight Chicago traffic to see them. They were in Wisconsin, my home state. And I hadn't seen a concert, let alone a whole two glorious days of live shows, all summer. This was a feast and I was starving for entertainment. But first, I had to drive.
And drive I did. I drove that Shadow like I stole it and, a few wrong turns in Milwaukee looking for my friend's place aside, I got there in pretty good time. When I arrived, however, my photographer buddy had some bad news. The equipment he had the "green light" to "borrow" from a friend of his was not available. It turned out that camera-equipment-having guy's boss had taken it for the weekend. I was beginning to think this trip was cursed.
Hedgpeth was being held at a place called Shadow Hill Ranch in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which is close to Lake Geneva - a playground for the rich Illinois (or should I say Chicago) tourists that swarm America's one-time Dairyland in the summer. Merchants aside, we in Wisconsin hate them, but that's neither here nor there. Accepting for the time being that there wasn't much we could do about photos, or at least the slick professional variety, we hopped in the car and drove, arriving just before 8pm. Smack dab in the middle of cornfields was a spacious open area with tents and strung-up lights. The only thing missing from the county-fair setting was a ferris wheel. What was striking was how deserted the place looked. The parking lot had only a few lines of cars, which shouldn't have been all that surprising given the lack of media attention the event attracted, despite big-name headliners like The Flaming Lips and Primus.
Ultra Sonic Edukators unleash their genre-hopping, booty-shaking goodness at the Contagious Stage.
Given the events of the day, we headed for the over-21 tent to adjust our attitudes, having just caught the end of They Might Be Giants' quirky, pop chemistry class. Hello Dave, a shaggy, mildly sunny alt.-country jam-band outfit who were obviously raised on the Allman Brothers were noodling away and the small group of hippies and shirtless, sweaty frat-boys were having a ball. The guitarist's drawn-out, triumphant leads were surprisingly tasteful and the band, with its rugged rhythm section, had a nice mix of rawhide toughness and laid-back pop attitude about them. Still, it was fairly pedestrian fare and after slaking our thirsts, it was time for something heavier and more unpredictable.
Bring on Peeping Tom, the latest genre-hopping incarnation from one of indie's baddest innovators, Mike Patton. A surprisingly stylish blend of Bay Area hip-hop, trip-hop and metal (I know how bad that sounds, but it's Mike Patton, people!), Peeping Tom is not nearly as impressive as Tomahawk, but Patton is incapable of putting out sub-par product. Tilling more languid grooves and conjuring chilly, lunar soundscapes out of otherworldly keyboards, Peeping Tom is Patton's smoothest, most audience-friendly project in years - more Faith No More than Fantomas - and it was clear he was enjoying the group's free-form vocal interplay and multi-layered sound. Things were beginning to look up.
Sparse crowd gathers at the Hedgpeth mainstage to watch North Carolina's The Whigs on Saturday.
After a kaleidoscopic time-traveling adventure back to the 80s with Killers-come-lately Rock Kills Kid to get our fix of anthemic, Cure/U2-style dark pop, we needed a break. So, we walked up the incline to the rhombus-shaped drinking area in the middle of the facility. Sitting on plastic lawn chairs graciously provided by Hedgpeth, we awaited The Flaming Lips. A live spectacle like no other, The Flaming Lips show was part Sci-Fi B-movie, part religious awakening. Wayne Coyne came out in his space ball, walking atop the crowd, and the band was joined onstage by a group of dancing Santa Clauses on one side and a female Martian scouting party, painted green and dressed in short skirts, on the other. An uplifting, interactive concert experience, the Lips played a dazzling set that included the transcendent "Do You Realize?," "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," a haywire version of the chaotic instrumental "Yoshimi (Part 2)" and a psychedelic cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Whether it was the huge green balloons bouncing in the air, the colorful streamers Coyne was shooting into the crowd, or the gleeful gathering onstage, the Lips' feel-good vibe was just what the doctor ordered.
Day 2: Hot Hot Heat
Coming off the contact high the Flaming Lips provided the night before, I was looking forward to Day 2 of Hedgpeth, which evidently means something about "going your own way" or staying true to yourself. At least that's what Wayne Coyne said.
I slept hard that night, but awoke a couple of times to weird noises emanating from the bathroom of the apartment I was staying at. That shutterbug friend of mine was sick; according to his morning report it was "coming out both ends." Thinking the bug he'd contracted (or was it food poisoning?) might leave during a long nap, he slept most of the day. By 1pm, he wasn't feeling any better, so I was flying solo, although this time with camera in hand.
The heat wave that the weatherman predicted had engulfed Wisconsin. Temperatures had risen into the high-90s. Guardrails alongside the interstate were melting. I felt like I was cooking inside my own skin, but damn it, I was determined to make the best of Day 2. Again, attendance was sparse, but in the light of day, it looked even more empty than it did the night before. And I hate saying that because I really want Hedgpeth to be a success. All told, I'd bet there were 350 people there that afternoon, and that might be generous.
Wanting to catch Murder By Death, the first band of the day, I sped the whole way down and their chamber-music-from-hell performance was gripping and intense - although the 50 or so people that were there were wilting in the sun. Next up was a tight, Spoon-like trio called The Whigs that whipped up a sharp set of pop-spiked, British Invasion-rock, though they seemed out of place on the main stage. Their sound was too confined for the venue, but more than that, they were too far away from the smattering of people that had gathered to see them. And so, we come to my biggest complaint about the concert compound, aside from all the fences that made it feel like Guantanamo Bay: there's this landscaped area in front of the main stage that sections off audience and performer, and it needs to go. Though the flowers are pretty, it creates this separation between the two entities that kills any sort of communal connection that would, otherwise, bring them together and make for more memorable shows.
Blue October raining gloomy, wrist-slitting shoegazer tomes down on the unsuspecting throng from across the great divide of landscaping.
It didn't matter so much for modern-rock dinosaurs Blue October. A bigger ensemble, with a Swervedriver-meets-Bauhaus aesthetic, with two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboardist who also played violin, a drummer, and a mascara-coated singer who wobbled out on crutches, Blue October had the sonic minerals to overcome the distance. Now if they'd just lighten up a bit... Overly bombastic instrumentation filled the air as singer Justin Furstenfeld regaled the audience with emotional tales of dysfunction and violence from his stool (Dude was dressed in a dark suit, if you can believe it!).
Sans keyboards, Hot Hot Heat singer Steve Bays made frequent runs into the Hedgpeth crowd via a catwalk. Why they're all pointing to his crotch, I don't know.
Stepping out onto what had to be a stage slick with Furstenfeld's sweat, Hot Hot Heat came out ready to deliver a knockout New Wave dance party. Steve Bays' preening stage presence and hammy moves should have overcome the heat. But equipment problems with his keyboards - unavailable for pretty much the whole show - dogged the band, and even though Bays did his best to jack up the crowd by strolling out into it on a catwalk a number of times, it was apparent he was not pleased with the situation. The rest of the band labored through some of the best songs on Make Up The Breakdown, including "Get In Or Get Out," but redeemed itself with an electric version of "This Town" and sounded more invigorated by their newer material.
Wide-angle shot of Hot Hot Heat at work in the sweltering heat of a Wisconsin summer.
Saving the day was Kings Of Leon, whose deep-fried soul and Southern-rock anthems were pure salvation. As the night cooled, Kings Of Leon soothed and satisfied a hungry crowd. And there outfits were straight Vegas. In between Hot Hot Heat and Kings Of Leon, I checked out Luna Halo. Most of the audience was lying on the ground, dazed from the scorching sun, but Luna Halo gave an inspired rock performance with big guitars and dark melodies. Best of all was a fun cover of Aha's "Take On Me."
Luna Halo guitarist Cary Barlowe during the band's guitar-powered cover of Aha's "Take On Me."
That was it for me, though. The crowds were building for Primus, just as they did the night before for The Flaming Lips. They didn't need me and I didn't need them. Suffice it to say, Hedgpeth was not the end all, be all of rock festivals. This being it's first year, however, it deserves to be given a break. Organizers did what they could, scoring big with the headliners. The oppressive heat did them no favors. With a little more publicity and better scheduling (why put Murder By Death on at 2:30pm?), Hedgpeth could survive and flourish. I hope it does. Wisconsin needs it. SEE ALSO: www.hedgpethfest.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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