Reviewing the Reviews: Making Sense of the Reaction to Index Fest

Sifting through reviews this past week, it appears that Index Fest’s second year was a successful one, for the most part. As I had mentioned previously, it seems that fans and critics both could find at least something to like about it. This event seemed less regionally polarizing than others, such as 35 Denton and Homegrown, which equally seem to stir feelings of civic loyalty more than anything. Though there is a push to make the latter the so-called “best day in Dallas all year,” I am more optimistic. I would like to think that day is still yet to come, and our relatively young music festival culture is still finding its way.

There were some minor aesthetic disagreements among some of the critics, however. Hunter Hauk—who has had a welcome return to regularly covering local music—spoke highly of songwriter Jason Isbell’s unannounced set in the intimate confines of the Twilite Lounge:

Our best decision? Shoehorning into the elegant new bar Twilite Lounge to enjoy an hour and a half of acoustic performances by earlier outdoor headliner Jason Isbell. The Alabama artist picked his guitar and sang beautifully from a tiny stage, taking some requests from devotees and laughing some off. Whether offering songs from his Drive-By Truckers days or his equally potent solo efforts, Isbell’s a lyrical storyteller whose lines come off as effortless, unaffected by a need for embellishment or wordplay.

Central Track’s Stephen Young  pondered the appropriateness of Isbell’s appearance at the festival, though his take was based on a different performance:

Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell did his best for a decent but largely inattentive crowd at Twilite Lounge the Red Hook stage, but his alt-country stylings felt out of place at a festival that was highlighted by its terrific hip-hop and electronic offerings. It wasn’t his fault, necessarily, but it was still a drag.

But neither writer sounded entirely impressed with Girl Talk. In my opinion, Hunter Hauk is the standard-bearing professional who I feel  most other music editors in this town have aspired to be, and yet nearly always fall short. Even when I disagree with Hauk, I’m never pulling my hair out at his inaccuracies or misrepresentations of artists and their work. As always, he gave a very diplomatic explanation for why he may have preferred the music he saw elsewhere. Here’s how to politely say you did not like something:

We get the appeal of the whole scene – letting loose and embracing ridiculousness can change any night for the better – but for us the magic of this particular festival had more to do with gimmick-free musicianship. So we soaked in the craziness for a few minutes and moved on. …

The aforementioned Stephen Young on the other hand, could not leave it at that regarding Girl Talk’s set. He attacked the artist’s onstage methodology:

The substance of Gregg Gillis’ set wasn’t nearly as interesting, though. The crowd ate it up, but their reaction seemed to based on their recognition of the sample that was playing, not anything Gillis was doing. It was an expensive, tightly planned DJ set. I get that Girl Talk is an important artist, if only for his contributions to the fight over the Fair Use doctrine and song samples. But he’s not the most impressive festival headliner.

As Girl Talk has explained on “countless” occasions—his words—he is manipulating the entire process during the set. He is the one “doing” the samples, if that’s too hard to fathom. He has also reiterated in numerous publications that he is not a DJ. On that point, there is even a t-shirt proclaiming this truth. This all comes down to conducting a simple Google search or perhaps, merely having an editor who questions these statements. It’s little surprise that Young made the same mistake of his blog editor, by also questioning the process and whether or not he was even “performing,” something which caused Girl Talk himself, otherwise known as Greg Gillis, to issue this tweet heard ’round the world, a while back:

The Dallas Observer’s Deb Doing Dallas admitted to feeling apprehensive based on past experiences, but eventually made peace with herself regarding the set, though some onstage dancing helped to ease the inner turmoil regarding Girl Talk. Her column this week is another example of the saner, less sensationalistic era of the Observer’s music section. Plus, I know she will never write an article with a title like this.

As far as my own feelings regarding Girl Talk’s appearance at Index Fest, I thought it was a brilliant move. It did not necessarily fit with all of the other acts, but therein lies the genius. The set acted as more of a safety net; had the rest of the day been too dull, it was guaranteed that this would make it feel like a real event. Girl Talk had the biggest crowd that I witnessed all weekend, which was so energetic it nearly toppled over itself at times. I had my glasses knocked off in three separate instances.

As for Girl Talk’s music itself, I find it to be the most accessible music I’ve ever heard, and therefore I would be hard-pressed to make an argument against it. Or more specifically, I don’t know why you would. When he uses a sample as sacred as “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” you are almost appalled for a moment, but then, suddenly, the song transcends its origins and is instead canonized, even if it’s manipulated in the same set as a Kelly Clarkson hit. It has the wonderful ability to make important music feel momentarily meaningless and terrible music seem absolutely incredible. There is no other artist to whom I can give that compliment. A Girl Talk set is the least pretentious thing I do every year, and for that I’m grateful.

One thing only writers and journalists care about is who is ever first to break something. The public almost never takes notice of the entirely ego-driven effort to prove you were the one to say this or that before anyone else. Trust me, I’ve learned the hard way. So, in one of the more blatant examples I’ve seen in a while, Mikel Galicia had this to say in his review of Dallas rapper Lord Byron’s set:

Leading up to this performance at the Boiler Room as part of Index Fest’s Saturday venue shows, there had been a palpable buzz brewing since we first introduced the 21-year-old rapper to Dallas back in August. Since then, local music critics from D Magazine, the Dallas Observer and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have all backed our initial claims that Lord Byron is a uniquely talented rapper whose album Dark Arts Vol.2 is one of the best hip-hop releases Dallas has ever heard.

Okay, we get it. You wrote about it first on your blog, and then the print publications swooped in and stole your thunder. I know a thing or two about that myself, so I’m not exactly weeping for you. As I mentioned earlier this week, Vanessa Quilantan wrote an extremely thorough piece on Lord Byron’s first live performance in Dallas, of which she even played a part.

I was shocked at Lord Byron’s unshakeable ease on his first set. As others have mentioned, he did in fact, give an encore for his debut performance. That’s likely a positive sign that speaks to the rapper’s actual abilities, not just the evidence that the public has already been tipped off by the media. Upon meeting Lord Byron after the performance, he was gracious and friendly, but I would not want to even be in an established rap act in this town right now. This younger talent seems ready to take the spotlight if it’s there.

Elsewhere, Warpaint was derided as being “too easy to ignore.” And yet Girl Talk was too much of a spectacle for some. Unless you’re utterly middle-of-the-road, you just won’t win over some people it seems. Our own critic had a more positive take. Though a couple of musicians blamed Warpaint’s extended soundcheck for scheduling mishaps when I was backstage, I thought they handled their fairly coveted time-slot well and were a nice counterintuitive buildup to Girl Talk. The drumming was particularly strong, and speaking of which, the Cannabinoids’ Cleon Edwards put on the best drum show I saw all weekend. He even played perhaps the first drum solo I’ve enjoyed in half a decade or so.

With the wealth of reviews on Index, I was surprised to see very little had been written about AV the Great, otherwise known as Chris Cole. The Denton rapper was backed by a large ensemble that included a trombonist, saxophonist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and, of course, a DJ. I am very skeptical when it comes to live rap backed by traditional instruments. Not everyone can take on the dual role of having to keep their cadence steady, as well as be a micro-conductor to such a large group of musicians. AV handled this more than capably, finding enough time to reference his K104 on-air personality before getting deep into his set. The playing of his band members was comparably passionate to AV’s lyrical prowess.

But my favorite moment all weekend came when a particular sample was employed by AV the Great. As much as I enjoyed Girl Talk’s use of triggered bits of music made by other artists—particularly his decision to work in hyper-current Billboard hits—it was one dust-covered melody that eclipsed all others. It was a section of Billie Holiday’s take on the standard, “You’re My Thrill,” a Jay Gorney composition. When the darkly beautiful minor key uncurled from the stage, the experience seemed frozen in a glowing blue amber, as evidenced in this Vine clip I shot. But those moments and experiences both only occur when the booking is savvy enough to make them happen. AV the Great had played 35 Denton in the past, and it’s comforting to know that someone was paying attention.

 











All photos by Andi Harman.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Something that all these reviews fail to mention is that the fest may have incorporated too many venues. Friday night, several places were embarrassingly bare. Not that each one needs to be at capacity — 35 Denton taught us that. But if you bring in a nationally renown act, let’s say Dessa, and Prophet Ballroom is more than half empty the whole time, it reflects poorly on the scene. Each artist there deserved a crowd and many did not receive.

  • Anonymous

    Sincerely, Tiney Ricciardi (you can read my review here: http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2013/oct/21/index-fest-deep-ellum-revival-music-fest/)

  • Bret Branon

    Nice read. Nice writing. Thanks for putting the thought into it.