Another year, another three days of sweating to odd time signatures and buzzy guitars in Union Park — that’s right, it’s time for the great indie gathering that is the Pitchfork Music Festival. Because a little needless competition makes everything better, this year PopMatters decided to break down the festival into geographic teams based on each band’s home city. Every set was judged on a “win, lose, draw” system based on a complex system that factored in timing, instrumentation, energy, delivery, personal grooming and how their music made me feel inside. Like any umpire’s ruling, the decisions may be rushed, based on bad information or just capricious but they are final, although feel free to argue and kick dirt if it makes you feel better.
On Friday morning it was announced that the entire state of Illinois was officially experiencing drought conditions. So one might assume that it was good news that a wall of clouds rolled into Chicago Friday afternoon to deposit some much-needed rain on the city. Of course, this being an outdoor music festival, it wasn’t good at all and by the time the gates opened the rain had departed but left the the fields muddy, created visible clouds of sticky moisture and left the grounds with a mildly fetid odor. No matter though, dryness, comfort, a festival goer cares not for these things and so it was with a light heart and damp shirt that I entered the fray for another year.
Willis Earl Beal
Chicago lo-fi sensation and self-taught guitarist Willis Earl Beal took the stage 15 minutes late due to the inclement weather and apparent difficulties getting his unique setup ready to go. And by “unique setup” I mean that, yes, there was a tape player. A reel-to-reel tape player. He used his sound recordings as the sole instrumentation to start the set while displaying some impressive vocal chops in his singing. His lyrics were deeply personal and delivered with incandescent emotion but the slow-moving tunes seemed ill-chosen as party-starters for the damp, early-Friday crowd. About three songs through the set, Beal went to pour himself a glass of whiskey from the bottle he had on stage only to knock it over. Thinking better of crying over spilled booze, he shrugged, smiled and took a deep swig straight from the bottle. Inspired by this, I decided to find some Friday fun and catch Mr. Beal’s act in a more intimate, air-conditioned venue.
Scoring: Beal earns a draw for the scrappy Midwestern squad despite a slow start. Afternoon drinking always helps.
Team Midwest 0-0-1
Olivia Tremor Control
Emerging from the dank and shady side-stage into the main field provided some relief as some of the swampy vibe was blown away by a delicious breeze and the sounds of Olivia Tremor Control wafting over from the Green Stage. Although festival reunion sets can be hit-or-miss, OTC looked like they just stumbled out of 1998 still flush with that original Elephant 6 magic. Band members bounced around stage, swapped instruments and grinned like dopey teenagers. Seemingly everyone had a tambourine, even the guitarists, which they would all pull out in unison. The songs were pure ’60s guitar pop, delivered with gusto and each went down like tonic.
Scoring: Is it just me or do Elephant 6 bands generally look like they’re just having the most fun possible while on-stage? They brought some musical sunshine to a cloudy afternoon and that’s a capital-W “Win” in my book.
Team South 1-0-0
Hip-hop acts at Pitchfork are always an interesting proposition, given the lily-white makeup of most of the audience, combined with the hipster beard-stroking concert pose that makes “get your-hands up”-style crowd work difficult. This year’s lineup, though it was stacked with rap and electronic acts, seemed to have brought out a decent mixture of hip-hop devotees and ready-to-party frat boys who all descended on Harlem MC, A$AP Rocky’s set with dancing aforethought. From the opening song on the crowd was BOUNCING, hands aloft, with many people singing along. Even a steady rain couldn’t dampen enthusiasm of those near the stage and Rocky embraced the situation, telling the crowd “we don’t give a f— about rain, we came to party”. After calling for the crowd to bombard him with some soon-to-be-decriminalized herb, Rocky stepped up to play peacemaker as a rare fight broke out in the audience. Once hostilities had ended, he got back to what everyone came for, delivering song after song about weed, his ego, driving around and, uh, more weed.
Scoring: Despite every obstacle, Rocky and crew get the crowd moving pale asses shakin’. The South jumps to an early lead with plenty of heavy-hitters still to come.
Team South 2-0-0
Many in the crowd at Tim Hecker’s late afternoon set was probably not there to see the Montreal electro-wizard and it showed. I will be the first to admit that I don’t have a great appreciation for his style of minimalist, drone-y music, but it must also be said that a sticky Friday night waiting to hear some bone-crunching bar rock isn’t the best place to try and develop it either.
Scoring: The first outing from the non-American contingent fails to connect but they have a more favorable schedule for the rest of the night.
Team Not America 0-1-0
Vancouver’s Japandroids had the crowd buzzing with anticipation before their Friday afternoon set. Although Brian King and David Browse play buzz saw anthems that practically to drip testosterone, their audience seemed to be split almost 50-50 between genders. This reporter talked with two excited teenage girls who gushed that they bought tickets solely to see Japandroids, a statement seconded by others nearby. It would have been hard to second-guess their judgment as the first notes from King’s guitar sent the crowd surging forward into a sweaty mass of people screaming, jumping and writing along to the music. The sound was a little sludgy and vocals a bit hard to hear but I don’t think anyone in attendance cared as the duo burned through 45 minutes without losing an ounce of energy. King slammed himself across the stage, stopping to throw his arms open in Craig Finn-ish gestures of joy towards the audience. The set reached a crescendo as the crowd joined in the duo with full-throated backing vocals for “The House that Heaven Built” and it was just as fun and cathartic as it sounds.
Scoring: High energy, devastating riffs, screaming fans, this was a main stage energy with side-stage intimacy, the foreigners chalk up their first “W”.
Team Not America 1-1-0
Performing just a few days after their latest, heavily-lauded LP, Swing Lo Magellean, I was surprised to find a relatively moderate crowd for the Dirty Projectors early-evening set but it was one full of hard-core fans. I’ve never been able to fully wrap my mind around the Dirty Projectors schizophrenic blend of art rock, doo-wop and pop and the first few songs seemed to confirm this. Their music seemed to be packed with interesting ideas that could work but were abandoned too quickly to play out. As they moved into new material the songs became more accessible and less cerebral. Some absolutely stunning harmonizing between Amber Kaufman and Haley Dekle grabbed everyone’s attention and the band did their best to keep it for the rest of the set, building to a surprisingly powerful close on the final three songs. Dirty Projectors showed flashes of brilliance that, if captured for a full 50 minute set would see them tearing up festivals for years to come.
Scoring: Despite a strong finish, Dirty Projectors just didn’t have hooks or resonance to carry the day. Those harmonies were pretty though, so we’ll call it a draw.
Team East Coast 0-0-1
I don’t know if it was the rain, Purity Ring’s competition set or a perception of her as a lightweight pop act but the crowd before Feist’s closing set was sparse enough to allow me to sneak into a middle-stage center position just minutes before the first song. I don’t know how well the music carried but from the center of the mix the rest of the field, but from where I stood Feist was on fire. Leslie looked positively Greek in all white with a flowing top over an elegant dress but her color palette belied the dirtiness of the music. She alternately stomped, stormed, strutted and sashayed her way through a set that featured an absolutely ripping band that would force anyone thinking her just another fey indie songstress to reconsider. Adding to the charm was a trio of backup singers in flowing summer dresses playing a sympathetic Greek chorus to her tales of heartbreak, love and life. You could tell that Feist was hungry for her set to go over well, constantly bringing the crowd in to sing backup, harmonies or “good old-fashioned ‘na-na-nas’” and when things went wrong, such as her guitar malfunctioning, she made her displeasure known. Fortunately, the set didn’t suffer from the technical hiccups or the fact that she eschewed playing “1234”.
At a Feist show, one expects to see couples slow dancing and young women pouring their hearts out while mouthing along to the lyrics and Friday’s set did not fail to deliver for those people. What was so impressive though, was that she still managed to expand her sound and pull in fence-sitters with a mixture of guitar skronk and silky vocals. Particularly charming was the on-stage chorus of three women in flowing dresses. Feist looked every bit the tragic heroine in her white dress, pouring her heart out with these women serving as her sympathetic and soulful Greek chorus, feeling her woe. For those worried about a festival without “must-see” headliners, Feist allayed all fears and set those willing to give her a chance out smiling into the Chicago night.
Scoring: Mixing Joan Baez charm and vocal ability with Crazy Horse-style guitar workouts, Feist kicked my ass and made me like it. W-I-N.
Team Not America 2-1-0
Team South 2-0-0
Team Not America 2-1-0
Team Midwest 0-0-1
Team East Coast 0-0-1
Team West Coast 0-0-0