Live Review: Chickfactor Music Fest at the Bell House, 3/20-21/14

Wherever Chickfactor goes, I will follow. The premiere indiepop zine, Chickfactor began in 1992, around the same time the east coast pop scene was starting to explode. Labels were forming, like Slumberland and Teen-Beat, and founders Gail O’Hara and Pam Berry were on the scene, interviewing bands, taking photos, and organizing fantastic little pop fests. I unabashedly admit to this zine having an enormous influence on me when I was growing up, leading to me writing about music, too (albeit with less cocktails and sparkles).

Over twenty years later, the pop fests continue: Chickfactor 22 was held on March 20th and 21st at the Bell House in Brooklyn. The photos are kinda crummy (I was just using my iPhone), but the shows sure weren’t!

THURSDAY:

Amor De Dias: Kicking off the fest was Merge Records duo Amor De Dias, a collaboration of Alasdair MacLean of the Clientele and vocalist/instrumentalist Lupe Núñez-Fernández of Pipas. Together, they charmed the audience with their lovely, lilting melodies, featuring many songs off last year’s release, The House at Sea. Throughout their performance, they were joined on stage by members of the Clientele, the handsome Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol (what? he is handsome!), and the shining moment was when the legendary Pam Berry joined them on guest vocals, which was simply angelic. (Pam would continue to lend her heavenly pipes to other bands throughout the fest — I contend that she should have sang with EVERY band.)

The Lilys: Oh, the enigma that is The Lilys. Their first albums for Slumberland Records veered towards shoegaze, with their debut 7″ single “February Fourteenth” an obvious ode to My Bloody Valentine. Then, in the mid-90s, they did a 180 and went full-on mod, sounding like The Kinks or Small Faces. Not radical enough? In 1999, they released their electronica album, Zero Population Growth: Bliss Out Volume 15, for Darla Records. And then, switching it up again, 2000 saw the release of Precollection, which had a more ’80s college-folk-rock feel to it.

The one constant for it all has been the mad-genius frontman, Kurt Heasley, and no matter what style of music he’s embracing, his gift for melody is undeniable. When The Lilys began playing shows again for Chickfactor, you had to wonder, which incarnation would you see on stage?

On that Thursday night, THE ANSWER WAS ALL OF THEM.

Accompanied by Nightime Gallagher (misspelling intentional) on bass, drum machine, and synthesizers, The Lilys opened their set with a seamless melody of “Claire Hates Me” (shoegaze) into “A Nanny In Manhattan” (mod) into “Will My Lord Be Gardening” (folk-rock), with electronic blips and noises played throughout.

OH MY GOD. Fans were straining to figure out what songs he was playing. I knew from the lyrics he was performing “Accepting Applications at University” from the 1999 album The 3 Way, but you wouldn’t know it from the chaotic musical accompaniment.

So, yeah, it was gloriously fucked up, but I kinda liked it. Once I realized what was going on, I enjoyed playing “Name That Lilys Tune,” and I couldn’t stop laughing.

King Creosote: As a special surprise, we were treated to a short acoustic set from Scottish singer/songwriter King Creosote, an artist I’m admittedly not familiar with, but after that set, I’d very much like to be! Chickfactor Fest MC, WFMU DJ Gaylord Fields chirped, “Now you’ve got 40 or so albums to catch up on!” and from a glance at King Creosote’s discography of rousing Scottish folk, he was not kidding.

The Jim Ruiz Set: Formerly known as The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, but still legendary to me, The Jim Ruiz Set took the stage next with their smooth, bossa-nova tinged pop. Their dapper frontman and namesake was decked out in very nice pajamas, not too dissimilar from the ones he wears in the music video for “Minneapolis,” his ode to his hometown. (They all say “Hi” to DJ Kevin Cole, by the way!)

Despite releasing the brilliant long-awaited album Mount Curve Avenue last year, the band recently announced they were going into retirement. Thankfully, they postponed that retirement to play Chickfactor Fest, and treat us all to delightful live versions of classics, like “Yes I Do” (which Jim called the first good song he ever wrote), “My Bloody Yugo,” “Stormtrooper,” and newer tracks like “Wishing Her Away”. The Jim Ruiz Set are possibly the only band to travel with a xylophone/accordion player, the delightful Kim Serene. YES.

Withered Hand: And, finally, closing out the first night was the latest Slumberland Records signing, Withered Hand, which is Scottish singer/songwriter Dan Willson, accompanied by a stage-full of friends, including King Creosote (hence the secret surprise appearance!) and indiepop icon Pam Berry on vocals. How do I even describe their rousing performance? Imagine the energy of Los Campesinos! infused into the storytelling-folk of Belle & Sebastian, maybe?

Willson has a fascinating story: raised Jehovah’s Witness, he didn’t start playing music until he was 30-years-old, in reaction to the death of a dear friend of his. He told UK publication The Quietus, playing music “stripped away lots of baggage” for him, and when he had the audience at The Bell House singing along with the track “Religious Songs,” you felt a little uplifted, too.

FRIDAY:

The Saturday People: It was such a thrill to finally get to see The Saturday People. The Slumberland Records supergroup — featuring members of Velocity Girl, The Ropers, Tree Fort Angst and The Castaway Stones — released one perfect album in 2001, and then called it a day. So, it was extra-special to see the band dressed to the nines and back on stage for a short, but incredibly sweet set.

And with an all-star cast like that, how could pop queen Pam Berry not come back out on stage for more surprise reunions? She performed a Castaway Stones track (her 1999 project with Saturday People guitarist Greg Pavlovcak), followed by a Glo-Worm classic (her mid-90s band with Saturday People guitarist Terry Banks and Dan Searing). Wow, wow, WOW!

Barbara Manning: The cover model for Chickfactor Issue 4, singer/songwriter Barbara Manning has been on hiatus for the past decade — most recently, her audience has been a classroom of teens, as she’s become a high school chemistry teacher! Oh, but if her students could’ve seen her that Friday night: with just a guitar and that impeccable voice of hers, she commanded the room with her timeless songs.

I was lucky to see some of Barbara’s first shows out of retirement, a few years ago at The Sunset in Seattle and at Bunk Bar in Portland. At those shows, she was hesitant and nervous. So, it was wonderfully heartwarming to see her out of her shell, and owning the stage again at Chickfactor, just like in her 90s heyday.

Versus: Jokingly deemed the Chickfactor “house band,” NYC-based Versus surprised the crowd with their performance. Before their set, I asked frontman Richard Baluyut what they had been up to since the release of On the Ones and Threes on Merge Records in 2010. “Oh, we’ve been writing songs,” he replied, nonchalantly. Little did I know, the audience would get treated to those new songs all throughout their set! And, you guys… they’re SO GOOD.

They closed out their set of mostly new stuff with their 1994 classic “Blade of Grass” from their Teen-Beat release, The Stars are Insane, bringing up old bandmates Patrick Ramos and Kendall Meade of Mascott. I cannot wait for this new album to see the light of day, and for them to return to west coast, dammit.

The Clientele: This was about as close as I could get to snap a photo of The Clientele. It was their first US show in four years, and their first with this classic lineup in nine years. A car full of fans drove from Mexico to Brooklyn for the show. It was nuts. They sounded impeccable, bringing out old classics like “We Could Walk Together” and “Since K Got Over Me.”

If you missed it, the classic line-up will perform again at the Merge 25 Fest in North Carolina this July (another festival I wanna travel cross-country for). For their 25th anniversary, Merge also plan to reissue the band’s 2000 album in May, Suburban Light, with new artwork and a bonus disc of outtakes.

So, thank you to Gail O’Hara for keeping Chickfactor alive, and continuing to inspire me in dorky ways. Her festivals are more than just a bunch of great bands: it’s like a reunion, getting to put a face to a penpal’s name who sent you an awesome mix tape in the mail (hi, Maura), or getting to high-five Phoebe Summersquash, the drummer for Small Factory, when you tell her you started drum lessons after seeing her play at Chickfactor 20.

The next Chickfactor Fest will take place in London. A July 11th date has been announced with The Clientele, Birdie, and the Would-Be-Goods, with admission including a split single from The Clientele and Birdie. A July 13th date will be announced soon.

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