Coverage of music festival activity in the past few weeks has been focused almost exclusively on ACL, yet another event that has evolved into one of the most prominent and well-known music festivals in the country.  While ACL, Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza continue to dominate the festival industry, the amount of smaller festivals throughout the country has been steadily rising.  These events often provide a much-needed opposition to the big festivals (which often include extremely similar lineups), as they cater more towards more niche genres or local audiences.

One such smaller event is Champaign, Illinois’s Pygmalion Festival, a rapidly growing annual festival that brings indie heavyweights to the otherwise unknown college town.  Tonight’s set by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart marks the end of the festival’s five-day run, during which shows have been occurring at the several venues scattered throughout the city.

For such a small town Pygmalion actually hosted an impressive lineup this year, including internationally-regarded indie groups like Explosions in the Sky, Cut Copy and Washed Out.  Even with such a strong, indie-oriented lineup the festival has received little press coverage— the only reason I’ve even heard of it is because I grew up in Champaign, a town that my most of my current friends from Los Angeles have never even heard of (not that I can blame them).

I was able travel back to the Midwest to attend a small portion of the festival, the day-long Saturday event honoring the 15th anniversary of local label Polyvinyl Records (I also caught an enjoyable set from Seattle’s goth group Grave Babies on Friday night).  I feel a sense of pride towards Polyvinyl both because they’ve found success in my hometown and because many of their bands are featured on Earbits Radio (had to mention both those things for full disclosure).  Even if an independent label and a small-town festival sound like a recipe for an un-relatable article, read on if you want to discover some great bands that put on some great shows (that can also be found on Earbits).


-5:30pm: I arrive at the festival, which is impressively arranged in the parking lot behind one of downtown Champaign’s major bars— the High Dive.  The crowd isn’t huge but it’s bigger than expected, especially with a University of Illinois football game taking place just down the road.  It seems as if every musically-minded townie is in attendance, as well as a great deal of students.  I show up late in typical L.A. fashion expecting to catch the last few songs of Owen— the pseudonym of Mike Kinsella— former member of Midwestern cult-favorites Cap’n Jazz and American Football.  Unfortunately his set has just ended— a surprising display of punctuality not typically found in the live music industry (even ’round these parts).


-5:40pm:  Polyvinyl employees and festival promoters prove their punctuality once more as indie favorites STRFKR take the stage promptly at their scheduled time.  The group is the easiest example of Polyvinyl’s latest and most successful style— indie, hipster-ish groups that appeal to college kids.


-5:43pm: A friend observantly notes, “it’s tough to take a drummer seriously when he’s wearing a cardigan sweater.”  Despite the off-putting trendy outfits, STRFKR’s synth-heavy, mid-tempo songs provide a fitting backtrack as the sun sets and the temperature drops to chilly levels.


–6:00pm: A small crowd of freeloaders forms around the festival’s low-fenced, generally unguarded periphery to watch STRFKR without forking over the $30 required for a day-long pass.  The stage is clearly visible from that location, and the audio likely less loud and more enjoyable.  It’s tough to tell whether these guys are smart folks or cheap bastards.


-6:15pm: I check out the merch tent, which has a bunch of Polyvinyl shirts, posters and albums.  I buy the label’s benefit album for Japan— a compilation released shortly after March’s tsunami featuring various songs by Polyvinyl’s prominent artists as well as a track from local Champaignian punk group Midstress.


-6:20pm: I find a golden VIP wristband on the cement, freshly fallen from a (apparently very important) passerby’s pocket.  Rather than returning it like an honest music fan might do, I quickly secure it around my wrist.  At least I’m better than those fans still watching from outside the fence.


-7:50pm: The festival’s punctuality falters when Japandroids— the popular Canadian noise-rock duo— experiences sound issues while warming up.


-8:00pm: Guitarist/singer Brian King shows that the sound issues have been resolved by blasting the crowd with a barrage of distorted noise, a loud-sounding tone that doesn’t let up throughout Japandroids’ set.  After a surprisingly embarrassed apology to the crowd for having to witness those sound issues, Japandroids energetically drives into their opening song— a brand new, unreleased song called “Adrenaline Nightshift” that leaked via a video of a Dallas performance a few weeks ago.  They play two other new songs— each of which will be included on their new album— within the first fifteen minutes of the set.  King repeatedly sells the forthcoming album, claiming he’s “more proud of [the album]” than anything he’s ever done.


-8:15pm: The band suddenly stops completely mid-song as drummer David Prowse stands up and analyzes his kit.  King remarks that the drum set is way more messed up than he thought it was, although no visible damage is apparent from my point of view.  Prowse eventually sits back down and profusely apologizes in a slightly-detectable Canadian accent, claiming his stool fell a few inches lower than a level at which he was comfortable performing.  He then asks King, in a moment of sincerity, if they should start “from the chorus?”

“Yeah, I like that part,” King jokes before explaining that “if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in a band, more often than not it’s this.”  The drummer gives a four-beat count and the duo drives straight back into the song as if nothing had happened.


-8:20pm: Running out of set time, King declares that they’re just going to play their two best songs.  One of those is predictable— the catchy single “Young Hearts Spark Fires” from debut full-length Post-Nothing.  The other— a cover of iconic Los Angeles punk group The Gun Club— is more surprising.  King jokes that the band plans on getting the executives at Polyvinyl drunk in order to convince them to put the cover out on a 7” next year.


-8:25pm: King and Prowse thank Polyvinyl for giving “two Canadians that like to play punk rock and not much else” a chance.


-8:30pm: I finally get around to checking out the VIP area, which is actually just the back patio of the aforementioned local bar— the Highdive.  Free booze, free Chipotle (just chips, the burritos were exclusively for artists), and old friends/current Polyvinyl employees/Pygmalion artists (all the same people.  Champaign is really small) abound.  The whole setting is reminiscent of a Los Angeles concert— the small street-lamp size space heaters to battle the 60-degree weather, band members up-close and people that think they’re cooler than they really are (myself included, probably).  Art-rockers Deerhoof take the stage in the background as Chipotle chips are crunched.


-8:45pm: A shrimpy member of STRFKR wearing a tiny, bright yellow sweater slinks into the corner next to me and sips on his drink, quietly surveying the crowd.  Not quite the rock star persona many would expect from a member of a group with one of the most highly-regarded albums of the year.  Just before I feel compelled to strike up conversation in order to make his time in Champaign more enjoyable (and, possibly, to pick up a new friend in an internationally successful band), another band member saves the artist from his solitude.


-10:30pm: The newly elected Mayor of Champaign (somewhat controversially a liberal “cool guy” that used to play in bands and spends his freetime mingling around the many downtown bars that surround the Highdive) introduces local legends Braid— the headliners of the day’s event.  Braid takes the stage dressed in all black and dives into their set, a mixture of new songs off their recent EP as well as classics from their influential third album, Frame & Canvas.


By the time the band performs their late night set the crowd has significantly dwindled.  Many Pygmalion All Access Wristband-holders have ditched for a crosstown, heated indoor venue to see Gang Gang Dance.  This serves as yet another sign of Polyvinyl’s new era of hipster indie rock superstardom— most fans prefer to see Pitchfork-approved groups like Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof than early emo pioneers Braid.

Based on crowd size and reaction Japandroids seem more like the night’s headliners, even though one can’t help but notice that the duo probably wouldn’t sound the same without the influence of groups like Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate.  But no matter the current trends Braid are local boys, and many of their songs reference the surrounding area in which they used to live (“Urbana’s Too Dark,” for instance).  The entire set made me proud to be from an area typically unknown to the outside world (and so often scoffed at by snobbish Chicagoans).  That the event took place in a parking lot just off of honorary “REO Speedwagon Way,” a street honoring yet another one of the city’s musical claims to fame, added to my sense of pride and nostalgia.


Those from more exciting cities might take little interest in the successes of Champaign’s music scene (and who can blame you?), but perhaps in another… century or so places like Champaign might go the musical route of Austin or Seattle, so take notice of those continuously developing areas now.  The city has already come a long way in its musical aspect, and it owes much of that progression and publicity to Polyvinyl Records.  Here’s to another 15 for the label.

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