2024 Kilby Block Party: Day One Review

“This is the best view from a stage we’ve ever seen,” said Peach Pit singer Neil Smith during his band’s Friday afternoon set from the Lake Stage on day one of the 2024 Kilby Block Party. He was referring to the snow-capped Rockies just beyond the horizon, and for an out-of-towner like me, the majesty of the location rings just as true. I came from Florida to review Kilby, but Smith’s acknowledgment prompted me to actually gaze beyond the stages and festival grounds for the first time all day and recognize that, indeed, I was not in Boca Raton anymore.

Just as mountains are rare to a Floridian like me, so too are these bands, most of whom rarely see the rays of the Sunshine State. Hence my traveling 2,500 miles to see some of the most exciting names in indie rock’s past, present and future.

When I first entered the festival grounds, I was quickly struck by the atmosphere, which had whimsy to spare: colorful fuzzy animal sculptures emerging from the grass for photo ops, table tennis and cornhole set up throughout the grounds to encourage play, a rest area that resembled a geodesic dome. I also appreciated the compactness of the setup, with all four stages visible if you’re positioned in the middle of the layout.

My Kilby journey started with Gustaf, a New York quintet that seems to have teleported directly from its city’s downtown avant-punk scene circa 1981. With jagged guitar and bass lines that could cut through steel, Gustaf makes angular music you can dance to, and derives much of its gonzo intensity from vocalist Lydia Gammill, an androgynous frontwoman with an unorthodox charisma. Dressed in a business suit with a long tie and towering platform shoes, Gammill spoke or, perhaps, barked most of the lyrics, often slapping the side of her head for effect.

Gustaf’s music and approach couldn’t be more different from its immediate follower on the adjacent stage, Joanna Sternberg, who played an acoustic guitar set of their deceptively simple, heartbreakingly honest material. An outsider artist who conjures such brilliant singer-songwriters as Daniel Johnston and Randy Newman, Sternberg may just be the most likable—and un-jaded—person in music today. “So I’m gonna sing now,” they said, before launching into “I’ve Got Me.” They were visibly taken back when many of us starting singing along to every lyric. “This feels like a dream come true,” they said, of this recognition. I myself was so emotionally moved that I teared up by the second song, “People Are Toys To You,” and remained in a sublime place for the rest of the set. For those of us in the sizable crowd that were tuned into Sternberg’s wavelength, this was a concert neither the performer nor the audience will forget.

Yot Club was next on my list, delivering a tight, driving set of indie-rock bangers that improved as it went along, with convincing forays into psychedelic and stoner rock. Peach Pit followed soon thereafter, infusing their performance with rock-star showmanship from telegenic frontman Smith, who galloped across the stage, sometimes on one foot, and waved his glorious ‘90s grunge-rocker hair to and fro.

I don’t have a great deal to report on Alvvays’ set, other than the direct high praise it deserves: Dream pop of the highest order, it came across as perfectly executed as a studio recording—soaring synths and big guitars interacting in honeyed harmony. Courtney Barnett, for whom I left Alvvays a little early to catch, was the day’s biggest surprise. I expected to love the show, but I didn’t expect it to land as hard and viscerally as it did. Barnett absolutely shredded on guitar as part of a muscular trio of first-rate bass and drums, proving she’s as much an ace instrumentalist as she is a distinctive vocalist and a witty and gifted songwriter, the definition of a triple threat in music.

Serving as a palate cleanser between the high-energy sets of Courtney Barnett and Vampire Weekend, Joanna Newsom played her first concert in more than a year, and on paper, and perhaps in practice, her inclusion is an odd fit for Kilby. An obviously visionary but generically undefinable artist, she creates baroque, alien music from a galaxy in which rock ‘n’ roll never happened, playing sprawling story-songs on solo harp and piano. She should be touring century-old cathedrals more than outdoor indie-rock festivals, and the obnoxious chatter from some of my less respectful fellow-attendees did mar the experience a bit. Her music demands undivided attention; watching her fingers gracefully glide over the harp strings, combined with her angelic voice, it’s pretty clear she’s channeling the sounds of heaven. Clad in a frilly red dress and ruby slippers straight out of “The Wizard of Oz,” Newsom commented, rather funnily, on the “freezing” temperatures of this comfortably breezy evening. While I departed the set early to stake out a decent position for Vampire Weekend, her show was a singular Kilby highlight.

As night fell, Vampire Weekend took the stage to an absolutely massive audience and performed a jubilant 90-minute set culled pretty equally from their five studio albums. I’m a big proponent of their latest LP Only God Was Above Us, and was delighted to discover that the group’s increasingly expansive instrumental vocabulary, so apparent on that album, has also enhanced their earlier material in a live setting, with saxophone, fiddle and two drummers playing prominent roles throughout the set. I was enraptured with the slower, druggier version of “Sunflower,” complete with fiddle and sax solos. Their cover of SBTRKT’s “New Dorp, New York,” which included dueling saxes, settled into an experimental, elliptical groove that conjured Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock: If jazz-funk fusion is in this band’s future, I’m all for it!

Toward the end of the set, the band honored a fan’s request to play the opening bars of “Connect” on piano, and he did a great job; kudos to Ezra Koenig for indulging the young lad. I wasn’t crazy about the group’s other invited guest, Heather Gay of “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” who played some cornhole onstage to try and win Vampire Weekend merch. Nothing against Gay, but this felt like a frivolous time suck during such a time-limited set.

Koenig mentioned that Vampire Weekend first played the tiny Kilby Court in 2007, prior to the release of their self-titled debut. Their riveting headlining set was a testament to both their growth and the evolution of Kilby itself, and was a perfect day-one send-off. See you out there for day two!

Photography by Natalie Simpson, @beehivephotovideo

Find all our reviews from last year’s Kilby Block Party here!

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John Thomason
John Thomasonhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
John Thomason is the managing editor and A&E editor of Boca magazine the sister publication of Salt Lake magazine. In this capacity, he writes for and edits the full stable of publications in the South Florida office, and contributes arts blogs twice weekly on bocamag.com.

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