Live Review: Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago
Thousands of indie rock fanatics--a good mix of fresh, young folks and music-loving grown-ups--visit the Pitchfork website for news and reviews, and at least 17,000 of them are now turning up every year to see the bands they've been reading about online.
Two-day passes were a bargain this year at $35, the weather was basically perfect, bottled water was cheap at one buck, public transportation easily available, and the porta-johns fairly plentiful.
There was much more than music to take in. The festival's poster pavilion showcased and sold silkscreen art from Chicago's top-flight music-inspired artists. A record tent held booths for local labels such as Brilliante and Numero Group, all of which had plenty of new product on hand. Elsewhere, magazines like Readymade offered dirt-cheap subscriptions and non-profits like Girls Rock, which organizes music camps for girls ages 9 to 16, had booths to tell their story. The food and beer lines--mostly offerings from local business--weren't even that long.
Pitchfork's third incarnation had a heck of a lot going for it. The introduction of large video screens near the stages meant everyone could get an eyeful of the mainstage acts from a hundred yards out. But for audiophiles and anyone interested in a proper sonics, the fest struggled with quirky sound issues from act to act. Two of three Pitchfork stages even suffered total sound meltdowns in mid-set (send sympathy cards to The Ponys and The Oxford Collapse).
Overall, such issues were an annoying distraction, but not a party killer. Pitchfork attendees tend to be optimistic and unfailingly polite. The number of times I heard "excuse me" exceeded the number of times I actually got bumped into by someone.
Friday night (7/13) featured three acts on two stages in a series of concerts dubbed "Don't Look Back,"during which artists performed an influential album from their past in sequence. Slint, a seminal but still underappreciated Kentucky band, played its legendary "Spiderland" album straight through, then tacked on a new stoner-rockin' tune as an encore. The band previously reformed for an All Tomorrow's Parties festival and US tour, then broke up, but has now reformed again. Britt Walford constructed hypnotic rhythms that seemed to swim along from behind his kit's extra large toms while singer Brian McMahan stood off to one side, more like a narrator than a frontman.
Wu-Tang associate GZA had auxiliary rappers in custom "Liquid Swords" T-shirts when he took on the Genius/GZA album from 1995. The band brought no soundman of its own, and its set suffered from the worst audio mix of the festival.
Somehow, Sonic Youth overcame those limitations when they tackled "Daydream Nation," an epic album of approachable art-punk that never loses steam, and which has become something of a pre-grunge-explosion classic. For an encore, the band played "Incinerate" from last year's "Rather Ripped" and a few new tunes with Pavement's Mark Ibold on bass.
On Saturday (7/14), the fest spread out to three stages and reportedly, the festival organizers swapped in a new soundsystem on the main stages after Friday night. Voxtrot set things to a promising, upbeat start with a charming, keyboard-heavy set, proving that it is the best Brit-pop band in Texas. Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear used clarinet, autoharp and lots of echo to distinguish its quite excellent set. Oddly, the band it has the most in common with, Baltimore duo Beach House, was playing with electric piano, programmed beats and slide guitar just fifty yards away, making fans of atmospheric, moody rock crazy.
Things got loud and visually interesting for prog-skronk supergroup Battles, whose drummer, John Stainer, plays but one cymbal about 12 feet high. Back on the sidestage, relative unknowns Professor Murder had an extra percussive take on dance-punk with funky bass, timbale workouts pushing its tunes along--the band proved to be one of the major revelations of the fest. Blogger favorites Clipse, who rap about the cocaine trade over some of the wickedest beats in hip-hop, seemed to have their sound properly wired. Tracks like "Got it 4 Cheap" and "I'm So Sorry" benefited from booming bass and a lively front-of-stage crowd, making Clipse one of the winners of the day. Metallists Mastodon seemed to delight in being the most ballsy rock band in the vicinity.
The fest might have peaked when beatsmith Dan Deacon played his wacky electronic set not from the stage, but from within the suddenly spastic crowd, setting off a bit of chaos. He would go on to play at least two packed after-hour shows during the weekend. Cat Power never seemed to find her muse or proper sound, and the intent crowd seemed disappointed. Yoko Ono? Well, she's a divisive personality, to be sure. Her show sent much of the crowd to the gates, but the stalwarts were still talking about her howling-heavy songs--featuring Thurston Moore on guitar--the next day in the beer lines.
The sidestage featured at least two jazz acts each day, with local Fred Lonberg-Holm's Lightbox Orchestra and Craig Taborn's Junk Magic doing their thing on Sunday (7/15). Both are top-notch technicians, but back on the Connector Stage, space-rockers Deerhunter briefly made magicy with shoegazing tunes that sometimes got peppy. The band closed with friends from Grizzly Bear plugging in and blissing out.
In the afternoon, indie vets The Sea and Cake and Stephen Malkmus traded off with engaging electronicists Junior Boys and Jamie Lidell on the main stages. The Sea and Cake's set came off particularly well, as the band rummaged into its library for tunes like "Parasol" that still work. Lidell, who improvises over his own programmed beats and rearranges his original tunes on the spot, debuted new material such as "Wait for Me," in which he takes his Otis Redding-style soul balladeering to new heights with recorded piano backing from ace producer Gonzales. He was the best singer at the fest, bar none. On the side stage, Ann Arbor's Nomo jammed out funky Afrobeat, complete with horns that were tight but made no pretension to authenticity. Chicago's Cool Kids dialed in late '80s style hip-hop, and Stockholm DJ/producer The Field threw a proper, if abbreviated and unusually melodic, version of a techno rave. Malkmus revisited Pavement tunes with an acoustic guitar and even some help from drummer Bob Nastanovich.
But the evening's standout act was Of Montreal. With costumed aliens, a girl in gold body paint and some off-kilter, glam-rock inspired pop tunes, the band looked as spectacular as it sounded. Singer Kevin Barnes stripped down to a leather S&M outfit and then even less, making this one set that the kids won't forget too soon. The New Pornographers, while as solid as ever, came off even more innocuous than usual, but their thirtysomething fans didn't seem to care.
With things running late on the sidestage and an interminable sound-check, the Klaxons ended up closing the show simultaneously with mainstage party boys De La Soul. The dancey London-punkers launched into tunes like "Atlantis to Interzone" with wild abandon and criss-crossing vocals. If only they had been a wee bit louder.