Pitchfork Music Festival | 07.16-18 | Chicago

By: Cal Roach | Images by: Chad Smith

Pitchfork Music Festival :: 07.16.10-07.18.10 :: Union Park :: Chicago, IL

Major Lazer
After two years' absence, it felt good to be back at hipster central, dripping with sweat, watching Liars pummel away onstage amidst varying degrees of fashion sufferers. The feeling didn't last, though. All the subtle niceties I remembered from the first two years of the Pitchfork Music Festival seem to have gone by the wayside - big bottles of Water Plus for a buck, Goose Island ales brewed just up the street (so much for the whole carbon footprint/support local business thing; Heineken must've given the P4k people too much swag this year), and especially the not-overselling part. Plus, they still have the same flunkies in charge of sound - next year, test the speakers in advance or something. But enough about such distractions; it's the music we care about.

PLEASANT SURPRISES

Sudden Swedish pop sensation Robyn (Friday) was a real firecracker. She willed you to have a good time on her behalf, pogoing around and pumping her fists to the feisty groove. And her tunes, infectious and attitude-fueled, sucked you in and pumped you up, particularly the one-woman Rage Against The Machine of "Don't Fucking Tell Me What To Do."

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Saturday) hasn't been very active over the past decade, but a plethora of classic scuzz-blues from the Orange album sounded incredibly fresh after not listening to it in probably ten years. Even the two cuts from the group's latest album (2004's Damage), although more of the same schtick as always, were blasts of vibrant snazz in a sea manufactured beats and furrowed brows. Spencer knew better than anybody all day how to command a big outdoor stage (black vinyl pants are key). His voice sounded great, the band was loose and wild, and the balls-out, salty wet rock and roll show ended with the only Theremin/guitar demolition jam of the weekend. Yet aside from the diehards up front, it was hard to tell if anybody in the crowd had ever been to a rock show before. Politeness has somehow taken over the underground again.

Wolf Parade (Saturday) kick started its set early on with a sharp guitar/keyboard call-and-response in "Dear Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts," and it was strength to strength from this point on. I didn't figure this screwball indie prog collective was going to pull off the intricacies of its albums, but nearly every song sounded better live than on record - intense, fully-realized sound, and a tangible elevation of the group's presence. Best set of the day and a strong candidate for best of the weekend.

Sunday hit its first peak courtesy of Girls. High grade shoegaze spliced with melodic dream pop and a heavy Win Butler jones on the part of frontman Christopher Owens, the band started off in relatively whimsical space, got gradually more raucous, unleashed a couple of ear-splitting noise particle accelerators, then eased out with a wispy stroll and a happy summery romp. The set was impeccably arranged and oozed sincerity; exhilarating as a whole.

At most five seconds after Beach House began to exit, our heads snapped jarringly 90-degrees to the right as Lightning Bolt (Sunday) stormed the stage. Dream popsters scurried like frightened rabbits as it became clear that nap time was over. With nothing but drums and a three-stringed electric bass, these guys created the most incredible din of the weekend. It's essentially pig-fuck verging on guitarless grindcore, and I have never heard another bass player make sounds like Brian Gibson. From drone to gently disturbing melodies to blinding chugging to all-out noise, generally with the fuzz cranked to 11 and plenty of wah, he was unbelievable, and drummer/shouter Brian Chippendale was the perfect compliment, thrashing his kit and his vocal chords with equal aplomb. This basically blew away everything else I saw all day.

AS EXPECTED

Panda Bear came out by himself on Saturday with a guitar around his neck and his little table of gizmos and went to work. This was really a treat, though many in the crowd were clearly bored. It's layered, ambient music that only occasionally jumps out at you and exercises in sustained clarity and precision of vocal tone. The set was almost completely comprised of new material from the forthcoming Tomboy, which exhibit darker, more gothic textures than his other recent work. As he continues to reinvent himself, you're either along for the ride or you aren't, but you have to relish these opportunities to witness an artist-in-progress, and it's moments like these, rare though they may be, that you can only get at Pitchfork.

LETDOWNS

Liars, while never actually boring, just aren't interested in being as interesting as they used to be. Everybody plays the same instrument for almost the whole show, and they're such slaves to the songs now, song after song, tight but relatively unadventurous. Singer Angus Andrew almost seems trapped in the constraints of concision, but at least he still shows off those tree-trunk legs of his.

Titus Andronicus (Saturday) just loves the song-ending fake out, getting the audience to cheer and then finishing the song. Clever! They're like rock and roll convention mash-up artists, and it all seems very sarcastic and disingenuous. Jury is out on whether they have any idea where the name of their band comes from; probably just "sounded cool at the time." The biggest problem had to be frontman Patrick Stickles' raspy, fake vibrato, though. I can conceive of this being a good band with a different singer, but Stickles is awful live.

I couldn't understand the guy who came out with the excuse for why Sleigh Bells (Sunday) wasn't onstage, but twenty minutes late is an eternity at a fest like this. Even when they came out you could barely hear them; it was as if guitarist Derek Miller was emitting from Walkman headphones. As technical issues plagued at least the first three tunes, it was obvious that Alexis Krauss was desperate to overcompensate for such a lousy start, and things were just so uncomfortable all around that the crowd lost interest and started flocking to catch the end of Big Boi and to get a spot for Pavement. In light of such a fantastic debut album (Treats) and all the ensuing hype, this fiasco was an epic fail on somebody's part.

THE HEADLINERS

Pavement
Modest Mouse (Friday) and Pavement (Sunday) at the same festival ought to bring out the best in masters and pupils. If you had to pick the two quintessential indie rock bands, these are them, and while The Mouse has the upper hand in current and mainstream popularity, Pavement's long hiatus and legendary status ensured that fans would flock to the elder statesmen's closing set.

Isaac Brock & co. came out guns blazing, setting the bar high for the meat of the weekend. I'd only previously seen Modest Mouse at Rothbury in 2008, a short afternoon set heavy on newer material and light on passion, which seemed at odds with the group's recorded output. At Pitchfork, Brock was amongst his people, and he knew it. The frontman may have been a bit snookered up (or do sober people generally bite into glow sticks?), but he played and sang with the hunger of a still-unproven artist. The set was impeccably paced, showcasing the recently remastered classic The Moon & Antarctica and last year's No One's First And You're Next compilation to greatest effect while avoiding the big hits from the last couple of proper albums. It was a loopy dance party (splash-in-the-face realization: these guys owe a huge stylistic debt to Talking Heads) with well-timed low-key interludes and some frantic guest horn spots that all came together perfectly.

LCD Soundsystem provided the party everyone was craving on Saturday night with a rousing set, mystifying the crowd as to why mastermind James Murphy is calling the project off. The reason it's so effective is the way the populist grooves mask the pathos underneath: "Dance with me until I feel all right," Murphy begs in "I Can Change," the ultimate summation of the LCD m.o. Another splash in the face: Murphy's vocal phrasing is frequently a dead ringer for Glenn Danzig; you can't stop laughing about it once you notice it. There's no denying that the man pours his soul out onstage, and the band killed it with tension/release hysterics almost too perfect to be improvised. "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" closed the night in exhaustive fashion, a snippet of "Empire State Of Mind" snuck inside for good measure.

After a too-obvious-to-be-effective satirical intro by Drag City Records' Rian Murphy, Pavement proceeded to flub "Cut Your Hair" and shuffle through a very lazy set. I know, I know: the slacker aesthetic is what they're after and it's supposed to sound sloppy and apathetic. But I've seen Stephen Malkmus blow Radiohead away on a night when he was truly inspired, and Pavement had been known in the past to grab hold of an elusive band synergy on its best nights, so this belligerent lackadaisical display didn't quite cut it. Sure, percussionist Bob Nastanovich was full of energy, hopping around and shouting at all the right times, but everybody else seemed bored and aloof.

More than halfway through the set, the band briefly elevated beyond the norm. Beginning with "Stereo," Malkmus seemed to come out of a stupor, and for the next few songs up through an enthusiastic "Conduit For Sale!" the band was on a roll. It's not that anybody expects crispness (there was none), just this type of rollicking energy, some way to tell that they care about the songs. Otherwise, this is purely a nostalgia act, which suited most of the crowd just fine. And there's nothing even wrong with that, as long as you can still play. Nice to hear the songs live, but for this final hour and fifteen minutes (no encore), slacker nation got what was coming to it.

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[Published on: 7/23/10]

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