Friday morning broke in Chicago with the air primed like a pre-heated oven. After half a day of scalding sunshine, the heat wasn’t so much a temperature as a physical force. It permeated your body, irradiating you to your very essence. However, for tens of thousands of music lovers, hipsters, fans of facial hair, and other oddballs, there was little time to worry about the oppressive heat. This was day one of Pitchfork.
Huddled in a tiny corner of greenery on Chicago’s Near West Side known as Union Park, Pitchfork has managed to become an international destination festival despite its miniature size. The festival may only offer 46 artists (other major fests might offer three times that) but, drawing on the prestige (or at least undeniable conversation-starting power) of its hipper-than-thou website, Pitchfork’s reputation for well-chosen lineups and approachable experience allows it to keep up with the megafests.
With three roughly thematic days and one of the strongest lineups in years, the 2013 incarnation of Pitchfork offered ample reason to brave the searing July sun and gaggles of ridiculously attired scenesters. With Sunday focused on rap and R&B and Saturday boasting a plethora of indie guitar bands, Friday was left as something of a grab-bag day with everything from soft folk-pop to angular post-punk to a genre that can only be described as Björk. With eager anticipation for the day’s eclectic lineup and a full bottle of water, PopMatters strode into the musical cauldron that was the ninth annual Pitchfork Music Festival.
Given the already-challenging atmospheric conditions, choosing to start things off with Frankie Rose at the shady Blue Stage instead of Daughn Gibson’s electro-psychedelic miasma in the hot sun was a no-brainer. The Brooklyn singer’s hip-tugging guitar pop was indeed a perfectly pleasant, if uninspired, way to kick off Pitchfork 2013. Rose was sporting a new bottle blonde hair color and seemed to be doing her best to make her songs match the brightness of her follicles. Her set revealed a level of sunniness in her songwriting that I’d previously missed. She seemed a little nervous playing even in front of the relatively modest early-day crowd, joking about “Pitchforkers” before awkwardly asking “why does that sound so dirty?” Fortunately, most people’s expectations for the set were limited and I doubt anyone walked away disappointed.
Hardcore punk is a genre that rarely plays well with others, which makes festival bookings of hardcore bands a risky proposition. Without a guaranteed audience of furiously earnest teenagers, a series of brutally fast and hard songs can easily fall flat. Fortunately, as a multi-racial hardcore band signed to Tyler, The Creator’s record label, Trash Talk had a lot of things to recommend them to this crowd. Also working in their favor is the fact that these Sacramento punks are neither genre purists nor novices to winning over new audiences. Playing songs that shared DNA with both lo-fi late ‘70s punk and trashy metal, Trash Talk’s music immediately grabbed the attention of the impressively-packed Blue Stage crowd. But what rewarded all that attention were the antics of lead singer Lee Spielman. With a feral rhythm section thundering behind him, Spielman was a wild man, screaming lyrics and jumping into the crowd during songs, then joking, cajoling, and otherwise provoking audience reactions in between them. A mosh pit quickly formed with delirious under-18s throwing their bodies into harm’s way, soon to be joined by crowd members who looked like they hadn’t seen the inside of an all-ages matinee in over a decade. Weed smoke mixed with dust kicked up from frantic music fans enjoying one of the most gripping hardcore shows you’ll ever see in blazing afternoon sunshine.
The set reached a dramatic conclusion during “Birth Plague Die” when Spielman crowd surfed his way well into the crowd and decided to sit Indian-style during an interlude. As he perched atop the crowd, it quickly became obvious that he was planning to dramatically relaunch himself into the crowd for the end of the song. It also became obvious that, given the relative sparseness of the audience this far from the stage, it was unlikely that there were quite enough people behind him to accommodate a sudden return to crowd-surfing. It was almost comic watching Spielman build up to his dramatic moment, throw himself backwards, find nothing there and tumble ass-over-teakettle onto the sun-baked ground. The moment wasn’t complete, however until the visibly disoriented (possibly concussed?) singer stumbled his way back onstage, looked angrily out over the audience and growled the song’s coda – “Never again!” Scene.
After cleansing myself of sweat and mosh pit dust from Trash Talk’s set, I decamped for Red Stage to take in Woods and ended up stumbling into the end of Canadian slacker-rocker Mac DeMarco’s set. With no previous introduction to his music, I was without context as I saw him march through a medley of piss-take covers including a “can you believe we’re playing this?” version of BTO’s “Takin’ Care Of Business”, a lame half-attempt at a metal version of “Blackbird”, and what I was later told was a Limp Bizkit song. All I could think before turning away was, “this is what people are talking about when they make fun of ironic hipsters.”
Every music festival in a park needs at least a few jam bands. Actually, let me rephrase that – every music festival in a park needs at least a few bands that can jam. The distinction is important because, while Woods kicked out a set of impressively mind-blowing extended guitar showcases, it managed to avoid the aimless noodling and lackluster songwriting that the words “jam band” bring to mind. The name of this Brooklyn band says it all: listening to their 12-string riffing, harmonica solos, and often rustic lyrics can feel like a flannel shirt mandatory experience. Their noisy yet melodic guitar workouts provided a perfect opportunity to cool down and luxuriate in a well-constructed solo. Given the prospect of a storm of punk deconstruction from Wire in an hour, it proved to be the perfect palate cleanser.
It’s pretty amazing to be able to say that, throughout its over three decades of existence, Wire is a band that’s never stood still. While most bands, especially one whose most famous albums were released during the Carter administration, treat festival sets as a chance to blow through 50 minutes of their greatest hits, Wire was having none of that. The elder statesmen of post-punk blitzed through an impressive set comprised almost entirely of newer songs (save for the classic “Map Ref 41 N. 93 W.”, which was played because “it’s about the Midwest”). Though the band’s musicianship could have put men half their age to shame, the set also had something of a museum-piece air about it. Although a lot of people in the crowd were clearly appreciating the music, few looked like they were really feeling it. I guess there’s nothing wrong with people standing in a hot field on a Friday evening while old British men play guitars at them as they stand motionless, but it does give the whole enterprise an oddly staid vibe that undercuts the vicious musical haze that’s being created.
The pre-headliner sunset set is a rough place for light acoustic balladry—just ask Neko Case and Thurston Moore, both of whom are great artists who’ve put Pitchfork crowds to sleep in previous years as their feathery balladry fell flat in the roiling mess of the main stage. The festival loves putting its stamp of importance on more idiosyncratic artists by giving them surprisingly prime slots, but it’s always a risky proposition. Although Newsom looked as lovely as her songs can sound, a lone harp and tremulous mewling don’t exactly play well in a festival setting. I did enjoy the dewy-eyed whimsy of her opener “Bridges and Balloons”, but I quickly realized that there was no way to effectively translate Newsom’s delicate intimacy into such a large setting. After a few more minutes of straining to hear her light plucking from behind the sound booth, I acceded to the fact that this was a lost cause and decided it was time to sample the new craft beer station (more on that later) before decamping for the Green Stage for a date with Icelandic enchantment.
OK, let’s get this out of the way upfront – yes, Björk did use a Tesla coil to create basslines during her set. I start with the fact because A) it’s objectively awesome and B) it illustrates just the kind of weird, disorienting, what’s-going-on-here headspace that the Nordic pop innovator and artiste wants to put her audience in when she performs. Joined onstage only by a chorus of robed women and a single drummer, Björk relied on a background full of psychedelic projections and her own bizarrely alien appearance (she appeared to be wearing a full silver dress and had her head covered in some sort of spikes) to provide visual disorientation. It was a truly arresting display but sadly one that only about a third of the massive crowd could see in any meaningful way.
Before Björk’s set could begin, clouds started rolling in from the north and west with ominous lighting visible in them. The weather at least provided a fitting backdrop for her witchy vocals to bend and ululate over the crowd. Most of her set was devoted to lolling atmospheric songs off Biophilia, which seemed appropriate at first. As she sang, clouds swirled around Union Park, first passing north and then east of the festival, as if her voice alone was keeping the storm at bay. But there’s only so long that 20,000 people can ignore song after plodding song before getting restless, no matter the meteorological backdrop. Things picked up in the middle of the set with songs like “Army Of Me” bringing in some dancier beats (not to mention bringing down the Tesla Coil Of Funk from the roof of the stage), but this proved to be short-lived. With nearly 25 minutes left to play, Björk announced that her set was being cut short due to imminent extreme weather and, after a second of complaining, quickly left the stage. Though there was some grumbling among the crowd, most made a beeline towards the exits, the desire for dryness outweighing the desire to see the singer’s sure-to-have-been-memorable closing songs.
Less than twenty minutes after the last song, Chicago was assaulted by whipsawing sheets of rain that got anyone caught out in it cleaner than their last three showers. Not sharing that experience with thousands of strangers was the right way to end Day One at Pitchfork.