I’m still not sure why Tomorrow Never Knows is a thing. It’s technically a festival, but it has never felt that way. It’s just like any other week in Chicago – the only difference is that if you happen to have an itch to go see a show every night of the week, you can drop a hundred bucks for a wristband that’ll end up maybe saving you five dollars had you not bought it. There aren’t any shows happening during the day, the venues are few and miles away from one another, and it’s hard to tell what the theme of the fest is. Maybe it’s about showcasing up-and-comers? But no, The Walkmen would not be part of the fest if that was the case. All said, this “fest” needs some branding work. The same problems show up every year.
The only show of the fest I attended this year was Freelance Whales and Hundred Waters at Lincoln Hall on Saturday night. It sold out well in advance, and was packed half an hour before opening band Snowmine started. This Brooklyn band is well suited as an opener for an indie-pop headliner like Freelance Whales. They’re not what you think of when you hear “new Brooklyn band,” meaning they’re not another Yeasayer ripoff or garage-rock snooze. They’re more like a Death Cab throwback with Coldplay crossover appeal. All in all, an adequate opening band. Everyone’s talking and drinking while guys are playing guitars and keyboards. Fine, alright.
The best band on the bill was Hundred Waters, but this crowd would have no idea. The ol’ 7/4 time signature just confuses Freelance Whales fans apparently, because for how much skill and creativity this band was exhibiting, the crowd could hardly muster a clap during their set. The vocalist’s delivery is something between Joanna Newsom and Bjork, and the polyrhythms are a stark contrast to the straightforward stomps of Freelance Whales’ common time. Hundred Waters’ harmonies are complex, often blending real-time midi bleeps with handheld shakers. They exude a truly modern musicianship, their Akai controllers wielded as prominently and effectively as their woodwinds. It’s a mature sound, challenging a crowd of mostly still teenage listeners.
When Freelance Whales finally got up there to give the sold-out crowd what they came for, there was something painfully anti-climactic about the whole thing. It might have been the quietest sold-out crowd I’ve ever heard. Save a small group of enthusiastic young fans at the front of the stage, almost everyone in Lincoln Hall was chilled the hell out. This was a Saturday night. This was a sold out show at a “fest” in Chicago. What’s going on here?
Maybe Freelance Whales just aren’t very good, which I wouldn’t mind betting money on, but maybe this Tomorrow Never Knows fest is just a recipe for bad shows. I don’t know how many people at this show were wearing the week-long wristbands, but that could’ve been the problem right there. If people bought a wristband for this thing, there’s a good chance that they aren’t familiar with every band playing the fest. Maybe they just wanted to go see The Walkmen and figured, “Might as well get this wristband thing and go see a couple other shows that week. I’ve heard of Freelance Whales and Born Ruffians, maybe I’ll just go see them too.” Except Freelance Whales and The Walkmen are such entirely different bands, the chance that a Walkmen fan gets into Freelance Whales is not great.
At Pitchfork Fest, Lollapalooza, or even any random street fest, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But this show “sold out” because pass-holders took up a good chunk of the space in Lincoln Hall first. How many people in here were actually Freelance Whales fans, and how many were just checking out the Saturday show at Lincoln Hall during this so-called “music festival”?
As for Freelance Whales’ show, I thought it was uninspired. Especially after the bold and interesting set of Hundred Waters, Freelance Whales almost made me want to turn on the Garden State soundtrack instead. I left halfway through the set, as the band was getting no momentum seven songs in. I may have been feeding off of a bored crowd too, but the banjo and glockenspiel were doing nothing for me. Maybe eight years ago I would’ve been into it, but in 2013 it just felt like the oldest of old hat.
But, if Freelance Whales fans were into it, good for them. It just seemed like they had been cheated out of a better show experience. This faux-fest brought out a bunch of neutral parties like myself, people who were there in the name of experiencing some new music. I got it from Hundred Waters (and can’t wait to see them again), but Tomorrow Never Knows needs to figure out whatever it is they want to be. For now, they’re nothing but a Groupon deal for concert-goers. They could take a few notes from Pygmalion Fest down in Champaign – another festival that takes place in the middle of the school year, but one that actually feels like a music festival. Pygmalion has shows during the day in foyers and art halls, they mix up the venues and make it easier to walk from one show to the next. It’s not “just another week” the way Tomorrow Never Knows is. For the sake of both the fans and the bands, this fest needs to get it together.