Sharing the Schwag: Meester Magpie and Bitchin Bajas

David Wicik

meester magpie smoke machine

Meester Magpie. All photos by David Wicik.

Whoever said good things don’t come in small packages has obviously never been to Chicago’s own Schwag City. The venue, located in the near South Side Mexican stronghold of Pilsen, is actually the home of local psych-gazers Nude Sunrise. This last Saturday, the house was rigged for Schwagstock 5, a micro noise festival so off the radar, I had to e-mail the Nitetrotter blog just to get an address.

The physical layout of the house doesn’t seem like it could really support a festival. Performances were staggered between a second floor living room and a pitched attic space more suited to an audience of munchkins than people. Nevertheless, people crowded in, contorting themselves into all manner of jigsaw-like contours in order to see their favorite unsung music makers.

One man who showed up early on definitely stuck out, being a good twenty years older than the rest of the crowd and taking pictures on a cobalt blue point and shoot camera. Now to be fair, its possible that he was: A) Someone’s awesomely proud uncle; B) A brain damaged Dead Head who followed the trail of psychic vibrations to this hidden locale hoping to see Jerry Garcia play one last time. Whatever his deal was, it’s encouraging to see that some oldies still enjoy putting their head in a sonic blender every now and then.

Which of these is not like the other

And speaking of sonic blenders, Schwagstock lived up to its name, delivering a suite of acts that canvassed both the good and bad sides of schwag. In the majority good camp was Meester Magpie, the noise project of Chicagoan Joseph Blanki. The staging of his performance was crucial as Blanki, dressed in a shimmering Bowie-esque tunic and gorilla mask, cut the lights and turned on two powerful strobes while periodically gassing the show space with thick volumes of fog. The music was dark, and like Blanki’s adopted gorilla persona, primal. Blending audio-clips of monkeys barking and 50’s B horror reels with tribal drumming, E.T. sound-effects, loads of feedback and zonked reverb, Blanki creates a soundscape somewhere between Apocalypse Now and an alien abduction. A truly disorienting and “out-there” experience, Meester Magpie comes highly recommended to audio-freaks everywhere.

On the bad side of schwag was the performance of Charles Free, aka The Savage Young Taterbug. Free, who has been compared to a “peaced-out Ariel Pink with the celestial moments of James Ferraro” (via Last.fm), traveled all the way from his home of Iowa City to play 20 minutes of unlistenable feedback squelch that felt like a 2-hour root canal. Beginning as a fuzzed-out version of “Amazing Grace,” Free soon began maniacally bending feedback while continuing to sing, off-key, above the din. As indulgent a group of people as can be found anywhere, I could tell that even the Schwag’s motley crew of DFW’s had reached their limit and were just wishing for either the power to short or bullets to puncture their soft timpani and make the hurting stop.

bitchin bajas

Fortunately, the Taterbug was the only notable failure of the night, and was made up for quickly by the chilled-out keyboard orchestration of Cooper Crane’s Bitchin Bajas project. Crane, who is a member of Chicago neo-kraut-rockers Cave, explores a less organic tangent in his solo work, relying heavily on analog synths and sustained organ timbres. Layering up ambient drones, Bitchin Bajas often comes off sounding like a more meditative Boards of Canada. Crane’s debut LP, “Tones / Zones”, is aptly named as Bitchin Bajas seems focused on the warmth and roundness of its tones, which suggest a healing quality, even allowing access to other modalities, or zones of existence. Watching Crane conjure these blissful auras, nestled among fellow on-lookers, I think we all shared a kind of alcohol or 420 accelerated Kumbayah moment. Good tidings in Schwag City.

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