In 2024, “shoegaze” is not a monolith: it means nothing and it means everything. It can be gorgeous and it can be violent. Several generations at this point have been drawn to the gauzey, hazy dream pop of Cocteau Twins and the roaring guitar textures of My Bloody Valentine, and incorporated those stylings into their own art, shape-shifting them in exciting new directions. And over the past five years, the intentionally nebulous aesthetic has once again fallen into favor, taking root particularly strongly in Philadelphia’s DIY music community.

But if the phrase “eight-band shoegaze festival at Union Transfer” ramped up your anxiety levels, bracing your concertgoing self for monotony and tinnitus, that is not what the Slide Away Festival on March 9th had in store. For one thing, many of the bands on the bill probably would bristle at being labeled “shoegaze,” at least in any more serious a way than describing one of the myriad influences they drew on. For another, the lineup — curated by Domenic Palermo and his bandmates in Philly rockers Nothing, as a way of celebrating the tenth anniversary of their Relapse debut Guilty Of Everything — showcased the old and new guard, artists that today’s scene rallies around as well as artists they came up on, and a couple to watch out for too. And everybody had their own distinct spin on heady, atmospheric pop and rock, from mournful ballads to chilling soundscapes, nervy grooves and cathartic explosions.

“Pace yourself, it’s going to be a long day,” a security person said to me as I entered the venue. “We have free earplugs if you need.” A group of DJs set the mood with selections from Songs: Ohia, Chapterhouse, and Kirsty MacColl. And as I caught the pummeling riffs of Phoenix, Arizona four-piece Glixen ushering their set to an end, with deep and colorful kaleidoscopic lighting providing a vibrant backdrop, I found myself immersed in a festival named maybe for a Verve song, possibly for an Oasis song, and definitely built around a phrase that is the perfect descriptor of turning yourself over to music of this kind.

Astrobrite | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


The project of Chicago-based singer-guitarist Scott Cortez, initially active from 1993 to 1995, Astrobrite’s late afternoon set started off more doomy and cacophonous, and as it went on became more shimmery and poppy, anthemic at moments, with warm baritone vocals reminiscent of Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson. Behind the band, a layering of real time footage of the various people onstage into distorted and decaying reflections added an additional level of surreality.

Knifeplay | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


After such a loud trio performance, the six members of Philly’s Knifeplay turned things way down for their set of gentle, tragic slow burners. The formula was simple — hushed vocals, acoustic strums, light drums and keys, and transportive e-bow guitar — but effective. The current news in Knifeplay’s world is the vinyl reiusse and remaster of their 2019 album Pearlty, released earlier this month on their label Topshelf. But from this show, it seems like bigger news is on the horizon still; the setlist was entirely new and unreleased music, and with each piece stretching around the ten-minute mark, they only got through three songs in their half hour onstage. Sounded gorgeous, though, and the band was less fussy and more chatty than when we saw them last at Philly Music Fest, with lead singer TJ Strohmer making a point to thank Nothing effusively for having them on the bill.

Mint Field | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Mint Field

A highlight of Slide Away’s first half is the Mexico City trio Mint Field, who brought the pulse of the room back up but kept it shrouded in mystique. The band delivered a stunning set of bass-forward groove-oriented atmospheres, with co-frontperson Estrella del Sol’s sandy vocals recalling Beth Gibbons of Portishead. Other bits channeled the glitchy pulse of late-era Radiohead, or the haunting tapstries of LA’s Warpaint, as they showed off last fall’s LP Aprender a Ser. Divine.

TAGABOW | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


An amusing exchange occurred during line check, when TAGABOW frontperson Doug Dulgarian turned to the monitor engineer and asked “Can you put…this is so dumb to be asking for at the shoegaze fest…” “…Reverb?” “Yeah.” While this band is often seen as the center of quote-unqoute Philly shoegaze, due in no small part to Dulgarian’s trendsetting label Julia’s War, TAGABOW has perhaps the most unpredictable sound and presentation of the scene, and of this gig for sure. Trap beats mix with towers of guitar, vocal drones cut it up with vocal samples. It’s part fidgety rave, with extensive sampler expanses filling time during tune-up breaks between songs (the air horn got a lot of applause), and part insular art rock show, with the bandmates all facing inward, backs to the crowd, amps buzzing. TAGABOW might also be the most indicative of the striking difference between the beautiful oblivion of late 80s shoegaze, when the concerns were primarily romantic, and the scene of today, which is markedly more dystopic, finding perhaps only flickering bits of bliss in a bleak world. Then again, maybe that’s why shoegaze and its descendants connect so hard today; when the planet is literally and figuratively burning, when power is concentrated among a small cadre of wealthy elite who conquer by division, when hope for something, anything, improving for the majority of folks seems faint at best, some numbness feels warranted. And within that numbness, beauty.

Loveliescrushing | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


The most ethereal set of the night went to Loveliescrushing. Founded by vocalist and keyboardist Melissa Arpin in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1991, the project’s current configuration also features Scott Cortez of Astrobrite, who performed earlier in the day. He offered a wash of chorus-drenched guitar while Aprin delivered meditative, often wordless vocals in a style you can hear echoed in Julia Holter, Fursaxa, and dare I say Enya. It was beautiful in its simplicity but perhaps was less than ideal for a 45-minute standing room club slot. This is the kind of music you want to hear in more patient settings — a gallery, or some sort of alternative space, seated perhaps directly on the floor, staring off into the middle distance, reflecting.

Swirlies | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


With all of the equipment that goes into shoegaze- and shoegaze-adjacent bands — instruments, amps, analog and digital components, pedals on pedals on pedals — it was a small miracle that Slide Away made it to the penultimate band of the festival without breakage. Unfortunately for Boston icons Swirlies, they were the band that fate saddled with setbacks. As such, the set started off somewhat sloppy, but the band as the band powered through, the optimal vibe soon locked into place. The music was riffy and mathy and devastatingly pretty; close observers could spot Philly hero Kurt Vile looking on from side stage, watching his friends and sometimes collaborators, as screaming sounds and even radio signals could be heard breaking through the pickups of Damon Tutunjian’s guitar. “Sunn” from the band’s 1996 outing  They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days in the Glittering World of the Salons was a standout, and on the closing songs “Tall Ships” and “Wrong Tube,” founding member Seana Carmody joined Swirlies on vocals for a joyous finale.

Nothing | photo by John Vettese for WXPN


The origin story of Nothing is one of a person, Palermo, who got caught up in a violent clique of the east coast hardcore scene, spent some of his 20s incarcerated, and spent even more time soul searching when he got out. The creative outlet he arrived at was the impressionistic, meditative beauty of dream pop, but his punk roots showed, even going back to the band’s Sartre-referencing debut single “Last Day In Bouville”…and they especially showed onstage. That’s how it was at Slide Away: Palermo and his bandmates swung and stomped, roared and raged in fast-motion, while soaring and heavy melodies came out of their amps on the opening punch of “Downward Years To Come.” From there, it was Guilty Of Everything in full for its tenth anniversary, heralded by an animated projection of the album cover’s rippling white flag, and augmented by various folks who helped make the record — bassist Nick Bassett, drummer Kyle Kimball popping on and offstage, mixing it up with current bassist Bobb Bruno and drummer Zachary Jones.

Nothing | photo by John Vettese for WXPN

It was gloriously loud, it was another example (like TAGABOW) of an artist using aesthetic cues of first-gen shoegaze and making something distressed for darker times, but aimed at an ultimate catharsis. “This record is a lot of things that built up to that very point,” Palermo told the crowd. “And of course I could only do this in Philly, that’s what this record is for.”

In an impromptu speech as the night closed, Palermo also expressed appreciation for the entirety of the festival bill, joking that he unwittingly exposed all the artists he’s ripped off over the years. “I mean, I had a chance to take all the musical inspiration from the bands that are playing it now to the bands from before, put it all together, and do a thing for people who like this type of thing.” But it was clear that this was a thing for him personally, just as much. “This band wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for a lot of these bands. I’m not accustomed to winning very often, and I take tonight as a W, so this is fucking awesome.”