Salt Lake City’s Kilby Block Party Is The Real Deal

LCD Soundsystem by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

Salt Lake City’s Kilby Block Party Is The Real Deal

LCD Soundsystem by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

There was a moment this past Saturday afternoon, when the ascendant Brooklyn experimentalists Water From Your Eyes neared the end of their set. The band had just launched into “Track Five,” the gnarled, throbbing dance-inflected highlight from their 2021 album Structure. The sound of it was blistering, and the sun was blistering, and I turned to the side and heard their alternate universe beats and looked out at the snow-capped mountains flanking the horizon and for a moment questioned “Where the hell am I?”

It wasn’t just Water From Your Eyes who could seem a bit out of place in such a sunny and beautiful surrounding. Later that same afternoon, Lou Barlow took a moment at the end of Dinosaur Jr.’s set to say “Thank you everyone, thank you for your mountains. It’s very nice to play bass while looking at the mountains.” Every other artist seemed to say some variation on the same thought. (Or, conversely, joke about how it was just a bit tougher to sing at a higher altitude.) This was the setting for the Salt Lake City festival Kilby Block Party: a fairground with a hell of a view, a lineup full of indie stalwarts and up-and-comers alike. In the crowded web of American festivals, Kilby is a newer contender, but the consensus seemed to be: holy shit, how did this festival not exist before?

Water From Your Eyes by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

Kilby Block Party began five years ago as an actual block party. At the time, it was a one-day affair celebrating 20 years of the all-ages SLC venue Kilby Court. Given the venue has hosted legions of now-gigantic and beloved indie acts, even that inaugural event managed to nab Death Cab For Cutie as headliners. By its third year, the event had already expanded into more of a proper festival, with a 2022 iteration that boasted Phoebe Bridgers and Mac DeMarco headlining a lineup dotted with of-the-moment indie luminaries. But things really took off last year. Kilby moved to the Utah State Fairpark and brought an eye-catching array of cross-generational indie rock: Pavement, the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pixies, Japanese Breakfast. In a few short years, it had become a real-deal fest.

This year happened to mark not just Kilby Block Party’s fifth iteration, but also the 25th anniversary of the venue the festival began in tribute to. This time around, Kilby returned to the Fairpark, and once more curated a lineup that spanned eras of core indie. Given this year honed in on names from the peak blog era, it featured plenty of acts closely tied to Stereogum’s identity over the years. It felt sort of obvious to go and check out Kilby for the first time.

Even with the festival’s rapid growth, Kilby remains a very chill and navigable experience, making it a deeply pleasant counterpoint to some of the more established (and bloated) options on America’s summer circuit. The festival has two big stages and two small ones, and it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. Aside from a few rain threats, May in SLC proved to be perfect weather for a festival, especially with the aforementioned scenery. There was some of the requisite festival-in-2024 business, like an activation with Ford vehicles where you could charge your phone, or $8 Celsius mocktails. But, charmingly, Kilby made use of the fairgrounds, too. Artisanal food trucks sat alongside the space’s old-fashioned stadium concessions, while one of the fest’s sponsors took over the skatepark near the entrance for a series of cash-for-tricks contests. It also meant Kilby had more indoor restroom facilities than I’ve ever seen at a festival and that gives the whole thing this slight air of, I don’t know, being more civilized. And if you’re taking a rideshare at the end of the night, you don’t have to walk 25 minutes to a designated pickup zone like at some of the more sprawling festivals.

Alvvays by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

The 2024 version of Kilby Block Party sat in the middle of its two predecessors. With Bridgers and DeMarco in 2022, the festival leaned towards a younger generation; with Pavement and the Strokes last year, it skewed older. This time around, there were still some veteran names, but many of the elder statesmen were of a more mid- or late-‘00s vintage. Compared to bigger festivals anchored by arena-rock talent of the past, or events that are going all in on explosive TikTok-era artists, this meant the crowd at Kilby was one in transition — there were plenty of younger listeners, but many festivalgoers teetered on middle age, as their favored acts are settling into a not-quite-classic-rock chapter of their careers.

This resulted in a sort of natural pecking order, where some of the newest/buzziest/currently acclaimed names were relegated to daytime sets. Attendees who got there in the mid-afternoon could see performances from groups like Water From Your Eyes, Model/Actriz, Slow Pulp, and Yves Tumor. On the festival’s first day, Alvvays took the stage as heavy grey skies rolled in from over the mountains. “I want to take personal responsibility for the bad weather,” Molly Rankin quipped as things suddenly got very cold and very windy. But it was actually ideal for the Canadian group’s increasingly shoegaze-y aesthetic. By Sunday, Salt Lake City had gotten hotter and hotter, and fans thronged at the same stage for 100 Gecs’ characteristically batshit early evening set. You could spot devotees in Gecs shirts and wizard hats.

100 Gecs fans by Scott Lapatine / Stereogum

Mostly, the evening slots were reserved for slightly more seasoned acts, and/or Occasions. Mixed in with ever-reliable festival warhorses like Courtney Barnett and Pond were artists like Jai Paul, just over a year removed from his first-ever live performance. Paul’s humid R&B sat as a direct counterpoint to Joanna Newsom, whose transcendent set followed at sunset. Newsom, too, felt like a special addition to the lineup — aside from her surprise opening slot for Fleet Foxes last year, it was her first performance since 2020 and her first festival appearance since 2013.

“It’s my first time leaving my children at home in seven years,” Newsom explained, seemingly overwhelmed by the fervor of the audience’s welcome. Fighting through the chill of Friday evening, Newsom’s set was mesmerizing, including one new song and a selection from across her catalog otherwise, with “Cosmia” dedicated to her old friend and collaborator Steve Albini.

Joanna Newsom by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

Along the way, there were some surprises in modern-day festival hierarchy. Aging legends like Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices methodically ripped through raw “this is how it’s done” kind of performances. (Dinosaur Jr. in particular still managed to sound pretty titanic even on a too-small stage that was much too quiet for them.) Yet while audiences for both were rapt, they were also smaller compared to, say, groups like TV Girl, who have recently accrued swaths of followers in a more online era. Weirdly, those forefathers seemed maybe just a bit too old for Kilby, whereas Interpol and Belle And Sebastian got the bigger nostalgic embrace.

Each night, Kilby Block Party narrowed down to a single headliner, with the entire festival gathering in the main stage area. I’ve always liked when festivals do this vs. counter-programming like four major artists at once — it gives a sort of communal feeling, one collective center of gravity amidst everyone firing off in different directions otherwise. And like the trifecta of Pavement, the Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs last year, this year had an enviable run of indie juggernauts: Vampire Weekend on Friday, the dual Death Cab For Cutie/Postal Service show on Saturday, and LCD Soundsystem on Sunday.

Vampire Weekend by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

Like Death Cab, Vampire Weekend had some history to acknowledge here. A few songs in, the group performed “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and got reminiscent about the early days. Ezra Koenig described playing Kilby Court in December of 2007, when nobody knew who Vampire Weekend were. He asked if anyone in the crowd was at the show, but didn’t believe the few people who cheered. Mostly, though, theirs was a performance that didn’t spend too much time looking back, given they’re right on the heels of Only God Was Above Us. By the middle of the set, with the one-two of “Sunflower” and Koenig’s 2014 SBTRKT collab “New Dorp. New York,” they were in full modern-day jam band VW mode. By the end of the night they’d even manifested a local Real Housewife before heading to NYC to play SNL the next day.

On Saturday night the double-headliner Death Cab and Postal Service tour came to SLC. Since last year, Ben Gibbard has been putting in work fronting two sets a night as each band performs old hallowed classics for their 20th anniversary — Death Cab doing Transatlanticism and the Postal Service doing their sole LP, Give Up. As soon as Death Cab walked onstage and Gibbard launched into singing “So this is the new year,” it was obvious the emotional resonance of this material was as strong as ever. (Even a few of the security guards were singing along to every word of Transatlanticism.) After a set break so Gibbard could switch from an all black outfit to all white and return to stage flanked by Jenny Lewis and Jimmy Tamborello, the Postal Service led the way towards the night’s conclusion, which found them performing their now-customary cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence.”

The Postal Service by Emilio Herce / Stereogum

Depending on your bias, maybe any one of these was the climactic performance of Kilby. But it certainly felt as if LCD Soundsystem’s Sunday appearance was the festival bowing out on its highest note. Though not without anthemic moments, neither the VW nor Death Cab/Postal Service sets had the same unbridled, unwavering intensity of the LCD set. At this point, the reunited greatest-hits approach of LCD sets is all too familiar to those of us who lived in NYC and could see their yearly residencies. But since the band has rarely ventured around the rest of the country, their Sunday performance almost felt like an opportunity to see all these songs anew, surrounded by fans who may have been catching LCD for the first time. Though Salt Lake City itself was quieted on Sunday, you had no sense the weekend was ending. The LCD show was the exact cathartic, overwhelming dance party conclusion you’d expect it to be. And in a weekend full of songs that have grown into wistful classics, a whole festival ending with “All My Friends” was about as fitting as you could imagine.

It was the capstone to an installment that felt like a turning point for Kilby Block Party. In just a few years, the festival has gone from a niche local event to something people are traveling from around the country to see. Anecdotally, it seemed to be the festival everyone I knew wished they could get to this year. It’s still smaller, and that’s to its benefit. But from here, as some of the well-worn festival names move in other directions, it’s easy to picture Kilby making its mark: a newer festival high up in Salt Lake City, with a greater array of indie rock gathered than you could find most anywhere else.

Kilby view by Scott Lapatine / Stereogum

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