I’m back in the saddle, gang! A move to the center of all civilization (Bowling Green, Ohio, FYI) coupled with my springtime nuptials, put an end to my uninterrupted, three-year streak (two for our lords and masters here at TMT) covering Chicago’s finest indie-rock fest, Pitchfork Music Festival.
It’s been interesting tracking the evolution of the festival over the past half-decade. Over recent years, it feels as though it’s somewhat outgrown the curatorial function it served back when it was partnered with All Tomorrow’s Parties. P4k still found room for veteran acts like The Olivia Tremor Control, Chavez, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but the “Don’t Look Back” and “Write the Night” Friday night formats are now a distant memory. The focus is more on taking the pulse of this year’s independent music landscape. And increasingly, rock ’n’ roll is only one (albeit still immense) corner of that landscape.
This year’s hip-hop roster stuck out to me, featuring such emcees as A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q, Big K.R.I.T., and Kendrick Lamar (whose performance, it’s rumored, was attended by Lady Gaga, standing off to the side of the stage). What seemed significant was not just the number of rappers on the bill, but that fact that each of these artists are very much “of the moment.” There was no Public Enemy, Big Boi, or Wu Tang alum batting cleanup this year, which suggests the average consumer of independent music is just as invested in hip-hop’s present as its past (the “average consumer” apparently doesn’t include me, though; I’ve been out of touch with what’s going in in hip-hop for so long it left me at a disadvantage when sitting in on their sets).
Additionally, DJs and electronic artists seemed to show up everywhere you looked. Main stage sets by party-starters Flying Lotus and Araabmuzik were only the tip of the iceberg; venture out to the secluded Blue stage and you could have heard sets ranging from instrumental hip-hop, to electro-pop, to abstract drone, by such artists as Clams Casino, Nicolas Jaar, Purity Ring, The Field, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tim Hecker.
And so, without further ado, let’s get into the festival. Strap your hiking boots on; I’m about to take you on a journey.
Even with some TMT stalwarts on the bill, I wasn’t all that jazzed for Friday, so I ended up floating between sets and stages more than usual, which is why I’m grateful to freelance writer and my festival buddy Chris Terry for calling my attention to Willis Earl Beal. How have I been sleeping on this guy?!? Armed with a bottle of Jack, a reel-to-real tape recorder, and — for one song — an electric guitar, Beal stalked the stage, favoring us with a voice that alternated between an earnest croon and a delta blues man’s gravel-larynx’d wail. His backing tracks were deliciously opaque: droning, ominous, and majestic; it provided the perfect backdrop for his gut-wrenching howls. From time to time, he’d pick up the mic stand and wave it around like a blunt weapon, or whip his belt off and thrash it against the stage like a young Alan Vega. The only time he seemed to relax was when he pulled up a chair and lay the guitar over his lap to tease out “Evening’s Kiss.” Beale closed his set down by enlisting the audience’s aid in providing a backdrop of stomps and claps for him to sing over. It was a wild set, easily one of the best of the weekend.
Despite an exuberant performance, I was left underwhelmed by Japandroids at P4k ’09. Nevertheless, I’d taken a bit of a shine to this year’s Celebration Rock (or maybe I’m just responding to Carolyn Rayner’s lyrical TMT review?) and approached the band with cautious optimism. The end result was much the same: Plenty of heart, but with no bass player to anchor them down, their furious riffing seemed to get carried off in the breeze before it could reach the back of the crowd. Add to that singer Brian King’s overall lack of vocal projection, and you got a performance that left one feeling more antsy than energized.
Tim Hecker was similarly hosed by the outdoor setting, his delicate drone work trampled by A$AP Rocky’s big, ugly bass beats bleeding over from the main stage. Clams Casino had no such difficulties. The demure beat-master’s set might just have been Friday’s loudest, and standing near the sound stage, I felt my insides vibrate under the seismic waves of bass radiating out of the speaker stacks (I jotted the phrase “wall of bass” in my notebook to describe the feeling, then spent the rest of the festival nursing an irrational fear that I might lose my notebook and that someone else would find it, read it, and wonder what talentless hack would ever use a phrase like “wall of bass” in a festival review). It was a no-frills kind of stage show; for all I could tell, we might have been listening to an iTunes playlist he threw together over lunch. There was no mixing or blending of tracks, and he didn’t even make the pretense of fiddling with his gear. Still, it’s hard to take issue with a set that sounded so spectacular.
Dirty Projectors also turned in a surprisingly agreeable performance. As cerebral as their brand of experimental pop is, they settled comfortably into a danceable groove the crowd really seemed to respond to. Of course, it probably helped that the parts of their set I caught drew from the most accessible entries in their formidable catalogue: crowd-pleasers like “Gun Has No Trigger” from this year’s Swing Low, Magellan, “Stillness Is the Move,” and the title track from 2009’s Bitte Orca.
Oh, and Feist was there, too. Weird, right?
Interlude: Red Line, Saturday Afternoon
Riding the Red Line from Wrigleyville to the Loop on my way to Union Park, I saw a man traveling from car to car soliciting money for a seven-day CTA pass in order to deliver the laminated stack of resumes in his hand to potential employers. After he had passed on to a different part of the train, I overheard one of the fellow occupants (who also was on his way to the festival, albeit with the intention of scalping tickets) remark to his companions, “That’s Gabe. Me and him was locked up years ago. He’s still doing that shit. He used to walk around with a picture; now he’s got a resume.”
Now THIS is what I’m talking about. I showed up in time to catch Chicago’s Atlas Moth murder the last 20 minutes of their slot. For their last two songs they brought out a couple friends to accompany them on sax and trumpet and somehow made the uncommon mix sound like the most metal thing ever. Their piercing wails and squeals added depth to the massive drone that swelled out of the band’s vamped-up renditions of “Holes in the Desert” and “The Horse Thieves.” Their set ended with guitarist David Kush and bassist Alex Klein butting heads for control of Kush’s mic like two rams fighting a ewe in heat. A suitably epic way to kick off the day.
There were scattered showers throughout the afternoon, but it was Liturgy who ripped tears from the heavens. The torrential rains the festival had just barely avoided the day before returned in force almost as soon as the Brooklyn black metalers got going. And is it any wonder? Their sound-check alone was louder than anything else at the festival. Reduced to a two-piece since the departure of drummer Greg Fox, the group relied on a drum machine to keep time for them. As unabashedly artificial as the machine gun rhythm sounded, it paired well with duo’s scalding guitar onslaught. Of course, at the center of it all was the most hated man in heavy metal, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. It’s easy to see why the guy is such a lightning rod: so small and unassuming, with his shoulder-length hair pulled back from his face in a ponytail, he looked almost feminine. His manner was serene whether he was assembling chant-like vocal harmony loops or tearing into another finger-shredding solo. Perhaps the biggest gamble of the set was a nearly drumless rendition of the titanic instrumental “Generation.” Somehow, it paid off; torn free of Fox’s leaden, amorphous drum-work, the song transformed into something hypnotic and ecstatically frustrating, like a perpetually delayed consummation that becomes all the sweeter for being unattainable.
Of course, almost from the moment they struck the first note, the crowd pulled apart to make room for a mosh pit. In the pounding rain, it took no time at all for the pit to turn into a giant pool of mud. As the contestants thrust body against body, they spilled over into the muck and mire only to be lifted out of it by their brothers-in-mosh. There was a look of savage joy in the eyes of those that emerged, the mud and rain settling into the lines of their face like warpaint or the chrism of a pagan sacrament. I was drawn to the edge of the pit, too feeble to enter. I jockeyed my eyes back and forth from the pit to the stage, scrutinizing Hendrix’s face for some sort of reaction to what was happening on the ground, but he remained sphinxlike, inscrutable. Whether our offering satisfied or displeased him, he gave no indication.
I hobbled back to the press tent for a breather afterwards, soaked through to my underwear and flecked from the waist down with mud. I looked around at the stylish, immaculately coiffed young men and women working at their laptops and enjoyed a vague and wholly undeserved sense of moral superiority. Because deep down I harbor this superstition that enduring the mud, the rain, the brutal heat, and exhaustion will imbue my words with a truth that would be otherwise inaccessible to me. Whether or not this is the case, I leave to others to decide.
By the time Flying Lotus took the stage at 4:15, the rain had ceased and the sun was shining again. Any time I entertain the notion of going to a club, the sounds I hear in my head sound a little something like Flying Lotus: big, noisy, and just hooky enough to still shake ass to. Under Steven Ellison’s gentle guidance, Union Park erupted into a massive dance party. He sprinkled his own frenetic compositions with party starters from such artists as Tyler the Creator and The Beasties.
From there I mostly floated between sets. I got a small thrill watching Carrie Brownstein strike rock-star poses with Wild Flag, but couldn’t get near enough to Sleigh Bells to get pulled into their performance. The Chromatics were a perfect example of how big a difference the right setting can make for a band. The posh synth-pop quartet were as aloof as they come, with lead singer Ruth Radlet offering only the most perfunctory expression of gratitude to the audience as her sole attempt at stage banter. They were practically immobile throughout the entire set. I’m fairly confident if I had to squint at them on the LED screen from the back of a massive swarm of people gathered around one of the main stages, I would have hated them. But the relative intimacy of the Blue Stage gave them the ideal proximity to weave their spell over us. It helped that they sounded immaculate, allowing the sinister nostalgia of songs like “Kill for Love,” “In Shining Violence,” and a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up that Hill” to wash over and rejuvenate the assembled crowd.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s presence Saturday night was an odd reminder of just how much the Pitchfork Festival has changed over the years. While there was no shortage of artists present with work more challenging than that of the Montreal collective, few, if any could touch the group’s scope and ambition, and they stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the headliners. I mean, for God’s sake, they were playing opposite Grimes (relegated to the Blue stage, despite her top-billing status) and immediately followed Hot Chip.
One by one, the band members took their places on stage and laid down a slow-building drone that ever-so-gradually coalesced into “Albanian.” Sitting and standing in a semicircle, they seemed too consumed with the herculean task of coaxing sound from their various instruments to take much heed of the audience. Behind them, a projector beamed a rapidly shifting montage of figures, diagrams, equations, and typewritten documents, interspersed with images of industrial decay and pictures of unidentified men and women that flashed by with increasing rapidity as the music locked into an arabesque cantor. Damn if you couldn’t dance to it if you wanted, but no one was dancing. Almost no one was even moving, such was the extent to which they held us mesmerized. It was almost 10 after nine, nearly 40 minutes into their set, when the piece came to a stop.
They followed that with a devastating medley of segments from the first two tracks of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists…. By the time they had sunk their teeth into the grand climax of “World Police and Friendly fire,” the serene images that dominated much of “Sleep” had given way to footage of a city on fire, towering flames lapping like tongues toward the sky while smoke poured from every egress like a chimney driven horizontally by fierce winds. Witnessing the spectacle, it was difficult not to slip back into the dread and paranoia of the Bush presidency, of which GY!BE were the undisputed soundtrack. But as the group launched into their final composition (one that I didn’t recognize; something new, perhaps?) the projected imagery shifted to shots of Wall Street stock tickers and angry protesters. Regimes may have changed in the U.S. since the group went on hiatus, but in many ways, our policies have not. Sadly, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s patient political outrage feels every bit as relevant today as it did at the dawning of the new millennium.
By Sunday, the storms battering us all weekend had passed, and with them, any amelioration of the brutal Chicago sun. Maybe it was just the heat and the exhaustion, but I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the performers who failed to measure up. Copenhagen’s Iceage were the first to incur my wrath. While I admired their rough-and-ready punk-rock spirit, they sounded like absolute ass, their guitars bleeding together into a murky, rhythmless soup, with only a steady drum-beat to marshal the mess into any kind of coherent shape. Similarly vexing was Archy Marshall (a.k.a. Zoo Kid) of Britain’s King Krule, whose voice was a tunless mumble over his band’s elevator-music pop.
There were some real gems, though. Thee Oh Sees put on a marvelous show. I’ve never been able to get into their recorded output, but John Dwyer’s razor sharp riffs were an instant shot of adrenaline, and watching songs like “Carrion Crawler” devolve into psychedelic synth freakouts and fractured Morse-code guitar solos is pretty much my definition of a good time.
The day’s biggest highlight was an appearance by Brooklyn’s The Men. They bolstered their usual four-man lineup with an extra hand to add keyboard or additional guitar. The beginning of their set was surprisingly laid back, encompassing songs like “Night Landing” and a moderately beefed-up rendition of “Candy,” rounding it out with a new, Tom Petty-ish song that found them bringing in a keyboard and neck-mounted harmonica rig. When the band lit on “Turn It Around,” though, it was like someone flipped a switch in the audience. The crowd instantly erupted into a sea of shoving bodies that carried through “Open Your Heart” and “Ex-Dreams.” If I had one gripe, it’s that the band’s live vocals are nowhere near as unhinged as they are on record; I would have very much liked to hear Mark Perro uncork his lunatic yelp.
Also worth a nod was Oneohtrix Point Never, who provided a conceptual counterpoint to frenetic bass drops of Aarabmuzik. Daniel Lopatin fouled up the lovely piano loops of “Replica” with bursts of noise and feedback and concluded his set with “Sleep Dealer,” piling sample atop sample for an unexpectedly grand finish.
I thought that I would be able to make it through Beach House and catch the beginning of Vampire Weekend’s headlining turn, but when I got to the red stage five minutes into their set and saw that guitarist Alex Scally was already sitting down, I realized that wasn’t in the cards. Beach House were sporting a more elaborate stage design this time around, with cardboard cut-outs of a city-scape standing in silhouette against a starry night-sky behind them, but their performance was every bit as static and dull as I remembered from 2010. The idea of sitting through an hour of that for the chance to be unimpressed by Ezra Koenig was much less attractive than getting back to my friend Sean’s apartment in time to catch the premiere of Breaking Bad.
As usual, I left Union Park feeling like an absolute physical wreck: legs throbbing, feet screaming, and an ache in my back so intense it hurt to raise my voice. And as usual, I’m already wondering what they’ll have lined up for us next year.
[Photos: Rebecca Smeyne (top); Brook Bobbins (Dirty Projectors, Flying Lotus); Nolan Wells (Japandroids); Joseph Mohan (Thee Oh Sees); Leigh Ann Hines (Godspeed You! Black Emperor)]