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Jest Fest

Whartscape, 2008

Frank Hamilton
ALL THUMBS: Narwhalz punches it outside at Whartscape Day 4

By Michael Byrne | Posted 7/23/2008

The small collective of left-field artists, performers, and musicians known as Wham City shouldn't be able to get away with something like Whartscape. Now in its third year, the anti-festival turned oddball indie magnet covers four nights, two full days, and four venues, is backed by a list of sponsors, and brings in headliners whose individual payment guarantees could probably cover a month's rent for everyone involved in organizing the fest combined. Imagining just one of the collective having a head for business is kinda funny, but, well, there it was this past weekend, at capacity (or near it), on time (or near it), and without a hitch (or near it).

As was remarked by an acquaintance on Saturday, Whartscape even had enough to bring out the old folks: Oxes, specifically. The mathy instrumental rock meets performance-art trio stopped playing in 2006, when guitarist Nat Fowler moved to Italy, and played on Saturday with literally two days of practice prior--the Monday before drummer Chris Freeland had an emergency appendectomy and was only well enough to play by Thursday. The set was perfect, maybe the best of the entire festival. It was also one of the more incongruous things at Whartscape--for one, it was rock. Like, no real electronic twists or costumes or self-consciously wild experimentation here. It was just two dudes, Marc Miller and Fowler, absolutely ripping on guitar, with a drummer who had no business being so tight and heavy less than a week after surgery.

It was the last set of the daytime festivities and it had just gotten dark in the large, sloping parking lot off North Avenue that hosted roughly a third of the festival. A police helicopter buzzed circles around the block, flashing its spotlight curiously down at the agitated, spazzing crowd whipping forward and back from the stage like tall grass blowing about in a storm. The trio put on their best rock-star poses--faces that said, Can you believe how fucking awesome I can play this guitar?, strutting around the crowd, surfing that same crowd like it was a cozy hotel mattress.

It's a bit of a joke, of course--mocking the rock stars, or at least some caricature of them. A whole lot of Wham City and its cohorts play at parody, but so many of them seem too wrapped up in being clever and witty and art-department smart to make a joke as simple as Oxes'. Yes, it's funny to stick your short-short-clad ass out into the crowd. It's funny to pose with an unplugged guitar. Dogs with hats are funny (there was one in the crowd). And, good g-d, the three of them are such good musicians, technically and creatively; it's a pleasure to watch that alone. Yes, it is enough just to be really good at something without, you know, being weird. At the end of the set, Freeland announced, "One more song." Someone in the crowd shouted, "10 more songs." Freeland replied, "We didn't write 10 more songs."

We'll be covering some more of the many, many other highlights of the festival in greater detail--and Artscape and the My Crew Be Unruly party--on the City Paper music blog, Noise, but a few quick notes: The one, two, three hits of "Ultimate Reality," Nautical Almanac (in a tent making death sounds), and Matmos (playing guitar music and being strangely American) were outstanding on Thursday. Ponytail put on maybe the show of its career on Sunday--sneaking in a low end that added several tons to the band's sound--barely missing the rainout that nixed half of Parts and Labor's set and canceled Black Dice in its entirety. Double Dagger's vein-popping, possessed punk was likewise in best-ever form, though the pitching of a tom drum into the crowd was really ill-advised. A Philadelphia-based dance troupe called Club Lyfestile put on an earnest, charming, and hilarious performance involving a band robbery and bodysuits. And Baltimore's Future Islands--think Jack Black fronting a wickedly bouncy and catchy new-wave band--seems to get more enjoyable every go round. The pisser of the weekend came about half past 2 Monday morning/Sunday night in a warehouse space that was so unbelievably hot it was more hilarious than miserable, right before Who Is the Tuna Fish Man--the Dan Deacon, Spank Rock, and Girl Talk supergroup--went on. Yep, Wham City is big and powerful enough to pull something like this year's Whartscape off, but it is still Wham City enough to get busted by the cops in the middle of the night. God bless 'em.

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