In 2017, the last three days of September and the first of October brought an unexpected surprise. The All Senses Festival debuted its multi-media enterprise last year with more than 20 artistic performances and was held at Rozz-Tox, the Rock Island Brewing Company (RIBCO), and the Figge Art Museum. Though smaller in scale compared to other regional festivals, in particular Iowa City’s Mission Creek, All Senses had, judging by the number of the acts, its own Homeric air to it.
For 2018 – specifically, Tuesday, September 25, through Saturday, September 30 – the fest has updated its roster and expanded its reach. The Figge will kick off festivities again, this time with composer Tim Story’s installation The Röedelius Cells, an “immersive audio experience” involving the piano works of Hans-Joachim Röedelius (see sidebar). In addition to Story's closing talk about Cells, Thursday will feature a short-film program with live-score performances by Brian Barr (of Abseethe), Jason Horas (Archeress), and Emma Ruth Rundle. The Figge will also host that day Ford Photography presentation “Cinema at the Figge, Volume 12: Guitar & Drums,” with the feature film being Milford Graves Full Mantis, a profile of the legendary percussionist.
On Friday and Saturday, Rozz-Tox will split music and poetry performances (the latter courtesy of the Midwest Writing Center) with RIBCO. Friday evening, Rozz-Tox will host the electronic-jazz act Jack Lion (composer/bassist/pianist Drew Morton and trumpeter/drummer/mixer Brian Smith, from Iowa City); a jam session featuring guitarists Bill MacKay and Douglas McCombs (of Brokeback, Tortoise, and Eleventh Dream Day fame), and drummer Charles Rumback; and the enticing mixture of psychedelia, noise, and free jazz that is The Crown Larks.
Meanwhile, at RIBCO, Sinner Frenz (Luke Tweedy and Brendan Lee Spengler, from Lone Tree, Iowa) bring their “electronic music for people that listen to rock music and hi-fi dance music for noise punks”; the singer-songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle, from Los Angeles, who is touring behind her forthcoming On Dark Horses album (due September 18); and the minimalist post-punk of FACS, featuring guitarist/singer Brian Case and drummer Noah Leger (from the immolated Chicago band Disappears) and bassist Alianna Kalaba (who hitherto drummed for Cat Power and We Raggazi), who released Negative Houses in March.
Saturday at Rozz-Tox will feature the synthesizer compositions of Brendan Wells, originally from Des Moines; the dark, dancy soundtracks of Nathaniel David Utesch, a.k.a. Metavari, from Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Chicago quintet Dos Santos, who play a bewitching brew of traditional Latin music, jazz, cumbia, salsa, and punk, and are promoting their June album Logos; and Snooty & the Snout Pouch, which takes the psychedelic pop of the Rock Island-based Condor & Jaybird and the brooding/theatric atmospherics of Peoria’s The Golden Fleece and smacks them together headlong. (Which is to say: Be ready for anything.)
RIBCO will feature the stoner-doom metal of Telekinetic Yeti, from Dubuque; Nest Egg, from Asheville, North Carolina, who define their sound as “mood music for nihilists” and are touring behind their April release Nothingness is Not a Curse; and the straight-up, no-muggles doom-metal of Chicago’s Bongripper, flogging their July release Terminal.
Sunday will feature the open-air Lowland Block Party, which will be held in the green space adjacent to Rozz-Tox (you can’t miss it) and feature Matt Hart (class of '17) hosting Poetry Church; an antique flea market and art fair; a punk-rock yard sale; live music from NEVERNEW, Chrash, Morton Wa Byombe, Randy Leasman, and Sean Ryan (The Dawn); Djing, courtesy of Just Let Go; new and used records; food vendors; tarot readings; and whatever else occurs to them ahead of the initial release of their flier.
And with that, the event will fade into history, a memory filled with bands, poetry, film, and food – but mostly music.
What the Area Needed
Benjamin Fawks, the owner of Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island), was an early and avid participant in what became the All Senses Festival, saying, “It’s what the area needed, really – something it hadn’t seen in a long while.” Fawks lays credit for the fest with Bob Herington, the owner of Ragged Records (418 East Second Street, Davenport).
In turn, Herington claimed his original vision as having a heavier psychedelic/progressive edge, but “once I involved other people” – particularly Josh Ford, who organizes the Thursday-night film-series screenings at the Figge Art Museum (225 West Second Street, Davenport), and Ryan Collins with the Midwest Writing Center (401 19th Street, Rock Island) handling the readings – “it kind of changed the direction of what we were looking for, [though we were] still wanting to do things that aren’t necessarily featured at other festivals.” Herington still wanted to feature psych, prog, jazz, experimental, “and more fringe-based-type stuff.” But he noticed the scope of the fest expanding after involving other people such as Jason Parris (who with brother Justen manages WAKE Brewing at 2529 Fifth Avenue in Rock Island), who has booked metal and punk acts for RIBCO (1817 Second Avenue, Rock Island), broadening the artistic palate that much more.
Herington also connoted a lack of enthusiasm for the festivals he attended – they betrayed a sameness of format in their approaches, be they, say, straight indie or alt-country acts. “There’s a lot of psych fests, too, around the country,” Herington said. And “psych” as an identifier has suffered from overuse, as “a lot of the bands that use the term ‘psych,’ I think, seem to be influenced by Sixties [rock],” though the genre is not synonymous with everything derived from that acid-dropping era. Herington wanted to feature more electronic acts this time around, such as Sinner Frenz, while endeavoring to retain the mind-bending element of psych and prog acts – thus giving All Senses its eclectic character.
Given the array of talent secured for this year’s fest, one of the more felicitous possibilities is local venues broadening their selection of artists, too. Elevating artistic vitality could attract fans who’d otherwise gone to ground culturally, attract acts from further afield geographically, and encourage an outward-spiraling, economically-reinforcing effect locally. That said, Herington has an aversion to repetitiveness, wishing to minimize the presence of acts who’ve played one of the All Senses-participating venues within months of the event or are just coming off other festivals – though Iowa City-based bands, such as Frenz, aren’t dismissed out of hand because of their participation in their own local fests. “Something that always kind of bugs me,” Herington said, “is when clubs in town just keep booking the same things over and over and over again, because they did okay the first time: ‘Let’s have this band play again for the seventh time in four years!’ I think that kind of gets old.”
Speaking for Themselves
The preservation of a youthful perspective is the paradoxical promise that stands at the center of artistically-adventurous enterprises – and music is no exception. The following are a selection of performers with whom I spoke in anticipation of their appearance at All Senses Fest, Year Two.
Sinner Frenz has just started out this year, and this will be the duo's first show in the Quad Cities. “People see the set-up and are always intrigued,” said Luke Tweedy. “[Our act] is knobs, wires, and flashing lights. There is no computer, yet it is clearly electronic music, made by a couple of guys steeped in rock.” Interestingly, Tweedy and his partner, Brendan Lee Spengler, approach their format “with very little knowledge and no real background in electronic, techno, EDM, or any of the other genres people are normally making with these things. I don't listen to that stuff, and do not seek it out. I don't want it to influence my choices. I like rock music, so I am kind of trying to figure out how to make that, with these insane instruments. It is all just me and Brendan trying to have fun, and seeing who wants to come along for the ride.”
Thus far, Tweedy – who got his start in Iowa City’s The Shadow Government in the previous decade – and Spengler have got their on-stage science down to a magic. One form it takes is “we show up with our modular rigs … . Those are generally first-slot-of-the-night-type gigs. I love them, but they are sometimes a bit of a dice roll. Sound people understand drums, bass, guitars, vocals. When a couple of guys show up with massive module rigs and four Direct Inputs, they are sometimes not sure what to do. It can yield some interesting results, but not always the way we plan it.”
Also, says Tweedy, “[We] bring our Salvation Sound System. It allows us much more control over the sound, and generally is what we intend for the audience to hear. The entire goal of that is not necessarily volume, but clarity. I want it to sound crisp without being strident. I don't want sizzle, but want definition.” Plus, there's “the full audio and visual set up. We have a video synth that we hook to the audio synth, so the sounds can be seen, not just heard. We only bring that to certain shows, as it is a big production, and a lot more to move around, but when we do, people dig it. I know I certainly do.”
Last year, Bill MacKay played an improvised solo-guitar set at Rozz-Tox that was, according to his audience, not just some guy futzing around on guitar, but really beautiful. This time around, MacKay returns with Charles Rumback, a longtime Chicago fixture who’s divided his work between jazz and folk-rock, and Douglas McCombs, renowned for his work with Tortoise and Eleventh Day Dream. They have gigged together various times around Chicago within the past two years; their Rozz-Tox set on September 28 will be their first-ever out-of-town gig.
Originally from Pittsburgh, MacKay relocated to Chicago in 1998. “Chicago’s been great,” MacKay said. “I’ve met so many wonderful musicians here, and it’s something where there’s continually new things brewing in new combinations, I think, you know, an openness of a lot of players to doing things outside their normal scope, [which] has led to a lot of exciting new things.”
MacKay feels his trio work comes out of that artistically heterogeneous setting. “We’re familiar with each other,” MacKay said, “but also there’s sub-circles throughout these circles [of activity].” Starting out fresh was challenging but rewarding: “It was that classic thing of just getting to a place where you’re not particularly known for anything by anybody, so you make those inroads and take different [musical] approaches. I’ve never been a purist of one style of music; I always like to mix things. [My music] was drawing from a lot of different sources, and coming here was interesting because at first I was looking to start a more rock-oriented band and wasn’t really hooking up with the people [for that] very well, and since I improvised, I gravitated to various jazz circles and got involved with a lot of people through the Velvet Lounge … .
“But my material was still in line with what I would have written for a rock- or folk-oriented band. I started to make some interesting early waves. But yeah, it’s been a long and interesting trajectory. It seemed long and incremental, but then you have those jumps. You jump to a new plateau sometimes.”
A prolific and creative artist, MacKay released two albums in 2017, both released on Drag City Records: the solo Esker, and Spiderbeetle, his collaboration with fellow guitarist Ryley Walker from Rockford.
I caught Alex Chávez on a break with Dos Santos, en route to Atlanta. (“Total metal van life” is how he puts their circumstances.) They debúted in 2013, and have been racking up accolades ever since with their culturally-diverse sound, mixing Latin music (Mexican folk, cumbia, salsa) with American R&B, jazz, punk, and psychedelia. They were a featured artist at 2015’s South-by-SouthWest festival in Austin, Texas, and awarded that same year “Chicago's Best Emerging Artist” in The Deli magazine's Readers Poll.
Originally from Texas, Chávez, who provides guitar, keyboards, and vocals, has lived in Chicago for the past eight years. Drummer Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo migrated to the city from Panama 20 years ago. Bassist Jaime Garza lived a bi-cultural life, growing up dividing his time between Chicago and Mexico; percussionist Peter “Maestro” Vale divided his between the Windy City and Puerto Rico. Nathan Karagianis, another Chicagoan, is of Greek descent. Of the quintet, Chávez is the relative newcomer.
“We all met from different music scenes in the city,” Chávez said, “and when you play music in any city, or one with a context like Chicago, you end up building a community with all kinds of folks. It was really like a daisy chain: I met Jaime through traditional Mexican folk-music stuff; our previous guitarist knew Daniel doing a project with him in the past; and then Daniel played a couple gigs with … . You know what I’m saying?” With a laugh, he said, “It’s a small world.”
Crown Larks vocalist/organist/guitarist Jack Bouboushian admits that the sounds of his band don’t make them easy to promote: “Spotify and such have taken hashtag pigeonholing to a new level.” Nevertheless, “People like our shows, and every record store that's played our records has sold them. We've made DIY touring work for years, and the Chicago scene's been a huge help.”
Bouboushian isn’t shy about singing the city’s praises: “Without Chicago's scene, I doubt I would've started this band. There are so many people that I consider friends and teachers here, like Wei Zhongle, Blacker Face, Health & Beauty, Toupee, Hamid Drake, Ben Lamar Gay … . The reason my creativity can weather distractions is because I think of my musical heroes, living or dead, and want to carry on their work, because it's saved my life.”
Together with fellow-vocalist Lorraine Bailey (who also plays keyboards, alto-saxophone, flute, and synth-bass), percussionist Bill Miller, and bassist Matt Buhr, their collective work is characterized by Bouboushian as “more of a long-term process. From the start, we wanted to be very collaborative and make room for chance and chaos. Our newer material is a lot more focused than before, partly because it's more about rhythms than textures. But we're also just better musicians/listeners now. Five years ago, my approach was much more ‘throw shit at the wall and see what sticks’ than it is now.”
Bouboushian tries not to get hung up on project-minded creative end-points, but doesn’t get hung up by complacency, either. “My best results have come from letting myself be a channel, and critiquing/editing after the fact,” Bouboushian says. “It's hard not to feel that people like Kevin Shields or Shuggie Otis, who started off so incredibly, held themselves back by overthinking things. I don't think complacency leads to anything good, but you have to have some level of self-acceptance and confidence just to play.”
He’s also, you should know, not fond of the “avant-jazz” label, even though the press plays it up at every conceivable corner. “I don't think we're a jazz project in any sense. I listen to jazz as much as any music, and Chicago's free/out jazz scene is the best, but our songs are almost all centered around riffs and vocals. I wouldn't go further than to say this band often uses jazz-esque textures and leads, and that I want to make music that melds individual expression and structure in a way that the best jazz does best.
“A lot of our biggest influences are bands or musicians that we sound nothing like. I love Neil Young and Grace Jones and John Coltrane, but that love manifests more as an approach or a personal inspiration than as a specific sound. As far as stuff we do sound like – This Heat, Can, Television. So a lot of bands also inspired by free jazz, Musique concrète, et ceteran, that, at the end of the day, are punk bands. As far as contemporaries – Dirty Projectors, Yonatan Gat, Horse Lords, Boredoms, and, yeah, a lot of jazz artists like Tatsu Aoki or Jaimie Branch.”