Pitchfork Music Festival
21 Jul 2013: Union Park Chicago
Based on the lineup, it’s clear that Pitchfork’s bookers think that “Sunday funday” isn’t just for college students and alcoholics anymore. For a festival with an painfully white complexion and a history of giving short-shrift to genres like hip-hop and R&B, Sunday’s lineup was an impressive showcase for more diverse talent. Of course the day’s theme starts at the top with R. Kelly providing a controversial (more on that later) anchor to the festivities, but from top to bottom the day boasted a solid mixture of bloggy buzz artists, critical darlings and more commercially popular artists from the dance/R&B side of the world. Sure, there were a few guitars sprinkled in there for flavor, but if there were a time to bring one’s dancing shoes to a field full of hipsters, this would be it.
Although he’s made some noise in Chicago, soul-trap innovator Tremaine Johnson, aka Tree, isn’t a big name nationally, which meant his opening slot on Sunday going up against fellow Chicagoan DJ Rashad was a tough draw for the young MC. Having released two mixtapes both titled Sunday School, it was perhaps an appropriate booking and Johnson didn’t miss the opportunity to establish the afternoon’s theme of hip-hop as a form of religion, repeatedly asking the crowd “y’all wanna go to church?” Sadly, Tree looked like a shepherd with a sickly flock and the audience awaiting Foxygen across the field quickly started dwarfing those taking in his set. The chirpy Elvis sample and braggadocio of “The King” fell flat on the small crowd, but the heavy trap beat and insistent chorus on “White Girl” finally got some people moving later on. In an admittedly pretty baller move, one of the Tree’s hype men started throwing physical copies of Sunday School II into the crowd near the end of the set. Hopefully those CDRs will make a bigger splash than Sunday’s set did.
After once again taking advantage of Pitchfork’s ample free sunscreen and easily-accessible concessions (navigating Union Park, even when busy, is a positive delight compared sprawling fields at larger fests), I arrived at Foxygen having missed only a song-and-a-half. Even so, I’d apparently already missed some acrobatics from singer Sam France, who started his set by treating the stage’s lighting trellis the way King Kong treated the Empire State Building. The crowd was buzzing about his antics, but having missed out on the showmanship actually helped me see the show for what it was – a loving re-enactment of the British Invasion. Although there wasn’t a ton of pure originality on display, it was hard to hold it against France and his partner-in-crime Jonathan Rado, in all their paisley glory. But a half-hour of Kinks and Stones re-imaginings proved to be plenty and, fortunately, the scheduling allowed those looking to slip out early and catch a spot in the shade a perfect excuse to skip out early and that’s exactly what I did.
Autre Ne Veut
Well I don’t think anyone would have guessed that the (entirely fictional) award for most bizarre set decoration would go to a mid-afternoon side stage performance, but that’s what makes a music festival so much fun. Unfortunately, the site of two sets of white-gloved men holding ornate picture frames in the back of the stage was the most interesting part of neo-R&B sensation Autre Ne Veut’s set. The group’s spacey cut-and-paste slow jamz proved to be no match for the blazing sun, reminding even those on the stage that some music is strictly nocturnal.
Outside his home town of Atlanta, Michael Render, aka Killer Mike, was a rap journeyman for most of his career until he broke out last year with the El-P produced R.A.P. Music. But you wouldn’t know it from his set today - there was nothing journeyman-like about the rapturous applause he received when taking the stage Sunday afternoon. Render is a large man who’s clearly not used to performing at 2:30 in the afternoon while staring down a brutal Chicago sun, and the elements did cut down on his wind during the performance. But whatever he lost in flow, he made up for in heart. Mike’s performance was a triumph for a man who demanded not just to be heard, but to be understood.
By far the most intimate set of the weekend, Mike stopped several times to speak from the heart about everything from the effects of Reaganomics to his learning community activism from Chicago nun Alice Mary Johnson to finding salvation in hip-hop. Talking to a (mostly) white middle-class audience, his words clearly had an impact, breaking through the programmed “woo!” responses of festival-goers and lending a tender, humanizing poignancy to even his hardest beats and rhymes. The set was an emotional high-point for the festival but Mike still didn’t forget to throw in some silly showmanship, promising everyone who came to El-P’s set a chance to see his second pair of Air Jordans for the afternoon. It was a promising hook but I doubt there were many in the crowd who needed the enticement.
Less than ten minutes after Killer Mike signed off across the field, Mike’s producer and collaborator El-P took the stage with his band. There were a few pleasantries from the MC and then electronic maelstrom that is “Drones Over Bklyn” came crashing down like vengeance from above, which he quickly followed with “The Full Retard”. Though the rapper-producer’s music is thick with tense paranoia on record, it’s also extremely energetic, and the dense productions translated well the hot sweaty festival setting, getting most of the front part of the increasingly large crowd bouncing. Although he easily could have blown through a set of strictly his own material, that wasn’t what the afternoon was about.
After shuffling his band off the stage, then walking off himself, the strains of “Bad To The Bone” rose from the stage and El-P returned to the stage with Killer Mike in tow to perform the rest of their set as Run The Jewels. Mike’s appearance sent the crowd into a state of near-ecstasy, a reaction which he immediately justified by helping turn in one of the highlight sets of the festival. After Mike’s righteous anger and a few songs of his partner’s sonic assault, a string of hard-hitting but ultimately goofy battle rap songs proved to be the perfect chaser. Songs like the record’s title track or “36 Inch Chain” were delivered with a lighthearted deftness, with the rappers trading verses that each sought to somehow top the other’s lyrical prowess with a mutual love that was impossible to mistake. The set ended with the duo trading rhymes while toasting with their very own Goose Island Beer. As El-P put it, “this is a rap fantasy.”
Yo La Tengo
One thing that Pitchfork offers that mega-fests simply cannot is a schedule that allows you to see at least some of pretty much any band you want. This can be a blessing or a curse. At their top-dollar best, no one makes guitar rock like Yo La Tengo, and hearing their droney guitars ring across an open field in the summer can be truly something magical. On Sunday afternoon, however, the New Jersey trio were a few bucks away from top-dollar. Perhaps taking some cues on contrarianness from Wire, the New Jersey trio gave the crowd a set mostly full of snooze-worthy drone. Though they did toss fans a bone halfway through their set with an spirited run-through of their cover of “Little Honda”, it was too little too late.
There’s no one out there more adept at using the internet to shape their own image than Lil B, and since Pitchfork might be the closest one can come to performing for the internet, it should come as little surprise that the Based God’s set was a madhouse. Whether it was a strong showing of members of the Cult of B or just a pool of eager hip-hop heads dominating Sunday’s stages, but the rapper’s stage antics and beats were met with rapturous dancing for all 50 sweaty minutes of his set. Although his flow was sometimes a little stilted, his massive beats proved to be fine equalizers. It was also clear at times that the rapper still hadn’t quite figured out how to square the circle of his activist inclinations and his musical persona (sample quote “you can fuck my bitch… consensually, using safe sex”) his impressive one man (or should I say one very shirtless man) stage show made up for a lot of shortcomings or awkwardness on his part.
After 2010’s New York Times hit-piece and the confused, over-wrought album that followed it, M.I.A. kind of disappeared from the music scene for a while. On Sunday, she reminded us just how much more fun it is when she’s making music. Playing the just before R. Kelly’s R&B circus, Maya was not about to be upstaged. With a stage set featuring a menagerie of multicolored light wheels and an similarly poly-chromatic team of background dancers, the agit-hip-hop diva brought her own unique flavor to the party – and lots of it. Mixing new material with songs like “Boyz”, “Sunshowers” and “Bamboo Banga” that had somehow already became classics (how is “Bucky Done Gone” nearly a decade old?), M.I.A.’s set should have been one of the festival’s best. Sadly, recurring volume issues with her often slowed momentum with the only upside being that it forced her to push her already-entertaining dancing to a whole new level. Although it was tempting to continue lapping up the dizzying mélange of beats and hooks from across the globe, I departed shortly before the iconic intro to “Paper Planes”. There was only one place to be when this year’s final act took the stage – close.
Choosing Kelly as the headliner was a bold move on Pitchfork’s part in multiple ways. To begin with, he’s easily the most popular (in terms of record sales) and “mainstream” act that the festival’s ever hosted. It takes some cojones for a de facto indie kingmaker like Pitchfork to crown a man who already has his own throne, but that’s just what they did. The reason I put scare quotes around mainstream, however, is Kelly also comes with a baggage train a mile long, given his legal troubles, most notably his trial and eventual acquittal for child pornography charges. In fact, Chicago music journalist and Sound Opinions co-host Jim DeRogatis (he who originally broke the R. Kelly story) spent the week leading up to the festival hosting “The Kelly Conversations” with scholars, activists and people in the music business, discussing the festival’s decision.
Although there are a number of thorny and complicated issues about the politics of choosing Kelly to headline which cannot be dismissed, there are few easy answers (despite what some might say). What can’t be denied is the near-unanimous agreement among attendees is that it was an inspired musical decision. There were plenty of accusations of ironic enjoyment or tasteless cultural appropriation for a mostly white audience at an R. Kelly show (and surely some of that had to occur) but from what I saw last night those charges were way off-base.
As the PA announced that the headliner would be taking the stage in “R minus 9 minutes”, the field in front of Kelly’s was a packed as a I’ve ever seen it, with people standing down to the far end. From the little church ladies who’d endured nearly nine hours camping at the front to the college students and twentysomethings jockeying for a spot, there was electricity in the air. From where I was there were a lot of women waiting for Kelly to begin (I’d say about a 2:1 ratio) and when he finally came onstage they lost it. Of course, when someone enters to the strains of a full onstage gospel choir and then launches into one of the greatest party anthems ever written (“Ignition (Remix)”) it’s hard for most people not to get pretty heavily into the experience. But what I saw wasn’t scenesters looking to steal some cool points or people looking to justify misogyny. What I saw were a bunch of people singing along to every word of a headliner that played something they could dance to - no one here getting duped by a sleazy singer. No, onlookers got exactly what they wanted from Robert Kelly.
And it was an impressive show. Kelly worked his way through his remarkably-stacked set with the gusto of an old-fashioned R&B review. He moved from cheesy ‘90s club jams to neo doo-wop to stepper music with both the proficiency and showmanship of an old bandleader. Though I’m sure the crowd was nowhere near as raucous as his usual audiences, the energy was contagious and I saw the Pitchfork festival dance like it’s never danced before. Hell, the joy was so contagious that I even sang along to one of history’s all-time annoyingest earworms, “I Believe I Can Fly”, and I loved every minute of it. As we sang, a flock of balloon doves were released from the stages, fluttering off into the night.