Our Lit section editor, Emma Terhaar, and music writer, Colin Smith, traveled to Kalamazoo, Michigan, last weekend to catch the fifth annual Audiotree Festival. Here’s their report on day one. Photos by Tom Krohn (IG: corn_man5000).
Audiotree felt too good to be true.
For the first time during its five-year run, they split the festival into two days. Each day built to a head nicely, offering exciting sets throughout the day. The layout took advantage of Kalamazoo’s downtown, holding the festival at Arcadia Creek Festival Place, and giving festival-goers enough space to get up and mosh to Twin Peaks or chill in hammocks while listening to BADBADNOTGOOD’s lysergic jazz.
Despite being around 93º F both days, there was shade to be found, free bottles of Topo Chico, buckets of ice, and even big (electric) fans spraying mist. And though Chicagoans had the cost of a short road trip to the festival, the tickets were affordable at under $70 for the two days. They packed the lineup with young, up-and-coming midwestern artists as well as critically acclaimed east and west coasters.
We say it was too good to be true because it will only get more popular and crowded, the lineup will get even better, and the prices will probably go up. This year felt so comfortable and easy. By the time Noname got on stage Friday evening — a popular and talented Chance the Rapper collaborator — the crowd still seemed sparse. It’s hard to imagine that Audiotree made any profit this year, but they definitely produced a fun festival for attendees.
Audiotree is still figuring out what it wants to do with this festival, and that isn’t a bad thing. It lacked all pretense and formality. When Lizzo finished her set, after she set the stage on fire, she stood in the crowd with her backup dancers and watched SuperDuperKyle. SALES were boppin’ around in the crowd after their set, too. The line between artist and fan blurred. Because Kalamazoo is a small city, you’d find yourself running into other music journalists, photographers, and musicians throughout the weekend at diners, bagel shops, and dive bars.
(Colin’s note: having lived in Kalamazoo for four years during college, Audiotree Festival felt more like a Chicago reunion than one of Kalamazoo — I bumped into Chicago journalists, friends from Sofar Sounds Chicago, the local band Town Criers, Twin Peaks, and members of Post Animal and Whitney. There were fewer Kalamazoo people.)
This dreamy Midwestern fall (albeit hot) weekend sipping craft beers while sitting on the grass, and discovering new talent felt even more ephemeral than every other day.
Day One: Friday, September 22
HOOPS played much earlier in the day and played a solid set for the high temperatures and the small audience. The bassist put a towel on his head for the first song, like a sweaty dog left out in the sun. The early birds already there flocked to the stage once they started playing their brand of hypnotic, ’80s-influenced jangle-rock. These young Midwesterners are worth watching over the next couple years.
While the lineup included diverse sounds, Smino truly felt like one of the most different acts. In a largely white, indie-rock listening crowd, he played a defiantly confident set, and it was probably the first act of the festival to get everyone on their feet crowding around the stage to dance. He performed most of the songs from his debut album, which came out this spring, and ended the set with “Netflix & Dusse” chanting “I got pizza on the way.” He set the tone for the rest of a long, upbeat evening.
NoName’s set felt like a wonderful affirmation of Midwest talent. She seemed so down to earth—so real that she felt like someone familiar and nearby, like a cousin (if your cousin is an overwhelmingly soulful, precise and smooth poet). Watching Smino and Noname back-to-back on Friday helped make the festival feel like, well, a festival. Charming and joyful, Noname drew the attendees closer to the stage when the crowd still seemed both sparse and shy.
Here’s what hit us: Lizzo and her all-female entourage played a stand-out set as the second to last act of the night. She demanded that everyone dance, and her music and spirit demanded it even more. It’s not possible to stand still while listening to “Water Me” and “Scuse Me.”
Young white guys were shaking their butts without any regard for decorum. She made references to preaching, which only spoke to the redemptive quality of her music. She has a similar divine hold on the audience, controlling the energy of the crowd through flawless stage presence and sharp humor.
Her lyrics, vocal techniques, and rhythms felt like a direct reference to both past and present pop and R&B stars. But it felt like neither stealing nor impersonation because of her naked authenticity. She is a body acceptance advocate, a symbol of black female power, a pop queen, and she is shockingly funny.
SuperDuperKyle headlined with a high-energy, Nintendo-infused set that made for an entertaining headliner act. His hype-man SuperDuperBrick deserves a medal. After Lizzo’s wonderful set, Brick got the crowd pumped up to listen to someone else. He was so good at hyping that the energy seemed to dip a tiny bit when Kyle finally took the stage. The two of them are spectacular dancers, and they bicker and play on stage a bit like Mario and Luigi.