Posts Tagged ‘pitchfork’

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Pitchfork Festival 2009

August 4, 2009

This year was my first year attending all three days of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was a great success, not just for me as a music fan and concert goer but also for the vast majority of the bands there and for Pitchfork as an organizer. I had a blast all weekend, and I saw a ton of bands play great shows. I typically find myself reluctant to stay in one place for a long time at festivals like this, and the Pitchfork Festival is in a smaller park that is easily navigable, so it wasn’t hard for me to zip around and see many acts for maybe as long as half of their total sets, and that’s just fine. I like that wider exposure to live music, and the more the merrier. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures at the festival this year, and I’m not about to steal anyone else’s for my own use, but I do think a visual accompaniment to descriptions of this festival are important, so I’d like to direct you to Pitchfork’s coverage of the festival, which is just getting started but has some pretty great pictures and interviews up for your enjoyment.

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7687-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-friday-and-saturday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7688-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-sunday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/photos/galleries/726-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-portraits/

There are also some great videos up on pitchfork.com with more to come, and I would recommend you check those out too. Also, youtube and google are always your friends. A simple “[band name]” + “Pitchfork Festival” search on either will yield positive results for both videos, reviews and pictures, so go for it.

I don’t think there is a better way for me to really start talking about the weekend then to just dive in, so I’ll start with the first day and just plow through.

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On Friday, just four bands were slated to play uncontested, elongated sets in the beautiful Union Park. Chicago band Tortoise was the first band to play, as well as the first band to adhere to the “You Write the Night” lineup, which involves bands playing songs that ticket buyers have voted for via online polls. With Tortoise, this didn’t matter so much to me, because I don’t know Tortoise well enough yet to mention songs I really like by them, at least beyond stuff on Millions Now Living Shall Never Die, which I have always liked. The show was slow moving and highly textured. This was very much a hushed and atmospheric show, which while interesting enough to listen to wasn’t particularly interesting to watch. We left early to get good spots for Yo La Tengo, because although we liked Tortoise well enough, we were getting kind of bored. The fact that we left the Tortoise show so early meant something, and I would learn soon enough exactly how it influenced the rest of the weekend.

Yo La Tengo completely embodied the contrasts of types of live shows that I would end up seeing during the weekend and in turn became even more of a foreshadowing of the weekend to come. The band’s meticulous show involves both hushed, quieter pop arrangements (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “Mr. Tough,” “Autumn Sweater”) and loud, winding noise pieces (“Pass the Hatchet I’m Feeling Goodkind,” probably the longest song performed at Pitchfork this year). Some friends I know who have already seen Yo La Tengo in smaller club environments said the band suffered a bit from the festival setup, but I think they were a great deal of fun and are a band that excel in any environment. Once again, their songs contrast with one another, some being soft pop pieces, and others loud noise jams, when Ira Kaplan does things with a guitar I never thought possible.

The show that weekend I was easily the most excited about was The Jesus Lizard. I’d psyched myself up for that show for weeks, really gotten pumped about it, got there early in order to get pretty close, and could barely contain myself by the time the band went on. I would be disrespecting both myself and the band if I called it anything other than the best show I’ve ever seen. David Yow couldn’t have affirmed everyone’s hopes any better than by screaming “AW, SHADDAP!” into the mic before they tore into “Puss” with Yow launching himself into the audience and crowd surfing. Getting back on the stage and having the entire crowd yell along with him “get ‘er outta the truck!” was easily one of the greatest moments of the entire festival.

Yow is the spirit of the band, his vocals menacing and apparently not diminished in the slightest despite the band’s ten year absence. What also struck me is how fearless he was to crowd surf. The band members are almost fifty, and they’re still putting on shows as dangerous and incredible as they did in their heyday. The entire band had a ton of energy, and they got the audience really involved, and not just by means of having people support (and sometimes shove whisky bottles in the face of) Yow. Duane Denison and David Sims have written some of the dirtiest, catchiest riffs in noise rock history, and their live delivery is fast, energetic and compelling. Also, I’ve seen some pretty good drum performances, but I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say Mac McNeilley gets the gold medal for this one. He just beat the living shit out of that kit, and rhythmically propelled everyone both on stage and in the audience. To top it all off, the band played every song I really wanted them to play. This is the show that made me realize what I wanted to make of the rest of the weekend; this weekend I wanted to rock.

How anyone could even begin to try to follow up that show is beyond me, but Built to Spill seemed like a good closer, because not everyone at Pitchfork is into hard rock, and Built to Spill is a little more fun for the whole family. We stayed closer to the back for this one and we didn’t regret it much; not only were we tired but it also seemed like the band’s delivery didn’t differ much from their albums. Granted, Built to Spill are always a treat to listen to, and even listening to them from far away when we were really tired was nice, though not much more exciting than Tortoise. They did end up playing “Else,” possibly my favorite Built to Spill tune, and I was really happy about that.

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On Saturday morning we took the train downtown, got food at Jamba Juice and Potbelly, and got to Union Park in time to catch Plants and Animals, who played a pretty good show. I don’t know them that well and really don’t have much of anything to say about them except that I do remember their drumming was interesting (although not quite as interesting as that of Caribou, who we saw playing on the same stage exactly a year earlier).

I left early to get a good spot for Fucked Up, who played one of the best sets of Saturday. I didn’t have any problem choosing between Fucked Up and The Antlers; the previous day helped me know what I wanted, and I wanted energy. And the energy and coordination which the band exercised during the show was incredible. The entire band seemed excited to be there and played well, but vocalist Damian Abraham took the spotlight. After crushing a half full beer can on his head right before the band started at a sprint with (I believe) “Son the Father,” “Pink Eyes” Abraham quickly de-shirted himself, caught beach balls which he began to bite chunks out of and deflate instantaneously (he wore one of the things as a hat) and jumped down into the press pit to get right next to the audience, where he stayed for most of the show.

These guys really played a loud, fun hardcore punk show, and they dished out a lot of fun antics. Abraham seemed to be a really nice, straightforward guy when he talked to the audience, but when he locked in during a song, he got vicious. I remember him tearing apart a baby doll, and the poor thing’s head whizzed right by my face and landed on the ground. Epic. He also gave the crowd a more than respectable score of 9.9, which as he mentioned was higher than “that Animal Collective album which I thought sounded exactly like Phish.”

After Fucked Up I moved to the Connector Stage to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I have grown to like their debut album a lot. Typical shoegaze, yes, but pretty good shoegaze, and I hoped they could be great in concert. But unfortunately the show was just about the only bad show I saw all weekend. The biggest problem was that everyone just wasn’t loud enough. We could blame this on the festival sound system, which I have heard other complaints about, but The Jesus Lizard had no problem being loud as fuck on the previous day. The guitars, especially, needed to get turned way up. But that wouldn’t really have saved Kip Berman from a glassy-eyed, mediocre vocal performance. It was a lousy show. It happens. I left quite early.

The Balance stage is the smallest stage at the festival, off in the opposite corner of the park as the Aluminum and Connector stages. It is usually the stage that has either the loudest or quietest bands of the festival, and I spent a good half of my time at the festival on Saturday and Sunday at the Balance stage. By the time I got there, Bowerbirds were nearly done with their set and the area was packed, so I couldn’t get close enough to observe anything beyond the fact that they were very quiet and enjoyable enough. But they were followed up by a definite powerhouse, Ponytail, who took full command of the stage. The band’s albums almost beg for a live experience. Instrumentally, Ponytail are only one of the best noise rock bands you’ve ever heard, but when you factor in the vocals, you’ve got a band that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there. Molly Siegel and Dustin Wong make one of the oddest vocal duos in indie rock, less screaming so much as emoting with animal noises, tongue rolls and martial arts war cries.

Siegel, who donned an awesome lime green Michael Jackson t-shirt on this day (it looked like Jackson was jumping up and down as she did) is the main offender, switching back and forth between distinctive demeanors. The first is when she is screaming at the top of her lungs, and the second is when she is smiling widely, which really brings out the fact that she’s extremely pretty. Then there’s the backward head tilt accompanying an expression which suggests she’s either having some kind of fit or is about to sneeze. The energy and volume at this show was very important and rewarding for fans of Ponytail, because as good as they are on record, they only get better when they play live. When Ponytail lock in, they lock the fuck in, and the show was excellent.

I was excited to see Yeasayer at the Connector stage, just as I was excited to see them six months earlier. I’ve seen Yeasayer a grand total of three times now and each one has been unforgettable. The first-listen home run at Lollapalooza last year left my jaw at my feet, and their show at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington D.C. was a show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Their set at Pitchfork was much like those other two shows and yet somewhat different. Yeasayer still have the chops to put on an engaging and energetic show, but here they played a more relaxed set with a slightly altered lineup (two new members on percussion) and had a couple new songs in store. One of those new songs was a dancey piece that they played just as the weekend’s only, brief rain shower began. Luckily it only lasted long enough to cool everyone off and added to the spiritual effect of the rhythmic piece. The band also played some crowd favorites from their first album All Hour Cymbals, such as “Sunrise” (which accompanied the sun breaking out of the clouds), “2080,” and “Wait for the Summer,” as well as “Tightrope,” which was featured on the Red Hot Organization compilation Dark Was the Night earlier this year.

I went over to the side of the Aluminum Stage with some friends to catch DOOM‘s set, which by the way is a great strategy for seeing acts up close at a festival. That is, just get to the close side of the stage where the audience is thin and you can typically see just as well as if you were front and center, especially for a hip hop act like DOOM who is bound to be towards the front of the stage anyway. So we got pretty close, and actually got to see the masked villain backstage from where we were standing, albeit fifteen minutes later than we should have. When he finally showed up on stage in a guille suit, the large DOOM and his even larger and more involved hype-man got the audience moderately pumped for a show that would befuddle me more than anything.

DOOM’s lyrics and flow are top notch (I still found myself laughing outloud at “Don’t talk about my moms, yo” during “All Caps”) and his backing beats are always sick, but it become obvious after just a few minutes onstage that the tubby menace wasn’t going to do a hell of a lot more than keep his mic close to his face and walk around a little. I enjoyed this enough, because DOOM is a great rapper, but I was hoping for more. And as I would later learn, rumors quickly began to circulate that this was yet another imposter / lip-syncing show. My lack of experience with DOOM’s catalogue and live shows prevents me from being able to lend any credibility to this claim, but if it turned out to be true I would be both disappointed and unsurprised. Regardless of this, DOOM’s show was much like a piano performance at a cocktail shindig, both technically sufficient and unexciting, and did little to add to the context of DOOM as either a recording artist or live performer.

After DOOM, we had a bit of an easygoing half hour or so, taking time to use the restroom (long lines!), get some good food, and listen to Beirut from far away. My remorse for not being up close to Beirut was pretty minimal, not by any means suggesting that they played poorly. Quite the contrary, Beirut sound just as good live as they do on record. But at that point in time, I felt that what these guys were doing on stage was all well and good but just not what I wanted. I wanted loud. It was about then that I made a pretty one-sided decision between the day’s headliners, The National (who I skipped at Lollapalooza last year for Love and Rockets) and The Black Lips (who, also at Lollapalooza last year, put one of the weekend’s best shows). We decided to run over to the Balance Stage so that we could try to get a good spot for the Atlanta hooligans.

To our surprise, Matt & Kim hadn’t yet gotten on stage by the time we got there. They were almost a half hour late, dwarfing DOOM’s delay. We got pretty close to the stage and I’m glad we did, because when the NYC duo got on stage, they put on one of the absolute best shows of the weekend. I can’t imagine a two-piece band doing more damage than these guys. They looked like they wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world then on the stage at that time, they were funny, they were nice, they talked to the audience, and they gave their everything for the entire set. Matt screamed and played the keyboard as energetically as anyone I have ever seen, and Kim smiled a wide smile and just beat the living shit out of her kit. Seriously, she played those drums hard. You see some people really pull back their arms to hit the drums, and so often it’s all show, and you can tell just by looking at them. But Kim was pulling back far because she was killing those things.

There was also a shocking sincerity at the show: Matt did a handstand only to remind us afterward that he’s still wearing a back brace that his mother makes fun of him for, and Kim told us that the Beyonce show they attended was incredible and proceeded to get low onstage. There was so much energy in this show and so many great songs: “Yea Yeah,” “Daylight,” “Lightspeed,” “Cutdown,” “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare”… Watching Matt & Kim as the sun was setting was an absolute pleasure and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had. And the main reason for this is because they got it across to me that they were having just as much fun as I was.

Once again, it’s not easy to follow a truly awesome band like that, but The Black Lips don’t give a shit about anyone’s expectations of them. Their show at Pitchfork was much more of a balls-out punk show than when I saw them last at Lollapalooza. That show, as excellent as it was, was more of a traditional festival show, because Lollapalooza is a high brow festival that really keeps their bands in line. But when you put a punk band on a small stage like the Balance Stage, shenanigans become possible, and the Black Lips are known for their antics. Some of those antics included a smashed guitar after the first song, the typical man-on-man making out between guitarists, inviting the crowd onstage against the Pitchfork staff’s wishes, and spraying a fire extinguisher into the press pit. One of my good friends and Black Lips enthusiast claimed that these acts seemed planned out, and they very well may have been, but only by the band themselves; that guy getting screamed at backstage by security was definitely not planned.

And to be fair, the antics at a show like this are as much part of the experience as the music itself, which was loud and rowdy as well. There is definitely something to be said for a show that feels this edgy and dangerous. These guys have found their identity, and unlike Matt & Kim, they might actually benefit from going out there on stage and being grumpy and mean and violent. But they weren’t, and we remember that the Black Lips are as much entertainers as they are punks. “I like my audience a little closer to me than this,” said guitarist Jared Swilley before inviting the crowd on stage. Some of them made it up there, and some of them got leveled by security, but I’ll be damned if all of us didn’t wish we could have at least tried. The band were a very good choice for a headliner and put on a really fun show.

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On the morning of Day 3 of the festival, we arrived downtown pretty damn tired, which isn’t unreasonable for Day 3 of any festival. We decided to have lunch at Wishbone, and on the way there we met up with Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton. Of course we didn’t have much to say to him except “you played a great show!” and he probably didn’t want to waste his time with us, but he was really nice and shook our hands.

After coffee, eggs, pancakes and potatoes, we were off to Union Park again and got there in time to catch Blitzen Trapper. I thought they played pretty well, but I’m going to be honest, I really don’t remember much of anything about them, and I did remember a lot of other first-listen buzz bands that weekend. Nice folk melodies. That doesn’t really help you much, does it? By this time in the weekend, my appetite for loud music was still in full force and I was just kind of bored with folk music.

Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch was my next show at the Connector Stage, and he was definitely the better of the two hip hop shows this weekend. It helped that his DJ was a lot of fun and very skillful, unlike a lot of the other live DJs I have seen, but Monch really took the show. To me, it’s important for a hip hop artist to hype up the show, but doing it too much is just annoying. The other two hip hop shows I’ve seen this year were very polarized and both less than what I was expecting. Mos Def was far too much hype and DOOM was far too much substance, but Monch struck the balance between these elements with ease, spitting rhymes and moving around as well as getting the audience to raise their hands and sing along when they didn’t already know the words. We also see the rare case of other on-stage singers really contributing a lot to the show. I don’t know who the backup singers were, but they were funny and sang great. This was what a hip hop show should be like: fun. For all I knew, DOOM didn’t care about the show he was playing. But Monch seemed really happy to rock Chicago, and we were happy to have him.

Up next were Sub Pop punks The Thermals. To my surprise, I heard more complaints about The Thermals than any other band at Pitchfork this year. What happened to a little respect? I thought these guys were great, and you know what, I love a little pop-punk and was happy to hear their set. Samesy? Alright, I can see that. It started to get a little bit like that for me, but I’m not really familiar with their output. But for another band I’d never heard before, I definitely got a lot of fun out of their show. I’m guessing they took into consideration that not everybody in the audience had heard them before, so they played a lot of awesome covers which tickled my ’90s alt-rock fancy, specifically songs by Sonic Youth (“100%”), Nirvana (holy shit, “Sappy”!), Green Day (“Basket Case”) and The Breeders (“Saints”). So yes, maybe they weren’t the most exciting band on Sunday, but they were good enough for me to want to look into them further.

The Walkmen may have been the classiest band of the entire weekend. And I’m not sure exactly why I think this. Maybe it is because they are by this time indie rock veterans, or maybe it was how well dressed they were, or it could be their seasoned, classic style, or perhaps their calm demeanor that contrasted with their spirited playing. Whatever the reason, this band just got up there and sounded like a million bucks. First and foremost, frontman Hamilton Leithauser has charisma, and he makes his excellent vocals seem cool and composed, but definitely not effortless. While belting out the harder lyrics on songs like “The Rat,” you can really tell that he’s working hard. The band mostly played songs from their latest album, the tropical You & Me, which as far as I’m concerned is all for the better, because I think it’s their best album yet. For a few songs, they even brought out a horn section, and some songs like “In The New Year” got really strong crowd response. What was great about The Walkmen, among other things, was that they could be emotional, loud and fun as well as professional.

I spent the next two hours or so at the Balance stage, and I showed pretty late in garage-rock band Japandroids‘ set, which was a damn shame because what I saw of them I liked an awful lot. Another two piece band (I seem to take a big liking to two-piece rock bands), the couple minutes I saw of them really rocked hard and provided some really memorable tunes. Seeing the guitarist up above the drummer, practically as one unit, really got me excited. So kudos to them for only needing three minutes to get me going; they have my attention and interest.

After this set my back and legs were pretty tired, so I allocated myself in front of a tree. So I would both have something to lean on and my height wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. I watched the Vivian Girls from afar, for the second time actually. The first time I saw them they opened for M. Ward at the Sixth and I Synagogue and I don’t think I gave them nearly as much credit as they deserved. The Vivian Girl’s music and live shows are covertly excellent. I thought their show in D.C. was fun but for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it that night and I made the assumption that the Vivian Girls were another sub-par garage rock band.

But I soon found that their debut album from last year is just incredible, but very humbly so, and their music didn’t really click with me until I sat down and gave it my full attention. So I jumped at the chance to give their live show another chance and I’m glad I did. Granted, the Vivian Girls are a band that doesn’t particularly benefit from the festival setting. They are a fast and loud punk band and the sound translates better in small indoor venues, and their stage presence is pretty simple. They rock hard and they’re fun to watch, but they don’t offer anything particularly exciting. So this show was pretty relaxed and less about what they could provide for me, and more about what I owed them. When I think about it, that’s not what a show should be like, but I try not to think too hard about shows like this. They make it easy for me to sit back and enjoy myself.

After Vivian Girls on the Balance Stage were Danish rockers Mew, which to me seemed like a bit of a weird pick for the festival. Maybe I only say that because because their genres are very far away from one another despite the fact that they work well together. Dream pop isn’t out of P4Ks interests but progressive rock typically is. In any case, Mew were about as polished looking as The Walkmen, and their set was similarly orchestrated. The songs aren’t much different live than on record, but they’re still a treat to see be performed. There was an air of confidence at this show during songs like “Special” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” that definitely strengthened my love for them, when at points in my history with Mew there would be moments where I would say to myself “Am I supposed to be loving this?”

Yes, they have pretty faces, and yes, they are shamelessly as much of a pop band as they are a rock band, but their live sound really affirmed Duke Ellington’s famous ultimatum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Mew sound great live, and though they may not be doing backflips on stage, they look like they are enjoying themselves and their communication with one another is interesting. Their new songs are also fascinating. “Introducing Palace Players” is a damaged, experimental rock tune, and if it is any indication of their new album’s quality or ambition, then we have a lot to look forward to. Also worthy of note is that these guys put on one of the loudest shows of the weekend. How they got that bass tone is beyond me. It rocketed out of the speakers without being rumbling or intrusive on the treble, and it permeated the air around the Connector and Aluminum stages, all the way across Union Park.

And that’s where I was after about half of Mew’s set, so I could listen to Grizzly Bear as well as get a decent spot for the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately, I really can’t say much of anything about Grizzly Bear. I like them well enough, but they were an afterthought to me compared to the band’s that flanked them in my schedule. I’m not big enough of a fan to say that much about their show, especially as viewed from far away, except they had several foot tappers and I liked them just fine.

But everyone knew what the highlight of the festival was going to be. It was apparent from the minute they were announced in the lineup and visualized that morning when The Flaming Lips‘ giant orange stage was already towering on the Aluminum Stage. And by the time the Lips got on stage, their setup was, as expected, like nothing any of us had seen before, unless we had already seen a Flaming Lips show. But with that said, what was on the Aluminum stage was almost light years ahead of their setup at the Earth Day Festival on the National Mall. The Flaming Lips had an entire day to set this up and had just about no limits as to what they could or could not do. There is really no way to communicate the band’s unique elements unless I forthrightly list them:

The giant light screen was dazzling and mostly showcased dancing naked women. One of these women went into birthing position and The Flaming Lip’s descended from her incandescent vagina. They were joined on stage by people dressed up in frog and cat suits, and later, a giant gorilla which lead singer Wayne Coyne rode on the back of. And how can we forget the giant bubble which Coyne crowd surfs in? Confetti. Shitloads of confetti blasting from cannons. And balloons. Lots of balloons.

The visual aspect of a Flaming Lips show is enough to make it a spectacle, but like last time I saw them, the real deciding factor was the music itself. The Flaming Lips were the fifth and final band to adhere to the “Write the Night” and ultimately the one that decided it’s overall outcome. The Flaming Lip’s have notoriously played just about the same set with few switchups for years. Getting them on the Write the Night roster would have ideally forced them to dig out some obscurities from their back catalogue, but as probably everyone expected and as Coyne explained, voting list in hand, everyone knows what the most popular Flaming Lips songs are, and they almost always play them anyway.

But the band seemed to get the general gist of how everyone could benefit from this system, and they did pull out some obscure numbers, specifically “Bad Days” off of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Internal Existential Fear” (yeah, you heard me) from the Fearless Freaks compilation, and even “Mountain Side” from In a Priest-Driven Ambulance. In addition to these rarities, the band also performed two new songs from their forthcoming double album Embryonic, the tribal “Silver Trembling Hands” and the jam “Convinced of the Hex.” Reception of the new songs seems to be very mixed, but my personal opinion is that they are a good sign for a return to the Lips’ earlier styles. These songs made this show pretty unique for the Flaming Lips, but there were still some familiar sights and sounds.

The band also played their more popular songs and live staples: “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??” all made appearances, and many were delivered in the same way that caused me to complain about the last Flaming Lips show I attended. Three and a half of those aforementioned songs were drawn out singalongs. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the Flaming Lips’ live show. They waste too much time. Wayne Coyne, despite the fact that we would all go nuts over him blowing his nose, talks too much on stage, and the singalongs just get annoying and see the rest of the band sitting around not doing anything, waiting for the next song. When they do go full on instrumental, the band sounds incredible, and I can only imagine how awesome live, full electric versions of songs like “Fight Test” and “She Don’t Use Jelly” would sound. I can only imagine, because I’ll probably never see them. The band’s setlist seemed over before it started with eleven songs total, a teaser for all the setup that it no doubt took.

But when all is said and done, there is still no live act even remotely like The Flaming Lips, for better or worse. They look, sound, and feel completely unique. They aren’t perfect, but they would never pretend they are. They want their audience to be involved and have a fun time, and no one gets their audience involved and having fun quite like The Flaming Lips. Despite my complaints, it’s a show you’re going to want to see at least once, if not as many times as possible.

♦♦♦

Overall, Pitchfork Music Festival 2009 was an overwhelming success and really pushed the festival to the upper echelons of Summer music festivals to get excited about. There is more than just a little for everyone, and this year’s festival was particularly awesome. It may not get as many big names as festivals like, say, Lollapalooza, but this works to it’s advantage, and it ends up a more focused, energetic, manageable festival experience. Even though 2009 was only the festival’s forth year, it feels like it has been around much longer. The quality of the festival already rivals or even surpasses other Summer Chicago music festivals, and if Pitchfork can manage to keep it a comparably low-key, controlled explosion of great music, we’re still at the beginning of the event’s golden years.

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My Musical Weekend

July 26, 2008

So last weekend was a big weekend for me. It was a musical weekend, especially. On Saturday I went to the Pitchfork music festival, and then on Sunday I saw The Hush Sound at The House of Blues. I want to take this time to talk about the Pitchfork Music Festival. I purchased a single day ticket for it a couple months back. Looking back on it, I probably should have bought a three day pass, because some pretty cool bands played on every day. I would have really liked to have seen Public Enemy, Dinosaur Jr., Spiritualized, M. Ward, Boris, and Apples in Stereo. But I did what I did, and I went on Saturday. I had a great time, and listened to lots of great music.

But first I would like to say that for the better part of my day, I was crammed in close quarters with many people. Some of them were nice people who were fun to talk to, and were polite, and just wanted to see these bands perform and listen to their good music. However, at any concert, there are going to be jackasses. There are going to be tall people that stand in front of you and refuse to stop bobbing their heads, there is going to be a mosh pit to your left, and there is going to be someone smoking pot in your general vicinity. However, the Pitchfork Festival is a big event. There is bound to be a special breed of crowd there. That night we had a seemingly endless supply of jock assholes who refused any spot except as far to the front of the arena as they could get, and if it meant pushing people, it didn’t matter. Some people like me and countless other people who I had fun talking with, even in close quarters, waited five hours for their spot up front for Animal Collective, only to be fucked out of it by people who just couldn’t accept anything less than the front row. In fact, a guy who I was politely conversing with about Wilco ended up pushing me to the side after The Hold Steady left the stage, forcing me to spoon with him just so he could be in front of me. His neck obscured my view of a good portion of the Animal Collective set. In short, the better part of The Hold Steady Set and the hour before Animal Collective were miserable, because of these people.

These people were terrible. They were the worst part of my day. But although they were jackasses, they couldn’t have ruined my day. I’m not going to give much more mention of them, at least not in great detail, because they really aren’t worth it. I’m not going to remember the hipster jackasses ten years from now, but I will remember the performances of the day. Also, although these people were bad, I did make the choice to be so close up. I sacrificed my bodily comfort and the opportunity to be with my friends to be so close. Was it worth it? I don’t know. I think it might have been. In any case, it was a learning experience.

And please, PLEASE, next time you are at a concert, exercise common courtesy. That is all.

I packed everything up that morning for the trip downtown. I did not bring a backpack like one of my smarter compatriots did. Instead I brought a raincoat. It might have been a good idea, because it did rain and the coat stopped me from being wet, but it also caused me to be very hot and was extra weight for me to hold in my hands for a lot of the latter part of the day. In any case, I packed light, and most of my things were in the coat. Wallet, phone, ticket, glasses case, Moleskine notebook, pen, inhaler, a single sealed water bottle, train schedule. I picked up a couple things along the way, namely the weekend train pass and a pair of sunglasses that I found at a thrift store. But for the most part, I was traveling light. I had breakfast with a friend in town in the early morning. Then, we went to the train station, met up with our other friends, and took the 10:18 train downtown. We arrived in Ogilvie Transportation Center around 11:30, and met up with some friends that were already downtown.

After walking towards Union Park, eating lunch, and doing a little light thrift store shopping, we arrived at our destination. Union Park is a very good place to have a festival. There were three stages, stages A, B, and C. Stage B was off at the opposite side of the park as A and C. I honestly never saw any bands play there because I just didn’t know or care about any of the bands that were there. But stages A and C were the largest, and they were relatively close together. For this reason, the shows were scheduled so that one would start every hour on the hour at one of the two stages, and then that band would play for an hour while another band would set up at the other stage.

The first band we caught right as we got in the door on stage C was Caribou, whose specialty is long jam oriented guitar rock. This set was definitely a highlight of the day. The guitarists delivered some fun, happy, generally memorable shoegazey tunes. The most impressive parts of the set were the drum breaks. Dan Snaith is the mastermind of the live set, and he switches back and forth between guitar, drums, and synthesizers. The drummer was already impressive on his own, but when Snaith switched over to drums as well, the audience became quickly captivated in the massive rhythms. Especially memorable was a point in the set where all four band members were playing drums at the same time, one of them pulling out a lone cymbal, standing up, and bashing it will the full strength of his body. It was a rhythmic tour de force that is probably the greatest drum performance I have heard since Mike Portnoy’s cacophony at the Dream Theater concert. Although Caribou seems to be known widely as an electronic act, this performance was quite organic. The songs were all psychedelic swirls of beautiful noise on bass and guitar, with the occasional hushed vocal before the drum explosions. All in all, this was quite a memorable set and it got the audience very excited.

After Caribou ended, we all trudged over to the Boost Mobile tent in the cool rain. The tent was decorated with birdcages containing fake birds that made fake bird noises, as well as mattresses and beanbag chairs surrounded by headphones with iPod Nano’s. It was essentially a resting tent. Although I didn’t realize it then, when I crashed on a beanbag chair somewhere on the edge of the tent and aired myself with a complimentary fan, it was to be the last time I would sit down for at least seven hours. After resting ourselves, we stood up and tried to find some friends near the Chipotle tent. I realized soon enough that I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to distract myself from the festivities.

I broke off from the group and headed over to stage A, where The Fleet Foxes were playing. The crowd was pretty huge, but I nestled myself right next to the stage where I could not actually see the Fleet Foxes, but could hear them just fine and view their performance on the massive screens surrounding the park. The Fleet Foxes were actually quite good… A new folk band that prides themselves on strength in harmony rather than any particular tricks. Lead guitarist/vocalist Robin Pecknold was the focus of the show. At times, he was the only member of the band playing on a given song, and his ability shone out over the audience visibly as well as audibly. His voice almost reminds me of Jim James, and his guitar playing was quite earnest. Although I really only caught the last half of the set, it was well worth dropping in for. Before that Saturday, I had never even heard any of Caribou’s or Fleet Foxes’ music. These are two bands I am very thankful to have seen live, and I look forward to getting to know them further.

After Fleet Foxes ended their set to a warm applause, people started to leave the area, and I closed in. I ended up pretty damn close to the stage, maybe fifth row, in order to wait my turn for Vampire Weekend. I figured this is where I would stay indefinitely, until I felt like going to another stage, perhaps for !!!. But I was certainly not giving up this spot for Vampire Weekend. In the audience I met two lovely girls also from the suburbs who I shared some interests with. It should be known that for as many assholes as there were in that crowd, there were about as many nice people, but it’s the jackasses that make themselves noticed. A black guy with a fauxhawk and his ugly girlfriend palmed a couple nice girls faces when the Vampire Weekend set started and wreaked havoc. I’m surprised security didn’t pick him up. Anyway, Dizzee Rascal was playing his set while we waited an hour for Vampire Weekend. To be honest I really didn’t pay attention. I like rap, but not really British grime rap. He seemed like a distraction to me.

And what do you know, Snowball was helping set up! Snowball is the guy with the bass in his hands here. He is the brother and professional groupie/sound dude of Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley, whom I have seen twice. It was good to see him there.

When Vampire Weekend finally got on stage, the crowd response was pretty good. A lot of people like the band, even some of the jocks who were waiting for The Hold Steady. Vampire Weekend was by far the most debated set of the day among my group of friends. Some more positive notes from people like me were that they played very well and seemed to be enjoying themselves quite a bit. Despite the fact that they were far from a headliner or an album band, they did end up playing the full extent of their self titled debut, due to the fact that they don’t have a hell of a lot else to play only having one album out at all. They did play a new song, and it sounded good. However, some people argued to the contrary. A couple friends thought they played sloppily, and that the homely charms of the album didn’t quite translate effectively to the live set. Truth be told, what I enjoy most about the album is its understated production, and when playing live, they seem to cast these simplicities away for a more stadium friendly agenda. Which is fine, at least in my opinion. However, it takes some elements away from the album. For some reason, I always visualized the band having a violin and cello player on stage for the strings portion of M79, but the strings part was instead given to the keyboardist, who played half the notes instead of all of the notes on the solo. The song was also slowed down. Probably what makes it my favorite song on the album is its speed and high energy. At any rate, I thought that Vampire Weekend played well, and they were one of my favorite acts of the day. Simple yes, but also fun.

After Vampire Weekend got off the stage, more people started to leave, and I inched in once again. At this point I’m in the third or fourth row. It didn’t occur to me that !!! were actually playing at stage C at this time. I decided I would rather wait at stage A until Animal Collective, even though I’m not really a big fan of The Hold Steady. It just seemed like a good place to stay. I don’t know if this was the right decision, but it is what happened. !!! sounded like fun, although many people around me expressed their distaste at them. But then again of course they would, if they were choosing the Hold Steady over them. One of my good friends was there, and she said that they were really awesome. Even from far away and viewing them on the big screens, it seemed like whatever energy that was lost in translation for Vampire Weekend popped up there. There was clearly a ton of dancing going on both in the audience and on stage, and the band’s presence was undeniable. I couldn’t really hear them so well, but if they sound anything like they look, I’m excited to get to know their music.

After !!! left their stage, two hours of relative boredom commenced. The Hold Steady are a band with an appeal I can understand, but I found myself wondering when their set would end as soon as they started. Yes, their guitarist played quite well, and they write pretty catchy guitar rock, but their vocals and melodies are boring to me. Of course, I wouldn’t have said this to anyone in the audience. I was right on the edge of the mosh pit, and it was filled with huge shirtless men who would have kicked my ass for questioning the unstoppable drunken masters of The Hold Steady. And the band did look wasted, but they didn’t let their BAC bog them down. The band’s riffing and lyrical rambling was what it is known to be, so although the act was not for me as a matter of taste, I can’t deny that they played well and had fun doing it.

After The Hold Steady played their encore and finally left the stage, everyone’s mind was on Animal Collective. This was when the crowd got downright miserable. Pretty much everyone had no room to breath as close up as I was. There were tons of rude people, but to my front and to my right there were a lot of nice people to talk with about the bands that day and their experiences on Friday. Time passed very slowly. Anticipation was high. The members of Animal Collective set up their elaborate stage while Jarvis Cocker played his set on stage C. I remember wondering why anyone would ever choose to see Jarvis Cocker instead of staking out a spot for Animal Collective. He did his shtick. He died on stage. Then he left to scattered clapping, then went back on for an encore. I’m not going to pretend to know his repertoire. I really don’t. I had one Pulp album, and it was This Is Hardcore, and I liked it. But he just didn’t have much live appeal to me. His band played with close to no enthusiasm whatsoever. At least he was quiet.

When he was done everyone cheered, less at him than at the concept that he was done, and that Animal Collective would now go on stage. And they did, immediately.

What I kept on telling everyone I talked to about the show after it ended was that I had never experienced anything like that in my life. And what I realize is that if I had experienced anything like that, that wasn’t another Animal Collective show, they would have failed at their job. From the moment they walked on stage to the moment they walked off, the entire show was a sensory overload. Animal Collective’s live set is pretty representative of Strawberry Jam’s ideas. That is, crushingly loud, thick, and supersaturated with sound and light. I now have a bootleg of the show, but it doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. Part of what made the show so striking was that I could barely even process what I was hearing, and when I could, it was confusing and scary. But also beautiful.

The band didn’t even say anything before launching into a new song, the marching Chocolate Girl. It was with this song that the band laid down their plan for the rest of their set. Avey Tare stood in the middle, a bouncing spider monkey of all trades, at times taking to a soundboard, strumming an untrimmed guitar, drumming, and shrieking into his microphone. Panda Bear was on stage left, mostly keeping to his soundboard but occasionally drumming, his skinny legs swaying back and forth under the body of his sonic vehicle. The Geologist was on stage right, completely reserving himself to behind his soundboard, but possibly having the most energetic stage presence of the bunch. His head bobbed back and forth, a small head light tied to his forehead, making him look like some kind of overgrown, bearded Angler Fish.

Although I didn’t recognize most of the songs (Animal Collective have a habit of playing mostly new songs at their shows), and although there is really no way of knowing who is doing what onstage when almost all or sometimes all of the members are doing their work on soundboards, I still had to ask myself how much of what went on onstage was improvised. Most of it seemed psychedelic and free form, but the coordination that the band exercised was impressive. Especially memorable was Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s rhythmic vocal duet on House, as well as the sidestep of Fireworks Essploding. It was good to hear the wealth of new material, but I also had my fingers crossed for some of the crowd favorites such as Peacebone and Fireworks, and we got them both, as well as the beautiful cascading synthesizers found on #1 presented in Daily Routine.

Animal Collective’s set was easily the night’s most impressive performance, and I found myself the more emotionally affected by them than any of the other artists. I am very glad I saw them, and it seemed like they brought out the best of the audience. They were scary, confusing, and beautiful all at once, but I don’t really think my words can do the set complete justice, so I’ll stop trying to describe it. I don’t have any pictures of Animal Collective, unfortunately, because my phone was running out of juice and I knew I needed to contact my group of friends after the show, and I did not want to jeopardize my chances of not being in contact with them afterwards, so I shut my phone off during the show.

So anyway, that was the Pitchfork festival. Quite an experience. I am very glad I went, and glad that I saw all of the bands that I did. I imagine that Lollapalooza will be a similar experience, but more extreme and long. Well, I’ll worry about that as the week progresses.

Me and some other friends also saw The Hush Sound on Sunday, which was also a nice experience. It felt much more toned down than Pitchfork in the sense that it was much more subdued and small. It was at the House of Blues. Most of the crowd consisted of pudgy, preppy, prepubescent girls and oh so cool, emo, prepubescent boys. Yes, The Hush Sound attract a crowd that is somewhat below them, but that is alright. No one in the crowd really got in my way, because they were all pretty short. A relatively tall girl pushed in front of me once, but I coughed on the back of her neck for a while until I got tired of that, after which I sidestepped into a better position to see the band and talk with one of my lady friends who I spent most of the show with.

The opening bands were so horribly, painfully emo. The first band was called The Morning Light.

Okay.

Ready?

You see? They just kind of fade out. They were pretty ghastly. My friend thought the keyboardist was kind of cute, but then he talked into the microphone and revealed to the audience that his testicles clearly hadn’t left his body yet, and she subsequently found him a little less cute. Their focal point was their extremely physically expressive drummer who reminded some of us of Lanky Kong. Their singer’s voice was very annoying. The other opening band was called The Cab. They were also very emo, but they were a little better than The Morning Light. The band chilled, the rest of the audience bounced, and we chillbounced.

The Hush Sound themselves actually played very well. They played all of their popular songs (Honey!), plus a couple slightly more obscure ones (Wine Red!), to make a very well rounded set. They did not offer much different than their albums do, but they seemed to have a lot of fun up there, and they got the audience involved. The only complaint I had was that the guitarist really needed to turn his volume up. But beyond that, The Hush Sound are a great band and have already made their new album one of the best of 2008 simply because of its superb songwriting, with no other gimmicks. Honestly, that’s how they succeed. From writing great, catchy tunes. You owe it to yourselves to hear these. They played the hits, and did a couple interesting things, particularly a cover of The Beatles’ Back In The U.S.S.R., and another retro 50s type of song where the members of the band switched instruments. But really, the reason that I saw the show was to hear their songs that I love so much. I love the Hush Sound, and I am very glad my girlfriend got me interested in them and made them so personally important to me. That and the fact that I had a great time with my friends at the show is more than good enough for me.

Yes, quite a musical weekend indeed. Very good times. I expect to have lots more of these as I get older. With even more chillbouncing.