Pitchfork Music Festival
16 Jul 2011: Union Park Chicago, IL
As promised, here’s the next installment of PopMatters’s coverage of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival. For those of you keeping track, this year we’re pitting guitar rock against electronic music to see who comes out on top.
Chrissy Murderbot ft MC Zulu – Blue Stage, 1:00 PM
Dancehall devotee Chrissy Murderboot jumpstarted Saturday’s festivities nicely, his beats audible blocks away from Union Park. Murderbot manned the turntables and laptop while MC Zulu, megaphone in hand, rapped with an easy, baritone cadence over the constantly uptempo rhythms. The two made an unlikely pair, Murderbot doughy in programmer glasses and Zulu flexing in newsboy cap and shades, but that’s sort of the point of Murderbot’s eclectic style: less a fashionable fusion of Africana and club sensibilities, his music focuses on bringing an expansive, come-one-come-all atmosphere to its listeners. Judging by the crowd he amassed during his early set, he’s doing something right.
Points: Earlybird Special Award for Most Untimely Dance Party.
Julianna Barwick – Green Stage, 1:00 PM
Ethereal enchantress Julianna Barwick may make music on a completely polar plane from that of Chrissy Murderbot. Murderbot’s thumping bass bled into her sonic space with ease, trying to crowd out Barwick’s layered harmonies and endlessly manipulated vocals. Barwick herself seemed nonplussed, armed with her mixing board, effects, and—above all—that voice. So, those who weren’t quite ready to get down with Chrissy Murderbot at 1:00 in the afternoon could chill with Barwick’s angelic vocalizations (one almost hesitates to call the finished product “singing” after so much work goes into tearing apart and restitching the raw vocals). Shutting your eyes helped the mood, and Barwick’s beautiful soundscapes almost lifted her audience up and away from the heat.
Points: Ambien Award for Really Good Vibes, Bro.
Woods – Red Stage, 1:45 PM
Woods pulled a big crowd to the Red Stage — people started to jockey for spots when the gates opened. On paper, it makes sense: country-fried aesthetics, acoustic guitars, lilting near-falsetto vocals, all perfect for an outdoor summer show. Woods make bouncing, pleasant music, and the crowd nodded along. However, the group’s laid back tunes felt flat in the summer heat, a little too laid back, a little too baked to get the crowd moving enough to stir the air. Maybe an autumn or spring festival, instead?
Points: 2 oz. bong water, gently used.
Sun Airway – Blue Stage, 1:55 PM
Sun Airway’s chilled-out digital bliss-pop proved perfect for the shady Blue Stage. The band played its way through most of its excellent debut, Nocturne of Exploded Crystal Chandelier, asking the crowd to get moving but not to work up a huge sweat just yet. The material from the band’s recent 7”, “Wild Palms” and “Symphony in White, No. 2”, brought more energy than the older, album material, pointing in a promising direction for Sun Airway’s evolution. Gentle anthems, contentment music.
Points: Gentle Giant Award for Biggest & Friendliest Crescendos; free hugs.
Cold Cave – Green Stage, 2:30 PM
Cold Cave is not an electronic band: they use plenty of live instruments, big guitars and crushing double-bass pedals for real, live drums. Live, frontman Wesley Eisold opts to get rid of all that analog mess, setting up with a drum kit (augmented with digital pads) and two huge synths. It turns out to be a pretty good call. Clad in sun-taunting black and leather from head-to-toe, Eisold and his band took to the stage like goth superheroes. Their energy positively poured into the crowd — much of communicated through all that leather-stoked sweat. Synth-man Dominick Fernow may have been the single most captivating performer all weekend, tossing his stormtrooper haircut back and forth to the beat, shimmying away from his keyboard and maneuvering his combat boots through some serious footwork. The band didn’t play their two most searing cuts from the recent Cherish the Light Years, “Underworld USA” and “The Great Pan is Dead”, but they killed it anyway — killed it, resuscitated it in good goth form, and killed it again.
Points: George Costanza Award for Best Sidekick (Dominick Fernow).
Wild Nothing – Blue Stage, 3:45 PM
Wild Nothing has never really sounded like a one-man bedroom project: Jack Tatum’s ‘80s-infused pop songs fill their sonic space like rain water filling a well, all cool and refreshing. Live, he and his band recreate his tunes with aplomb, beefing them up by the mere presence of all those amplifiers and live instruments. On record, tracks like “Live in Dreams” and “Chinatown” glide by on waves of reverb and chiming keys; when performed, the bass and drums have more presence, emphasizing the grooves in Tatum’s work. Still a nostalgia trip, but more of a nostalgia party.
Points: Robert Smith Award for Making Sadness Fun (Minus Mascara).
Destroyer – Red Stage, 5:15 PM
Dan Bejar has many faces: glam rocker, streetwise corner poet, acoustic crooner. Here, as on his recent tour supporting Destroyer’s latest LP, Kaputt, Bejar played the role of resuscitated late-‘80s Adult Contemporary rock star. Saxophone included. He wears it well: his band meticulously recreated Kaputt’s layered melodies and hooks, from brass to keys and back again. Bejar’s voice was in fine form, and if he looked as uncomfortable onstage as ever, the crowd didn’t mind. Only two non-Kaputt tracks popped up in the setlist — Trouble in Dreams’s “My Favorite Year” and Rubies’s “Painter in Your Pocket” — and Bejar Kaputt-ified those songs to great effect, saxophone blaring like it was 1987 and you were listening to Casey Kasem.
Points: 500 points (adjusted for late-‘80s inflation) to Chicago—the band, not the city.
The Dismemberment Plan – Green Stage, 6:15 PM
All right, guys, festival’s over now! Great job, everyone! See you next year! Wait, some bands still actually want to play after The D Plan? Sure bands — I’m not Professor Band Manager over here or anything, but — are you sure?! You saw how the Plan just played an entire hour of completely essential material and could have kept going on for another two hours, right? They did “A Life of Possibilities” and “What Do You Want Me to Say” and “Gyroscope” and “The City” and “Face of the Earth” and “Following Through” and “Time Bomb” and “Do the Standing Still” and “You Are Invited” and “Ice of Boston” and “Gets Rich” and “Girl O’Clock” and “OK, Joke’s Over” with some tUnE-yArDs and Robyn thrown in for good measure. You saw them do those songs, right? You saw Travis Morrison play the keyboard with his FACE during “Girl O’Clock”? You heard that rhythm section? And you still want to play your songs, and not their songs? Suit yourself!
Points: 1,000,000 points for rock music and for life, in general.
Fleet Foxes – Green Stage, 8:30 PM
Fleet Foxes are a talented band. Did you know they can harmonize and that they do it often? Here’s the thing: they have two proper records, one of which is basically brand new and which — by an informal poll of experts (people in my car on the way to Chicago) — is really quite pretty but not particularly interesting at all. As a headlining act, that leaves them stressed for material. And it showed: the first half of their set was largely dedicated to Helplessness Blues, and while the considerable crowd swayed along, most people in my area seemed content to nod to the music and chat, rather than give Robin Pecknold and co. their full attention. The Jumbotron confirmed this trend, displaying rows of rapt, energized fans at the very front of the stage, followed by masses of the bob-and-talk set. Perhaps that disconnection is a result of the festival atmosphere—any festival atmosphere, even that of the comparably manageable Pitchfork. Or, perhaps it’s a sign that the Foxes just weren’t ready to carry the weight of a headlining set.
When they broke into tunes from their debut LP, Ragged Wood, the band fared better. These songs, as a whole, are more dynamic than Fleet Foxes’s newer material, more rhythm-driven and more disparate in tone and mood. In other words, a darker track like “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” or the soaring, shifting “Blue Ridge Mountains” begs attention and tends to receive that attention. Try as they might, the cloying likes of “Sim Sala Bim” and “Bedouin Dress” can’t compete. Those latter songs get carried away on the wind, even on a night as still and hot as that Saturday in Chicago. Again, this is less a criticism of Helplessness Blues — take that album on its own merit, evaluate it yourself — and more one of Fleet Foxes’s place at the Festival. They are too successful a band to be relegated to a less-than-headlining slot, but that doesn’t mean they can successfully carry the preeminent billing or give it proper heft. See them inside, on their own bill. (Also, consider writing them a note to tell them how much you really enjoy drums.)
Points: The Don’t-Stare-Directly-At-It Sunshine Award for Earnestness; Kudos to Robin Pecknold for Cutting That Hair.
Gang Gang Dance at Pitchfork
The Radio Department at Pitchfork
Zola Jesus at Pitchfork
One more day to go, come back tomorrow to learn the outcome of this climactic challenge!
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