I made it to Pitchfork’s opening day just in time to catch the Green Stage’s opening act by Mac Demarco, and secure the spot where I would stay until Bjork’s headlining performance (several other festival-goers had this idea too, and there were many Bjork tattoos to be seen, my favorite of which was Bjork’s face tattooed on a forearm). Some of the Bjorkers around me weren’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about Mac’s opening set, but he served up some amped up versions of songs off last year’s great 2, and sprinkled some prime stage banter throughout (the bass player thanked Bruce Willis for setting up the tour, and Mac thanked the crowed for listening to 107.1 The Dump). Toward the end of his set he and his bandmates ran through a truly hilarious medley of mainstream rock covers, including “Enter Sandman,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” and, yes, “Break Stuff” by none other than Limp Bizkit, altering the lyrics to more profane ends. A lot of the crowd and criticism I’ve read seemed caught up on whether the covers were out of appreciation of irony, but I felt like it was more a good ol’ punk rock display of rudeness, along the lines of his now infamous “cover” of “Beautiful Day” by U2, which I’ll just let you google if you’re feeling brave. His set ended as he invited his girlfriend out to sit on his shoulders while he crooned(?) his ballad “Still Together.” Mac on record might seem like a slacker, but a closer look at his wry lyrics and the experience of his ramshackle live show shows a dude with a real rock ‘n roll attitude that’s largely been missing from indie rock after several years of chillwave and shoegaze/dream-pop/80’s- whatever revivalists have dulled its teeth. His set was a great way to start the festival, and left most of the people around me in a jovial mood as we awaited the day’s later acts.
While I camped for Bjork/waited for Wire to come on, I caught some of Woods set on the giant screen conveniently set up next to the festivals two larger stages. It doesn’t feel quite right to review a show I watched over a screen, but I found it difficult to get into their seemingly aimless psych noodling and utterly forgettable vocals. Luckily, post-punk pioneers Wire showed up soon after Woods’ mess of a set ended and delivered a propulsive blast of hard rhythms and scraping guitars. Their set, along with those of Swans and Yo La Tengo (I’ll get to these later, but, oh man) proved that old dudes can play just as hard, if not harder, than any of the younger acts at the festival. I’m a huge fan of the Wire records I’ve heard, but I haven’t explored their discography much beyond a their first three classics. I’d heard that they usually avoided playing their classics live, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect going into their live show. Their set did consist of largely new material, and it totally exceeded my expectations and now I’m kicking myself for not exploring their catalog further. They did include a couple classics–”Marooned” from Chairs Missing and “Map Ref.” from 154–but the new material really stood its ground against their more canonized work, which for a band approaching its fourth decade is really quite extraordinary. If you haven’t heard Wire, get their albums (new and old) right away, and see them live next chance you get.
After struggling to hear some of Joanna Newsom’s quiet set over the excited chatter of Bjork fans (there were a lot of shots of people crying on the giant screen, so that probably means it was pretty good), the Icelandic pop goddess finally emerged on the stage along with a score of angelic backup singers, just as some ominous clouds were beginning to descend over Union Park. The storm clouds would eventually do their damage, but while they were just hovering they made for an intense atmosphere that actually went pretty great with Bjork’s cosmic ballads and her killer light show, which included a massive Tesla coil producing lightning bolts in sync with the synthesizers. Bjork opened with “Cosmogony,” off 2011′s Biophilia, which really set the mood for the explosion that would follow with “Hunter” off the classic Homogenic. From where I was standing (pretty close thanks to a day’s worth of camping), it was an awe inspiring set, visually and aurally. Highlights for me were the classic “Army of Me,” which sounded absolutely enormous, and “Joga” and “Pagan Poetry” both had a lot of the crowd tearing up, which might have included myself, I don’t know…
Unfortunately, about an hour into her set, the storm clouds had begun to look a little too ominous, and Bjork’s set had to be cut short before it started really blowing and pouring in about ten minutes. Of course, it was massively disappointing to not hear the finale, which surely would have included “Hyperballad” and “Declare Independence,” two of her biggest calling cards, but there was really
nothing that could have been done about the thunderstorm, and what I did see of the set still stands as one of the weekend’s most powerful performances.
Unlike the previous day, where my number one priority was Bjork, Pitchfork day two had acts performing all over the park that I was dying to see, and some pretty difficult choices to make in choosing between conflicting sets. I spent most of the day running back and forth between stages trying to see as much great music as possible, and I must say I succeeded. For my money (just kidding, I had a press pass), Saturday was the strongest day of the festival, a judgement which is admittedly probably biased toward the day’s more extreme offering of artists.
The day started with one of the festival’s more unfortunate scheduling conflicts: Vancouver’s White Lung and Winnipeg’s KEN Mode, probably the two punkest acts at the festival, with the possible exception of Friday’s Trash Talk. I know it’s impossible to please everybody, but surely there would have been some overlap between the crowds for the two acts if they had been scheduled at different times. I’m a slightly bigger fan of White Lung’s music, and had missed out on seeing them play a few times before, so I started off Saturday with their quick, snarky punk rock. Singer Mish Way really stole the show, and somehow made not caring actually compelling to watch. I also got to see some 12-year-olds (my estimation, probably not too far off) mosh.
Next up was Pissed Jeans, hot off the release of this year’s excellent Honeys. The band’s sludgy noise-punk freakouts were in top form, and singer Matt Korvette provided some of the festival’s best banter. No one was safe; he poked fun at the other artists (“We got that Bjork money, we got that Belle and Sebastian money!”), the crowd (“So are you guys more of a facebook crowd or an instagram crowd?”), photographers (Korvette took out his cellphone mid-song and snapped a picture of one), and themselves (“This is the pinnacle. We’re gonna retire now to pursue other hobbies.”) If you’re unfamiliar with their music, their lyrics are just as clever, and “False Jesii Pt. 2″ even had me fist-pumping along and losing my sunglasses in the hot-sweaty-mess of indie dudes, chanting things like “I could put on a tight black shirt, but I don’t bother. I could hit the gym so it looks real nice, but I don’t bother.”
After Pissed Jeans, I ran over to Blue Stage on the other side of the park just in time to catch Parquet Courts, one of the year’s most exciting indie-rock bands. Their sort-of debut which was sort-of released this year is called Light Up Gold! and it’s easily one 2013′s best so far. Parquet Courts are from Texas originally, but now Brooklyn based, and their music, while certainly fun and funny (and not really doing that much new either, I’ll admit), has an urgency about it that sets it apart from a lot of today’s indie music. Listen to the lyrics on the title track of their tape American Specialties, which in their live show they tack on to the killer krautrock jam of “Stoned and Starving”: “Facebook pages, boring, boring, rock and roll has got me snoring” and then “the Japanese do it way better, soon it will be gone forever.” It’s probably hard to argue that a band whose sound is so obviously tied to the past (you’ll probably think of The Modern Lovers, The Fall, Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Wire, to name a few, within the first few minutes of listening), is “saving indie rock” as I really want to try to argue, but I’ll just say that I haven’t been this excited about a band in a while, and at the very least Parquet Courts bring to mind an era when indie-rock seemed to be more exciting and mean more than it does now. Not that I wasn’t born in 1993 or anything, but I’ll bet if Light Up Gold! came out in ’93 it’d be a classic now. So anyway, their record is great, their live show is even better, I sang along to every word, and please just pay attention to this band.
Next up on the same stage was everyone’s favorite ex-punk mope-rock band Merchandise, from Tampa, FL. I had seen them a couple times before, but their Pitchfork set was the first time I’d seen them with a drummer, which was a welcome change. The drum machine works fine on record, but a human drummer definitely gave their live show an extra kick of energy. A lot of Merchandise’s appeal comes from vocalist Carson Cox’s astute observations about growing up, and I’ve always thought of them as more of a “sit back and contemplate” kind of band than a must-see live act, and while Carson’s croon might not be quite as effective in 95-degree heat in a field as with your headphones on sipping wine next to the fireplace (as I’m sure most Merchandise fans do), luckily guitarist David Vassalotti provides plenty to enjoy during their set, as his genre-hopping from act to act has informed a style that jumps all over punk, jangle, shoegaze, psychedelia, and noise, without ever just sounding like one. Anyone with a passing interest in guitar playing will probably be hypnotized by his playing. Their set drew from all their main releases to date, but was unfortunately light on their most recent EP Total Nite, which I think could be their strongest yet. It was a solid set by a great band, even if it didn’t entirely convey the emotional heft of their records.
I would really have liked to catch some of Metz’ set, as their 2012 debut is one of the most rocking releases in recent memory, but I decided to wait for Swans on the Red Stage, since they had already put on two of the best show I’ve ever seen. While waiting for their set, I caught some of the massively-hyped Savages on the big screen. I’ve found it hard to buy into their hype, as they seem to have a very high degree of self-importance for a band with that rehashed Joy Division sound that approximately five million bands have copied since Joy Division (although admittedly they do it pretty well. For an example of my hypocrisy, see my adoration of Parquet Courts), and I also feel their “noise is distraction” and Silence Yourself tagline only makes their self-importance more irritating in an “Everyone shut up but me” kind of way. While these things still bother me, and I still don’t think they’re second coming or whatever, I’ll admit that their live show did display a band with a refreshing amount of conviction and they seemed to be doing their thing pretty well on Saturday.
So, finally, Swans came on and blew everyone’s minds. I had a few concerns coming into their Pitchfork set that the 50-minute time-slot (down from their usual two hours) and the bright (my skin is peeling as I type this) outdoor setting might soften the impact of their monolithic racket. Thankfully, I had no reason to worry, and Swans sounded at least as good as they ever have. They opened with two new tracks, the droning “To Be Kind” and the stomping, deranged “Oxygen,” which sounds closer to their earlier industrial releases than anything they’ve put out in recent years, and then filled the rest of their set with an enormous version of the title track to last year’s The Seer. Swans as a live band have the kind of power that can make just about every other act you’ve seen seem a little weaker, and while I would have happily accepted another hour of them at Pitchfork, their 50-minute set ranks among the weekend’s best.
After leaving Swans thoroughly in a daze (probably owing to Swans and the full-on blast of the sun in equal amounts), I walked across the park to Low’s set and caught the Breeders doing “Cannonball” along the way. Breeders had the unfortunate time slot of being in between Swans and Low, otherwise I would have watched their whole set for sure. They were one of my favorite acts at the festival and I’m still bummed I didn’t get to see more than a couple songs from them.
Speaking of unfortunate time slots though, did it occur to any of the Pitchfork powers that be that sandwiching Low, one the quietest live bands in the world, in between sets by Ryan Hemsworth and Rustie, two of the festivals biggest dance acts, might not be such a good idea? Nothing against those two acts (although the end of Ryan’s set when he played a track from Yeezus and dance-bros went nuts was pretty funny), but I don’t think there was a lot of crossover between their fans and Low, and I imagine a lot of Low fans were as irritated as I was about the amount of crowd chatter from dudes in tank tops who clearly had no interest in the Duluth trio’s music. Once I got over the chatter, however (and told all the talkers in my general area to pipe down), Low’s set was a beauty. It was great to hear some of The Invisible Way‘s relatively lushly instrumented songs (courtesy of Jeff Tweedy), in Low’s more traditional stripped down fashion, and the older cuts (“Monkey” and “Pissing” from The Great Destroyer) were sung with a real intensity. The highlight of the set, though, might have been the surprising but beautiful cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.” It was a gorgeous and powerful set, even if a festival might not be the optimal environment for their sound.
I then paid six dollars for a flimsy, stale, grey hamburger, which probably stands as one my bigger disappointments of the festival. I’m talking about you O’Brien’s. My friend got a vegan sloppy joe and it tasted way better. Shouts out to the Chicago Grill on that one.
Belle and Sebastian were really good. I’ve really only ever heard their first two albums (for which I partly have Pitchfork to thank; they did give their third album a 0.8) from which they played a few classics, but the stuff I was unfamiliar with sounded really good. The impression I had from their music I knew was that they were shy indie kids nervously plucking away at acoustic guitars, but frontman Stuart Murdoch had a real rockstar kind of charisma, and watching them play on Saturday night, their headlining slot all of a sudden made lots of sense. I danced in the rain to some disco song they played with probably about 20,000 other people and if you were there and weren’t dancing you were probably an asshole.
Pitchfork Music Festival is in Chicago, which means the relative lack of Chicago artists on the bill can be a little disheartening. Also disheartening was the decision to schedule two of the festivals only smaller Chicago acts (R. Kelly is from Chicago, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t book smaller acts from the city just because they booked the biggest one), producer DJ Rashad and rapper Tree, at the same time. I wasn’t too familiar with either of their stuff, so I went with Tree just because I was planning on seeing Killer Mike play the same stage next. Tree makes what seems to be his own brand of “soul-trap” which merges, uh, soul and trap. It was a pretty good set, and the guy was clearly really enthusiastic about being there and threw out tons of CDs into the crowd.
I’d planned on just staying at Green Stage until Killer Mike came on, but while I was waiting I saw Foxygen on the screen and they looked pretty rock ‘n roll, so I decided to check them out. I’d listened to some of their album when it was getting buzzed about earlier this year and remember thinking it was just kind of boring, but their live show was, if nothing else, energetic. They do a sort of messy, garagey, Stones nostalgia kind of thing. Of course, none of the songs are probably even that good, but it was fun watching their frontman jump around and climb the stage supports. Word is he got injured on stage at another show pretty soon after this.
Then, Killer Mike. Mike came out and as soon as the beat in “Big Beast” kicked in everybody went nuts. His set mostly drew from last year’s great R.A.P. Music, and included a few other classics from his back catalog. In between songs, he explained his philosophy of music as Church, where, regardless of our backgrounds and beliefs, we’re all there to enjoy good music and can just be good people to each other while we’re doing that. It might sound corny when I type it, but Mike delivered it with such eloquence and charm that it was hard not be won over.
As soon as Mike’s set was done, I ran to the Red Stage to secure a stop for Killer Mike collaborator and producer, and former Definitive Jux head, El-P. El-P brought the noise at the start of his set with “Drones Over Brooklyn” and “The Full Retard” from last year’s Cancer For Cure, and then none other than Killer Mike emerged and the two of them ran through the bulk of their recent collaboration Run the Jewels. From that point on the set was all hard beats and relentless interplay of their hard flows. They were both in top form, and the crowd’s reaction after their set was one of the strongest I heard all weekend.
Most of the people I was with made the somewhat perplexing decision to stay at Red Stage to camp out for Lil B, and while I think Lil B is pretty funny, I find his fan base can be pretty obnoxious, and Yo La Tengo was playing on a different stage before him, and, well, whatever Lil B’s merits, Yo La Tengo are one of the great indie rock bands of all time and make music that, uh, sounds really good. YLT’s set started off pretty quiet with the new “Stupid Things” and a couple from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and I had to endure crowd chatter from the SAME chillwave kids who were talking during Low (They were now waiting for Toro Y Moi. If you think I’m exaggerating about how annoying these kids were, they were actually, no joke, instagramming pictures of themselves and talking loudly about instagram while they did it. To answer Pissed Jeans’ question, I guess they’re more of an instagram crowd. Also, what has Toro Y Moi ever done to get billed above Yo La Tengo?) until I just got fed up and gently pushed passed them during the gentle classic “Autumn Sweater.” If it wasn’t apparent during the quiet beginning of their set, Ira Kaplan can really shred, and it started to show on the last songs they played. First among these was “Ohm” off this year’s Fade, and then their classic Beach Boys cover “Little Honda,” and finally “Blue Line Swinger.” “Blue Line Swinger” started off with a few minutes of noise, and then the rhythm picked up, then the guitar melody, then Ira starts to look like he’s been possessed and starts shaking and spinning his guitar around his head and bashing it against his knee and tears the whammy bar right off the guitar and has to get a new one to finish the song. I wrote earlier that as far as pure transcendence goes, it’s hard to beat Swans, but watching Ira on that last song was just one of the most beautiful, exhilarating, and cathartic performances I’ve ever seen, and gets my vote for the highlight of the whole weekend.
I wandered around for a while and had a good laugh while I listened to Lil B sing over that “love in a hopeless place” song and also caught the end of Sky Ferreira‘s set and it sounded like Cyndi Lauper. I wandered around some more and then sat and listened to what was probably about half Lil B’s set, not really feeling up to taking part in the moshing(LOL) and chanting that was going on. He did hits like “Wonton Soup” and “I Own Swag” along with other classics. In between songs he told everyone he loved them and spread lots of cool messages about being nice to people. I don’t know if I could really say it sounded good, but it was at least entertaining. Unfortunately some of the people I talked to afterwards said the crowd was inexplicably violent. I guess some of the crowd didn’t take the Based God’s inspirational message to heart.
I was bummed to miss out on MIA (heard it was fun though), but I wanted to get up close for Glass Candy, so I went over to Blue Stage and took my chances with Evian Christ‘s music before Glass Candy came on. I didn’t know who Evian Christ was, but apparently he produced some of Kanye West’s Yeezus, as I would learn during his set. His set was comprised mostly of throbbing bass, gunshots, snares that sounded like gunshots, and some eery sampling going on over it all. It left me wanting for some variety, but the guy seems to have his thing pretty much down, even if it’s a very specific thing. At the end he played his Yeezus track, “I’m In It,” and sparked what probably wins the award for dumbest mosh pit of the weekend. What’s up with kids moshing to pop music? There were some sound issues during the track and it cut out during the chorus and none of the kids knew what to do.
If you’re unfamiliar with Glass Candy‘s music, the degree of cheese at work in their eurodisco-synth-music can be pretty immediately off-putting for a lot of people. So much synth music is cheesy on accident though, whereas I’m pretty certain Glass Candy are doing it on purpose. In the end though, it doesn’t really matter, and here’s why: Johnny Jewel is such as genius synth player and the songs are all so danceable that whether you’re laughing because you think you get the joke or you just think it’s funny bad, I guarantee you your feet will be moving. Either way, everyone’s having a good time, you see? As if the music wasn’t upfront enough about forcing you to question your notions of good taste, singer Ida No spent most of her time on stage smiling ear to ear and running through dance moves that looked straight out of a workout video. I had a blast during their set, and most of my friends who were on the fence about their music before they played did too. Like MJ said, “Just enjoy yourself, groove, let the madness in the music get to you,” ya dummy.
I’d been debating all weekend about whether to end the festival with TNGHT or R. Kelly, and while I was standing in line to use the porta-potty, R. Kelly came out and opened with none other than “Ignition [Remix].” It was (duh) the R. Kelly song I was most familiar with and me and 100 other people waiting to pee all song along and that was fun. It’s wonderful that R.’s music can still bring people together like that. Having already got what I was waiting for from R. Kelly, I went over to TNGHT’s set. I like their sound well enough to not hate their performance, but they didn’t really do anything different with the tracks live, which is always a bummer at an electronic show. There were also a bunch of sound issues toward the end. I guess it was a cool light show though.
Luckily, I still had time to make it over to the main stage and catch R. Kelly do “I Believe I Can Fly” and it made me wish I had stayed for his whole set. R. Kelly’s image has suffered in recent years, to say the least, and his most lasting presence (at least in my circles) has been through the go-to party anthem “Ignition [Remix],” which, though pop perfection it is, moves the body more than the soul. Standing there with what felt like the biggest crowd of the weekend listening to “I Believe I Can Fly” and seeing people around me tearing up, it suddenly dawned on my that, Space Jam soundtrack or not, this guy has written written some really great music that means a lot to a lot of people, and not just as novelty hipster party jams. The announcement of R. Kelly as a headliner brought up a lot of questions: can art be separated from the artist, should Pitchfork pay a guy with R. Kelly’s history, should Pitchfork profit off a guy with R. Kelly’s history, should listeners feel guilty paying to see an artist with R. Kelly’s history, is Pitchfork an indie music festival, is it ironic? I don’t know the answer to a lot of those questions, and they’re important questions, but the last one is ridiculous; the guy’s got some great music.
All in all, Pitchfork made for a great weekend filled with great music. There were a few disappointments related to scheduling, sound issues, bad crowds, weather, overpriced lousy food, but those are almost a given at a festival. If you’re trying to pick between Pitchfork and other festivals in the area, Pitchfork’s probably cheaper and probably has better music. I had a good time, anyway.