Tuesday, August 27, 2013

2009 Pitchfork Music Festival Review

Pitchfork is the first of Chicago’s two major summer rock/pop/hip-hop music festivals, the other being Lollapalooza. Pitchfork is the smaller of the two and, as I’ve written before, the superior festival-going experience. For 2 ½ days they take over Union Park on the west side and deliver an assortment of veteran and up-and-coming local, national, and international acts. Every year I feel I’m getting more than my money’s worth, and this weekend was no exception. This year the weather was fantastic (no typical Chicago mid-July heat and humidity this time), which made it even easier to focus on the music.

Day 1 (Friday)
Friday evening’s theme was “You Write the Night,” where every band’s set list was created from a poll taken by ticket buyers. Post-rock masters Tortoise, my favorite Chicago band, kicked off the festival with their usual impeccable craftsmanship. The band’s lack of onstage histrionics tend to get them labeled boring in a live setting, but to me they are always top-notch and once again delivered a seamless soundscape other bands could learn from, if they’re good enough.

Yo La Tengo, the New Jersey alt-rockers, put on a great set that featured several songs from the classic “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One” and banter that included a shout-out to Ron Santo of all people. Brainy and clever, they also demonstrated huge amounts of the energy that’s kept them going for over 20 years.

The Jesus Lizard, the legendary pre-hardcore noise-rock outfit from Austin by way of Chicago, was next up, performing together after a decade of not existing. I’d never heard them before, but I was impressed…mostly. They had a great sound and tight chops, but I felt they need to either be louder or play in a smaller space for me to get the full brain-melting effect I had read about and I could sense was there. And at the risk of sacrilege against the faithful, I suspect the band could get rid of frontman David Yow and get along just fine, maybe even better. The drunken punk-ass shtick works okay at 25. At 50? Not so much.

Built to Spill, one of the most successful and popular ‘90s indie rock bands, was last up for the night, but I had already headed for home so I didn’t hear them. I heard they were good.

Day 2 (Saturday)
My listening journey on Saturday started out with Canadian punk outfit Fucked Up on the “A” stage. This is a band with a big, thick sound and heavy footprints. At the same time they thankfully displayed a lack of punk music’s more negative attitudes – they seemed more interested in doing a good show than making sure everyone knew how much they didn’t give a shit. Their lead singer, a bald, 300 pound force of nature, was a perfect centerpiece for the mammoth sound they were making. It was a fantastic set.

A little later came The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, from New York. Every year Pitchfork has a band that’s an “indie darling,” poised to possibly move into mainstream success and rotation on MTV’s few video blocks. Last year it was Vampire Weekend, and they underwhelmed, IMO. Ditto for Pains…, whose blend of sugary Shoegazer pop (I wouldn’t even call it rock) might be good for some, but not for the average Pitchfork festival-goer. It didn't help that the gal in the group was horrendously out of tune on most of the harmonies. If I was a "Dawson's Creek" fan, and I'd never heard live music before, I might have thought they were OK. I think I might just be too old for what they were laying down.

After that, I headed over to the concessions stands for an alcoholic beverage. There are three available at Pitchfork – Goose Island IPA, Good Island 312, and something called Sparks, a premium malt drink in an orange can. I didn’t try it, but I did try the IPA and 312. The IPA was delicious. I’ve never actually drank urine before, but if it was cold and carbonated, I’m pretty sure it would taste like the 312.

Heading over to the festivals “B” stage, I caught most of the set from Raleigh, North Carolina alt-folk trio Bowerbirds. Thankfully it wasn’t the bland, soggy alt-folk I hear a lot of on the radio down at the left end of the dial. It was atmospheric and mellow, but with energy and purpose. A real pleasure to listen to.

After them came a Baltimore outfit called Ponytail. Watching them mild-mannerdly set up their two guitars, no bass, and a strange-looking, Bjork-like singer yelping her warm-ups, I wasn’t expecting much. I was completely wrong, because they played one of the best sets of the weekend. If Pitchfork had a roof, Ponytail would have blown the sucker right off. They didn’t just “Bring It,” they brought “It’s” friends, “It’s” neighbors, “It’s” second cousin Pete from Detroit…They were absolutely FIERCE and got anyone in earshot pogoing and head-bobbing with an out-of-control freight train of sound. I’m SO GLAD that I had a chance to see them. Bands like that are what make festivals like Pitchfork great.

I wanted to check out Brooklyn band Yeasayer next, but I had to spend a half hour in line for the bathroom. This is one of several small issues Pitchfork has to deal with every year, on top of food, security, sanitation, and the logistics of moving 40 bands on and off stages. Because of that, problems like long bathroom lines don’t bother me as much as others.

Lindstrøm did a very good DJ set – turntables and speakers turned up to 11. Getting an hour’s worth of spinning in between guitar centered rock was a nice change of pace on the day. Brooklyn-based drums-and-keyboard duo Matt & Kim was next. They were clearly the happiest act on stage this weekend, and their general enthusiasm was infectious. Their set, however, sounded a little thin to me, especially coming after Lindstrom's audio assault. I think they might be one of those bands whose music translates better in the enclosed space of a small club. I would definitely check them out in one, given the chance. And I still can’t get “Daylight” out of my head. Great, great song.

Once again I headed out before the last acts, so no listening to The Black Lips or The National for me. Beating the crowds to the train and getting home in a relatively short time was worth it.

Day 3 (Sunday)
I ended up spending most of my weekend over at the “B” stage. The afternoon kicked off with local outfit Michael Columbia (not the name of a person, but the name of the band). They were great, spinning complex rhythms and time signatures. I could swear I heard echoes of Tortoise in MC’s sound - they seem to be in the same ballpark, musicianship-wise. Keep and eye on these guys, they might be going places.

As the park slowly filled up for the day, another local band, Dianogah, was next. They’ve been based in Chicago and playing together for years but were making their first Pitchfork appearance. To me, their sound (featuring two bass guitars) was like a meatloaf sandwich washed down with a pint of Guinness - maybe not the most colorful experience, but rich and substantial. The musicianship was impeccable – it’s nice to hear experts ply their trade in venue like Pitchfork’s.

The next band I heard was a group calling themselves Killer Whales, a quartet of shirtless, shoeless young men with two drum kits and some good ideas about music. They must be pretty new - they don't even have a Wikipedia page. After listening to them, my main thought was that this is a band that needs a real vocalist. They rock out hard enough, but the falsetto choruses delivered by the two non-drummers made their otherwise solid songs sound stupid.

Next I walked over to the “C” stage and checked out Pharoahe Monch, a politically-conscious hip-hop stalwart who delivered a superb set, backed by two amazing singers and a turntable connoisseur. A lot of hip-hop in 2009 is crap. Pharoahe Monch is a rare and welcome exception. There are others like him out there, but they don’t get the big record deals or videos. Your local college radio station knows where to find them.

By mid afternoon the festival was pretty much filled up. Moving between the "A" and "C" stages felt like wading through a snowed-in airport terminal. I’d like to appeal to my fellow Pitchforkists that maybe it’s time to practice some concert etiquette, as in: take it easy with the cordoning off of large plots of land with blankets and folding chairs. Union Park ain't that big. And if you're tired or hung over, the middle of the field in front of the stage is not the best place to sit or lie down during a set. MOVE TO THE SIDES. And standing with your friends in a rigid phalanx, making it impossible for people to squeeze by you to move up to or back from the stage? That's just the height of douchebaggery. Thank you.

After a quick snack at the food stands (potstickers – yum!), it was back to the “B” stage for a strong international set from DJ/rupture. He kept the crowd jumping non-stop, using old-school albums on the turntable to mix together a delicious blend of tracks. It seemed like overall the "B" stage was where you had to be to get the up-tempo acts.

After rupture came Vancouver BC rock duo Japandroids. Simply awesome – the sound of two guys trying to sound like five guys, and succeeding. What is it about Canadian rock bands that's so much more elemental and energetic than their American or European counterparts? They seem more willing to attack the music, throttling it if necessary, and scream their heads off for minutes at a time if that's what it takes to make the point.

To finish of the day I wandered over to the “A” stage to catch a listen to French alterna-dance group M83. They did a great job filling the huge space with their set. It was a lush, sophisticated electronic sound. They would be killer to listen and dance to in a club.

Ping-ponging back to the “B” stage, I listened to a little bit of Danish pop-rock group Mew, and was not impressed by them. They had lots of sonic firepower, but the songs varied between generic and unfocused. They’re a florescent light when they should be a laser.

That was it for me. Walking by the “A” stage and hearing a few notes from Brooklyn experimental art rockers Grizzly Bear only confirmed that I will never, ever understand what's so fascinating about that group. The crowd seemed to love them, though, so more power to them. I left before the festival’s big closing act, the legendary band from Oklahoma City The Flaming Lips, but judging by comments posted on the Chicago Tribune site this morning, I didn’t miss much. If I had stayed, it would have been more productive to check out the British-Malawi alt-pop group The Very Best, who played to a smaller but apparently more satisfied crowd.

All in all, a great festival, as usual. Chicago is incredibly fortunate to have an event like this. Well done, Pitchfork…let’s do it again next year!

1 comment:

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