Wicker Park Fest 2022 in Review

By guest author Aviv Hart

Wicker Park Fest has been my favorite weekend of the summer for about a decade now, providing a full music festival experience to Chicagoans for just a $10 requested donation per day. The lineup always strikes a good balance of locally championed Chicago musicians as well as many of the coolest up-and-coming artists from around the country, providing a wide swath of genres and sounds that truly offers something for everybody.

FRIDAY

Cheekface
As I was making my initial walk through the festival my ears caught the kitschy pop-rock of Cheekface coming from the Rockstar Energy Drink Stage™, and I decided to stay for a couple songs. This plan proved futile, as the band’s unique blend of sarcasm and sincerity, as well as their infectious catchiness, kept me there for the entirety of the set. Landing somewhere between DEVO, They Might Be Giants, and The B-52’s; Cheekface’s endearing simplicity and sardonic pop-culture commentary (the lyric about getting a Gucci stick-and-poke tattoo instead of going to therapy was particularly entertaining) provided for an incredibly pleasant surprise. In fact, a few of their choruses are still stuck in my head.

The Spits
The Spits are fun. While that may seem like relatively undercooked analysis, it truly is the defining feature of the band throughout their history. Whether it was the keyboard player being dressed up as a robot, or guitarist Sean Wood emphatically declaring “This is our last song!” before almost every song, there was a clear sense of playfulness and whimsy to The Spits set, which are not adjectives typically used to describe punk bands. While there is some validity to the statement that all their songs pretty much sound the same, The Spits consistently get away with it by simply not taking themselves too seriously. At the end of the day, if you like your late 90’s/early 2000’s punk rock to be dirty, driving, and more than a little coy, The Spits are for you. If you’re not particularly a fan of the punk rock genre, The Spits won’t do a whole lot to change your opinion, nor do they seem to have any desire to.

Local H
I’ve seen Chicago hometown heroes Local H five times and one thing has always remained consistent about their live performance; it’s loud. The sheer amount of noise the two-piece grunge outfit produces is impressive in and of itself, not to mention how full and deep their sound is despite having no bassist. This is due to guitarist and songwriter Scott Lucas’ unique guitar setup, in which he installs a bass pickup next to the neck pickup on his guitar to pick up the low E string. This allows the lowest note of each chord to act as a bassline, providing depth to their chaotic, fuzzed out live sound. As with any band almost 30 years into their career, the new music they played felt somewhat like formality in between renditions of cult classics from their iconic 1996-2004 run. That being said, Local H must be given an abundance of credit for the fact that their new music retains a majority of the soul of the early work that made so many fall in love with them, especially in contrast to the radio rock mediocrity that many of their contemporaries have settled for. The tracks off 2020’s Lifers were not only satisfying, but at times exhilarating, proving that the band had not only kept their edge, but continued to sharpen it. While the new material was welcome, it couldn’t match the elated energy that the crowd responded to tracks like “California Songs” and “Hands On The Bible” with. My only criticism of the current iteration of Local H is that drummer Ryan Harding doesn’t hit quite as hard as former drummer Brian St. Clair used to, but this is nostalgic nitpicking more than anything else. A notable surprise came in the form of “Bound For the Floor,” their alternative rock radio hit (listeners of the now defunct Chicago radio station Q101 will no doubt remember this song fondly) that they had refused to play live up until this point (at least the four previous times I saw them). The street-filling crowd came unglued as the instantly recognizable hook echoed down Milwaukee, being emphatically sang by the sweaty masses. Proving once again that more than any other rock band active today, Local H is Chicago.

SATURDAY

Matt Muse
As someone who is a sucker for crowd participation, Matt Muse’s set was right up my alley, as the Chicago rapper instructed the crowd to repeat the soulful and uplifting hook of “Myself.” Matt Muse provided a sound that, like Local H the night before, was distinctly Chicago, albeit in a completely different way. While Local H’s sound defines the many dive bars they once inhabited, Matt Muse’s jazz and R&B inflected hip-hop transports the listener directly to the lakefront on a sunny summer afternoon. This feeling of distinctly Chicago self-affirmation was apparent on the breezy second city anthem “Ain’t No,” which was a clear highlight of an incredibly impressive opening center stage set. A healthy dose off aggression was added to the otherwise serene set with the cathartic trunk-knocker “Don’t Tweak,” a track that will surely resonate with anyone who’s been frustrated about being done wrong.

Marina City
Marina City was, unfortunately, the first strong “meh” of the weekend for me. It’s not that they were bad performers or musicians, on the contrary they actually brought an invigorating and lively performance that accurately represented the sun-soaked energy of a street festival. They had sizzle in spades, it was the steak that left me a little disappointed. For a festival whose lineup centered the experimental (Nnamdi, Armand Hammer, Oux) and energetically loud (Local H, The Spits, Cherry Glazerr), Marina City came off as incredibly safe. Their early 2010’s-reminiscient alt-pop was inoffensive almost to a fault, coming off as a little too clean, too manufactured, too 2010’s radio-friendly. The set featured a mashup cover of “No Diggity” by Blackstreet and “No Scrubs” by TLC, which was quite clever in its structure, but added a strong dose of electric guitar and rock sensibility that neither song particularly needed (and as always when mentioning TLC, rest in peace to the great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes). I obviously wish Marina City nothing but success (as if they would ever need or care about my blessing) because they’re very good at what they do, what they do just wasn’t really for me.

Armand Hammer
I swore vengeance in the seventh grade/not on one man, the whole human race/I’m almost done, God be praised/ I’m almost done, every debt gets paid.”
This lyric by Billy Woods from “Indian Summer” effectively encapsulates the tone of Armand Hammer’s music and live performance; it is an intense, jarring experience that finds uncomfortable profundity in deceptively simple places. The duo of NYC art-rap veterans Billy Woods and Elucid have been making music together as Armand Hammer since 2013, consistently raising the bar for the avant-garde in underground hip-hop with each new release. While Armand Hammer have long been cult legends in the “if you know you know” and “your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers” sectors of the underground hip-hop world, 2021 saw them reach their highest level of (relatively) mainstream success yet, pairing up with legendary producer The Alchemist for the monumental collaborative project Haram. On stage, the duo modulated between Armand Hammer material and Elucid and Woods solo material, providing a tour of both men’s recent discographies as individuals as well as a unit. Elucid’s deep, rasp-ridden voice and stream of consciousness flow punctured the night air, providing a perfect foil for Billy Woods’ deadpan, matter-of-fact cadence. When you witness Armand Hammer rap live, it doesn’t feel like they’re saying what they’re saying to entertain you, but rather because it has to be said. Their vivid, personal storytelling acts as a flashlight into dark corners that most would rather pretend aren’t there. There are no pleasantries in their live performance, there is a sense of survivalist desperation in their vocal inflections that comes from seeing the world in all its ugliness, and attempting to communicate the monstrosities around us to the naïve. Armand Hammer doesn’t want to make you dance, they want to lead you out of Plato’s cave.

SUNDAY

Oux
Though I’ve seen them perform before, it’s hard not to be stunned by Oux’s magnificently theatrical prog pop every time I get to see it live. The group has an excellent sense of tension and build, gradually putting songs together on stage until they become the climactic anthems they conclude as. Lead singer and keyboard player Indigo is an absolute vocal powerhouse, quite literally stopping people in their tracks as they passed the stage. However, it’s not just the glass-shattering dynamics of their voice, but their control over it and use of restraint that left me particularly impressed (If I could sing like that I would be belting constantly). Chicago DIY scene veteran Manae Vaughn was a delight to see on stage as always, holding down the guitar with the same tastefulness and tact she has brought to many local bands over the past decade or so. Oux’s one-of-a-kind mix of eccentric rock, pop, and electronic music will make even the most jaded music fan’s ears perk up, yet will still satisfy the more traditional pop fan. Do not be surprised if Oux are playing at much bigger festivals next summer.

Nnamdï
Nnamdi is truly one-of-one, an inimitable artist who seems to craft his sound by reaching into the musical ether and smashing together as many things as his hands can grab. The inspired Frankenstein’s monster of pop, hip-hop, and math rock that he creates has to be heard to be believed, and is even more astonishing when played live with a full band. Despite how esoteric it may seem when described, Nnamdï’s joyously reckless sonic diversity and genre-breaking songwriting is remarkably un-pretentious and accessible, due in no small part to his phenomenal sense of humor. Both 2020’s Brat and 2017’s Drool have lines that illicit intentional belly laughs on first listen, which (impressively) not only doesn’t take away from some of those projects’ more emotional themes, but seem interwoven with them. The set was not without its more emotionally affecting moments, as “Glass Casket,” and “Salut,” off of Brat will never fail to be moving, but these moments were necessary breaks in the absolute revelry that Nnamdï provided to the crowd. One thing that will always stand out about Nnamdï, both on record and live, is how much fun he’s having making music with his friends. It’s a feeling that you can’t help but fall in love with, as the virtuosic artist serenaded the crowd with squeaky falsettos, tasteful auto-crooning, and immaculate guitar and keyboard playing. Maybe it’s my Chicago bias, or maybe it’s the fact that he ended the set with my favorite song of his, “Art school crush,” but after a weekend of amazing and inspiring music, I’m inclined to say that Nnamdï’s set was my favorite.

This review was written by guest author Aviv Hart. Aviv Hart is a Chicago music and culture writer, you can find his other work online at dxcegame.com and in print in the DXCEGAME magazine.

Default image
Guest Author

Our Guest Authors are occasional contributors to our site, and authorship is noted at the beginning of each piece. Some of them go on to become regular authors and write under their own bylines. If you're interested in contributing to Third Coast Review, drop us a note and tell us about yourself and what you write.