Pitchfork Music Festival: July 13-15, 2007

Sat Aug 04 2007

Since the first Bonnaroo in 2002, the festival season seems to have grown fatter every year. Now, every major city and available 100+ acre plot of land in the U.S. supports a horde of trampling feet for at least one weekend of music and portable toilets. Last year, indie cred barometer Pitchforkmedia.com threw its beret into the ring with the Pitchfork Music Festival, held at Union Park in the heart of Chicago. If nothing else, it made the apathetic smart-ass crowd begin to take global warming seriously (temperatures approached 100 degrees both days)…and, if all the sweat-wiping wasn’t too distracting, they might have been turned on to some really great new music. Deeming the experiment a success, Pitchfork brought its festival back in 2007, tacking on a special treat for Friday night: three revered artists performing seminal albums from their catalogs, dubbed Don’t Look Back by the All Tomorrow’s Parties organization, which has put on such happenings all over the U.S. and Europe this year. It might sound like nostalgia, but it was a testament to artists whose influence birthed everything that came afterwards, the innovations that infuse the spirit of the festival itself.

The biggest problem I anticipated going in was that everything might be anticlimax after Friday’s triple bill: Slint’s Spiderland was sure to be a monstrous force live, even though the band refuses to admit that it’s back together. GZA performing Liquid Swords was one of the biggest lineup surprises, but the Wu-Tang Clan legacy resonates through all of modern-day hip hop. And what could top Sonic Youth performing Daydream Nation, arguably the most influential album of the past 20 years? With the sun beginning to set, the grounds were already pretty packed when Slint came onstage. I grew a bit anxious as the faint sounds of “Breadcrumb Trail” wafted over the crowd. Pitchfork has an intrinsic hurdle to jump every year: how to broadcast into the open air music best experienced in smoky clubs. Slint didn’t quite overcome this hitch, but the group was not entirely to blame; the sound system was far too quiet, not for the last time of the weekend. Slint started off a bit shaky but grew confident before the middle of the album, and by set’s end the crowd was sucked in by its heavy math-grunge pulse. The band then encored with its first new song in 13 years, “Kings Approach,” a wicked slab of instrumental rock more energetic than almost anything in the band’s catalog. While the atmosphere was all wrong, the set was an impressive start to the fest.

GZA had flown in from a European Wu-Tang tour just for this event, and he came out guns blazing, but it soon became evident that there were severe limitations to performing an album heavy on guest appearances with no guests present. Most of the allocated verses were skipped, resulting in an energetic but abbreviated performance. GZA also bore the burden of performing for a young, mostly white crowd itching for Thurston & co., but he certainly had heads bobbing amongst those not taking the opportunity to grab a beer or a piss. When Sonic Youth took the stage, the whole of the grounds was packed. Unfortunately, it seemed that 19 years had blunted SY’s enthusiasm for Daydream Nation. The constraints of playing an old album all the way through proved decidedly unThurstonlike, and while the material itself provided plenty of dynamic, the potential for really stretching out on tunes like “Silver Rocket” or “The Sprawl” was completely unrealized. Only on “Total Trash” did they really delve, and it was the highlight of the set, just about the only tune that didn’t seem rushed. “‘Cross The Breeze” in particular fell apart just where it could’ve gotten really interesting; like much of the performance, it lacked the imagination that made the album a landmark. The group exhibited very little of its usual fervor (Kim Gordon in particular was leaden and almost deadpan) until its encore, which showcased three songs from 2006’s Rather Ripped. Here, the band finally came alive, Gordon thrashing about, the energy level cranked to 11. This cast an even more drab light on the main set, but these final moments almost saved the show, and certainly left the audience hankering for more. It was a raucous end to a mixed-bag evening, but the overall effect may have been to the benefit of the rest of the fest, not having to live up to the monumental evening that could have been.

Entering the grounds on Saturday, we encountered a longer wait than in ‘06, but not intolerable. Logistically, Pitchfork had most of the kinks worked out on paper, so even the first year went very smoothly overall. This year was very much the same set-up. Union Park is situated on top of a public rail stop, so access was super convenient, and even parking was a breeze for anyone driving in. The beer ticket system leads to fast-moving lines, and four bucks for a delicious Goose Island microbrew beats almost any concert venue (not to mention $1 bottles of Water Plus or Fuze, as well as the option of bringing in your own water). A wide variety of food stands featured plenty of options for vegetarian and carnivore alike, all from local vendors, and the enclosed marketplace was sure to yield great finds for the patient record collector—if you could tear yourself away from the music for long enough. Fortunately, with the wide variety of acts, there was almost certain to be a time slot when you could miss something.

Day two got rolling with The Twilight Sad, Scottish post-rock at its finest, and with intelligible, passionate vocals to boot. Chicago’s own Califone was another early highlight of the day; its set started out sloppy and somewhat lethargic but worked its way into a lackadaisical cohesion, building in intensity with each song and really churning by set’s end. Grizzly Bear fell victim to some of the weekend’s persistent equipment problems, and the band’s performance was very rough and minimal. A few songs suffered (Knife was particularly weak), but overall it was like a glimpse through the atmospheric production of their albums and into the raw makeup of the songs, and the passion definitely shone through. Battles was another very bright spot on the day; they reproduced their studio technicality very well but also allowed for some great improv. It was stark weirdness that occasionally locked into a tight groove before being dismantled and reconstructed over and over again…enthralling. Prog-metal upstart Mastodon was a little hard to take seriously at times; the group is just sonically eclectic enough to appeal to the non-metal crowd, and just vicious enough to give metalheads their only dose of real heaviness for the weekend, but Brent Hinds’s troll-like visage induced snickering from time to time. Still, no band seemed more in command of the teeming masses all weekend; metal just works outdoors.

The only set I saw that fell totally flat on Saturday was Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues. There really was no power at all to Chan Marshall’s vocals, and one can only hope that the Dirty Delta Blues moniker (cobbled from band members’ other bands names) is completely ironic; the music was often subtle to the point of near nonexistence, with only a passing nod to anything resembling actual blues. The songs sometimes held potential but the band wasn’t up to the task, and there was none of Marshall’s trademark idiosyncratic stage presence. Her bouts with stage fright are well publicized, and this may have accounted for her overall timidity and the occasional apology, but that’s still no excuse for the rest of the band’s rudimentary, recycled groove; it was gritless and devoid of emotion. In fact, it was basically the exact opposite of the performance that followed it. The grounds began to clear out as Yoko Ono’s set began with a sort of videography, but again, the sound was a bit too muffled to make out much of what was being said. When she came onstage and started singing, however, there was no denying her; her voice puts virtually any other 74-year-old’s to shame. She shrieked and cackled and moaned with abandon while her band deftly propelled the songs forward; it took some intense focus to stay together while following the lead of an artist who clearly doesn’t have a concrete plan for what and how she’s going to sing. While she’d occasionally lose the rhythm during songs that actually had words (such as the blazing industrial makeover of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)”), her voice was every bit as forceful as it was 30 years ago. Ono introduced Thurston Moore for a heart-stopping guitar/vocal duet on “Mulberry,” only the third time she’d ever performed it; the two musicians urged each other into multiple chaotic climaxes. Moore stuck around for the rest of the set, clearly relishing his chance to collaborate with a true avant-garde original, throttling his guitar with untamed enthusiasm. The audience went all communal for a lengthy “War is over if you want it” chant that may have exhausted Ono; after one encore, a reprised “Kyoko” that hewed much closer to the 1969 original, she declared, “I just can’t go on. I’m too hungry,” and day two of Pitchfork was over.

I can count on one hand the number of sets I witnessed that featured really good sound and no technical mishaps. By Sunday, I had settled into the idea that I just had to live with low volume and a lopsided mix most of the time; once you get that through your head, it’s easier to enjoy the music. Thankfully, the crowds were very respectful and not too chatty, so it wasn’t hard to immerse oneself in the performances. Meanwhile, Pitchfork is a fantastic people-watching grounds. We played “count the knee-socks” all weekend, and there’s no better t-shirt-spotting festival, from homemade smart-assitude (winner: “Hey hipster, nice uniform” b/w “Your mp3 blog sucks”) to obscure anachronism (The Adventures of Tintin. I am so jealous.) and of course, bands galore (are the faded Def Leppard tees still ironic or not?). Nobody held a candle to Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s gold and silver sundress and blue cotton glove with little puppets (or something) hanging from the fingers. He was reminiscent of Marilyn Manson without the delusions of grandeur (or any shred of commerciality) as his band tore through a half hour of cranked-up noise. The Ponys blasted off with the loudest blare heard yet until they basically blew the whole sound system. For two songs, all we could hear were the monitors, and the mix never fully recovered; this certainly didn’t help the band’s run-of-the-mill garage shtick. Menomena fared better, playing a stripped-down set that was frequently hypnotic but occasionally too sparse. The group’s fragile vocals (by all three members) contributed to a feeling that the songs were held together by floss, but the heavier moments were thus made all the more resonant. The set was a definite highlight of the day.

Following Menomena was the blandest stretch of the weekend. Junior Boys came off better than expected live but it was still underwhelming, stuck-in-the-80s synth pop. The Sea And Cake was the closest thing to a jam band all weekend, but the rambling never really went anywhere. It was occasionally interesting music but it was seriously lacking in oomph. Jamie Lidell provided a mid-afternoon high point with his rousing neo-soul set, however; the one-man band created some body-movin beatboxed soundscapes in between his admittedly derivative (Stevie Wonder crossed with Cee-Lo Green) crooning, and his boundless energy onstage was contagious and much needed. Stephen Malkmus’s set was a regression, however; the crowd was rapt, but the indie legend frontman was a little too sloppy even for his standards, and the guest appearance by ex-bandmate Bob Nastanovich on drums was laughable. Yes, we all know that Malkmus made it okay for singers who can’t really sing to front successful bands, and it’s one of his endearing qualities, but this set was just a carrot dangling in front of hungry Pavement fanatics. I guess if they felt sated, they were welcome to it.

Then we all did a complete 180 to watch Of Montreal, a group whose stage performance brings the non sequitur to a whole new visual level; pink wings, a five-headed blob, a dancing Darth Vader, and some lingerie-clad football players were just a few of the onstage oddities. There was nothing subtle about these guys. Musically, they were about halfway there, with moments of brilliance and stretches of pretty standard dancey rock, but the exuberance they played with made up for any underdeveloped sonic ideas. The band eschewed its tradition of covering David Bowie in favor of a near-perfect encore of The Kinks’ “All Day And All Of The Night.” This is an act in its adolescence yet, but showing true phenomenon potential. Let’s just say I now understand what all the fuss is about. While its antics may not make much sense, you owe it to yourself to see this band live. Sometimes you just need to be purely entertained.

The end of Pitchfork was the worst dilemma. Klaxons overlapped the end of The New Pornographers and the beginning of De La Soul, and I was determined to see a bit of each. New Porns’ set started off well; I was struck by how much they sounded like The Who at times and I’d never noticed it before. They played the tunes expertly and with gusto, but aside from the banter, it was a lot like playing the records, although for once, the sound was turned up plenty loud. I could say virtually the same thing about the Klaxons’ set. Their music isn’t very complex, but the energy was kinetic and the crowd was energized in the dying light. Klaxons get dirtier than most drug club bands, and it sets them apart live and on record. A guest appearance by Cadence Weapon made it a real festival set, and then I had to head back over to the big stage to catch the end of De La Soul.

In retrospect, I wish I’d caught more; Clipse was solid on Saturday, but DLS was the hip hop highlight of the weekend. These guys made the crowd truly a part of the show. There was a palpable communion of gratitude throughout the night air, performer and fan alike just happy to be there. It was the second night in a row that closed with the spirit of love and good will, the spread of positivity through music, which may not be the overarching theme of Pitchfork but it is the key purpose of music in general. Stage announcements throughout the weekend ranged from “Um, this is Battles” to the Wavy Gravy-est of love-junkie meandering, and in all the inconsistency there was a hesitant but noticeable camaraderie amongst the crowd that was absent in 2006. Maybe the heat stifled it last year, or maybe the more extreme genre-bending this year turned people on to things that made them look at others in a new light, but at the end of it all it felt like a community. A hodgepodge to be sure, but a good community needs all flavors. We’d witnessed the first forays of metal into the lo-fi crowd, watched gangsta rap infiltrate the sensitive crowd and get it jumping. We’d bristled as studio wizards struggled to translate technology to the open air, and thrilled when they succeeded. And if anybody walked away on Sunday night without plans to buy a record by an artist they’d just discovered, he or she missed the point. Pitchfork is the one festival you can go to and not worry about catching the three-hour set you can count on; it’s about the half hour that can jolt you back into the future and rekindle the quest for the cutting edge. As indie rock prepares to take over the airwaves, maybe we can still say we were there first.

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