The mood was more understated from the beginning. As the fourth and final day of the UMS got underway on a stifling Sunday afternoon, the sense of weariness felt almost palpable. After four straight days of live music in venues spread up and down South Broadway, it seemed that even the most faithful festival goers were ready for a conclusion, for an end to the stream of crowded bars, sun-soaked outdoor stages and seemingly endless treks up and down familiar neighborhood blocks.
Happily, the lineup for the final day of the UMS didn't disappoint. I'd been limited by prior obligations for the rest of the weekend, so Sunday was the only day I had to devote solely to the festival. I started the long day at Moe's Original Barbecue at about 3 p.m., catching Vitamins' early set. Buoyed by the ethereal, piercing vocals of Lizzy Allen and a thunderous rhythmic backbone, the band's early set helped set the ambitious tone for the rest of the day.
Wandering south along Broadway toward the festival's main grounds, I happened upon one of the most enjoyable surprises of the four-day event. The Polkanauts' early afternoon set at Club 404 offered equal doses of kitsch and straightforward musicianship. The trio's set comprised an unadorned tribute to polka, a genre that's known better times in the pop culture psyche. But fads didn't phase the Polkanauts.
Decked in orange jumpsuits festooned with patches bearing knockoff NASA logos, the trio proudly busted out a hybrid of traditional European polka structures and an in-your-face punk attitude worthy of the Pogues. The group's attitude alone was enough to pull the sounds out of the annals of western European lore and make it immediate and dynamic. The trio offered a foot-stomping version of "Just Because," apparently one of the genre's most successful entries into the pop charts.
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Still buzzing with the contagious effect of the Polkanauts' set, I made my way to the Goodwill parking lot, eager to catch Hello Kavita's set. Unfortunately, I learned to soon that due to an illness in the band, Hello Kavita would be canceling their mainstage appearance. More disappointing, I heard from a friend of the band that the UMS appearance was to have been the last for an unspecified amount of time, as band members sought fresh stores of creative inspiration.
The Photo Atlas took up Hello Kavita's slot, and while the group offered a solid selection of their by-now familiar brand of speedy dance-punk riffs, I felt disappointed. The Photo Atlas has stood as a reliable live act for years, delivering a reliable fusion of speedy cadences and jittery melodies. But the band's effect seemed too familiar, and I ended up leaving after three songs. Perhaps I was too disheartened by the disturbing rumors regarding Hello Kavita.
I made my way to the Irish Rover to take in Bela Karoli as a replacement act, but the crowd was too thick to even catch a view of the band. Instead, I was satisfied by the strains that floated over the capacity crowd, moved by the free rhythmic structure and haunting vocal lilt of the group's lead vocalists. Considering the group's mellow dynamic, I was surprised to see the Rover packed, and the rapt audience hanging on every note.
After about fifteen minutes, the density of the crowd got to me, and I moved on to 3 Kings to catch Alan Alda's set. The band's remained fairly quite for the summer, as drummer Matt Grizzell has been out of the state with work obligations. Drawing on I Sank Molly Brown drummer Johnny Moses as a temporary replacement, the trio made an admirable re-entry into the scene. The band's 45-minute set included rousing versions of tunes from the band's 2009 EP like "Sailing" and "Midnight Turbo Club," as well as new selections like "Allison" and "Long Rhythm." Alan Alda frontman Luke Goodhue hinted that the selections will figure into an imminent full-length release.
The sun was sinking low by the time I moved past the gates for A Tom Collins' set at the outdoor Goodwill parking lot, a performance marked by infectious energy and aural variety. Anchored by Collin's vocal growls that summoned early Tom Waits and his piano styles that drew from New Orleans-informed blues, the band melded jazz, rock and lounge styles in a seamless style. As Nathaniel Rateliff and his band set up on the other side of the parking lot, Collins' ensemble revved the crowd with jaunting cadences, engaging vocals and stretches of moving melodies.
The set would serve as a mere precursor for Rateliff's performance, which felt like the final statement on the UMS of 2010. Sure, bands would continue to play for hours after Rateliff and his company finished their set at around 8:15. But just as Everything Absent or Distorted's farewell performance was the unofficial cap of the festival last year, Rateliff's sorrow-tinged vocals and driving rhythms felt like a final statement. It was the input of a local artist whose gone on to garner national attention for his unique blend of pathos and musical power.
EAOD's 2009 performance blazed with energy and pure velocity, where Rateliff's swan song found an anchor in its measured cadences and emotional force. Slower tempos and more meditative vocals didn't diminish the enthusiasm of the crowd, however, which packed the outdoor venue to capacity. The setting and ambience of Rateliff's performance helped finalize the feeling of a conclusion - the band played as the sun sank and as streaks of brilliant clouds floated in the last vestiges of day.
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The setting made the group's emotionally rending songs all the more resonant. As Rateliff strummed on his nylon-stringed guitar, singing about a "one-way pony pulling the plow," musing in his plaintive singing voice about becoming a trumpet, the effect was all the more stirring. When the band finally wrapped up, I felt as if I had come to the end of a very long and fulfilling weekend.
I went on to catch sets from both Big Trouble and Snake Rattle Rattle Snake at 3 Kings, but during both performances, I had the feel of winding down. Snake Rattle Rattle Snake's performance offered a new insight into the band for me.
When I'd seen the group last month at the Westword Music Showcase, the setting was more grandiose and the audience was provided seats. In the more confined setting of the 3 Kings, the band revealed a new strength in a cramped venue. The tighter space seemed to fit their sinuous beats and danceable rhythms better than the airy spaces of the Curious Theatre.
For all the zeal and all the enthusiasm of the audience at 3 Kings, I felt I'd already witnessed the figurative end of the festival with the Rateliff set. I moved along with the crowd, I cheered for my favorite tunes, but I'd already put a mental period on a weekend that spanned four days and too many acts to remember.