Venue is probably as much an allure as music itself in this festival, as South Bend is a place of rampant empty buildings, and the SBSB finds old “haunts” literally coming alive. Of note are the “Hammes Garage” on Lafayette across from the Tribune, which looks a little dilapidated even by garage’s standards, as well as the “Commerce Center,” which is a great hub of commerce… 1960’s commerce.
As for the first night’s music, amidst an unsavory bevy of well-disguised cover bands and erratic solo performers inclined to throw in bizarre choices here and there, Interstate Traffic at the Brew Werks stood out as the performance of any real singularity. Plagued by an incessant vocal croon, the music mosied deliberately, but robustly and confidently, and tightness was not lacking in this loungy, vocalist-dominated foursome. Plus, the singer was sort of a heartthrob, so you know the ladies were enrapt. And it was the timbre of his half-catatonic wailing that undoubtedly sparked command of the entire unit — the albeit skilled drummer was marked by visible attention to the vocalist’s every mannerism, and the songs played out as a mere temporary backdrop for the frontman’s more decadent muse.
And not surprisingly given South Bend’s typical musical DNA, cover songs were the number one killer of a good time. I happened to know that Phineas Gage plays all covers, so I was wise enough to avoid them at the otherwise appealing venue Lasalle Kitchen and Tavern, but The Dads Next Door popped up as another culprit before Interstate Traffic at Brew Werks, butchering Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” and offering mostly pervasive radio fare, nothing that arcane or interesting.
Whereas Doug Harsch’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” was a standout of top form, giving me goosebumps from head to toe, in an early evening set in a back nook of The Exchange Whiskey Bar. This track is buried toward the end of Blonde on Blonde, requires getting through “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” en route, so it didn’t surprise at least this Dylan enthusiast that I hadn’t heard it. Harsch stripped it down to acoustic and vocals (Harsch is actually opening for Dylan at South Bend’s Morris Center later this summer), and really, it seemed more befitting of the song’s natural element than Blonde on Blonde’s perfunctory percussion.
In a nutshell, the first night was all folk and punk, in that order, and it hardly seemed appropriate to go watch a bunch of deafening bashing following such reflective acoustic humanitarianism, so I thought I’d call it a night and look forward to a great day of post-rock and indie on Saturday, in the form of Analecta and The Ember Jar. Punk is sort of like jazz — fun and effective, but not really ALIVE, not really continuing to morph and adapt, at least anatomically. Still, both can undoubtedly be zesty live styles, like in the case Asheville, North Carolina’s dark, captivating ten-piece Rational Discourse. Nobody seems to attempt jazz up here in South Bend, and there was none on the entire festival roster.