What's in a Name?
In 1993, Bay Area band manager and agent Kevin Arnold booked a hell of a show. He put together a bill with six of his favorite bands--all loud punkish combos with strong pop sensibilities, like the Fastbacks, Overwhelming Colorfast, and the Meices--at San Francisco's Kennel Club and gave the event a name: Noise Pop. He thought of it as a one-off, a quick way for the participants to collectively increase their followings, but to his surprise both bands and fans began asking him if he was going to do it again the following year. He did, and has done it again every February since, watching the lineups and the crowds grow. This year's edition featured 37 bands--including Guided by Voices, Imperial Teen, Beulah, Grandaddy, and Sixteen Deluxe--performing at four venues over six nights. The musical theme has more or less remained guitar-driven pop and rock, and strong representation of Bay Area bands is a priority.
Arnold, who now works for the Internet music company Listen.com, and his partner since 1997, band manager Jordan Kurland, are always thinking about ways to expand Noise Pop, and in recent years they've come to believe that this means making it a national event. At first they considered setting up a Noise Pop tour, sending a handful of bands to a number of cities, but decided instead to franchise the idea of Noise Pop, setting up similarly structured festivals with regional focuses. After a series of conversations with Tom Windish, a Chicago booking agent Kurland had dealt with in lining up bands for the San Francisco festival, they decided Chicago--a big urban area with a thriving music scene but no strong annual pop festival of its own--would be an ideal starting point. In January Windish took the idea to his boss, David "Boche" Viecelli, owner of the Billions agency, and it was agreed that Billions would program the music and handle advertising while Arnold and Kurland assembled a program guide and solicited corporate sponsorships--mostly from on-line music companies like Gigmania, Insound, and Listen.com. Profits will be split evenly between the Chicago and San Francisco offices.
Noise Pop Chicago 2000, which runs May 10 through May 15 and includes shows at Metro, Double Door, Empty Bottle, Schubas, and the Cultural Center, has a much more diverse lineup--and a much hazier theme--than the San Francisco version. "If we were going to do it here I didn't want it to be as narrowly defined musically," says Viecelli. "The festival has to be Chicago's own, and it has to be reflective of what's coming out of there while placing it in a national or international context." Focusing on what they perceive as the spirit of Noise Pop--"independence from mainstream musical trends"--instead of the sound, he and Windish have programmed artists like techno DJ Robbie Hardkiss, folk-soul-jazz legend Terry Callier, and Victoria Williams's Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers as well as a wide array of pop and rock bands. They also arranged to include the preexisting Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, and absorbed Sleater-Kinney's upcoming Metro show, which had already been scheduled. Hip-hop is noticeably absent, but Viecelli, who only began working on the project in February, says he hopes to include some next year, when he has more time to plan. It also seems worth noting that eight of the 30-some acts Windish and Viecelli booked specifically for the fest--including Callier, Seam, and the reunited Wire--are on the Billions roster.
So what makes this collection of shows a singular event rather than just a slightly above-average week in Chicago? There's no real theme; there are no panels or seminars. And while at industry-oriented festivals like Austin's South by Southwest and New York's CMJ bands rarely get paid more than gas money for the opportunity to play in front of a well-connected crowd, acts performing at Noise Pop will get their usual fees--which means the festival can't afford to offer discounted passes to concertgoers, though that's something Viecelli says he'd like to do in the future.
Last week Billions began circulating 10,000 free copies of the event's 54-page program guide, which features descriptive blurbs on every act. (For a complete schedule, see the Fairs & Festivals listings in this section.) In the introduction, Arnold and Kurland express surprise that such a great music scene didn't already have its own "uniting independent event." The explanation, if it's not already obvious, is that such a great music scene doesn't need one. Viecelli recognizes this, and says he and Windish got involved merely to "expand the scene's profile both outside the city and within," hoping that fans of one style or band might be encouraged by the schedule to check out another. They have in fact arranged some unique first-time collaborations--Wilco's Jeff Tweedy with avant-pop star Jim O'Rourke, country punk Jon Langford with Latin rocker Carlos Ortega of Casolando--and some genre-busting double bills, like Callier and Sam Prekop and Ken Vandermark's Sound in Action Trio and Charles Kim's Sinister Luck Ensemble. But Chicago's music scene owes its strength and diversity in part to the fact that artists here don't wait to get noticed or patted on the back. Certainly it deserves to be celebrated, but I'm not sure any festival could truly capture that spirit.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.