[18 August 2008]
It was bound to happen one of these years. The sun refused to shine on the Pitchfork Music Festival. And, at first, it was wonderful…
Mission of Burma
Summer in Chicago is generally a sticky, steamy affair, but Mission of Burma’s festival-opening notes wafted through the sparse crowd on a pleasant early-evening breeze, courtesy of the afternoon’s periodic rain showers. The Boston-based band played 1982’s Vs., their only full-length album, from front to back as a part of the UK’s All Tomorrow’s Parties / Don’t Look Back Series. The guitars were loud and jangly, and not necessarily my preferred type of music—but I enjoyed the hell out of them live. It seemed shyness and some feedback issues kept between-song banter to a minimum, but diehard fans up front were happy to yell out song titles when the band was unsure which track came next.
By the time Sebadoh took the stage to play 1993’s Bubble and Scrape, the crowd had doubled in size—although most were staking out spots at the Aluminum stage in anticipation of Public Enemy. Excited to see Sebadoh, I remained rooted to my patch of grass. “We grew up listening to Mission of Burma,” Lou Barlow announced as way of introduction. “Why are we playing after them?” As it turned out, it was an apt question. I’ve always enjoyed Sebadoh’s lo-fi, mopey yet kinda rocking songs, but they came across as shambling and a bit muddy—a harbinger of things to come? After slogging through “Telecosmic Alchemy”, Barlow announced, “That’s the second time we’ve ever performed that song live.” Unfortunately, it sounded like it. Songs that sounded plaintive on the album translated into merely competent dirges in the outdoor festival setting.
Public Enemy’s hype machine was in full effect as the Bomb Squad warmed the crowd up for a 20th anniversary performance of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It’s incredible—and just a bit sad—that such a revolutionary album released in 1988 can raise some beefs that are still quite prescient 20 years later—albeit with a few minor alterations. Chuck D’s update “It takes a deficit of trillions to hold your nation back,” was met with roars from the amped-up crowd. Despite Chuck D’s heavier middle section and Flavor Flav’s salt-and pepper-goatee, the group bounded across every inch of the stage with tightly wound-up energy and flair. Their rhymes were passionate and proficient, and their energy outlasted my own.
Music’s fundamental enterprise is often to strike our emotional chords raw. Saturday’s lineup was a study in elemental extremes—fire and ice, earth and sky. If starting my day with Jay Reatard was like plunging into an icy lake of punk rock, Caribou’s dreamy pop was akin to entering a psychedelic sauna. Such jolting contrasts are surely bad for your heart, but maybe that’s the whole appeal.
Jay Reatard’s baby face is offset by his thrasher hair and penchant for spitting on the audience. As Reatard tore through his jagged garage rock, it seemed a bit precious for some people to be clutching umbrellas while rocking out to music as messy as this. In fact, the soft drizzle made me feel like we were all in one giant mist tent, which I’ll take any day over buckets of sweat. Little did I know what Sunday would was yet to serve up.
On my retreat to the Connector stage to check out electro-popper Caribou, I saw corporate sponsors Boost Mobile and Time Out magazine handing out ponchos and umbrellas. Accompanied by dual drummers, Dan Smith bathed the mellow crowd with lush, graceful beats and rhythms.
Robin Pecknold and company—looking and sounding like an alternate-universe version of Beach Boys, one in which the band packed up their surfboards and headed to the Deep South—released their clear choirboy harmonies to a rapt audience. Sticking to their clear and reverberating sound, they did great justice to their recent eponymous release, especially for an outdoor venue. Sweetly, Pecknold showed off some embroidered artwork the band had recently received from a Canadian fan. My listening companions, who compared them to My Morning Jacket with less bite, were not as enchanted.
The Hold Steady
If the Hold Steady weren’t so good at playing loud party rock, they’d always have their unbridled enthusiasm going for them. This is the fourth time I’ve seen them, and they never fail to look like they’re having the time of their lives on stage. Front man Craig Finn possesses a great live-wire animation, but my favorite member of the band is keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who looks like a long-lost Super Mario Brother and sings his chorus parts with near-heartbreaking gusto. The band powered through a mix of songs primarily from Boys and Girls in America and the new Stay Positive, which helped me keep an upbeat attitude even though the guy in front of me decided to spend a bulk of the set trying to set his nipple and stomach hair on fire. A fan tossed Finn a Minnesota Twins visor during the set, which he donned and responded, “Thanks. I’ll wear this to the next Twins rave I go to.” Expect to hear about it on their next album.
Exhausted (and perhaps a little lightheaded from the acrid fumes of burning hair), I trekked across the park to the Balance stage to hear a bit of No Age’s twilight set. In years past, the Balance stage was smaller and crammed behind the Aluminum stage—and the sound and crowd flow suffered for it. Though it was a longer walk from the two larger stages this year, the relocation across the park was a huge improvement. I was unmoved after a few listens to No Age’s new album, Nouns, and remained mystified as to their popularity after hearing a few of their songs live. Sure, they were energetic and I love a singing drummer as much as the next girl, but their noise pop just sounded muddled to me.
Arriving at Union Park early Sunday afternoon was like stepping into an especially ripe barnyard. Between Friday’s rain, Saturday’s mist, and Sunday’s oppressive heat, the ground had turned into sucking swill that many people (more than a few were sporting some serious galoshes) were doing their best to muck through. Though the festival’s organizers had done their best to sop up the worst of it with strategically placed woodchips and plywood boards, a few people decided to give in to their animal instincts and root around in the mud like pigs. Seeing as how the biggest mud pits were located directly adjacent to the bathrooms, I sincerely hope those people aren’t now on antibiotics for whatever they picked up during their roll in the mud.
Apples in Stereo
Opting to hang back on a relatively dry piece of plywood, I took in the first few songs of the Apples in Stereo’s set. In a true testament to their sweet-as-candy pop rock sensibilities, the band was able to infuse their songs with a dose of sunshiny breeziness that brought the temperature down far enough for a few people to dance. Maybe it was the heat, but the loopy keyboards and buzzing guitars on “Please” in particular gave the whole scene a carnival air. Midway through their set, I plunged into the shade and headed to the Balance stage to secure my spot for King Khan & the Shrines. It was good timing as it turned out. When I was just a few steps away, I heard the Apple’s power go out, muting Robert Schneider’s voice. They had it back on quickly, but that seemed to be the beginning of a day filled with irritating tech issues and scheduling snafus.
King Khan & the Shrines
Arriving 30 minutes late, King Khan, accompanied by a manic cheerleader who shimmied in her fringed dress and shook her pom poms with unabashed abandon, burst onto the stage with a surge of crowd-pumping energy. Clad in a long iridescent cape and channeling James Brown, King Khan, backed by the Shrines, whipped the audience into a keyed-up, booty-shaking soul frenzy. I didn’t think King Khan could top himself when he howled, “I want to be a girl!” into the swooning crowd. So, hoping to catch the end of Boris’ set before Les Savy Fav took over, I made my way to the Connector stage.
Les Savy Fav
Unlike the Balance stage, performers on the Connector stage were sprinting through their sets, and Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington was already knee deep in both mud and his trademark stage antics when I arrived on the scene. And what a scene it was. Les Savy Fav sounded good, but the real spectacle was primarily visual: A shirtless Harrington wading into the front rows of the crowd, asking, “Why can’t we wear a Sherlock costume with our shiny new underpants?” Harrington crowd surfing in a garbage can while yelling, “I’m Oscar! Arrgh, this place stinks!” Harrington rubbing mud all over his face and body, before applying it to his band mates and some nearby audience members as part of an ancient Indian ritual. Of course, Harrington explained that Union Park was erected on an Indian burial ground first. Otherwise, all that would have been crazy nonsense, right? For his piece de resistance, Harrington—at this point clad in a flesh-covered bodysuit—held a screaming matching with a kid in the crowd who looked like he was about 11 years old.
At this point, I was so overheated and overawed at Les Savy Fav’s entertaining display, all I could do was stumble back a few feet and find a shady spot to sit down in and absorb M. Ward’s cool, breezy folk rock. While I was sorely disappointed Zooey Deschanel didn’t make a surprise appearance to perform some She & Him songs, M. Ward was a fantastic fit for an outdoor festival. His music was mellow but not meandering and loud enough to keep people’s attention.
Back to the Balance stage for Bon Iver, and despite a band cancellation, things were still a bit out of whack. Justin Vernon and crew took the stage about 10 minutes late to work through tracks from his soulful, wintry album For Emma, Forever Ago. Having witnessed Bon Iver at Schuba’s during Chicago’s particularly harsh last winter, I had some trouble enjoying the haunting melodies at a sweltering outdoor music venue. While the music was technically just as lovely as before, it didn’t translate as well to the new surroundings as easily as some of the other folk acts at the festival. It probably didn’t help that, from across the park, you could hear Spiritualized’s mammoth ocean of sound during Bon Iver’s quieter moments.
After appearing two years prior, Spoon were back to headline. Well, sort of. Due to a delayed plane, Cut Copy ended up stealing that crown from them when they showed up at the last minute to finish out the night. Having never really experienced one of their shows (and let’s be honest, harboring a little crush on Britt Daniel), I was looking forward to taking in Spoon’s set. In the weeks leading up to the festival, I heard a lot of mixed reactions about their headlining slot. According to friends and acquaintances, Spoon’s live shows can span the arc of awful to awesome to awful quite easily. All expectations aside, the band gave adoring fans and doubters alike a tight, fun show, full of brassy horns and lushly layered keys. Upbeat songs like “The Underdog” and “You’ve Got Yr Cherry Bomb” from their latest album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga were especially well suited for their fairly elaborate production which, as far as I can tell, was the only one to include dry ice. And, I’m happy to report, Daniel’s cold-stricken voice sounds just as good in person. He might be the only person that can make a cracking, stuffed-up voice sound endearingly cool.
With a smile on my face as I heard the announcement “Pitchfork Festival 2008 is over!” I headed home to scrub off my feet and fall into bed. I guess I should rest up for next year!