PopMatters at Pitchfork Music Festival 2013 (Day Two: 20 July 2013)
A long afternoon of guitar heroics spotlighted a breakout set from Parquet Courts, musical carnage from Swans and rainy carousing with Belle & Sebastian. Plus we all got to dance with Beyonce's sister.
Pitchfork Music FestivalCity: Chicago
Venue: Union Park
After the previous day’s seesaw from a low broil to whipping rain, Mother Nature’s sadistic nature seemed to have been satiated by Saturday afternoon, with temperatures finding a sweet spot in the low 80s. It was a good thing too, because Day Two of Pitchfork was full of high-energy guitar bands (and Solange) that would ask a lot from the committed festival-goer. Fortunately, PopMatters never fails to carbo-load like a high school running back before the big game, and this writer headed through the gates of Union Park ready for ten hours and 12 bands worth of whatever Saturday’s lineup had to offer.
Vancouver punks White Lungs kicked things off with a blast of sweet, chewy three-chord punk that was just loud enough to wake you up but still catchy enough to make you forget the morning’s hangover. Frontwoman Mish Way was an arresting perfomer, and while she spent the time trying to mask her excitement at playing the fest with an endearing attempt at nonchalance, her happiness was contagious. Their 25-minute set was just the right amount of time to slowly ease us into Day Two here at Pitchfork (aka, the Day of the Guitars).
Pissed Jeans don't just look like they shouldn’t be playing at 1:45 in the afternoon -- they look like they shouldn’t even be out in public that early (and haven’t been in some time). Calling to mind Chicago heroes the Jesus Lizard, the Pennsylvania noise rockers are looking to spread filth anywhere they possibly can. Starting with their name, then with their stage antics and continuing right into their grimy bass lines and goring guitar tones, Pissed Jeans revel in debauchery, darkness, drunkenness and a level of despair difficult to achieve at lunchtime. But to their credit, they attacked the sunshine and any good vibes it might have brought with it like a hungry dog would a hot steak.
Lead singer Matt Korvette strutted, screamed and tore multiple tank tops off his body during songs, stopping in-between to urge the crowd to choose Pitchfork’s official vodka, Tito’s, when “drinking irresponsibly.” He would also mock the crowd’s incessant photo-taking, mugging “so are you an Instagram crowd or a Facebook crowd?” The anger flowed from song to outburst to guitar, in the most redeeming way possible. It continued right to the very last song when Korvette finally lost his cool with a guy still snapping iPhone pics of the band from directly front of stage. “You wanna start something, motherfucker?” he asked, before grabbing his own phone and taking an angry picture of a guy taking a picture of him. The guy smiled and waved as Korvette walked away, meaning that he was probably unaware of the point that had just been made about just how far up its own ass the culture of unlimited sharing can get.
There was absolutely nothing to dislike about Phosphorescent’s mid-afternoon set. As so often happens though, that also meant that there was little to recommend it. Songs from their latest album, Muchacho, sounded pleasant but also somewhat lightweight, with tinkling pianos replacing the horns from studio versions. Although sitting on a blanket zoning out to their laid back Americana-lite jamming wasn’t the worst way to spend the afternoon, I had my sights set on bigger and better things.
Though their debut album, Light Up Gold, had proven to be catnip for critics, I was still skeptical of the Brooklyn-via-Austin four-piece. It’s all well and good to make an album that sounds like a bunch of unreleased songs from ‘80s alt-heroes but actually bringing the visceral power of bands like the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen or the Feelies to the stage is a far rarer feat. Well, Parquet Courts brought it and then some. They brought it fast, they brought it hard and they brought so good, it hurt.
Guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown traded lines like Pippen and Jordan running the floor, deftly switching between pounding rhythm work and squalling blasts of brilliant lead work. All the bass and drums had to do was keep nipping at the guitar’s heels, which they did with gusto throughout the set. With almost no time wasted between songs, the set felt like holding on to a galloping, barely-bridled charger, exhilarating and always on the verge of getting out-of-control. You know a band’s operating at the height of its powers when it can pull off three false endings to a song and get louder applause each time. Closing number “Stoned and Starving” felt like an appropriate send-off to the energetic but also well-intoxicated crowd that had elbowed its way into the Blue Stage’s shady environs. One of the best sets of the festival.
After hearing Merchandise’s most recent album Totale Nite, I thought they had undeniable talent in shaping sound but were still struggling to create full songs. Well, as I suspected, a little seasoning and the addition of a live drummer made a world of difference for the former Florida hardcore kids. Although there were still a few creaky parts of the set (you can’t spend three minutes tuning AND have no stage banter), the group showed they had what it takes to deliver honest-to-God songs. Carson Cox was about as Morrisonian as one can get without canceling a concert due to animal cruelty, replete in black shirt and well-coiffed hair. Although the band had gone from skewing drone-y on record to cheesy in person, it was the danceability of the songs that carried the day. Or at least the first half of their day, for I was soon off, eager to ensure a good position for Savages' Chicago debut.
Playing a mid-afternoon main stage set at Pitchfork is a tall order for a band less than a year old and, to be sure, Savages surely still looked a little green behind the ears. But the ladies of the group are also smart enough to know that raw is a quality that pairs well with power, and they were able to make their set a success despite their limitations. Jehnny Beth managed to project her skeletal anger across the big field, through the gates and out over and across Ashland Avenue as she paced the stage glaring and yelling out past the audience. Though Savages are known primarily for their terse, twitchy post-punk sound, the band actually proved to be surprisingly supple. Guitarist Gemma Thompson was equally adept at spewing barbed, static bursts of sound as she was crafting loose, fluid guitar lines, giving the group's live show a range and depth not seen on Silence Yourself. A highlight was the live favorite “Fuckers”, which started slow and tentative but gradually built into a cathartic tour-de-force with Beth screaming “don’t let the fuckers get you down!” It was one of those moments that makes live music so essential – thousands of people intensely sharing a single emotion.
After enduring an hour being seared by both hot sun and musical vitriol at Savages, it was a tall order indeed to try and pick my way over to the Blue Stage for Metz. Perhaps it didn’t matter, as the small side stage was horribly congested for the band’s performance, and rightly so. Although I was able to get no closer than squinting distance before being forced to sit down, what I heard was amazing. Walls of supercharged guitar ping-ponged in between the stage, trees and lines of beer tents beyond as the Toronto punks slathered on wave upon wave of hyperkintetic riffs. Sounding almost like Mudhoney if they’d ever bothered to practice, it was clear that Metz was the wrong band to try and relax to, and yet my legs told me this was the only reasonable course of action. Making a mental note to catch them at a more opportune time, I had just enough time to replenish my water supply and re-apply the mercifully abundant (and free) sunscreen before Swans took the stage.
“I THINK I’M GONNA HAVE HEARING DAMAGE!“ my friend screamed to me about halfway through the set. “THAT’S HOW YOU KNOW YOU’RE AT A SWANS SHOW!” I replied. As we were sitting well back of the stage and still struggling to be heard a foot away from each other, I think the accuracy of my answer was self-evident. Swans is an indie act sui generis, known for crafting symphonies of aural carnage designed to leave eardrums raw and senses overwhelmed. Lead singer Michael Gira is the mastermind behind the band and he spent the set leading the group like a demented conductor motioning to other members as they crafted angry, pulsating torrents of feedback and chaos to batter the happy hordes gathered around the Red Stage. A festival set seemed like an almost comically truncated venue for Gira to showcase the band’s impressive versatility (the band's songs rarely fall short of double digit run times), but he made every second count. Although they played only four songs, the greyed noise rockers surely made an indelible impression on every unwary snot-nosed kid who happened to wander close enough to their stage to be sucked into the abrasive maw.
Live album performances can be a tricky thing to do well. Besides the inevitable slew of so-so songs gumming up the set, they often reek of a desperate sentimentality, an attempt to recapture a time and place that’s been forever lost. On the other hand, some batches of songs are far greater than the sum of their parts when played together in the right order. As a devoted Pixies and Kim Deal fan, I went into the Breeders’ performance of Last Splash fearing the former and desperately hoping for the latter. Fortunately, the band, playing with the “classic” lineup for the first time in years, didn’t let me down. Sure, they sounded a tad rusty at first, but the idea that anyone who could sit through a hearty rendition of “Cannonball” on a beautiful summer afternoon without smiling like an idiot is truly a frightening thought. As the beginning of Low’s set crept near and as rumors of two “special guests” for Solange (could Beyonce still be in town?) started bubbling, people began gradually migrating westward but I held my ground. I was glad I did too, as the sisters Deal were as much fun to watch as listen to with their natural goofiness rubbing up charmingly against their Midwestern reserve. As thrilling as it was to enjoy one of the great summer albums of the '90s live, I determined with a heavy heart to leave soon to see whatever surprises Solange had in store. Of course, I couldn’t leave before hearing Kim sing “Drivin’ On 9”. After all, I’m not a monster.
As it turns out, much like the Lady Gaga rumors before Kendrick Lamar's set at last year’s Pitchfork, the rumors swirling around surprise guests during Solange’s turned out to be little more than idle talk. This wasn’t a problem though because, after a day full of feedback, distortion and electrified aggression, Beyonce’s little sister’s dance-friendly grooves were more than enough to hold attention on their own. Her set was a visual assault befitting her eclectic musical leanings; Solange herself outfitted in what I heard described as “PJs by Versace”, a guitarist dressed like an extra for In Living Color, a keyboardist straight out of Stop Making Sense and a bassist who looked like a session musician for early-70s Gram Parsons. Throughout the set, Knowles kept urging the crowd to get as sensual in it its dancing as possible, at times suggesting “high school prom” and “bump ‘n’ grind” as themes and the crowd did it’s level best to oblige her. Although she stuck to mostly original material, slathered in baby-makin’ levels of bass, she also showed her indie side with a cover of the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move”. After an afternoon of jagged guitars, all the rounded edges and silkiness of Solange’s set couldn't have sounded sweeter.
Although it’s true that they rarely tour America, few people I’d talked to thought that choosing Belle & Sebastian to close Saturday night with a set of twee Scottish folk-pop was a particularly well-thought out move. I have to say that, a few songs into their performance, I more or less had to agree. Don’t get me wrong, “Another Sunny Day” went down like a cool drink on a hot day and I was even impressed by the muscle they were able to put into the lamentatious “Stars Of Track And Field”. But I was still unsold on the idea of trying to blast a bunch of bedroom-recordings to the back row. So when a friend of mine suggested checking out the electro stylings of fellow Scot Rustie over at the side stage, I was quickly convinced.
It felt like I’d just been hanging out with all the nerdy bookworms in high school, before leaving for a kegger with all the jocks who would beat them up. The music was undeniably hooky and everyone who was into it was really into it. Waves of phatty bass, crackling beats and torrents of jacked-up synth gave the sound an almost physical force. The way the music hit you sounded like every second could have been the soundtrack to the most intense moment of a very intense night at the club. But despite the impressive show of musical force, there was something about the set that I just wasn’t enjoying. Eventually I realized what the problem was. Although the sheer power and calculated catchiness was amazing, in the long run (hell, even the medium-run) I found such a level of unrelenting pleasure-delivery to be existentially exhausting. With songs consisting of nothing but high points, it all became a flat, dull roar – albeit one that seemed to have a lot of guys in collared shirts dancing harder than white urban professionals probably should. As I had this revelation, I felt the beginning of light drizzle and decided to give the headliners one last look before calling it a night.
Belle & Sebastian, Pt. II
As I trudged my way back to Belle & Sebastian, I received a text from my friends. They’d decided to avoid the rain and leave early, which made sense to me. Then I got back to the main field and saw that the joke was on them. As nerds are wont to do, they’d turned the night into their own idiosyncratic party, charming in its own naïve awkwardness. People (mostly women) were dancing, with the kind of abandon and lightheartedness usually reserved for a cinematic manic pixie dream girl and delighting in the music, the rain, everything. Behind the sound stage a giant ring of full of whimsical skipping people had formed while in front of the booth the crowd was littered with sopping wet people reveling in this wonderful chance to see their band in the spotlight. No one but Pitchfork would ever consider Belle & Sebastian to headline a major music festival and perhaps fairly so. But at this place, on this night, songs like “Judy And The Dream Of Horses”, “Get Away From Me Here” and “The Boy With The Arab Strap” somehow became stadium anthems and it sure was something to see.