Neon Marshmallow Fest Recap
More so than perhaps any festival on the radar, the lineup itself was truly the draw of Chicago’s inaugural Neon Marshmallow Fest, the four-day cornucopia of experimental music of all stripes (yes, Cornucopia did play). Programmed by Chicagoans Dan Smith, aka Red Electric Rainbow, and Matt Kimmel, of the video site Acid Marshmallow, Neon Marshmallow somehow managed to cram in, on two stages at the beautiful, industrial Viaduct Theatre, over 90 sets by an astonishingly wide variety of prominent artists.
The scheduling here was less “headliner” than “prime-time player,” a daring mix of alternating stages (to minimize down time) and sets running long into the night. Dave Phillips provided a highlight on Thursday with a masterfully controlled set of field recordings sourced from insects, ending his set by passing out pamphlets declaring their vital role in the ecosystem. In this and in his gruesome Friday set, featuring a montage of graphic animal cruelty videos over heavily amplified retching and balloon manipulations, Phillips’ confrontational aesthetic provided a welcome (if nauseating) contrast to the head-in-the-clouds knob-twiddling that rules so many corners of the scene.
Not that knob-twiddling can’t be inspiring, even if one does very little. No one took this idea farther than Keith Fullerton Whitman, who performed two solo sets on an intricate modular synth setup that found him landing excitedly on soaring arpeggios, smoothly rumbling lows, and even dance beats. His Sunday collaboration with Chicago’s TV Pow was a standout set, keeping a very minimal, rumbling electronic atmosphere that grew dark and light at turns, but was consistently mesmerizing from start to finish.
Maine’s Jason Lescalleet provided another excellent set, both in a chaotic solo setting and especially in his collaboration with Nmperign, the duo of soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey and trumpeter Greg Kelley. The dark, mysterious atmospheres conjured by Lescalleet’s tape loops contrasted perfectly with the horn players’ structuralist explorations. Traditional rock instrumentation wasn’t easy to be found during the weekend, but Noveller’s guitar, Expo ‘70’s druggy space-sludge, and Ryan Jewell’s excellent, tense exploratory percussion were exceptional.
Standout sets were also provided by Noveller, Illusion of Safety (in a solid solo modular synth performance), and Sean McCann, the prolific Californian who seems to access some sublime drone space every time he plays or records. But the standouts were many, in truth—at one point Saturday, the main stage featured consecutive performances by Carlos Giffoni, Dolphins Into The Future, Dead Machines, Noveller, and Emeralds, who revealed (to me, at least) their prog underpinnings in a hard-rocking and rather unsubtle performance as the main attraction.
As a Chicagoan, I couldn’t help but notice that all these major artists came from elsewhere. In such a large city with an experimental scene that thrives in jazz and improvised music circles, the talent of Chicago artists here seemed questionable. Caboladies’ set was far from their best, while Sunglasses put in a purposely bored, “look-how-easy-this-is” performance, and Steve Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave, the musician and artist behind the amazing hand-drawn program) fooled around on an out-of-tune banjo with effects that erased the blistering power of his usual work. Notable local names like Zelienople, Haptic, and David Daniell were absent for various reasons, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the out-of-towners were impressed with the local talent.
Will the fest mark some kind of turning point that will elevate the scene beyond fragmented DIY venues and frustrating club dates? The potential to build on the fest is huge in terms of connections made, gumption gained, and ideas exchanged—it’s just a matter of how and whether it’s actually done. In revealing the enthusiasm of Chicago’s experimental music community, Neon Marshmallow also showed how far the city has to go to in order to reach a higher level of respect.
-- Travis Bird (1 September, 2010)