Pitchfork Music Festival 2011 Recap
Pitchfork. The mere mention of the music webzine behemoth makes most internet-savvy music lovers cringe. And I can’t really say I blame them. It brings to mind biased, superficially-eclectic coverage; relentless name-dropping; and overwrought, inane reviews, often aimed at creating controversy and garnering attention for favored artists.
Admittedly, I am reluctant to tell people that I am a frequent visitor of the site (frequent meaning everyday). But I was much more enthusiastic about telling people I was going to Chicago for the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, held in Union Park. With the mention of headliners including indie giants of the past few years — Animal Collective, TV On the Radio, and Fleet Foxes among others — it’s no surprise weekend passes sold out in less than seven hours.
After 16 hours on the road and lots of coffee, my friend and I arrived in the Windy City on Thursday, eager to see the sights and begin the weekend’s festivities. The flyers for Pitchfork after-parties and events that lined the windows of cafés and stores were welcome signs to festival-goers and locals alike to join in on the city-wide gathering.
On Friday, the festival gates opened promptly at 3 P.M. with the line of attendees wrapping around the block. Once in, we made our way to the Blue Stage to catch the acts opening up the festival. We were greeted by the dark, pulsing synths of the electro-duo Gatekeeper. The two use house music’s basic “four on the floor” framework with a barrage of apocalyptic sounds, creating the perfect soundtrack to an end-of-the-world dance party. Definitely a compelling way to kick off a festival.
After a handful of songs, they cleared the stage for the next act, the much-talked-about tUnE-yArDs. Merrill Garbus, the mastermind behind the project, delivered cuts from her acclaimed new record, w h o k i l l, to a receptive crowd with the help of bassist Nate Brenner, two saxophonists, and a little bit of live looping. Skeptics would have a hard time resisting the danceability of tUnE-yArDs’ percussive pop, garnished by a chorus of loops of Garbus’ powerful voice.
Within minutes of the the set’s end, a female (!) DJ took to the stage, and was joined shortly by Shante Franklin a.k.a Curren$y, better known to some as Wiz Khalifa’s much more lyrical weed-rap counterpart. Within the course of about 40 minutes, he shot through a slew of blunted verses from various mixtapes and albums, selling each line with animated pantomime and impromptu a capella verses. It was refreshing to see a rap artist engage his material and the crowd with such enthusiam, instead of the usual sense of boredom.
We decided to browse the stages afterward: on the other side of the park on the Green Stage, the recently-reuinted “classic” lineup of Guided by Voices rocked out to a crowd of kids who were undoubtedly unfamiliar with the music, save a minority of older, die-hard fans. Back on the Blue Stage, Das Racist, the half-jokester, all-talented rap duo (trio if you count their hype man Dap) was exerting a surprising amount of crowd control. They almost resembled real rappers when the set wasn’t punctuated by lengthy, sarcastic banter.
On the same stage, James Blake seated himself behind his keyboard, and immediately began cuts from his new, critically-acclaimed self-titled LP. Unfortunately the music was so intimate I was able to hear crowd conversations over the softer numbers. Our attendance was cut to only a few songs, the rotten end of a split decision to get a good spot for Friday’s headliner— Animal Collective.
To say the anticipation was palpable would be an understatement. Between their immediately recognizable sound, and the relatively recent critical praise of a few music publications (cough), Animal Collective has almost become synonymous with the notion of indie culture. The quartet, recently rejoined by long-absent fourth member Deakin, humbly assumed the stage and quickly went right into performing the new material they have been quietly working on since the landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion (and a couple solo albums).
While most of the set was new material, the Collective interspersed a handful of songs from their back catalog, including “We Tigers,” and MPP tracks “Taste,” “Brothersport,” and “Summertime Clothes” (sorry, no “My Girls”). The stage space around them was completely dressed in what can only be described as an LSD-induced drawing of a cave, complete with makeshift stalactites, LED-lit crystal figures, and screens featuring the psychedlic visual wizardry of ODDSAC-collaborator, director Danny Perez. Despite usually feeling gypped for having to sit through a chunk of new material, their set choice didn’t feel forced, and the result was an organic, immaculate showcase of the group’s intense live energy.
Saturday was a relaxed day for us, as it was for the festival, evident in the slight drop in attendance. Our afternoon began at 1 P.M. on the Green Stage with Julianna Barwick, known for her dreamy choral music, exhibited in her most recent LP, The Magic Place. Unfortunately for Barwick, her ambient vocal work requires a certain amount of silence to have power, making her a questionable candidate for a festival setting. The space in her music was filled by the thumping house coming from Chrissy Murderbot’s DJ booth on the Blue Stage.
Since our ears were already focused on what was happening across the park, we decided to fix our feet in the same direction. We were greeted by a stage-side dance party, courtesy of Chrissy Murderbot and party-starting accomplice, MC Zulu. The two, with an arsenal of noisemakers, a few vulgar vocal samples, and some of Chicago’s signature export footwork music, kept the crowd on their feet, despite the stifling heat. While security guards sprayed down sweltering crowds with punctured water bottles, Sun Airway assumed the empty stage and played through a relaxing set of breezy, summery indie songs that seemed to almost summon the shade.
Around 3:00, after watching black-leather-clad Cold Cave rock out in 90-degree weather, we arrived at the Red Stage to see Los-Angeles-based indie punk duo No Age. The two ripped through a number of songs, with the focus on their two most popular LPs to date, 2008′s Nouns and last year’s Everything in Between. They even pulled out a couple of surprise covers: the Misfits’ horror movie lament “Hybrid Moments,” and Black Flag’s drunkenly nihilistic “Six Pack.” The attack of sixteen songs in around forty minutes left the crowd satisfied, perhaps even with room for more.
The close of “Six Pack” was the perfect segue to our next stop, which was to see hardcore punk “supergroup” OFF! on the Blue Stage, led by original Black Flag/Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris. I use the term “supergroup” with hesitation because the term is only good for referring to the notoriety of the members’ previous bands (ex-Redd Kross/Burning Brides), not for describing the “superiority” of the music they create. I, in addition to what seemed like most of the crowd, seemed much more interested in who they were seeing, not what they were hearing.
We joined the crowd at the Green Stage to eagerly await the newly reunited post-punk luminaries The Dismemberment Plan after a round at the merch booth and record fair. The band can be easily identified by their distortion of pop and rock tropes, and by Travis Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness, half-spoken-word, half-sung vocal delivery. What at first felt like an awkward display for decade-late fans turned into a personal and spirited performance, including a welcomed dose of tracks from (arguably) their greatest work, 1999′s Emergency & I.
The next show was on the Red Stage next door, the infamous expert of plunderphonics, DJ Shadow. I was surprised to see him trade in the vinyl crates for jog wheels on the controller, but the change does little to tarnish the live sound. With each burst of breakbeat and crossfader craftsmanship, his decades of experience became increasingly noticeable. The huge downside to DJ Shadow’s set was that the light show, which normally involves elaborate projection on the white-washed stage setup, was barely visible in the 7:oo setting sun. It wasn’t too long into the set the DJ decided to abandon the enclosing sphere and do his thing live for the attending crowd. The closing “Organ Donor” handed the night off to Saturday’s headliner, Fleet Foxes.
Winning the indie world over with warm vocal harmonies and disarming, pastoral character, Robin Pecknold and crew, otherwise known as Fleet Foxes, cemented their headliner slot with the success of their most recent LP, Helplessness Blues, the long-awaited follow-up to their 2008 self-titled album. While their live sound was almost 100 percent faithful to its studio-recorded counterpart, my friend and I decided to leave a few songs into the set, citing our exhaustion as the cause of our odd lack of interest in the performance.
Sunday was anything but a day of rest. On the final day of the festival, Union Park saw a weekend peak in foot traffic as a result of all the day passes (in addition to the weekend passes) selling out. Braving the blistering heat, we waited at the Red Stage at 1:30 P.M. for the stage’s first act of the day, Yuck, one of the growing number of ’80s and ’90s indie revivalist bands. The English four-piece cranked up the fuzz and channeled their college radio influences through the saccharine riffs from their recently released self-titled album, as well as their most recent single, “Milkshake.”
None of the members of the band seemed to crack a smile though. I am guessing it was because they could tell that the majority of of the members in the crowd were there to see the act right after them on the same stage— a particular group of notoriously vulgar, precocious, sensationalist, talented kids from Los Angeles, known to the rest of the world as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Over the past year and a half or so, this ten-deep hip-hop collective has attracted a lot of press with their already ample collection of free online albums and mixtapes, noted for the shock-and-awe explicitness of the content, coming from kids barely reaching their twenties.
Syd, designated audio engineer and only female member of the collective, ran on stage to an inviting crowd, playing short snippets of Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and the Black Eyed Pea’s “Where is the Love?,”a message to the domestic violence and LGBT protestors that arrived at Union Park in response to the group’s often (seemingly) misogynist and intolerant content. She was shortly joined by OF members Hodgy Beats and Left Brain, and later by Mike G and Domo Genesis.
Meanwhile, out from stage right came a familiar figure donning crutches, a pink foot cast, and a tie-dye shirt. The audience’s anticipation erupted as Odd Future de facto leader Tyler, the Creator finally arrived, and seated himself on a stool center stage. The restless crowd became a giant, unrelenting moshpit as the crew performed songs from solo projects including Rolling Papers and Ali, and of course Tyler’s crucial OF touchstones, Bastard and Goblin, including “French,” “Tron Cat,” “Sandwitches,” “Fuck the Police,” and the iconic single “Yonkers.” The group even led a tribute performance of “Orange Juice” in honor of “missing” OF member, Earl Sweatshirt.
The group closed the set with the volatile “Radicals,” with its psycho-rebellion rallying cry “Kill people / burn shit / fuck school,” sending the crowd into one final frenzy. Luckily, we were able to catch some songs from Shabazz Palaces back on the Blue Stage. While they were slotted to play during Odd Future, they ended up in the audience for part of Odd Future’s set instead (whoever made that scheduling error, shame on you). The new abstract rap project of Ishmael Butler, formerly of ’90s hip-hop crew Digable Planets fame, performed cuts from their very recent Black Up LP using live drum pad and MPC sequencing for an added degree of live expression.
To cool off and catch our breath, we decided to get some shade in proximity of the Red Stage while indie rock lifers Superchunk owned the stage and, judging by some overheard conversation, pleasantly surprised the Pitchfork crowd. We stayed put until around 6:00 when Deerhunter was getting ready to take the Green Stage. Their fragile guitar jams didn’t translate as smoothly with the bass-heavy sound mix, but despite the flat sound, the band still put on a focused performance (including a 10-minute version of “Nothing Ever Happened”).
The sun was setting on the festival as Australian dance-mongers Cut Copy gave a high-spirited set to an excitable crowd at the neighboring Red Stage. We looked on from in front of the Green Stage in anticipation of the festival’s final headliner, the one-of-a-kind TV on the Radio. These indie shapeshifters have been touring their most recent album, Nine Types of Light, the last to feature longtime bassist Gerard Smith, who passed of lung cancer days after the release.
As Tunde and crew joined the stage, the high emotion became immediately present in the music. Bursting open with Dear Science opener “Halfway Home,” the quintet moved seamlessly through song after song, with special attention on cuts from Nine Types. The real treat, though, was a spotless, surprise cover of Fugazi’s post-hardcore classic “Waiting Room.” Nearing the set’s close, the group was joined by the members of Shabazz Palaces to help fill the percussion of one of their final songs. As TV On the Radio left the stage, the house lights went up, and the cries for an encore went unanswered. Pitchfork was at an end, attendees spilling out into the city and on their respective ways back home.
Overall, the festival was definitely a worthwhile experience. In spite of the festival’s rising popularity and its “hipster” reputation, the event still felt like a genuine gathering of like-minded people there to enjoy performances from some of the best, most unique, talked-about music from over the past decade. It is reassuring proof that through the pretense and the labels we obsessively attach to things, we are still able to come together and focus on the one thing that truly matters— the music.