FESTIVAL REVIEW: Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park, Chicago 07.13.12-07.15.12
This year’s Pitchfork Festival was, if nothing else, memorable. On the first day of the fest, before gates were even opened, Chicago was hit by a torrential downpour, delaying admission into the festival for a half hour and the sets by varying amounts of time. Rain continued to be a problem on the second day, and gave rise to many sound problems, especially on Blue and Red Stage. Blue Stage in particular was plagued by sound-related delays all weekend, an unfortunate occurrence that made seeing sets there a gamble. But despite the varying sound problems, most of the “important” sets were able to continue uninhibited, and the bands delivered as they always do.
Returning to the festival this year was the Chirp Record Fair, Coterie Chicago, and the Flatstock Poster Show. New this year were lockers that could be rented on-site for $15 per day. As usual, Pitchfork did an excellent job of providing festival-goers with free water and an accommodating food selection. Lineup-wise, this year’s fest was heavier on punk and hip hop; with Feist, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Vampire Weekend headlining the main stage respectively. Overall, it was another great weekend at Union Park.
Lower Dens at Red Stage, 3:30 p.m.
Lower Dens were the first band to be disadvantaged by the rain delays, and even after being given the go-ahead they took their time setting up. As a result, they didn’t draw much of a crowd, and didn’t play for the full length of time they were scheduled for. And just as well, what they did play didn’t leave many lasting impressions. Jana Hunter & co. don’t strike very imposing figures on stage, so it was solely up to their music to impress, and it generally didn’t. “Brains” was somewhat explosive, and Lower Dens had a few other good moments in their set, most of which came when the volume was turned up, but otherwise their set was little more than a footnote to start the festival.
The Olivia Tremor Control at Green Stage, 4:35 p.m.
Opening the main stage was The Olivia Tremor Control, who were able to bring some fun to an otherwise listless crowd with their brand of Elephant 6-meets-Nuggets indie rock. The Olivia Tremor Control featured an unusual conglomeration of instruments, incorporating everything from sousaphone to violin, and they enlisted help from fellow Elephant 6-ers, including the trumpet player from Jeff Mangum’s recent tour. The sound wasn’t the best, as the instruments tended to blend together into one noise at times, but that’s a minor complaint to make when there could just as easily have been no sound at all, considering the way the rain had been coming down earlier.
Tim Hecker at Blue Stage, 5:15 p.m.
While it didn’t help that most of the crowd seemed to be at Blue Stage for Japandroids, Tim Hecker‘s set proved to be possibly the least engaging of the entire festival. Although sound was not a problem and Hecker’s music was faithful enough to the recordings, it lacked the volume required to give ambient music a dominant live presence, and Tim Hecker himself barely moved on stage, preventing his set from being anything more than background music for the masses.
A$AP Rocky at Red Stage, 5:30 p.m.
A$AP Rocky was the first rap act to take the stage at Pitchfork, so naturally his appearance set the tone for a weekend heavy on hip-hop. Although I was only able to catch the start of it before heading to Tim Hecker, his set appeared to be very well-received by the crowd. The A$AP mob was doing most of the heavy lifting, crowd-surfing and hyping the audience in a way that recalled Odd Future on the same stage last year, but A$AP Rocky himself rapped over a pre-recorded vocal track in a somewhat lame move that made the musical aspect of the performance minimal. At the very least, the positive reception boded well for the remainder of Pitchfork’s rap acts.
Japandroids at Blue Stage, 6:15 p.m.
Japandroids‘ rise in popularity since the release of their universally acclaimed sophomore LP, Celebration Rock, has been nothing short of meteoric. So it was to no one’s surprise that most of the festival’s attendees at this point found a way to cram themselves in front of Pitchfork’s smallest stage for the first highly-anticipated set of the weekend. Japandroids ran into sound problems before the set started, which cut their time down to 45 minutes, but once they finally got started they went full-throttle without looking back. The set drew mostly from Celebration Rock with a few cuts from Post-Nothing, but one thing all the songs had in common was their fast pace. It was all “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “Wet Hair,” and no “Continuous Thunder” or “I Quit Girls.” This proved to be exhausting for the crowd, but that’s what happens when you abbreviate a punk band’s set, and the audience did their best to make the most of it as well. The set opened with “Adrenaline Nightshift” and “Younger Us” and near the end we got “The House That Heaven Built” and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” back-to-back; two combos that were festival highlights by themselves and which whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Japandroids’ set was more of a communal experience than anything else, with the audience making up for guitarist Brian King’s insufficient mic, by singing along to everything, and Japandroids themselves showed that they were more than up for the challenge of warming up an amped crowd for the rest of the weekend.
Dirty Projectors at Red Stage, 7:20 p.m.
Closing out Red Stage on the shortened first day of Pitchfork were Dirty Projectors, playing a set heavy on tracks from their latest effort, Swing Lo Magellan. Swing Lo Magellan is an album that finds Dave Longstreth writing more straightforward pop songs than ever, and it showed in the live setting, as all of the most experimental moments of the set came during older songs. Dirty Projectors’ harmonies were as brilliant as they always are, and Longstreth put on display some surprising guitar prowess during songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and “Useful Chamber.” Dirty Projectors are an exceptionally talented bunch, and by now are consummate professionals on stage, exuding confidence as well as precision in their performance. “Impregnable Question” was a highlight in the closing slot, beautiful in its relative simplicity but also invariably Dirty Projectors. While Japandroids were able to put on a noteworthy set built on sheer, unabated energy, Dirty Projectors were just as good by exhibiting control over their innumerable abilities.
Purity Ring at Blue Stage, 8:20 p.m.
It seemed puzzling at first that Purity Ring, who have officially released a whopping five songs as of right now, would be given a lengthy late-night slot closing out Blue Stage over much more experienced acts (i.e. everyone else at the festival, except perhaps King Krule). But upon arriving at Blue Stage before Purity Ring started, it became obvious that this was a band armed with complete thematic ideas for their songs despite the shortage of them. Lanterns were hung all over the stage and choreographed to go with Purity Ring’s songs, and the songs themselves transitioned into each other seamlessly. The encroaching darkness lent Purity Ring an aura of mystery that could not have been replicated at any other time, and they capitalized on it with a well-synced set. There’s no telling whether Purity Ring are going to be around for long (for a band that has seemingly arrived fully-formed, where is there to go?), but for now they’re delivering beyond expectations.
Watch Pitchfork Music Festival Friday via YouTube:
The Atlas Moth at Blue Stage, 1:00 p.m.
For anyone that needed waking up on Day 2 of Pitchfork this year, the first act scheduled on Blue Stage was Chicago doom metal quintet The Atlas Moth. Along with Liturgy, The Atlas Moth represented the metal end of Pitchfork at this year’s festival, and it’s safe to say that they acquitted themselves well with the otherwise indie rock-centric crowd. Their three-guitar attack provided a tight, on-point mix of sludge and suitably epic riffage that was a jolt for anyone that needed it early in the day.
Cloud Nothings at Red Stage, 1:45 p.m.
Cloud Nothings had the misfortune of taking the stage during some of the worst rain of the weekend, but heroically played through it at risk of electrocution. They were only able to play five songs (“Stay Useless,” “Fall In,” “Separation,” “Cut You,” and “Wasted Days”) before being cut off, but, like Japandroids, did their best to make the most of it, and the crowd had a similar mentality, even feeding off of the worsening downpour. It was hard to tell if Dylan Baldi’s voice sounded as jagged as it did intentionally or if it’s the result of months of touring, but either way the new found coarseness of it suited Cloud Nothings’ 90′s pop-punk styled songs well. Coming into “Wasted Days,” Cloud Nothings were actually on track for one of the best sets of the weekend, but during the song’s bridge, the guitars cut out, as did Dylan Baldi’s mic. Event staff members came out to talk to Baldi, presumably to tell him to get off the stage, but he shook them off and finished the song, with the crowd singing the final go-round of the chorus. The set went out with a whimper when the crowd seemed to lose track of things and the end of the song fell apart, but the valiant gesture by Cloud Nothings to continue playing did not go unnoticed, making for one of the most memorable moments of the weekend.
Atlas Sound at Green Stage, 2:30 p.m.
Bradford Cox (Atlas Sound) had even more misfortune than Cloud Nothings in that he had to play his entire set in the rain, but luckily Green Stage seemed to have their sound problems in order, and a surprising amount of fans braved the storm for the entire Atlas Sound set. Wearing white face paint for reasons unknown to all but himself, Cox built his songs from the bottom up, usually taking up to seven or eight minutes to loop all of the parts together. Done by almost anyone else, this would be a boring process to watch, but Cox’s stage persona was mesmerizing enough to keep it interesting. At one point, a few tasteless folks (inevitably) started asking for “My Sharona,” but Cox pretended to mishear them. He was surprisingly chatty, offering advice to drink room temperature water to a girl who seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion, before adding that he had learned that when he was with the Boy Scouts before being kicked out for being queer. It’s hard to tell if he was being completely serious about that last part, but the uncertainty is all part of the fun of an Atlas Sound set. It’s no wonder Cox keeps getting invited back, both as a member of Deerhunter and as Atlas Sound.
Cults at Red Stage, 3:20 p.m.
While Cloud Nothings were able to turn their technical problems into something memorable, Cults‘ set simply suffered. Madeline Follin’s mic cut in and out throughout their set, and when she made attempts to overcome those problems with more energy, she sounded more like an upset little girl than Dylan Baldi’s punk hero. It was perhaps the most flaccid set at all of Pitchfork; Cults were simply screwed from the start and were never able to recover.
Flying Lotus at Green Stage, 4:15 p.m.
Coming off of a raved-about performance at Forecastle Festival the night before (which featured many of the same acts as Pitchfork on different days), Flying Lotus seemed to be in very good spirits for his Chicago appearance, and he let the crowd know directly. The rain cleared right before FlyLo got started, and he ended up playing a surprisingly remix-heavy set, featuring everything from “Yonkers” to “Hard In Da Paint” but only a little of Cosmogramma and Los Angeles. It was more of a party set than anything else. Brainfeeder crony Azizi Gibson was given free reign to rap over many of the samples and act as FlyLo’s hypeman, and FlyLo did play some of his new material, but it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) hard to distinguish what was what. So for those of us hoping to know what Flying Lotus’ new album sounds like, we’re just going to have to wait for Flying Lotus’ new album.
Wild Flag at Red Stage, 5:15 p.m.
Wild Flag‘s set was one of fortunate timing as the sun started to come out on Union Park, unveiling the field as little more than a drying cake of mud. They got right down to business as soon as Flying Lotus stopped, opening with a cover of Television’s “See No Evil” before diving into tracks from their eponymous debut album along with new material that was, for the most part, in line with their old material. Each member of Wild Flag brings impressive things to the table, whether it’s Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony’s guitar interplay, Rebecca Cole’s underrated backing vocals, or Janet Weiss’ stellar drumming, which serves as the centerpiece upon which everything else is built. It’s a sound they’ve made all their own in a very short amount of time, impressive but unsurprising considering the expertise each of the members already possessed coming into the project. After experiencing serious problems for the entire day, Wild Flag was the set that got Red Stage back on track for the rest of the weekend.
Hot Chip at Red Stage, 7:25 p.m.
An attempt was made to see some of Chromatics’ Blue Stage set at 6:45, but abandoned when 30 minutes passed after the scheduled start time and Chromatics still hadn’t played. So it was up to Hot Chip to pick up the slack in the electronics department, and that’s exactly what they did, playing arguably the best set of the festival so far to close out Red Stage. It was the clear successor to Cut Copy’s MVP performance in the same spot last year. All of Hot Chip’s old songs were given major reworkings for maximum dance-ability, from the slick, soulful opener “Boy From School” to the urgent closer “Hold On,” and the band members themselves played together like a well-oiled machine. The key was how Hot Chip manages to splice together many key components without ever sounding crowded; beyond Alexis Taylor’s blue-eyed soul croon, there’s Joe Goddard’s impeccable call-and-response vocals, and also Al Doyle’s fills on guitar, bass, percussion, and various electronics. A cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” was tacked onto the end of “Ready For The Floor,” “Over And Over” had as much stomp as one could hope for, and new songs such as “Flutes” and “Don’t Deny Your Heart” proved themselves more than capable of keeping up with the hits that made up most of the set. In a post-LCD dance landscape, it’s good to have Hot Chip back.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Green Stage, 8:30 p.m.
Shrouded in darkness and with the JumboTron turned off for the first time while music was playing, reunited Canadian post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor made their entrance to little fanfare. They did not acknowledge the crowd or otherwise breach the fourth wall for their entire set, opting instead to focus on each other, positioned in a semi-circle onstage. The first movement sounded like little more than an extended drone piece, with accompanying apocalyptic visuals on the screen behind them, but once they finally moved past that, the maw of the beast was opened and roaring for the rest of the night. They fit five songs into their 90-minute headlining slot, each of which could be broken down into inane hyperbole just as easily as not. But what was really impressive about Godspeed’s set, beyond the musicianship, was their captivation of the crowd. Their crowd was criminally small for a headliner (thank Grimes, who was closing Blue Stage), but those of us who were there were forced to pay attention, largely due to Godspeed’s aura of mystique. Besides the JumboTron being turned off, the stage was dimly lit, and the visuals flashing behind the stage (which ranged from cryptic text to buildings on fire) all perpetuated an atmosphere that demanded intent viewership. The result was a silent, respectful, camera-shy audience the likes of which you won’t find almost anywhere else in indie rock, let alone at a festival.
Watch Pitchfork Music Festival Saturday via YouTube:
Milk Music at Blue Stage, 1:55 p.m.
Sunday was the only day of the festival not to experience rain problems, and just as well it was the day with the most conflicts, as most of the punk acts at Pitchfork all seemed to be booked for early in the day. The first was Milk Music, an Olympia quartet that draws more from the Wipers’ brand of fuzzed-out punk rock than anything else. Although it was a treat to see justice being done to this sound, especially for those of us who weren’t around to see Wipers or their contemporaries when they made their run in the 80′s, Milk Music was somewhat hungover and lacking in the energy department. And with bigger fish to fry that day as far as punk rockers go (more on that later), the crowd wasn’t really in the mood to replicate the energy that was being shown. So Milk Music’s set turned out to be more of a welcome footnote than anything else.
Thee Oh Sees at Blue Stage, 2:50 p.m.
Up next was arguably the most puzzling conflict of the entire festival, as the two kingpins of the California garage rock scene (Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall) were given overlapping sets. First was Thee Oh Sees, who got off to a fiery start with “Tidal Wave” and wasted little time in following it up with “The Dream,” “Lupine Dominus,” and “Carrion Crawler.” There’s something sinister about Thee Oh Sees’ songs that’s hard to put a finger on; they sound like they were birthed in some unseen, dirty pit and were never meant to be heard by civilized society, and yet here they are. As a live act, Thee Oh Sees are very blunt and primal, stretching their songs out for all they’re worth with extended, gnarled soloing before the rhythm section bring them back down to Earth. Their star, of course, is frontman John Dwyer, an imposing presence on stage who yelps his way gleefully through songs with his transparent guitar strapped at chest level, as if it might escape if he didn’t hold it so close. Thee Oh Sees looked and sounded like they came from another planet, but if this is what life is like on other planets then I’m very interested in exploring further.
Ty Segall Band at Red Stage, 3:20 p.m.
Ty Segall is truly having a career year in 2012. He’s already put out two accomplished collaborative albums, one with San Francisco psychedelic stalwarts White Fence and the other with his backing band, and a solo effort is on the way in October. It’s one of the best breakout years in recent memory, and he’s supporting it with a monstrous live act that was high on the “must see” list for Pitchfork this year. But not even the blaring feedback of Slaughterhouse could prepare us for this set, which featured everything from an AC/DC cover to Segall himself crowd-surfing all the way to the sound booth and back. It started with confusion though, when a representative of the festival (although it seems more likely now that he was with Segall’s crew) came out before the set to announce that one of the fences had been knocked down, and from that point forward, Pitchfork was a free festival. This was not true; he was making a Woodstock reference, but the announcement was met with uncertainty at the time because the fences were not visible for most people at Red Stage. When Segall made his appearance, he got down to business, playing a set that drew from all of his most recent albums and with highlights all over the place. “You Make The Sun Fry” drew a massive singalong out of the crowd. “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” originally by AC/DC, was a secret weapon. For “I Am With You,” Segall entered the crowd, but he wasn’t even crowd-surfing at first. He was crowd-walking, and singing at the same time, before surfing his way to the back and then up front again. Segall was the center of the storm for his entire set, facilitating people’s behavior in the pit whenever he wasn’t howling over the feedback of “Girlfriend,” “I Bought My Eyes,” or “Wave Goodbye.” Ty Segall’s set was already great solely based on the performance aspect, but placed in the context of the year he’s been having, it became not only a highlight of Pitchfork, but also of the Summer of 2012.
The Men at Blue Stage, 3:45 p.m.
Also overlapping with Ty Segall was The Men, who I was able to catch the end of after Ty finished. Despite missing most of their set, I was just in time for Open Your Heart highlights “Turn It Around,” “Open Your Heart,” and “Ex-Dreams,” each of which proved to be punishing enough for many bands’ entire sets. The Men are a musically maturing group right now; their last LP sported classic rock influences and even an acoustic song, and their continued development manifested itself on stage in a new found emphasis on melody. They were also playing a new song that featured a harmonica right before “Turn It Around,” so it will be interesting to see where they go on their next album.
Real Estate at Green Stage, 4:15 p.m.
After the festival’s big run of punk rock, Real Estate’s slot at Green Stage was a welcome comedown. In the hands of a lesser band, their simple brand of breezy guitar pop might prove snooze-worthy, but Real Estate was able to turn it into a perfect fit for the setting, with just the right mix of wistfulness and sincerity. There aren’t many places in the world where the same crowd can stir up a dust storm for Ty Segall and then turn around and relax properly to Real Estate, but Pitchfork Festival is one of them, and that’s just one of the things that keeps the many of the same people coming back year after year. It’s a big plus.
Kendrick Lamar at Blue Stage, 4:45 p.m.
Kendrick Lamar‘s set was solid, but mostly overshadowed by what was easily the most WTF-worthy moment of the weekend: Lady Gaga standing side-stage to watch. Word seemed to spread quickly that one of the decade’s biggest pop stars was in the house, and so the crowd at Blue Stage started swelling up as Pitchfork advertised on social media that she was going to be making a guest performance. Nothing became of it; Kendrick put on a good showcase of his on-point delivery for the expanded crowd, but the buzz slowly shifted towards AraabMuzik’s approaching set at Green Stage after he tweeted that he was bringing out a special guest (which turned out to be Chief Keef, not Gaga). But if nothing else, Lady Gaga’s appearance was actually quite revealing in how people reacted to it. The excitement shown for what is otherwise an oft-derided figure put some perspective on just how small this whole indie festival thing really is, and that even Pitchfork, on their high critical horses, will still submit to (or at least attempt to submit to) the whims of something much bigger than themselves when they are acknowledged by it.
Beach House at Red Stage, 7:25 p.m.
Closing out Red Stage on the last day of Pitchfork were beloved Baltimore dream-poppers Beach House. Over the last few years, Beach House have won mountains of acclaim by demonstrating a complete mastery of their sound, and a near-equal amount of blowback for not experimenting outside of it. Their set at Pitchfork was more of the same, but even for a one-time naysayer of the band, it was impossible not to appreciate just how far Beach House has been able to take that sound. In a way, Beach House’s music serves the same function as Real Estate’s, wistful and laid-back to the extreme, but Beach House is able to take things to a much higher level with more emotionally complex lyrics, affecting vocals, and surprisingly captivating stage presence. They tour with a live drummer, and the increased activity on stage helps bring out the best in more energetic songs like “The Hours” and the colossal “10 Mile Stereo.” With the exception of “Gila,” Beach House’s set consisted entirely of songs from their last two efforts, Bloom and Teen Dream, to the complaint of almost no one as these two albums are home to the best songs in their catalog. I could go on and describe all of them to you, but to be frank, each delivered the same things for the audience at Pitchfork that their studio incarnations do, and it is this reliability that is part of what makes Beach House such an in-demand band. Beach House may never be more than a niche artist, but the niche they occupy is one that has a place in many people’s hearts, and they’re so good at filling it that it’s not even necessary for them to strive for anything more.
Vampire Weekend at Green Stage, 8:30 p.m.
Finally, closing out the festival were Beach House’s one-time tour mates Vampire Weekend. Despite the wide breadth of genres that this year’s lineup held, from black metal to dream pop, there is perhaps no band more representative of the Pitchfork demographic than these guys, and it showed as they drew the biggest crowd any band had all weekend. And after another long but rewarding three days of music, Vampire Weekend’s feel-good pop songs were a fine way to cap things off. Clever, preppy, crafty, stately, tuneful; all of these are apt descriptors of Vampire Weekend’s music, and after many long months of extensive touring following the release of Contra, Vampire Weekend are more than capable of reproducing them well for a huge audience. In addition to a new song, Pitchfork was treated to most of VW’s two LP’s, including a rare performance of “I Think Ur A Contra,” and the only encore of the entire festival. Even the people in the back were dancing and singing communally to “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “One (Blake’s Got A New Face),” and when the weekend concluded to the tune of “Walcott,” it was the kind of send-off that made you not want to leave. I’m already looking forward to next year.
Watch Pitchfork Music Festival Sunday via YouTube: