Keeping Score: Electro vs Rock at Pitchfork Music Festival 2011 (Friday)

This year, like previous ones, marked a wonderfully successful Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park. Our own Corey Beasley and Allison Taich braved the heat to dance their hearts out and bring you, our wonderful readers, coverage of all three days of the festival. As we mentioned in our preview of the ‘Fork Fest, this year brought a seemingly equal amount of rock-oriented, guitar-based bands and electronic artists; for fun, we decided to pit the genres against one another in a match up for the best live performances. So, read on and enjoy Pitchfork 2011 — now with air conditioning!


EMA – Red Stage, 3:30 PM

Upstart noise-pop-rocker — all those hyphens are a testament to her complex sound — EMA kicked things off on Friday with an energetic, confident, and loud set on the Red Stage. She and her band blazed through most of the tracks from her acclaimed debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, and every track benefited from the live setting, swelling and inflating in Union Park’s open air. As displayed on the gold chain around her neck, emblazoned with her initials, EMA has swag to burn. She paced up and down the stage, guitar slung low, copping classic guitar hero poses with her hair covering her face like it was 1992 all over again. When she closed the set with her breakthrough single “California”, she dropped the guitar and took to the mic with the bravado of a multi-platinum rapper. This woman’s going places, and you’d be smart to follow her.

Points: 500 for Team Rock ‘n’ Roll; several thousand young male hearts.


tUnE-yArDs – Blue Stage, 4:30 PM

While Battles played on the larger Green Stage, undaunted by time signatures and happy to toy with their audience’s internal metronomes, Merrill Garbus and tUnE-yArDs assembled one of the most enthusiastic crowds of the weekend at the Blue Stage. One wonders if Pitchfork locked in the schedule months ago — the crowd for Garbus and her band clearly overwhelmed the small space allotted to her, though she didn’t seem surprised. She opened with the (inexplicably unrecorded, non-album) awesome “Party Can (Do You Want to Live?)”, and the audience’s pogo-ing sounded a resounding, “Yes, please.” The band culled most of its set from w h o k i l l, and the crowd seemed pleased: tUnE-yArDs’s biggest hit, “Bizness”, worked everyone into a lather (though, for my money, closer “My Country” brought the most heat). Garbus is a preternaturally talented musician, possessed of that incredible voice and a sixth-sense for percussion; it’s always a thrill watching her rig the drum and vocal loops for her patchwork melodies (old-school, with no digital trickery), and she never misses a beat. Look for her to play later in the day — and on the big stage — next year.

Points: Face paint, one gallon; Official Certificate for Reaffirming the Joy of Life.


Thurston Moore – Red Stage, 5:30 PM

Similar to the way Animal Collective devotees populated Panda Bear’s set at least year’s festival, the Sonic Youth faithful piled together for Thurston Moore’s solo set. Also like Panda Bear’s set, Thurston Moore’s time onstage marked naptime for much of the crowd. Moore’s guitar bona fides have been established for about thirty years now, and his solo work is often as compelling as Sonic Youth’s later output. Still, whether because of the heat or because of Moore’s reliance on an acoustic guitar, his set seemed stifled and discursive. Maybe Sonic Youth will play in 2012.

Points: 50 for effort; the eternal gratitude of the local food vendors for sending sleepy people in their direction for an hour.


Guided By Voices – Green Stage, 6:25 PM

Professionals. Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices were at Pitchfork to show everyone else how it’s done. From Pollard’s impossible cool and high-kicks to Mitch Mitchell’s chain smoking to Greg Demos’s leather vest and prison-stripe pants, these old dudes looked the part of the fast-songs-and-fast-living rock lifestyle. Talk about efficiency: GBV tore through 19 songs in their hour-long set, focusing largely on the seminal Bee Thousand (1994) and Alien Lanes (1995) LPs. That word is Pollard’s — in typically wry fashion, he introduced several tracks as hailing from “our seminal lo-fi records”. “Exit Flagger”, “Hot Freaks”, “Kicker of Elves”, “I Am a Scientist”, “Game of Pricks” — the set ran like a surprise Greatest Hits collection, a reminder of how many classic songs GBV recorded over an extremely short amount of time in the mid-’90s. Easily a festival highlight, GBV could have (and, according to quite a few voices in the crowd, should have) headlined with ease.

Points: Three dozen Marlboro Miles for Mitch Mitchell, accrued during performance; Superlative for Most Likely to Stuff Bloggers into Lockers.


James Blake – Blue Stage, 7:30 PM

Another surprise for the small stage, dubstepper-turned-piano-crooner wunderkind James Blake plays music with a lot of negative space and quiet moments. As you might imagine, that could cause problems in a festival atmosphere, and it did. The beauty of songs like “Lindisfarne” and “I Never Learnt to Share” come in their exquisite use of texture and space, much of which got crowded out by bros discussing the benefits of Heineken Light over Heineken Dark (really, not a very difficult choice in the first place). Still, Blake played his heart out, showing his chops on the keyboard and in the vocal chords. When he rolled out louder, more frenetic material — “CMYK” for example — the crowd took notice, dancing more and talking less. Those who paid attention throughout were rewarded with a quietly brilliant set from one of the most promising musicians around.

Points: 500 points for the digital realm; Surprise Upset for Loudest Bass (apologies to Animal Collective); several thousand young female hearts.


Animal Collective – Green Stage, 8:30 PM

People camp out for Animal Collective. They bring their blankets and sit, all day, in the heat, through sets by bands like Guided By Voices, to see Animal Collective play. Some of them bring, naturally, sets of watercolors to paint pictures for Panda Bear and Avey Tare, proclaiming their love above blurry pictures of giraffes and spaceships. (This is true.) In other words, Animal Collective has become a huge band, possessed of a fanbase few would have predicted when listening to the group’s first — noisy, difficult — records. True, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, and (once again, after a break) Deakin have mastered their brand of tribal, percussion-centric, sing-song electronic pop music. Even their gear, their assortment of synths and imposing machines, is intimidating to consider, and the band twists knobs and pushes buttons with hard-earned expertise. So, people camp out. They wait. Unfortunately for them, Animal Collective has a now long-established tradition of eschewing familiar material when playing live in favor of trying out new, unrecorded tracks. Most bands do that, and it’s exciting to hear brand new music at a show. But Animal Collective takes the ethos to new levels, playing three or four established tracks in a set otherwise dedicated to unreleased material.

This is a question of preference. Some fans undoubtedly enjoyed the set, vibing out to the band’s new songs with energy almost equal to the kind displayed by the crowd when “Brothersport” or “Summertime Clothes” came through the PA. And the new material — focused on rhythm, much of it among Animal Collective’s most readily danceable music while scaling back the pop sensibilities of Merriweather Post Pavilion — should please longtime fans of the band. Still, frustrated faces abounded in the crowd. A band should feel free to play whatever it desires in its live performances, but wouldn’t a group want to play to a crowd, especially when headlining a festival bill? Animal Collective has made plenty of blissful music, perfect to many ears for a summer soundtrack, and it’s difficult not to view their set as a missed opportunity.

Points: 500 points for eschewing crowd expectations; -500 points for eschewing crowd expectations.


Neko Case at Pitchfork

Stay tuned for continued coverage!