Closing night at any multiday outdoor summer festival is always the best time to attend, if only to gain a better understanding of an environment where riots and mayhem might erupt at any moment. It’s usually after vendors and attendees have had to endure at least one endless day sitting in the relentless sun (why would anyone ever plan an outdoor fest when it’s not at least 90 degrees?) while selling or buying overpriced merchandise. On closing night, however, all that fatigue and overstimulation quite often results in anger, albeit anger energized with a feeling of accomplishment and celebration, in a “let’s light everything on fire à la Woodstock ’99” sort of way.
I might sound a little overdramatic, but Sunday night at the Utah Arts Festival was no exception. Walking down the trampled grass between tents, you could feel the disappointment of artists who were outsold by adorable animal marionettes, Epson printers and exotic spoons that actually had no practical qualities. If riveting beat poetry was getting absorbed by any of the tank-topped muscle dudes and hot, miserable pregnant women, they sure weren’t showing it. And I can’t imagine anybody listening to the agonizing Aphex Twin/David Bowie introduction to the Filthy Gorgeous Fashion Show and not wanting to set something on fire.
But it was that hostile environment that produced two of the festival’s most engaging musical performances: Guatemalan performing artists Kan’Nal and local rockers Vile Blue Shades. Too bad it was impossible to see both bands’ entire sets.
Nobody’s ever accused festival organizers of being hip or with-it, and kudos to them for booking some truly amazing bands this year, but their haphazard scheduling stunk of obliviousness. During the days, it seemed like the organizers did a good job of staggering the musical performances by folk singers and cowboy poets, but then they threw all the potentially offensive rock & rollers together at night, a move that resulted in touring headliners performing at the same time as local groups on opposite ends of the park.
Apparently, an entire committee was in charge of the festival’s music lineup. Its inability to organize bands according to genre (as with last year’s hipster stage featuring Glinting Gems, Tolchock Trio and Red Bennies) is more disappointing than a $7 plate of roasted corn.
That said, the performances themselves calmed any desire to loot the Dippin’ Dots stand. Kan’Nal, billed as world music, rocked in more of a bordello fashion than was probably legal on Sunday night in Salt Lake City. Fusing hard rock with tribal rhythm (thanks to their second percussionist/didgeridoo-ist!), the band had everyone in the crowd dancing, from the middle-age women trying to get one more white wine before the 10:45 p.m. last call, to the shirtless guys in front of me who just loved live music, jumping and stomping to prove it. The quintet quickly turned into a seven-piece ensemble with two additional female dancers whose finger extensions blew the shirtless dudes’ minds. But, as it is with most bands whose guitarists sport ponytails, I was not high enough to fully appreciate what they were offering.
Meanwhile, on the Big Mouth Stage, local post/art/psych-punk faves Vile Blue Shades played to a criminally small audience. Excuse me for a minute for betraying favoritism, but I think that the Utah Arts Festival should be a bigger showcase for Utah art than outside groups, and scheduling them against Kan’Nal certainly doesn’t fit that criteria. But if there was any beef about their timeslot, the band didn’t show it. The 10-plus group members looked comfortable on the small stage, while singer Ryan Jensen found an intimate home amid sweaty kids who had come to support their favorite rockers, singing along and probably not even thinking twice about any injustices, scheduling, etc.
It is in the spirit of rock that I salute our local heroes. I only wish I were as moved by all of the festival’s lineups.