There they stood. Arms reached out from over the bar’s open windows, domestic beers in one hand, cigarettes in the other, each bro wearing their own version of the same look: pastel-colored polo shirts, boot-cut jeans, a few backwards hats, and a whole lot of confidence. They shouted at whomever walked by—what they shouted, well, no one is really certain—but it was positive, some garbled drunken form of some drunken encouragement that ended with a fist pump and a somewhat annoyed but also laughing passerby.
Across the street, I stood among a crowd that couldn’t be more opposite. Outside of a boutique shop called Catherine's, a poet read to about 40 people—a crowd full of interesting haircuts, many layers of clothing, multiple pairs of Ray Bans, and a whole lot of plaid. The poet’s words punched through the silence, with practically each syllable receiving a sharp response from the audience, clapping, snapping, and enjoying the springtime air.
Welcome to Iowa City.
Home of the University of Iowa, the number one party school in the country, the city has developed a reputation as a great producer of beer pong talent and guys who can argue about sports at a very loud level (a nickname for the town on football Saturdays is "Iowa Shitty"), but at the same time is a well-respected academic institution, home of progressive medical and law schools, dynamic undergraduate programs, and, of course, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most revered writing institution in the world. Iowa City is also where I attended college, and last week I traveled back to the city for its annual spring arts festival, Mission Creek Festival. It was the first time I’d spent any significant time in the city since graduating four years ago. On top of a fun weekend of great music and literature and people I hadn’t seen in awhile, my trip taught me one major thing: everything will always change, while everything will always remain the same.
One of the many readings on the street. Photo by for .
But before we get into that, let’s step back for a moment and dig a little deeper. What the fuck is Iowa City? And further, what the fuck is Mission Creek Festival? Entering its ninth year, the festival is, simply, an opportunity for the New York Times Sunday Arts Section to invade the Midwest, featuring quality music acts (this year’s bill included the likes of Philip Glass, of Montreal, !!!, Weekend, William Elliott Whitmore, Kishi Bashi, and more), readings from amazingly successful authors like Rachel Kushner, public lectures, film screenings, and more. It’s a time for the small town, which has a well-renowned reputation and rich history of loving the arts (shout out to Kurt Vonnegut, the Workshop, and the HBO series Girls), to break its stereotypical “college town” perception.
Admittedly though, there’s a lot of truth in that perception. Walking down the street in Iowa City will give you a taste of the hottest trends in spiky gel hair-cuts and how sick (read: awesome) the previous Thirsty Thursdays was, but Iowa City has always—mainly through festivals like Mission Creek—locally defeated its reputation for jackass behavior.
Story of this Broto: On Saturday afternoon, I saw these guys leaning their heads out of a bar downtown, shouting random obscenities at various people on the street, and knew immediately, I must take a selfie with them. I told them I worked for Noisey, and they lost their shit. They told me they were from “Real Chicago,” and when I asked them what that meant, they said it wasn’t any of that “suburb shit.” Then one of the kids gave me his business card (he works for a Tequila company, naturally, and the card had his University of Iowa email address on it) and then invited me over to his house for dinner. I didn’t go, but should’ve, because these bros were fucking awesome.
Quite honestly, the culture of the city is just bizarre. Each “side” isn’t too fond of the other, but there are strangely beautiful moments when they come together—like on a Friday night during Mission Creek at the Yacht Club, a local venue that specializes in Sublime cover bands, when Brooklyn’s shoegazing specialists Weekend take the basement stage and tear it up for 35 minutes. At that point, no one gives a fuck who is who and if they’re wearing sweaters or Northface—instead, everyone’s just lost, together, in a haze.
Moments similar to this rang true throughout the entire festival. I was in town for three of the main nights, and on the first evening I caught Philip Glass. Motherfucking Philip Glass. In one of the city’s largest venues, the Englert Theatre (which, by the way, fits about 725 people, just slightly bigger than Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, so that should give you Coasties a nice taste of the venue sizes in Iowa City), the god put his world-renowned skills on display. Following a crushing set from Brooklyn’s Oneohtrix Point Never (who sounded fabulous and, no shots, was an insanely better experience than seeing that dude in, like, Glasslands), the quiet man stoically walked out onto the stage to a roaring crowd. “I’m not sure you’re all in the right place,” Glass timidly joked to the mass. “But thank you for coming out.” He sat down, his fingers fluttering on the keys, and I took a moment, standing barely 30 feet in front of me was one of the greatest music minds of the past 50 years. Here. In Iowa City. Home of Hawkeye football and drunk 19-year-olds.
Afterwards, I trekked over to the Blue Moose Tavern—a local venue that, to no one’s surprise, is blue and has a giant moosehead in it—and bought a couple New Beligum beer cans for $2 each. Before hitting up the bartender, my friend Todd, who also was in town from the east coast, joked, “Think you can get this round?” I did, and we drank beer and felt 19, watching the bizarrely beautiful of Montreal do their whole psychedelic thing, which might have been the first time I’d actually listened to of Montreal since I was a college radio DJ. But, despite my pretentious ass had judgmental opinions before heading into the show, the venue was packed to the max, and when those dudes filled the room with confetti, people fucking lost it. I did too. How couldn’t you?
of Montreal and their fucking crazy antics. Photo by for .
Then I hit the Mill, a staple of a venue in Iowa City. The bar is smelly and gross and they serve beer for nearly nothing and there’s a pool table that doesn’t really work and their food is above average and takes way too long to arrive but this place is the best fucking place on earth and I have left way too much money there. In college, I once saw Deer Tick perform and their lead singer John McCauley spend most of his set drunkenly jumping from table to table before nearly falling off and cracking his skull. That was awesome. Unfortunately, the first night gave us S. Carey—who I guess is the new version of Bon Iver? Or maybe Death Cab for Cutie?—who was headlining, and holy shit it was boring. (I really like Bon Iver, too, and I know that S. Carey is a member!) After the show, I talked to a kid who asked me how it was. “Well, I nearly fell asleep,” I joked, and realized that by saying that I might have stepped on his entire self-worth. “This is the fourth time I’ve seen them,” he said, fiercely. “S. Carey is fucking awesome and you are an idiot.” He got up and walked away, leaving me to feel like an asshole because the fact is that when I was a sophomore in college and I was going through Emotions, I probably would’ve seen S. Carey four times too. After all, music is subjective.
Friday brought the best lineup for music. On top of the aforementioned Weekend tearing it up (although rumor has it people were upset at the short length of their set, which I don’t really understand because their average song length is like two minutes), !!! headlined Gabes, a legendary IC venue that is the nearly synonymous with the town’s music reputation. Talk to any band about touring through the Midwest, and they’ll most likely tell you about some crazy, wacked out show they played to a bunch of drunk numbskulls at Gabes and how fucking terrific it was. Locals will tell you about Nirvana playing there in ’93, how Kurt Cobain shot heroin in the bathroom, how Bob Dylan or Neil Young or someone was in attendance. Most of it isn’t true (Nirvana did play, though), but who gives a shit? You want to believe it all, and that’s all that matters.
Wolf Eyes getting weird. Photo by for .
Anyway, !!! surprisingly did not suck ass, and I’m putting the success of their show on the fact that Gabes is awesome, and the fact that the place was packed out to the max and when you’re playing for a crowd of excited young people jumping around, it’s really hard to have a bad show. The opener was local Caroline Smith, with whom I fell in love. I saw her a bunch of times in undergrad, but since, she ditched her singer-songwriter thing and tapped into a crushing blues band, putting her sultry, dynamic voice on rich display. (During this time, Kishi Bashi played a sold-out set at the Mill, which I unfortunately didn’t catch but feel like I should mention because multiple Mission Creek attendees kept telling me how great the of Montreal member was. Sorry for missing out.)
Saturday was headlined by William Elliott Whitmore, a local legend who cut his teeth on the Iowa City circuit, playing dozens and dozens of shows at the aforementioned venues to nearly no one, before eventually getting signed to ANTI-, and making as big of a name of yourself as you can while still living in a farmhouse in Lee County, Iowa, right on the Mississippi (about two hours from Iowa City). No joke, this dude lived in a corn crib full of vinyl in the middle of nowhere up until about a year ago, when he moved up the road into his childhood home with his wife—it’s still on a farm, though, don’t worry.
If you’re not familiar, Whitmore is a 35-year-old banjo player who has a punk rock background and his gravelly voice sounds like he’s smoked cigs for longer than he’s been alive, and I'm not even sure he actually smokes. He’s built a reputation of going through at least one case of Old Milwaukee beer during every performance. That night, though, was different. In an interview before the performance backstage at the Englert Theatre, Whitmore told me about feeling a bit nervous because this show felt like a homecoming of sorts—he’d have multiple family members in the crowd, and he’d never played the Englert before. “I used to say my favorite beer is the one I have in my hand,” he joked in the green room while sipping some water. “Now, I want to live a bit longer.” He told me how Iowa City had played a vital role in his career, and how Mission Creek was a great addition to the community. “I’m just excited to be here,” he said, repeatedly, in the overly kind tone that us Midwesterners are known for.
The Gawd William Elliot Whitmore. Photo by for .
He went on to deliver a brilliant set, as I sat in the balcony with his family, all hootin’ and hollerin’, each of us singing along. “I put that black Iowa dirt on a biscuit,” he croons on “Black Iowa Dirt.” “I got that dirt underneath my fingernails; I got that dirt runnin’ through my veins.”
After the show, I went to Gabes and sat in the backyard with strangers and drunkenly talked about whatever you talk about in bars. I argued with someone about Kanye West. I told someone else about how Gabes used to be called something else when I was in college. Someone else told me about why Lou Henri’s, the breakfast spot I made my own during school, had shuttered, which broke my heart. I told someone else how I noticed that the Mill had painted their bathroom blue. After the bar closed, we went to an apartment complex on Gilbert Street I’d been to multiple times late at night while I was attending school—this time with a fresh set of 21-year-old occupants—and we played Young Thug and Migos till 4:30 AM. College, man. College.
Walking into a place that you lived during the most formative years of your life is a pretty weird experience. Things change, because that’s what happens, but that doesn’t make it easy to deal with. We all have memories of the times we spent doing certain things in certain places with certain people—and when you leave those behind and create a new life, returning to the past is both confusing and, at times, heartbreaking, no matter how stupid you feel being upset that your favorite breakfast joint has closed. The littlest things feel like punches in the stomach. Your memories change. That bar is now this bar. The downtown Taco Bell shut its doors. That smoke shop is now a pizza parlour. And at the same time, those shifts don’t really matter, because those who live there now will create their own memories and have their own places where they ate breakfast on a regular basis. “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things,” Joan Didion once wrote about starting a new life, “but harder to see the ends.” This life won’t ever be what it used to be—but that’s what life is, never what it once was.
Eric Sundermann thinks Asher Roth was right, because, man, he loves college. He’s Noisey's Managing Editor and is on Twitter — @ericsundy
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