Pitchfork Music Festival
Unlike the previous two, the final day of Pitchfork dawned clear, sunny and scorching. After the all-day soaking this reporter received on Saturday, this was nothing short of a blessing. It must be said that the grounds crew had done a magnificent job keeping the grounds dry and usable despite the pounding they’d taken from mother nature. Turface had been applied liberally to the baseball fields and the muddy morasses from the day before had all disappeared. Having learned from previous years, the fest also made sure to have plenty of free sunscreen and water available to anyone who needed it with security guards passing out free bottles from the barricades as well as puncturing and squeezing them to create makeshift spray guns to cool the writhing, sweaty masses. The unwritten story of this year’s fest was the lack of stories about field conditions, sound issues, heat or any of the myriad issues that could have easily arisen.
This struck me as a classic Pitchfork early-fest high risk, high reward booking and I was not mistaken. Starting Sunday afternoon in the blazing sun, Alex Zhang Hungtai’s Dirty Beaches were unable to effectively project their dense, gloomy popscapes across the sunny Union Park field. Hiding behind his electronics board while his guitarist played motionlessly next to him, Hungtai provided little visual stimulation. The music while occasionally striking on a compellingly scuzzy guitar tone clearly needed that wash of sound effect that only too much sound in too small a club can supply. Try again next time dude, and I do mean that.
Scoring: Hungtai seemed like such a polite young man and so genuinely thrilled to be playing the fest (which is just Canadian to a “t”) that it’s a tough loss, but any ball player will tell you that they all look the same in black and white.
Team Not America 2-3-2
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Portland’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra started off an impressive stretch of Pacific Northwest guitar bands with a blast of pop that sounded like it just got off a VW bus from Haight-Asbury, circa 1968. I kept thinking Jefferson Airplane but you could have picked your flower power touch point as long as was bouncy, catchy and lysergic. The set was fun and certainly an improvement over Dirty Beaches, but it never quite took off and I left for the Blue Stage in hopes of shade and something with a little more fire.
Scoring: It was one of those sets that leaves you smiling but with no lasting memory of what you witnessed, a solid draw.
Team West Coast 2-0-1
I knew that Milk Music was supposed to trade heavily in the grunge aesthetic but I didn’t realize just how invested they were in it until I actually saw them walk onstage. From to the bassist who looked like Otto, the bus driver from The Simpsons, to their lackadaisical approach to tuning, starting songs in unison or proper pitch (playing instrumentals would have been a mercy at times), everything about the group just screamed “look at us, we’re ‘slackers’”! When they bothered to play together, it sounded pretty good, but they lacked the proper devil-may-care Replacements attitude or flashes of brilliance to justify their pose. At one point, singer Alex Coxen stepped to the mic and offered a sheepish “uh, f—- people, kill your parents” through an embarrassed grin. You don’t even buy your own shtick, dude? I guess that makes two of us.
Scoring: In a fest packed with stellar west coast guitar bands, Milk Music provides a disappointing counterpoint.
Team West Coast 2-1-1
You have to sympathize with Iceage, they get a break to play the trend-setting music festival of the summer and what happens? Their gear gets stolen two days before their set. It wasn’t a huge surprise then, when their bass amp blew out midway through their second song. What was a surprise was the pouty air of lead singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt who strode moodily around the stage while techs struggled to get things going again—leaving the stage in silence for five full minutes. I don’t know how to spell D.I.Y. in Danish but clearly it wasn’t translating here. Patience tried, I retreated back to Blue Stage still searching for Sunday’s first standout act.
Scoring: Forget hustle, Iceage responded to adversity by practically threatening to take their ball and go home. The foreign squad started strong but faded faster than the Cubs in a pennant race.
Team Not America 2-4-3
Thee Oh Sees
Now THIS is what a guitar band should be! San Fransisco’s Thee Oh Sees, barreled into their set full speed ahead at exactly 2:50 and never took their foot off the accelerator. John Dwyer immediately grabbed everyone’s attention with his surprisingly girlish vocals and indisputably bad-ass clear bodied guitar but it was a team effort. Both Dwyer and second guitarist managed to make the armpit-high, Geroge Harrison guitar look seem cool while trading of riffs and leads that ran, skipped and spun off every which way without once losing the melody. Brigid Dawson’s keyboard provided both poppy bounce and rhythmic low end and the whole band sounded like a tauter, more tweaked-out version of the Apples in Stereo. It was a joyful set, marred only by the fact that fellow San Franciscan Ty Segall’s own set overlapped it by a good 15 minutes, marking a rare but egregious scheduling boner on the otherwise well thought out lineup. Dwyer pleaded with the crowd to stay, but for many, including myself, Segall’s siren song proved too strong and thus I departed two songs early, hopeful to keep the energy flowing.
Scoring: The first great set of the day from a group of seasoned but criminally underrated pros. This wasn’t just a win, this was a one-hit shutout. Also, more girls, more dancing.
Team West Coast 3-1-1
Fellow Thee Oh Sees refugees in the crowd for Ty Segall didn’t have to worry about losing their buzz on the main stage as Segall brought just as much dark energy as they’d brought sunny vibes to his main stage set. The bands had played a double bill together the night before at the Empty Bottle and my guess is that many hardcore fans had dragged themselves out of bed from to see their hero again this afternoon. He created an immediate mosh pit despite the positively Saharan 3:20 sun with a set full of surging, feedback drenched songs that toed the line between punk and hair metal. Crowd surfing was rampant and Segall even took an opportunity to jump in, direct himself nearly to the sound booth then make a U-turn back to the stage, loving every second of it. The obvious high point was a raucous cover of AC DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)”, during which Rebecca Cole and Mary Timony from Wild Flag could be spotted bouncing along in the wings. The sound was heavy but the smiles were flowing when Segall finally relinquished the stages after 45 glorious minutes.
Scoring: Segall makes me so happy that I’ll even deign to acknowledge soccer by I comparing he and his band to the seemingly unvanquishible Spaniards.
Team West Coast 4-1-1
OK, at this point four piece rock bands were coming at me fast and furious and it was all that I could do to keep up. Brooklyn punks the Men have never bothered to confine themselves to any one specific sub-genre which makes for an oddly interesting festival experience. Starting with some dirtier version of Eagles-style Southern blooze rock, they shifted rapidly into Stiff Little Fingers-esque punk then to high concept art rock and even into some No Depression-style alt country. The genre-hopping might have induced whiplash had it not been pulled off so effectively.
Scoring: Another win although I can’t help but wonder if Pitchfork just herded all the white boys with guitars into a van on Friday night, only to release them en masse Sunday afternoon.
Team East Coast 2-0-1
The day’s heat and weekend’s schedule was starting to take its toll by this point, but no worries, it was time for Real Estate. Given the right mood, I absolutely love their jangly, clean guitar pop and this was the right mood. Fortunately the sound was absolutely pristine (aided by a still sparse crowd on the main field) because this is a band best experienced lying in the shade watching babies dance and couples play frisbee. The low-key vocals and glassy guitar lines evoked the mid ‘80s Feelies and conjured up a lazy, suburban feeling that an afternoon like this was just begging for. I couldn’t have been happier stretched on the lawn, watching the various bros, hipsters, parents in lawn chairs and other festival urchins do their respective things in the glorious sunshine. Perfection.
Scoring: Real Estate played knowing that they didn’t need to beat the headliners, they just had to win the game that was in front of them and they did so with polish and precision. It seems now that the race for first will be a battle of the coasts.
Team East Coast 3-0-1
After an impressive showing from his Black Hippy compadre Schoolboy Q on Saturday, I had high hopes for Kendrick Lamar’s late afternoon set. Despite a similarly impressive amount of audience cannabis consumption, Lamar’s set, after a strong start was never able to transition out into the next gear. He’s an undeniably strong rapper but his reflective lyrics weren’t necessarily served by being outside in a blaring sun with an energetic audience. Like Schoolboy Q, Lamar attempted to bring the crowd in, pausing to let them finish his rhymes but unlike Q, he was unable to get enough people on board to make that work. Of course his set was surely filled with a few rubberneckers as rumor spread that none other than Lady Gaga would perform with him. Although Ms. Gaga did show up in the wings, she did not set foot onstate and for that, at least, this reporter was grateful.
Scoring: Lamar was playing his game despite being on a venue that required a change in strategy. Talent like his can pull off a draw in such situations, but it couldn’t quite get him all the way over the top.
Team West Coast 4-1-2
Chavez took the stage at 5:15 at what should be a prime, late-afternoon set time only to be greeted by what can only be described as sadly sparse crowd. Although I enjoy the fact that Pitchfork and its crowd has gotten dancier over the years (there’s nothing worse that someone standing still to utterly electrifying music) the lack of attendance for this admittedly, un-booty-shaking, yet undeniably great live band was shameful. During the set, however I had one of those only-at-Pitchfork moments after striking up a conversation with a guy in an old Sox hat who confided to me “the last time I took acid was at Disco Demolition Night”. Chavez stacked pile-driving riffs on top of each other while we shouted about pitching and pennants in a perfectly indie rock moment. It was as if the perfect ‘90s indie guitar band had been frozen in amber and reanimated just for us. This delighted the obscurantist snob in me but depressed the musical proselytizer—so it goes.
Scoring: Dear Milk Music, you wanna recreate the ‘90s? Spend less time thinking of silly band names and more time trying to sound like this.
Team East Coast 4-0-1
After a long much-needed break to the Flatstock Poster Sale, where I geeked out over the visual bliss of row after row of amazing concert posters, it was back into the crowd to camp out for the closers while also taking in Beach House from across the field. For those heat-stroking in the crowd, perhaps the gauzy keyboards, echoey drums and whispered lyrics provided blissful rest, but having just recharged, I just found them to be extremely sedative. I enjoyed the songs but after about five minutes I started thinking “wow, this is really quite pleasant. Hey, did I pay the electric bill? I mean I know I just did but was for that month or this month?” and before I knew it, the set was over. It was either a lackluster or inspired choice for the 7 pm slot, depending on your energy level.
Scoring: It’s hard to hold anything against Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand, so I’ll give their sleepy set a draw. The Easterners remain undefeated.
Team East Coast 4-0-2
So this is why the field was so empty today—everyone was just waiting for the headliners. I guess I knew that Vampire Weekend had a number one album, but I still hadn’t really grasped just how mainstream they were until I saw wave after wave of late-arriving fans who had clearly come for the sole purpose of some preppy indie jams sardine themselves into the eastern corner of the field. As if to underscore my naiveté about the mainstream/underground rift around Vampire Weekend, my two indie-loving festival companions decided to abandon me to the populist hordes after just one song for a free Olivia Tremor Control show in the south loop. Well I say “nuts” to people too cool to enjoy Vampire Weekend because they played the kind of set that headliners are paid to play. Ezra Koenig noted that hadn’t played the festival since 2008 and I couldn’t help but compare that first set with Sunday night’s and the original looked laughable. The band’s rhythm section brought impressive punch, emphasizing the Graceland-aping internationalist dint to their music and cutting some of their fussier arrangements. “A-Punk”, “Oxford Comma” and “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)” all sounded like the singalong hits they’d become (and sent this writer rocketing straight back to senior year of college). Meanwhile they brought a lot of their newer material such as “Run” and “Giving Up the Gun” to life on stage. Even the shaggy-haired dude manning the camera on top of the sound booth was full-on bouncing to the latter. It was a fun, energetic and summery set that had people dripping dopamine and walking out the gates smiling.
Scoring: The men sang, the girls danced and the people had their fun (minus the grumbling indieocracy), it was everything you could ask for from a closing set and sent me out with a dopey grin on my face (or was it the heat exhaustion that did that?). East Coast, FTW.
Team East Coast 5-0-2
Team East Coast 5-0-2
Team West Coast 4-1-2
Team South 2-1-0
Team Not America 2-4-3
Team Midwest 0-0-3
The coasts clearly had it at this year’s festival with the South managing to keep its head above water and the bands from either closest or farthest away from Chicago taking it on the chin. Still, at 13-6-10, it must be said that the festival maintained its reputation for providing yet another solide, diverse and slightly unpredictable lineup. Given the festival’s utterly manageable size, humane scheduling and reasonable pricing, Pitchfork continues to be a premier North American festival, even in years without marquee names at the top.