Julianna Barwick performs in Danforth Chapel on the University of Iowa campus. (Christopher Clair)
April Fool’s Day 2014 was wonderful. I didn’t fall for any Internet pranks; my colleagues didn’t put my hand in warm water while I napped. (Kidding! I can’t nap at work; I usually consume about 128 ounces of caffeinated soda during the workday.)
That night I saw Warpaint at Gabe’s, and the show was fan-fucking-tastic. And so began my 2014 Mission Creek Festival, which is arguably the most wonderful time of the year in Iowa City.
Warpaint is absolutely in my wheelhouse: female musicians, moody tunes, lots of energy. The band sounded great (yeah, in Gabe’s, no less), seemed genuinely happy to be there, and played a nice mix of songs from the two albums and early EP. They played my favorite song, “Bees,” during the encore (probably because about halfway through the show, I punctuated every between-song moment with shouts of “BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!!!”) They ended the whole night with a marathon jam on “Elephants” from the EP. The girl from the movie “The Rules of Attraction,” the one who kills herself because James Van Der Beek ignores her, was in fine form. American Psycho’s brother should have paid more attention to that one. Our crew (me, MoSS Todd, Travis, Annie, recent MoSS guest Sam, Ian) certainly did.
Warpaint dominates the opening night of Mission Creek 2014 with a killer set at Gabe’s.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Gabe’s was a packed house for the show. It had a similar vibe to the Wild Belle show from last fall: good crowd, all enjoying the groove laid down by the band.
Upon show’s end, I immediately validated the band’s performance by going on Facebook and making this profound statement: “WAR. FUCKING. PAINT. Your move, rest of #MissionCreek.” (Yes, I’m one of those guys trying to make hashtags happen on Facebook.)
Fast forward three days, and I’m standing outside the Englert waiting to go inside for The Head and the Heart’s sold-out show. The band’s most recent album, 2013’s Let’s Be Still, pretty much snuck up on me. I didn’t even realize there was a new album to be had until the lazy days of Christmas break; by then, I’d already put out The Definitive List of the Greatest Albums Released in 2013™. Thankfully the band was able to withstand this egregious snub and sell every ticket for the show within a matter of days (hours?).
This show always was going to differ from the Warpaint event: much different style of music, radically different venue, reduced alcohol intake. But it was glorious. For one, the opening act, Basia Bulat, was so wonderful. I was unfamiliar going in, but I find that a good strategy for openers. If they suck, well, openers sometimes do that. If they’re great, it’s like going to two concerts for the price of one.
Bulat was a good fit as an opener for the Americana of TH&TH (even though she’s Canadian!), both in musical stylings and as a magnetic personality to warm up the crowd for the headliners. At one point early on, she picked up an instrument that looked quite familiar: the autoharp. I recall playing one in grade school music class, accompanying my classmates as they sang hymns found in our Glory & Praise songbooks. Safe to say Bulat looked way cooler playing the instrument on her songs than I ever did strumming along to “Be Not Afraid,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” or anything else of that sort.
The Head and the Heart perform to a sold-out crowd in the Englert.
As enjoyable as Bulat was, The Head and the Heart was on another level. The six-piece was tight; their relative youth an odd sight when paired with the quite mature music they create. The interplay between frontmen Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell was seamless, but the crowd was (justifiably) most moved whenever violinst/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen took her turn at the mic. (Sondra went to this show with me. Her lone criticism? “The drummer…I couldn’t decide if he was really into it or if he was just an annoying bro.”)
They played pretty much everything from their two albums, but I’m sure everyone in the audience would have stuck around for another hour or so to hear the band perform covers. I think I still prefer the first album (total music snob move!) but hearing the new songs live really upped my appreciation for the latter. “Another Story,” “Josh McBride,” and “Shake” sound superb alongside first-album gems like “Rivers and Roads,” “Down in the Valley,” and “Ghosts.”
This performance was crazy-good. Didn’t hurt that we had front-row balcony seats from which to observe. The only bummer: Misson Creek’s Friday night was PACKED. I don’t regret my choice, but had I not secured TH&TH tix, I would have bounced over to Jason Isbell or Weekend (my most regretful miss of the festival) or !!! (which I could’ve hit after TH&TH, but fuck, man, I’m old). Gotta spread those out next time.
Mission Creek wrapped up Sunday, April 6, but the post-Mission Creek withdrawal lasted just three days. April 9 brought another show to see: Julianna Barwick in tiny little Danforth Chapel on the University of Iowa campus. Perfect home for Barwick’s ethereal tunes. MoSS Todd and Sara (the supplier of the “blue” for our Breaking Bad party last year) joined me for this one; due to the intimate setting, we occupied about 8 percent of the capacity ourselves.
I reviewed this show for my friends at Hoopla. Some excerpts:
It’s one thing to hear [Barwick’s] end product via a recorded album (and if you haven’t heard her catalog, you really should); it’s quite another to watch her create on the spot. From the spartan Danforth “stage,” Barwick would sing and record a snippet, loop that segment while singing and recording a second snippet (often different from the first), loop the second segment, and so on. This seemingly effortless exercise yielded a lush chorus that filled the cozy venue, all the more impressive after learning that Barwick was dealing with some serious allergy issues on this night.
Barwick is a humble performer, nodding to the crowd and whispering “thank you” at the end of each song. Heck, she even came out after opening act Vasillus concluded its set to personally let us know that she’d need about 10 to 15 minutes to set up, almost as if she were asking our permission or forgiveness. A relatively short wait, and well worth it to hear her perform.
The opener, Vasillus, the moniker of Brooklyn-based artist Ahmad Bilal, entertained the crowd from the drop. The key element to the music was Bilal’s soulful voice, which simply soared over the sinister synths (“synthister,” if I may create a new word) and drum machine dirge. He was clearly enjoying the performance, so much so that he caught himself joyfully cursing in church. No sin in having fun, my man.
I praised Barwick’s renditions of “One Half” and “Crystal Lake.” I left out of the Vasillus paragraph that he was wearing a great T-shirt: it said “The Smiths” across the front but rather than a photo with Morrissey and Johnny Marr, it showed Will Smith and his family. I want one.
I guess I’m writing all this because Todd and I like to document those moments when we can tear ourselves away from our adult lives, our parenting roles, our responsibilities, and go out and enjoy live music. But I wanted to sum up this wonderful “three shows in nine days” period to ask a question: why can’t it always be like this?
The answer, perhaps, is “we’re getting there.”
I think the Iowa City scene is doing a better job booking and attracting good stuff outside of Mission Creek season. Part of that is due to the work of SCOPE, a UI student organization that books a handful of concerts each semester. They delivered Sleigh Bells, the Avett Brothers, James Blake, Best Coast, and many others in the past couple of years. They booked the Julianna Barwick show, and would have had Sky Ferreira the other night had she not been bested by illness.
The Mill somehow manages to book bands despite having jack squat in terms of amenities (the inverse of Blue Moose, which has great stage/sound but can’t book a damn thing without Mission Creek). And Gabe’s upcoming calendar looks solid. Between now and when May runs its course, Gabe’s will have hosted Cloud Nothings, Perfect Pussy (with Yamantaka//Sonic Titan opening), Mirah (I like her), and Blitzen Trapper. I compared this run with what High Noon Saloon in Madison has going on over the next six weeks—surprisingly we got ‘em beat. (I say that because it seems like every article announcing a band tour includes a High Noon date.)
Give these bands a reason to keep coming to Iowa. Go to the shows. Keep the vibrancy of Mission Creek going whenever you can. I’ll see you there, as often as I can.