A Weekend At Iowa's Music And Literary Festival, Mission Creek [Show Review]

Kieran Kohorst

“If you’ve never been to a L’Rain show before,” Taja Cheek cautioned to the audience, “there are two rules: you have to be here. Because we are here, right?...And, you have to howl with the dogs,” she instructed, absent of sarcasm. As she made herself comfortable on stage with her bandmates, a recording of dogs ominously barking and yelling filled the auditorium. It’s night one of Mission Creek Festival, an event that celebrates music and literature while emphasizing “intimacy and visceral connections between artists and audiences” in Iowa City, IA. For this spare weekend, the city’s appetite for creativity is satisfied by a lineup of names familiar and emerging. Prior to L’Rain, poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib shared an excerpt from his recent memoir, There’s Always This Year. Humbly crowned by moderator Tisa Bryant as the “virtuoso of the love letter,” Abdurraqib showed humility and perspective in his conversation while proving true the praise he’s received for his work. A prideful native of Columbus, Ohio, he speaks to the devotion we show to the places we decide to love. Whether that be a hometown or an adopted locale, we love the place through its faults, remaining faithful to what we admired about the place in the beginning. 

There was little fault to be found with the place we found ourselves on this night - we, in this instance, referring to the audience as a collective, as by the end of the night there seemed a bond beholding us together. This bond is revealed to be the transcendent experience of ingesting L’Rain’s performance. As the show kept on, it took less the form of a performance and more that of an exhibition, the band seemingly only aware of the audience through their peripheral, their focus maintained on the task at hand. Tight-knit but not high-strung, the band never got out ahead of themselves. After establishing the ground rules, L’Rain played for over a half hour straight, with the band constantly keeping busy. Even when L’Rain took time to address the crowd, it was with obscure recordings playing behind her, the momentum of the show oscillating but never reaching a lull. At the halfway point came a disclaimer: “I actually love dogs,” L’Rain asserted in an effort to relieve those concerned with the title of her 2023 album, I Killed Your Dog. “It’s a metaphor…I’m actually missing mine right now.”

From here, she calmly descends back into her performance, her hands moving freely and in reflection of the music, as if trying to conjure herself back into the music echoing behind her. At times, it was hard to imagine the room being able to hold all the music being offered - it was continuous, layered, generous, and possessive, and in certain moments I felt as if a spell had been cast on myself and all those around me. L’Rain’s set encapsulated all the genres thrust onto her recordings: experimental pop, free jazz, post-punk, R&B, neo-soul, avante-garde rock, funk, and hip-hop. The lasting effect was a psychedelic trance, bewildered yet comforted by the sounds and concepts L’Rain is able to tackle in her songs. If it wasn’t established through her proper releases, her live performance cemented L’Rain as an artist of the highest standard.

For as tight of a grip as the band had on the rope that night, they also had a grasp on when to let loose. Aside from the smiles and small laughs shared between band members at times during the set, there also came a moment that L’Rain twirled the microphone around her head like nunchucks - a weapon indeed. A gorgeous, patient saxophone brought measured levity and balance to the performance. A pair of shoes sat idle on the stage, with L’Rain marching around barefoot; a guitarist of hers paraded around in socks. There was a sense of comfortability among the band members, a “we’ve been here before” assuredness that did not give way to taking the night for granted. In one of her short addresses to the audience, L’Rain thanked the poet Abdurraqib for his unintentional and perhaps unknown influence on L’Rain’s work. She mentions her affinity for repetition, crediting Abdurraqib for enabling her in this practice. For the two artists to establish that connective thread after demonstrating their respective works, a sense of awe and gratitude spread among those in attendance. It was quite the reminder of the importance of these unifying spaces.

The succeeding night at Mission Creek was welcomed in with spectacle. Arriving to the theatre downtown, electronic artist George Clanton was already entrenched in his acutely stimulating performance. A giant monitor overwhelmed his background, an array of LED lights swarming the stage; strobe lights protruding from above; ‘90’s era televisions stacked on top of one another and flanking the stage, populated by a montage of Dragon Ball Z footage; and then there was Clanton, whose highlighter-green hair evidenced his silhouette in the otherwise dark shadows he operated in. With only a drummer joining him, Clanton demanded all eyes amid the vibrant distractions surrounding him. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than his energy was his stamina, as his presence and urgency in the music held strong throughout his opening set. When the time came for his regretful exit, Clanton was the catalyst of a “one more song!” chant that was willfully adopted by the crowd. Clanton provided an exuberant start to the night, a momentum that shifted but was sufficiently channeled by Saturday’s headline act. 

While L’Rain’s Mission Creek appearance felt as if it existed on a transcendental plane, Indigo De Souza felt very much in the room for her performance, a reflection of her grounded and accessible songwriting. In much of her music, and to a heightened degree on her 2023 album All of This Will End, De Souza’s voice can toe the line of melancholic and comedic, as she feels capable of breaking into tears or laughter at any time in her delivery. On this fault line, she favored a more pensive dispatch for this night. This is far from a critique, as De Souza’s vocals still soared when needed, and struck the audience with sincerity in the more plaintive moments. 

Her presence was starkly more timid in following Clanton - De Souza delivered nearly the entire performance with eyes closed, and at times turned her back to the audience. It was obvious she was not looking to convey dejection to the crowd in these moments; rather, when facing away from the audience, it seemed she was aiming for a sort of reflection, a re-centering of where she was in that moment. And with her eyes closed, perhaps she was trying to re-access the scenes she is portraying in her lyrics, to feel them the best she can in this new place and time. Surrounding her were contrasting energies - in fact, at several times during the show, the band appeared to all be playing different versions of the song, different ferocities reflecting different interpretations of the music. That is, actually, just how De Souza’s music should be heard and performed: to each person’s liking. Her songs are meant to be lived-in, such a raw transcription of the human experience that there is no choice but to absorb them as subjective. Where De Souza really came alive was in her performance of “You Can Be Mean,” her delivery more of a snarl as she began her second verse: “I can’t believe I let you touch my body / I can’t believe I let you get inside.” The guitars, throughout her set, were crunching, thundering, at times burning; her guitarist emphasized their effect with intermittent stomping, a direct contrast to De Souza’s cool temper just feet away. As she tore through her setlist, De Souza included three new songs, all of which promise some of the most vivid and evocative imagery of her career thus far. Even on the elevated stage, De Souza serenaded the audience at eye-level, offering the same vulnerability and forwardness that filled the room in the first place. 

While the music was of a particularly high standard, Mission Creek’s focus on elevating the literary scene in Iowa City was just as prolific. Friday included Lit Walks showcasing writers both local and out-of-area, and Saturday featured zine and book fairs, panel discussions, and reading series. Other performers included Armand Hammer, SG Goodman, Yxng Raskal, Sunny War, Neko Case, and 24ThankYou, among others. A carefully curated and community-focused weekend, Mission Creek stayed true to their values and provided a much-needed space for must-hear voices. 

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