This year, the Kilby Block Party will showcase an unbelievable mashup of national touring acts and local artists alike, with mobs of music lovers attending — but it didn’t start that way.
Only four years ago, the first festival was held as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Kilby Court — a small, intimate venue at the heart of Utah’s music scene that pretty much every local artist has played at some point.
“Kilby is a great vehicle for growth because it’s an incubator for talent and it's always been there for the local music community,” said Wayne Burdick, drummer for Salt Lake City-based glam and art rock band The Plastic Cherries, who are playing at this year’s Block Party.
With a capacity of 200, the DIY-style venue can be found at the end of a small street with the same name in an industrial part of Salt Lake City, past a few houses that are a little beat up and rustic.
“When you get to the end of the alley, Kilby Court is just a garage space with a little patio,” said Nic Smith, director of S&S who organizes the Block Party and owns several SLC music venues, including Kilby. “The magic that happens when people start coming in is it feels like it's a house show like it’s something in your own backyard.”
So when Kilby turned 20, S&S felt they had to do something special to thank the community for making it a special place and supporting it over the years.
In 2019, Smith said the Block Party was very “makeshift.” They rented 700 South — the road the alley is off of — for a couple of blocks. For the one-day event, there were food trucks, big crowds and three stages.
“Now it sort of feels like humble beginnings to Kilby Block Party but at the time it was huge for Salt Lake,” said Jack Rutter, who performed at the first festival under his stage name, Ritt Momney.
Death Cab For Cutie, an early 2000s Kilby alum, headlined the festival, but the 13 other acts were all Utah-based including The National Parks and Joshua James. Smith said it was initially meant to be just a one-time event.
“After that first one passed, the amount of support we got from it and just the feeling we had from being able to throw an event like that — we came together and said we should do this every year,” Smith said. “And then the pandemic happened.”
Big risk, big reward
The festival returned in 2021 in the same rough and ready format as before with more touring artists coming from outside the Utah scene. But in 2022, the Block Party expanded to two days and moved downtown to Library Square. The lineup of 36 artists included more big names, from indie heartthrobs Phoebe Bridgers and Mac DeMarco to teenager-loved acts Steve Lacey and Clairo.
The expansion was a “big risk that paid off,” Smith said.
“That was the best turnout we had so far. It sold out within the first six days tickets went on sale, which totally blew us away.”
Angela Brown, the executive editor for local arts and culture-focused SLUG Magazine, said the importance of local acts being able to share the festival stage with nationally recognized artists can’t be underestimated.
“That is such a great opportunity for Kilby Block Party to provide just that inspiration for local acts to know that they can play a really fun, large headliner event here in their own hometown,” Brown said.
Brady Flores, the founder of local indie record label Uphere Records, said the 2022 festival was a huge step up.
“This is something that Utah has needed for such a long time — their own, real music festival because like we have the [Salt Lake] Twilight series, which are all really great and I love going to those, but like it's not like a true to form music festival.”
Though the festival was a success, there were some growing pains with an overpacked Library Square and long food lines.
‘It’s so stacked’
Everything about the 2023 festival will be bigger, taking place over three days, May 12-14, at the Utah State Fairpark. With a larger venue, Smith expects a lot more people.
“Last year, we had 10,000 people per day,” Smith said. “This year we'll probably have somewhere in the area of 25 to 30,000 per day.”
Also bigger? The ticket price. A three-day pass to the 2023 festival is currently going for more than $250 a pop on 24tix.
Featured artists include The Strokes, Pixies, and Run the Jewels, among 56 others. The 14 acts based in Utah comprise varied genres — hugely successful indie rock band The Backseat Lovers; the jazz-influenced, neo-soul Anaïs Chantal; and the energetic, punk-rock of Backhand to name a few.
When the 2023 lineup was first announced everyone was a bit taken aback. Could this really be happening?
“The top suggested search was ‘Is Kilby Block Party lineup real,’ Rutter said. “It looks like a joke just because it's so stacked.”
As the Block Party gets more popular, Rutter thinks “it could be hugely important for the future of Salt Lake musicians.” Rather than running off to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago they “can be a part of this scene here and still make it and take myself and my career seriously.”
“I wonder if it’s really important in terms of like taking ourselves seriously — to consider Salt Lake a music hub of some kind,” Rutter mused.
The benefit of having a festival of this scale is it often attracts locals who maybe aren’t as familiar with the local arts and music scene but want to attend because everyone else is.
“I think we're really going to see ripple effects in the local music scene for years to come,” Brown said. Before this year’s festival starts, the 2024 Block Party is already in the works. S&S plans to probably hold it at the Fairpark again. Though he’s sure they’ll learn some new things after this one passes, the feeling is that it can only get better from here.
“We're going to do it even bigger and keep growing,” Smith said. “We want this to be an important festival in Salt Lake and something that people can rely on every year.”