All photos by Natalie Simpson, Beehive Photography
Kilby Court is a small but mighty player in the Utah music scene. The downtown garage with a 200-person capacity is an important incubator for local musicians, and with affordable tickets and no age restrictions, the venue is also a home for young fans connecting with live music. Kilby Court is also a common first stop for touring musicians on the rise—odds are Kilby has hosted your favorite musician before you even heard of them. (Their “hall of fame” includes Doja Cat, Mac Miller, Beach House, My Chemical Romance and Mitski.)
In 2019, Kilby Court began hosting Kilby Block Party, a small music festival that celebrates the venue’s legacy. This third Kilby Block Party, thanks to a strong lineup and a move from the west-side neighborhood by Kilby Court to Library Square, was noticeably bigger in scale—it felt like the closest thing we’ll get to a “Salt Lake Coachella.” Still, Kilby Block Party stayed true to its roots by featuring many local musicians and headliners who were certifiably indie, even if some are on the A-list of alternative musicians.
As one of the earliest performances on Friday, Bartees Strange was destined to fall under the radar. That’s a shame, because Bartees is a compelling live performer who won over new fans with his inventive, genre-shifting music. Even Bartees seems to be unsure of exactly how to categorize himself. He described the entrancing house track “Flagey God” as simply a “dance song,” which is technically true, but it belies the strange directions the music goes in, especially in a live arrangement that added a demented bass solo. “Mustang” is triumphant, synth-heavy power pop, while “Cosigns” draws from late-period Kanye in verses that flex his indie-rock bona fides, name-checking relationships with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Lucy Dacus and headliner Phoebe Bridgers. He closed with an electrifying performance of “Boomer,” which perfectly encapsulates his strengths as an artist. The verses are boastful, casually funny raps that segue convincingly into a triumphant, full-throated pop-punk chorus. By the end of his 30-minute set, Bartees solidified his status as the festival’s most underrated performer. If you missed him, don’t worry—he’ll be back in Utah this August opening for The National at Ogden Twilight.
While the biggest acts alternated between the North and South stages, the Park Stage was (not-so) secretly the best place to hang out at the festival. While the most dedicated fans stood right by the stage, plenty of others were content to listen on the grass nearby and lie in whatever shade they could find. The Still Tide, a Brooklyn-to-Denver indie rock band, and Casio Ghost, a self-described “psych-surf” group from SLC, performed music well-suited to the slow almost-summer afternoon mood. Their songs rarely sped past midtempo, and the sound, especially the gentle vocals of The Still Tide’s lead singer Anna Morsett, was easy to get lost in.
More abrasive, for better and worse, was Binki, whose catchy, offbeat alternative music recalls contemporary melodic rap, the technicolor weirdness of Remi Wolf and Yves Tumor, and, to my ears anyway, the gleefully ridiculous hyperpop of 100 Gecs. Performing with only a DJ, Binki relied on his charismatic, goofy stage presence to engage the audience. (Before wrapping up, he said he had to finish because he was out of dance moves. I doubt that’s possible.) Binki’s appeal is more about personality and good vibes than precise songwriting, but his earworm-y melodies and thrown-together lyrics sometimes fall on the wrong side of the boundary between dumb fun and just-plain-dumb. Still, his mix of influences are intriguing—in a welcome surprise, he grabbed an acoustic guitar for a cover of The Cranberries’ “Linger”—and when he closed with his breakout song “Heybb!” the energy was infectious.
An undisputed low point of the festival: the food situation. Festival organizers were clearly not prepared to feed thousands of hungry festival-goers who were not allowed to reenter and if, like me, you foolishly braved the Disneyland-level food truck lines in the middle of the dinner rush, you missed a big chunk of the evening performances. Luckily, I was still able to catch the last-half of Clairo’s set from afar. Clairo is only 23, but she’s already been through several career transformations. The homemade video for her breakout single “Pretty Girl,” which she wrote and produced as a teenager, went unexpectedly viral, and her other early singles similarly unadorned lo-fi bedroom pop. She expanded her sound with on her debut Immunity, and then pivoted stylistically again with the 2021 album Sling, which draws from the soft grooves of ‘70s folk.
Through these transformations, Clairo has maintained a loyal fanbase who relate to her candid songwriting. That means she can draw big crowds on a festival stage, but that environment felt like an awkward fit for her—she has a bedroom pop sensibility and an introverted personality to match. Both on record and in performance, her most engaging music comes from Immunity, which stretches her sonic palette while remaining true to her quiet sensibilities. During her Kilby Block Party set, “North,” which sounds like a ‘90s rock classic painted in soft watercolors; “Bags,” an observant, detailed song about the uncertainty of early romance; and especially the sweet lesbian love song “Sofia,” which became a sleeper hit on TikTok, made the strongest impact.
The Friday headliner Mac DeMarco made a triumphant return to Salt Lake City—his last performance in Utah was more than a decade ago, before his music was widely recognized. DeMarco has a goofy everyman persona which came through during the 90-minute set. His band walked on stage to the Star Wars theme, and his commentary in between songs, often in a cartoonish growl or a creepy whisper, was never quite sincere. (DeMarco did seem genuinely awed, though, by his newfound status as a veteran act—many of the songs he performed are now almost 10 years old.) The antics were, frankly, a little grating as the set continued, but the jokey slacker image has always been a part of his appeal. While DeMarco may be in some ways the poster child for early 2010s hipsterism, a surprising amount of his most popular music is disarmingly tender love songs. Often featuring jangly guitar melodies and gentle psychedelic accents, DeMarco’s songs exude a languid simplicity. His best music combines his fundamental sweetness with harder edges, like on the music industry-critiquing “Passing Out Pieces” or “Ode to Viceroy,” a love song dedicated to his favorite band of cigarettes.
Before the crowds grew overwhelming, early Saturday afternoon was a prime time to explore local artists. Nicole Canaan, who releases music through the independent Provo label UPHERE! Records, makes melancholy dream pop, anchored by her rich, brooding voice that recalls Angel Olsen. She closed with her newest single, “Dreaming Scheming,” her most expansive, dramatic work yet. The Utah band future.exboyfriend performed double-duty at this year’s Block Party. They first performed as the backing band for Goldmyth, whose bedroom pop combines engaging electropop hooks with singer Janessa Smith’s own harp playing, a welcome sonic departure among this year’s lineup. Future.exboyfriend’s own music is even more pop-forward, with lead singer Tyler Harris’ falsetto inspired by genderbending ‘80s pop kings and modern figures like Harry Styles. Their accessible, danceable set on the Park Stage united both longtime fans and newcomers.
One of Soccer Mommy’s chief appeals is her low, droll voice, but her vocals were difficult to hear over her backing band. This made her set difficult to latch on to for those not already familiar with her music, which is a shame. Singer Sophie Allison is a sharp songwriter who makes emotionally precise indie rock with equally vibrant flashes of anger, tenderness and self-doubt, whether she’s writing about loss, mental illness or heartbreak. Her set included unvarnished lo-fi early songs, including from her 2018 breakout album Clean, and highlights from her latest record Color Theory, which combines her introspective lyricism with a more polished sound inspired by early-00s guitar pop from artists like The Chicks and Avril Lavigne. Her set, thankfully, also included “Shotgun,” the infectious first single from her upcoming album due this June. Allison was sadly cut off before performing her last song—organizers ran a tight ship to keep the festival on schedule—but that’s all the more reason to see Soccer Mommy again at Urban Lounge this December.
Animal Collective likely inspired many of the indie artists who performed at this year’s Block Party—their otherworldly explorations are a key touchpoint for pretty much any band who calls themselves “psychedelic.” While all of the music they performed had been released previously—including several songs from their 2022 album Time Skiffs—the performance still had the energy of a loose, adventurous jam session. Their songs, which usually stretch past the five-minute mark, could occasionally drag, but the performance’s best moments, which often involved wordless call-and-response vocals between band members Avey Tare and Panda Bear, highlighted the band’s transportive sound that resists any of the genre labels used to describe them, from experimental pop to indie rock to freak folk. Strangely, Animal Collective didn’t play some of their most popular music, including “Fireworks” and “My Girls.” Perhaps they are ready to move past these more-than-10 year old songs and the (slightly) more pop-leaning sound that won them wide acclaim with Merriweather Post Pavilion, but it was an odd choice for a festival set less likely to attract diehard fans.
The Block Party closed strong with headliner Phoebe Bridgers, who attracted a huge and (sometimes overly) enthusiastic crowd. Her debut Stranger in the Alps was well-received, but her 2020 album Punisher sent her to the upper echelons of indie stardom, solidifying her status as a voice-of-a-generation lyricist.
Bridgers’ pitch-black subject matter has earned her a reputation as a sort of “sad girl” whisperer. (One tweet called her “Taylor Swift for girls who have crumbs in their bed.”) Still, the music’s bleakness is balanced with her dryly funny, very online social media persona, which matches the mordant humor that her lyrics hide in plain sight. The two sides of Bridgers were on full display during her set—at times, she wryly noted how strange it was that these deeply personal, often devastating songs were connecting with arena-sized audiences. Introducing her song “Savior Complex,” she said, “this song is about alcoholism,” followed by a tongue-in-cheek, deflated cheer. She was 100% sincere, though, when introducing one of her best songs, “Chinese Satellite.” Bridgers connected the song, which references “screaming at the Evangelicals” and being “embarrassed with a picket sign,” with her own experience of walking through a crowd of protesters to get an abortion. She had already tweeted about her own abortion after news leaked that Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned, but it was still staggering to hear her talk about her experiences so matter-of-factly and defiantly on stage, especially in a deeply conservative state. Her message to these picketers was simple: “Fuck you motherfuckers.”
Bridgers successfully maintained the delicacy of her best work while adapting the music for a massive crowd. (One key element was trumpet playing from band member JJ Kirkpatrick.) Storybook projections behind the band enhanced the lyrics’ potent imagery, and Bridgers even had extra time for a seemingly impromptu acoustic rendition of her gorgeous song “Georgia.” Her performance was a magical end to the night—fans noted that the moon was (mostly) full before she performed the heartbreaking “Moon Song,” and the set closed with “I Know the End,” the ferocious hard-rock finale to Punisher. In an appropriately cathartic end to the Block Party, thousands in the crowd joined Bridgers and her band in the song’s final cathartic chorus of yelling. Sometimes in 2022, all you can do is scream.