The year 2010 seems like a pivotal year for The Pitchfork Music Festival. A bid, perhaps, to grab a greater piece of the festival market. By all accounts, it’s working. Tickets sold out in record time, even for Friday, which had traditionally been the most sparsely attended day of the fest. Aside from chartering some heavy-hitting acts, including European anti-diva (whatever that means) Robyn, indies-gone-major Modest Mouse, and former Outkast emcee Big Boi, it also expanded its Friday line-up to almost a full day and added a comedy stage for good measure. Although there was a distinct lack of older talent this year (no bands that were active in the ’80s), this year’s line-up was as eclectic and rewarding as ever. But before I get into all that a few non-music related highlights:
- In order to counter the brutal heat-wave that moved through Chicago over the weekend, Pitchfork made the decision to slash water prices in half on Friday—from two dollars down to one. Not only that, but security personnel handed out free water bottles for people gathered around the stage to drink from, pass around, and splatter on those gathered around. Major respect guys. Way to step up.
- I totally saw Mia Park and Ratso from Chica-go-go getting their picture taken at the Hooked Productions booth. I really wanted to go up and shake hands with Ratso, but I chickened out at the last minute.
- The Cajun Brat from the Wishbone stand was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. I don’t know what a roulade sauce is, but I seriously want to put it on everything that I eat from now on.
- Pitchfork still hates ice cream. Vegan ice cream? Really guys? Go milk a cow, you dirty hippies. I guess that wasn’t really a highlight, though, so maybe that doesn’t belong here.
- But as long as I’m bitching: Thanks, whoever put the schedule together this year, for presenting me with the Sophia’s choice of deciding whether to see Big Boi or Sleigh Bells. Because it’s not like the audience for those two artists would overlap at all …
So, without further ado, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of P4k 2010. Chances are, any one of these fine artists might be rolling through your town before the summer draws to a close, so use this as a guide to which acts not to miss, which ones not to waste your time on, and which ones you need to just make your own damn mind up about.
Friday offered a little something for everyone, like The Tallest Man on Earth, for those of you who like standing in 95 degree heat to watch some guy pluck a few notes out of a guitar (I don’t), or Swedish pop sensation Robyn, for those of you who can’t afford to see Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza this year. ZING (Note: I myself cannot afford to see Lady Gaga at Lollapalooza this year)! For me, though, the band to see on Friday was Liars. Singer Angus Andrew was decked out in his Sunday best — a sleeveless Men at Work T-shirt and work-out shorts. He stalked around the stage like a Birthday Party-era Nick Cave and submitted his yips and howls to vocal modulation. When the mic wasn’t stuffed in his mouth he was waving it around like a lightsaber. They spent their 45-minute set drifting from ethereal atmospherics into murky post-punk gloom, and found a little space to sneak in an echo-saturated cover of Bauhaus’s “In the Flat Field.”
“They’re the only band here that are actually trying to be rock stars,” my friend Sean told me as we dragged our quivering, sweat-soaked bodies into the shade after a flawless performance from New Jersey Civil War buffs Titus Andronicus. And he’s right; while most of the acts crowding the P4k stages bent over backward to give off indie-cool vibes, T.A. throw themselves passionately and unironically into the very serious business of rocking the fuck out. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every track off The Monitor (an album that I’ve only grown to love more since I reviewed it 3 months ago) is made to be played live. They were joined onstage by members of Hallelujah The Hills, who helped fill out The Monitor’s instrumental pallet with horn, cello, and keyboard. Frontman Patrick Stickles was magnetic as ever, leaping into the crowd during the band’s signature song and leading the audience in sing-alongs to “No Future Part III” and “Four Score and Seven.” I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a show. Oh, wait, yes I can. It was the last Titus Andronicus concert I went to.
• A More Perfect Union
• No Future part III
• Titus Andronicus
• Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ
• The Battle of Hampton Roads
• Titus Andronicus Forever…And Ever
• Four Score and Seven
They’re not very chatty, those boys from Montreal: “We haven’t got much to say, so we’re going to just try to play as many songs as we can,” said co-front man Spencer Krug shortly after Wolf Parade took the stage. They had an album’s worth of new material to break in, and they leaned on that for the bulk of their set. It worked. Krug provided high-energy peaks with “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain” and “What Did My Lover Say?” and was balanced by the stirringly melodramatic valleys of “Ghost Pressure” and “Palm Road,” courtesy of Dan Boeckner. Even the much-maligned “Cave-O-Sapien,” which I found kind of annoying on the album, came off really well in a live setting. The biggest reactions, though, came from their Apologies to Queen Mary stuff (a young lady dancing in front of me actually turned around and gave me a high-five during “I’ll Believe in Anything”). For me, the biggest thrill was their closing number, “Kissing the Beehive.” The looming, portentous slow-burner redefines the word “epic,” and there’s no better way to experience it than to hear it crashing around you amid a crowd of thousands. Screaming along with Krug while he proclaimed “Fire in hole” was a personal festival highlight.
• Cloud Shadow on the Mountain
• Soldier’s Grin
• Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts
• Palm Road
• What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)
• Ghost Pressure
• This Heart’s on Fire
• I’ll Believe in Anything
• Little Golden Age
• Kissing the Beehive
Much has been made of James Murphy the producer, James Murphy the party-maker, and James Murphy the ex generation ironist, but no one ever told me a thing about James Murphy the frontman. He was a veritable force of nature up there, banging on his drum kit, leaning up against the mic stand and barking Wilde-ian one-liners while pounding synth rolled out from behind him like a day-glo tsunami. LCD Soundsystem were unequivocally the best of the main-stage headliners this year, and the kicker is I didn’t even really like them going into the show. Everything about this performance was as focused and precise as the laser light refracting off the twirling disco ball they dangled from the stage rafters. Murphy slipped effortlessly from sing-talking on “Pow Pow” to a lounge-singer croon on “All My Friends” to raw-boned shrieks on “Us v Them,” keeping the audience eating out the palm of his hand the whole time. Despite turning out one of the highest profile releases of 2010, Murphy only drew three songs off This Is Happening, leaning instead on tried-and-true favorites from The Sound of Silver and the band’s eponymous debut. The care that went into the song selection impressed me deeply, and comparatively mellow tracks like “Someone Great” served as much-needed respites that preserved the set’s momentum. As Murphy lit into “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” at the end of the night, the house lights came up, revealing an enormous red curtain that had been there the whole time. The overall effect was like sitting in a bar at 4 a.m., when the first rays of light make their way through the smoke-encrusted windows, an exhausted house band torturing the last few notes out of their instruments. Closing time, folks. Time to go home.
• Us v Them
• Drunk Girls
• Pow Pow
• Daft Punk Is Playing at My House
• All My Friends
• I Can Change
• Someone Great
• Losing My Edge
• New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down
The Balance Stage on Sunday played host to some fine performances from Cave and Best Coast, but things really got going for me with Georgia one-man band Washed Out. I’m not generally a fan of chillwave (or whatever it is you kids are listening to these days), but something about Earnest Greene’s dreamy-dancey haze-pop really sucks me in. His set started off a little wobbly; the more ethereal atmospheric portions of his early songs were having trouble competing with the noise drifting over from the main stage acts. The bleed, however, ceased to be a problem as he dove into increasingly layered synth collages. I probably would have had an entirely different perspective if I’d had to watch him work his digital magic in the blistering heat of the Aluminum or Connector stages, but Greene was perfect for the shady, intimate cove on the other side of the park.
So I totally considered just typing “HOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHITHOLYSHIT” over and over again until I’d created a paragraph-sized block of text and letting that stand as my Lightning Bolt review. This was my first time seeing the Rhode Island noise duo in concert, but I can guarantee it will not be the last. Lots of anticipation waiting for these guys; their set-up was unlike anything I’d ever seen. You had Brian Chippendale’s drum kit, and behind it a pile of amps—one painted neon pink and yellow, another blazoned with cartoon eyeballs, and still more spangled with a few lonely stuffed animals, like they’d been decorated by a demented 8-year-old. As Chippendale slid in behind the kit, he slipped on a tattered, homemade mask, equipped with a telephone receiver that fed into the speaker system. Chippendale’s drum kit was mic’d six ways to Sunday into the set of amps behind him, which were, in turn, mic’d again. These guys were LOUD, maybe the loudest thing at the festival.
When they started playing, Chippendale turned into a cyclone of limbs, pounding out nimble, lead-heavy rhythms that changed direction with hairpin accuracy. His compatriot, bass player Brian Gibson, was a model of Zen serenity by contrast, patiently teasing out recursive melodies to serve as a binding agent for the song, or shrieks of guitar noise to break them apart. I got swept up in the initial push toward the stage and found myself cackling like a madman as I was buffeted from side-to-side amid several-hundred sweating bodies. The experience reminded me of being a teenager at my first Ozzfest. In fact, I was shocked by how many young faces I saw in the heart of the pit —14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds, and not all of them dudes, either. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when, relaxing under a tree afterward, I heard a group of douchebags bragging to one another about how many women they’d groped while they were in the pit (“I only had one in front of me,” one fine, upstanding young man mourned, “And they weren’t all that big.”). Wow. Keep it classy, Chicago.
Big Boi is the only hip-hop artist I know of to acknowledge the strangeness of his presence at Pitchfork. When his co-emcee called him out for promising that, if they played the festival, some women would take off their shirts, Sir Lucious replied, “Well, I was watching some old Woodstock footage, and there was a lot of titties there.” If the Atlanta rapper felt out of place at all, it didn’t show. He drew us in with a medley of Outkast favorites, roping classic crowd pleasers like “So Fresh, So Clean,” “Rosa Parks,” and “B.O.B” into a careening party mash-up. But when he asked the audience, “Can I play some of my new shit?” no one put up any fight at all. Even though the album has been out for less than a month, a sizeable portion of the concertgoers already knew the words enough to sing along. Big Boi’s performance underscored his versatility as a rapper, and his flow never missed a beat through all the shifting patterns and rhythms. He was joined onstage, for a brief time, by Chi-Town’s Finest Breakers, a young sibling quartet who can dance like nobody’s business. When busting a move, these little scamps were adorable, but became decidedly less-so when pimping their Facebook page or exhorting the ladies in the audience to take their tops off.
This being the inaugural year for Pitchfork’s comedy stage, I figured it would behoove me to at least catch one comedian’s set. Wow … I have never in my life seen a performer crash and burn so completely as former The State and Michael and Michael Have Issues star Michael Showalter did Friday night. He got off to a rough start, complaining about the noise bleed from the main stages, and when he tried to launch into his bit, he couldn’t get anything off the ground. An anecdote that flatlined here, a belabored penis joke there, and suddenly he was throwing in the towel. “You guys want me to be good so badly,” he said. And it was true. The few-hundred or so dedicated fans that waited by the Balance stage were all rooting for him to get his shit together, but every time he seemed to be gaining momentum, he just gave up. His set lasted a little more than 20 minutes, and, unfortunately for Showalter, yielded one of the most unforgettable, yet forgettable, moments at this year’s festival.
Standing out in the beating sun and 95-degree heat gives you a whole new barometer for judging how worthwhile a performance is. I find Real Estate’s laid-back summer pop to be painfully dull on record, and watching them while standing in a healthy double-serving of balls-soup did nothing to increase my appreciation. Their performance lacked both energy and charisma, both of which are necessary to pull in an audience when you’re playing an opening slot at an all-day festival.
Baltimore three-piece Beach House brought their dark, blurry brand of shadowy dream-pop to Pitchfork’s Connector—oh, for God’s sake WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS? WHAT COULD YOU POSSIBLY ENJOY ABOUT THIS BAND? Everything about their Phil Collins, Lite-FM brand of wimp-rock is just flat boring. Guitarist Alex Scally played half the set sitting down. Oh, hey, sorry, Alex. Are we wearing you out here? Your dogs barking? Buddy, if you want to entertain me from a sitting position, you’d better be playing acoustic folk at an open-mic night or have at least one broken leg.
I was initially delighted by the spectacle of Major Lazer’s stage show. Diplo seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to producing innovative beats for equally innovative artists, and when he and Master of Ceremonies/Court Jester Skerrit Bwoy exploded onto the stage flanked by two Chinese dragons and a pair of dancing girls, it was hard not to get sucked into the carnival atmosphere. Diplo kicked out the jams, spinning ML tracks like “Keep It Goin’ Louder,” improvised techno beats, and mash-ups of diverse artists like Sleigh Bells and Ace of Base. The longer it went on though, the more I started to feel like there was an unsettling racial dynamic to the whole thing, like I was witnessing a raunchy 18th century “Marvels of the Indies” show, with African-American and Asian performers held up as curiosities by a white man, for a predominantly white audience. Then they broke out the ladder. Skerrit Bwoy climbed to the top with his pants around his ankles while one of the dancers lay spread eagle on the ground. “Is this what you want, Chicago?” he screamed, waiting for the crowd to howl its assent before he took a flying leap off the ladder and onto the dancer to engage in simulated sex acts. It was around that time when I thought to myself, “No. No, it definitely is not.” Call me a stick in the mud, but it feels wrong that the first black women to darken a P4k stage this year were only there to dance around in hot pants and dry hump members of the audience.
Modest Mouse is responsible for some of the music that’s nearest and dearest to my heart, so I came to this show Friday night really hoping the best from their set. And to be honest, I wasn’t exactly let down. Not everyone will admit it, but the band turned out some of their most vital work over the past 10 years; just look at the reaction that nouveau classics “Parting of the Sensory” and “The View” got out of the audience. They work spectacularly in a live setting. And when the band dug into their back catalogue for gems like “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and “Dramamine,” they did some incredibly cool things with them, blending them with choice lines from other classics like The Moon and Antarctica’s “Life Like Weeds.” But except for “The Whale Song,” the material they pulled from No One’s First and You’re Next didn’t go over well; in fact, “Autumn Beds” just about stopped the crowd dead. Also, major anti-kudos for being the only main-stage headliner to go off 20 minutes early so they could come back out for their “encore.” Look, Chicago has a noise ordinance that states outdoor shows have to wrap up by 10 p.m.; Modest Mouse were scheduled to play for an hour-and-a-half, so they basically took a 10-minute break on our time and acted like we should be grateful they came back. I know it’s an old industry trick, but it’s still lame.
• Tiny Cities Made of Ashes/???
• Here it Comes
• The Devil’s Workday
• Satellite Skin
• Autumn Beds
• Satin in a Coffin
• Dramamine/Life Like Weeds/???
• Parting of the Sensory
• The View
• The Whale Song
• Gravity Rides Everything (encore)
• Black Cadillacs (encore)
Like all suburban-born white kids, I can’t get enough of the Wu-Tang, and the Chef most definitely cooked up some tasty morsels for his audience, but he kept fans waiting for a full 20 minutes before taking the stage. What’s more, his 30-minute set drew an inordinate amount of material off 36 Chambers, odd considering Cuban Linx is basically a sacred text among the hip-hop community, and its sequel was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of last year. It makes me wonder, did he just assume that Enter the Wu-Tang was as far as any of us had dug?
Animal Collective is band I feel no small degree of ambivalence toward. On the one hand, I recognize they were the epicenter of a major shift in indie-rock in the mid-aughts and that they continue to exercise their influence over countless bands today. On the other hand, I find their music to be frequently grating and just kind of dull. Panda Bear’s solo outing Person Pitch was just more of the same for me. It’s a really interesting record that I will never, ever have a desire to listen to again. So maybe I’m the wrong guy to assess how Noah Lennox performed Saturday night, but I wasn’t moved. He gradually nursed melodies to life out of electronic droning and rumbling bass, punctuating the soundscapes with atonal yips and occasionally harmonization. As a visual accompaniment, he broadcasted a montage of abstract color patterns that gave way to old stock footage of cheering audiences, bizarre looped segments of blood running down a pregnant woman’s belly, and images of nude women exploding into a shower of sparks like malfunctioning femmebots. The outdoor setting probably wasn’t ideal for Lennox, as it takes a pair of headphones (or at least an enclosed room) to really bottle all the intricacies he’s working into his compositions. On the plus side, though, he somehow managed make an audience of thousands sit still for 60 minutes of mostly abstract noise. So I guess that’s pretty cool.
More than one writer has commented on the generally lackluster quality of the Pavement reunion shows, but I tried to come to this with a fresh set of eyes. Ultimately, I feel the same way I did after seeing The Pixies at Lollapalooza 5 years ago. They played great songs and played them well, but there’s an intangible sense of disengagement there. It’s not even that the band aren’t having a good time or giving it their all; it’s just that they’re playing a lot of songs that don’t necessarily have a lot of relevance to where they’re at right now. The wild diversity between the band’s more chaotic material and their poppier tunes also contributed to a somewhat uneven set, frequent pauses in between songs preventing them from getting any real momentum going. It wasn’t until they were almost done that I felt they really hit their stride, launching from “Gold Soundz” directly into the scream-along “Conduit for Sale!” then stomping the brakes for “Stop Breathin’.” That latter was a taste of perfection, the guitar slinking back and forth over Mark Ibold’s steady bassline like empty curtain rings on a shower rod. I’m not going to say don’t buy tickets if they come through your town, just don’t expect them to change your life all over again.
So that’s the festival in a nutshell. Thumbs up to Pitchfork for assembling such a stellar lineup, and to all you artists who made my “Don’t Miss” list, I’ll look forward to seeing you all next year when you play Lollapalooza.
[Photos: Daniel Boczarski]