Pitchfork's Midwinter Festival Was Stupid And Amazing

For The Following Reasons

Tue Feb 19 2019

This event was less a music festival than a FOMO algorithm. Music festivals are events where you can buy a single ticket and wander around and see however much of whatever you want. Midwinter was the opposite of that. It was designed to be a series of annoyances balanced out by an undeniable lineup of musical talent, and as such it was a smashing success.

The more you could keep your mind off the ridiculous cash you were blowing just to be there, the more you could convince yourself it was all going to benefit ART or something, the more you were apt to enjoy yourself. You are, after all, supposed to forget about such concerns, when you’re in the throes of great art. Right?

Here are my takeaways from the weekend. I think we made the most of it.

-In a flashback to the Rosemont Phish shows last October, the entry process was painfully time-consuming on Friday night, and a breeze the next two nights. In one sense, there had to be a lot of faith on the part of the Art Institute in letting hordes of hipsters in to do their version of partying in and amongst very expensive paintings and sculputes and whatnot. In another sense, the heavy security presence was probably well-trained in the art of profiling. Regardless, I didn’t see a single drunken shenanigan all weekend, although at one point I was asked by a female security guard if I wouldn’t mind taking a whiff inside the men’s bathroom due to a strong herbal aroma in the area.

-The very audaciousness of performing portions of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops was certainly part of the thrill; the execution by the Chicago Philharmonic was part as well; it was not a purely intellectual thrill, and yet…the second piece (“dlp 6”, I think), in this setting, tried my patience as an experience of music. It’s not the end of the world being forced into contemplation, though, especially when the room is actually quiet.

-Refreshments: junk. Based solely on the slice of flavorless cardboard pizza I bought for five dollars. Or was it ten? I don’t remember. Heineken, I’m not going to say it’s undrinkable swill, but say it with me: fuck that shit. They had a fifteen-dollar syrupy Maker’s Mark sour drink for sale in the cafeteria. All in all they did a great job discouraging anyone from getting drunk.

-The Grand Staircase: not a music venue. I get it, they figured the experimental music echoing endlessly would be a “cool effect” or something. The problem was, this was the only known option for live performances that didn’t cost extra. This is all your base ticket actually covered, other than some pre-recorded installations scattered around the museum. You might be able to find a super uncomfortable spot to stand on the actual staircase directly in front of one of the speakers where you could basically make out Haley Fohr’s vocals with some clarity. Fortunately, Fohr took full advantage of the cavernous space, choosing to peform “Wordless Music” each evening and turn the brightly-lit expanse into a dynamic, bone-chilling score to whatever horror flick or post-corporeal fantasy happens to be playing out in your head. As always, cathartic, transfixing, incomparable.

-We had tickets to see Mount Eerie. I love Phil Elverum and pretty much all of the music he’s made. There was simply no chance we could handle listening to him sing songs about his wife dying of cancer, at this particular time. Sorry, Phil. I am not a journalist.

-Reminder: All of your favorite bands rip off Tortoise, if they’re any good.

-Griffin Court: Had they set the stage up at one end of the court or the other, instead of against the long wall facing directly into the side of a staircase, this might’ve been a sensible area for a concert. As it was, once we jockeyed around for a position where the sound was decent and abandoned any desire to watch the band, Deerhunter melted that place down, treating it like any other club show and doing that emotional smartass noise thing they do so well. In a perfect world, Bradford Cox could’ve been the defining icon for his generation of musicians, but maybe he’d be dead by now if things had worked out that way. Instead he’s rocking out in a museum. I’ll take it.

-Reminder: “Helicopter” is as potent a song as anything Led Zeppelin ever wrote.

-It’s too bad that my first Kamasi Washington live experience had to be in the sterile confines of the Rubloff Auditorium. The restroom stalls had more character than this room. His set was fun to dance to and occasionally rose to some intense heights, but not really due to mind-blowing musicianship or a sense of transcendent group chemistry. It seems like Kamasi should have assembled some of the best players around into a great jazz combo to be remembered for the ages by now; when’s he going to do that? I love his presence, his banter, his energy; I like his albums; it could be that the band had a less-than-stellar night, or it could be that I’m just not that into his music. I’ll be sure to try again down the road, perhaps in a more suitable venue.

-What will Panda Bear play? His new album, Buoys, doesn’t exactly scream GO SEE THIS GUY LIVE, and neither did his daytime solo set I caught at the regular Pitchfork Festival back in 2010, but he came out and absolutely killed it for this Saturday night headlining slot. He could’ve played it straight with just beats, but he was in fine voice, even throwing us a bone with a heavily reimagined take on his old woozy chestnut “Comfy In Nautica”. I couldn’t tell you what other specific songs he played; it was a perfect balance between dark, aggressive stuff and joyous release, and let me tell you, when attendees at a Pitchfork event dance, I can really love. This was probably my favorite set of the weekend; Saturday as a whole was pretty damn dreamy on the music front.

-We should’ve bought tickets to Laurie Anderson in advance, but we didn’t, and it sold out before we arrived. That’s right: Most of the marquee performances were simply not an option if you’d just bought a base ticket and showed up hoping to wing it. Off to the Grand Echo Chamber we went.

-En route, we took in some late-19th-century American sculpture surrounded by a Stars Of The Lid soundscape coming out of some little speakers sitting on the floor of the gallery. It was pretty cool.

-The wonderful Mary Lattimore performed for about a half hour on the Staircase landing; her unique harp stylings were somewhat audible through the clattering din of conversation. We bore it for about as long as we could, then drifted off into the impressionism wing, where we stumbled upon Justin Peters sawing on a xylophone with a bow, performing a Nico Muhly piece called “Étretat Cycles”, inspired by a pair of Monet paintings hanging right there on the wall. This, too, was pretty cool.

-We caught wind of a Laurie Anderson pop-up performance going on in the sculpture garden and hustled over to try and catch this; “Sorry, we are at capacity” said the security guard. That’s right, a sold-out free pop-up show, brought to you exclusively by Pitchfork. We shuffled back to the Staircase.

-This was one of those annoying events where you have to buy tickets in order to buy food or beverages, so we stocked up on some tickets as Madison McFerrin started her set and bought a couple Heinekens. “Sorry, beverages are allowed on the floors above and below, but not on the Staircase itself.” Okay, so we huddled in a corner where we couldn’t see McFerrin but could kinda hear her, draining our beers. “Sorry, the Staircase is now at capacity.” That’s right, even this consolation-prize situation with absolutely nowhere else to go was now inaccessible. Really, exactly how many people are allowed on the staircase and wandering in and out of the surrounding upper galleries?? I wanted to ask but didn’t. This guy was only responding to furtive hand signals from much more grim-looking security staff on the landing halfway up; there would be no reasoning with anyone here. Eventually, enough people descended that we were allowed to ascend, catching McFerrin’s last song or two in the general vicinity of the performance.

-Taking no chances now, we posted up awkwardly right on the stair in front of one of the speakers for Marissa Anderson’s wizardly fingerstyle guitar. This was a very church-like half hour in the best possible sense; Anderson’s minimal banter was every bit as important and uplifting as her music,and she even brought out Fohr for an amazing bit of collaborative improv to end the set. This was the only point during the weekend at which I kind of felt like I was actually at a festival.

-We stuck around for Fohr’s final set of the fest. I could’ve used more whale calls, honestly, but I thought this set was even more powerful than Friday’s. My wife preferred Friday’s. I can hardly wait for whatever Haley does next.

-I reeeeally did not want to miss Zola Jesus but I did. We had the long drive home to make, it was nearly 10, and the weather was getting shitty. Reason and Mother Nature prevailed. Sorry, Zola.

-Verdict: The whole thing was an expensive, unwelcoming, annoying mess. Will they work out the kinks next year? No; I think it all went basically as planned. This is what fans want: to be there, yammering away like idiots, while something goes down that only a handful of people get to see, to post on social media about how great it was, to look at their friends sorrowfully and say ‘oh, you missed that?’

All I can say is I hope all the musicians got paid extremely well for this. I’d like to say there’s no way I’d ever go back, but if they once again assemble a lineup of talent as strong as this one, God damn it, I just don’t know.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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