Here are gathered what we consider the BEST of Music in C-U this past year. The music scene here is an ever-evolving one, with acts, shows and venues constantly coming and going. This year we saw seasoned pros move on, up or out, and wide-eyed new kids poke their heads up in that space. That is what makes the C-U music scene so much fun to be a part of.
Part of being a music fan is telling your stories — of great shows, of old bands, and of how your musical taste was shaped. Another big part of it is forever holding fast to the fact that your band is awesome, while that guy's band SUCKS, and you're more than happy to explain how and why.
This is a list of some of our favorite things — some notables that we think are awesome. If you disagree, it's because you’re wrong. (Just kidding.) Feel free to share your two cents in the comments below. Music fans want to know.
BEST venue you should experiment with
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Krannert Center is, without question, a world class venue and facility. Hands down the best thing we have going in Champaign-Urbana for arts and music and overall experience of culture, I'd say. Host to dozens and dozens of performances throughout the year, you probably go to, say, a handful of shows throughout the year if you're like me. I'm so guilty of underutilizing KCPA, I'll be the first to tell you. You should, at some point, find a way to experiment and go out on a limb, checking out performances that you might overlook. With the vast array of programming, this is the best place to take a chance in Champaign-Urbana. More likely than not, you'll land somewhere that feels good.
BEST new-ish festival
The Hogchute Opry
The Hogchute Opry Festival has got all the best stuff — bonfires, fireworks, and horseshoes, to name a few. Oh, and don’t forget the best folk, bluegrass and country music the area has to offer. Then, take all of that, put it in and around a barn in the middle of the woods, and get real folky for two days. Having only been around for a few years, this young event is a fresh take on a festival that the area needs. It also helps bring together some of the most down-to-earth local dudes around. It takes the sentiments of outdoorsy music and puts it in the most appropriate setting. Even the least “country” of us wouldn’t say no to jamming out under the stars with these guys. (JM)
BEST nostalgic scene moment
The Beauty Shop reunion
BEST tour stories
BEST stage presence
What more can be said about indie rock's infamous crooner and veritable “ladies man,” Father John Misty? We’ve already said it all. Misty has the reputation of being a bit of an egocentric douche, and his performance as that character is always perfect. It fits him to a T — almost as well as a pair of leather pants. His April show at Foellinger Auditorium was no exception. He was swaying and writhing and shaking his fists. He was suggestive with his mic stand while winking at the ladies in the first few rows. He got up close to the audience — REALLY close. Several times, he even let audience members fully embrace and caress his head and neck and play with his hair. His stage presence was absolutely ridiculous, and seriously awesome.
FJM is a talented artist, both as a musician and as an actor. It’s easy to believe that the sleazy, melodramatic lothario we see on stage is who he is IRL. He’s aware of that, and boy does he play it up. Post-performance, he seemed to transform back into a mortal being, in a way. He stayed a while to chat closely with his audience, and although I did not linger, I’m inclined to believe that he real does like his fans, and not only as props or lays. Whatever your opinion of him, one thing is inarguable — he puts on one hell of an interesting show. (JM)
BEST album art
Kowabunga! Kid’s Wasting My Time
The album cover for Wasting My Time, by the punk-pop group Kowabunga! Kid, is intricate and subdued. The black and white nighttime foreground is superimposed onto a dark and ornate wallpaper-esque image, like one that may be found in the halls, or on the floors, of a haunted hotel. Indeed, when asked, Aaron Shults of Kowabunga! Kid reflected on the dark, nighttime theme of the cover.
“Designed by Kamila (Glowacki), idea really came from an experience Kamila and I had when we were at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO (the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining). We were standing outside the hotel while the full moon was pretty much the only light in the city. The moon illuminated the snowcapped mountains and created a very striking image and vivid memory for us.
“Connections to astronomy also appear throughout the record, so we wanted to keep the landscape ambiguous and somewhat lunar. The pattern in the background also connects to the Stanley Hotel/The Shining by alluding to patterns in the carpet from Kubrick's film.”
This album’s spooky artwork is designed to leave a lasting (first) impression on the listener, especially since this is the group’s first LP. Kowabunga! Kid’s Wasting My Time succeeds in sticking in our brains at first glance. Add their punk tunes to it, and that makes these up-and-coming rockers something to keep an eye on. (JM)
John Isberg's local music documentary
BEST talent buyer that this scene will miss
Run The Jewels at The Pygmalion Festival
BEST show that more people should’ve seen
Mavis Staples at the Virginia Theatre
You may not know Mavis Staples, the lead singer for the 1960’s group the Staple Singers, but you should. Her family soul and gospel band put out songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Do It Again,” and she has had a strong solo career. The 76-year-old Chicago native never gained the fame of musical peers like Aretha Franklin, but she has always had just as much soul. Mavis, at The Virginia, treated the audience as if they were her children. She regaled us with tales of her family and her tour, and made us laugh out loud at her onstage antics. She was exuberant and bubbly and energetic as hell. I found myself thinking that she needed to be more careful at her age, and then inwardly shamed myself for that thought. Mavis was absent of arrogance; she played all the crowd favorites with a huge smile on her face. Hers is a character of grace, and we left feeling loved. Too bad you missed it. (JM)
As a sort-of-new member to the area, I’ve realized quickly that C-U has a very strong folk and roots scene. It seems that every week we’ve got like five folky shows going on somewhere. That’s because it’s part of the culture here. C-U has got a plethora of festivals to call its own, but one that flies a bit under the radar is the Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival. Completely DIY and run by volunteers, this festival boasts over 80 folk performances and other rootsy activities over three days in downtown Urbana — stuff like storytelling and song-circles. Activities like that are what is important about this festival — the sense of community it brings to its participants. You need to make sure you’re one of them this November. (JM)
BEST spaced-out moment
Blood Moon during RIDE
If you missed out on this, you truly missed out on something unique. This moment occurred during the last night of Pygmalion, during the last set for the outdoor show. The bombastic British shoegaze band RIDE were to perform as the exclamation point for the multi-day fest, and the anticipation of blown minds and ears was heavy in the air. This conclusion was going to coincide with the occurrence of a Blood Moon: a total lunar eclipse of a super full moon, given its nickname because of the entrancing reddish color it takes on. So, the eclipse began shortly before RIDE’s set, and shone down over the entirety of it. The band’s wall-of-sound barrage of music and crazy, glittering light show pretty much broke my face in half, all while a HUGE celestial body the color of death (or life, depending on how you look at it) seemed to just barely be holding itself up above my head. As a viewer that evening, if there were ever a time to think that someone had dosed your beverage, it would’ve been then. That kind of experience is truly once in a lifetime. It was spectacular, and it was the BEST. (JM)
BEST surprise album
CJ Run's Listen to the Kids
I’m not sure I’ve ever been struck completely out of nowhere by a local artist before the way I was when CJ Run dropped their debut project Listen to the Kids in May. Run is clearly an advanced lyricist with a knack for wordplay, but where the project truly shines is its insanely progressive production, a tendency that is seemingly lacking in hip-hop as a whole, let alone in Champaign-Urbana. To see an artist step outside of the box is truly refreshing, and well-deserving of a nod for a great album. (BH)
BEST Twitter account improvement
WEFT Community Radio
One of the small pleasures of the Champaign-Urbana media (and social media) scene over the past year has been the emergence of WEFT’s Twitter account is one of the best ways to find new music coming out of town. They’re always retweeting other artists, venues and fans, keeping a good pulse on the scene. Plus, they’re not afraid to have conversations with dumb Twitter trolls like me when I feel I deserve a talk show or podcast. Good info and good humor makes a great Twitter account, and WEFT has both. (BH)
Due to the nature of Champaign-Urbana’s size, there simply aren’t endless amounts of outlets through which artists can promote themselves. Sure, social media goes a long way, but even then, it takes creative ideas executed well to make a splash. Local rap duo TroubleChasin’ had the best instance of that this year, when they constructed a series of video fliers for their album release show at The Canopy Club, including a super cool footage, captured by a drone, of them on top of a dilapidated water tower in Downtown Champaign. (BH)
BEST young talent
Baby Harmony dropped her remix to O.T. Genasis’ “Cut It” in May, and it caught viral fire almost immediately. The reason why? She’s five years old, and has more views on the internet than you or I will ever have in our lives. Plus, it’s the most adorable video I’ve seen in quite some time. Here’s to hoping that Harmony continues to hone her craft, and perhaps one day we’ll be reviewing her album on SP. The future is bright. (BH)
Mother Nature’s Miseducation of Hip-hop series at the IMC
Until this summer, Champaign-Urbana has kind of lacked in opportunities for youth to express themselves in terms of hip-hop culture, but luckily, earlier this month, local rap duo Mother Nature filled that void. Presenting all sorts of workshops for kids over the course of a week at Urbana’s IMC. Education is power, and the more that the youth are educated about hip-hop, the more the culture can thrive and more of a scene can develop around that culture. Much like Chicago YCA or YouMedia programs that produced enormous talent, Mother Nature is also starting a commendable movement. (BH)
BEST venue that will be sorely missed
Mike N Molly's
I thought that I had felt the brunt of the pain from Mike N Molly’s closure when they closed their doors in May, and we said goodbye for the last time. But when I'm really going to be feeling the loss will be when it's Friday night, and the friendly, low-key confines of MnM's are no longer available for us to patronize. The music scene in town will miss the venue space, a crucial small room, and I will most certainly miss the PBR specials. (BH)
BEST poster designs
If you follow local stand-up comedy at all, you probably recognize Steve Schaberg's name. In addition to being one of the funniest comics in town, he also has made a name for himself doing some super cool and unique posters for various shows. Some cool ones that come to mind are Snayl's recent Album Release Show artwork, Kowabunga! Kid's summer tour poster (pictured here) and countless others that always are unique and innovative. If you spend any time at all around Downtown Champaign, you'll probably see them up at various locations, and they're always more fun to analyze than the average flier. (BH)