Pitchfork Music Fest | Chicago | Review

By: Cal Roach

Pitchfork Music Festival :: 07.15.11-07.16.11 :: Union Park :: Chicago, IL

Fans caught a break on Friday with tolerable weather, but temperatures reached into the 90s Saturday and Sunday in Chicago's Union Park, challenging bands to get fans moving when even paying attention is an effort. Luckily, the assemblage of talent was Pitchfork's most ostentatious yet, a who's who of a rapidly-ascending indie music scene that is increasingly threatening to render the term "underground" obsolete. Yet throughout the weekend, it was as if the artists strove to tear down the pop sensibilities that made them Pitchfork darlings, cranking out old-fashioned, make-your-parents-cover-their-ears noise, determined that if they're going to become the next popular music overthrow, they would have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Even with the heat, it made for a pretty exhilarating weekend.

Animal Collective
Best Set Of The Fest: Animal Collective (Friday)
Let’s get that out of the way immediately; the anticipation was killing you. I haven't seen a whole lot of better sets of music in my life. The return of guitarist Deakins to the band has opened up the Merriweather Post Pavilion songs to an entirely new dimension of immense power. The new material is thunderous, schizophrenic, disturbing, a step away from the pop perfection Animal Collective has already mastered, but still infectious to your body’s rhythms. Avey Tare’s voice has taken on two or three new dynamic personae, one of whom sounds weirdly like Geddy Lee, making the music even less predictable than usual. For those fans who mourned the primal yelps and vocal histrionics of eras past, your patience has been rewarded. Only five of the twelve songs in the set have ever been released, instantly driving up anticipation for the band’s next studio release, sort of. On a good night, seeing Animal Collective makes you not interested in listening to the albums, and that’s saying a lot. Judging by this set, there's still a chance of AC becoming the greatest band in the world.

Cut Copy
Biggest Disappointment: Cut Copy (Sunday)
This band played just prior to TV On The Radio, billed ahead of Deerhunter, Superchunk, Ariel Pink and Odd Future, so delivering the most derivative, uninteresting set of the day shouldn’t really have been on the menu, but there it was. It probably made sense to the organizers to have an upbeat, highly danceable act to rev up the crowd after whatever Bradford Cox happened to do, and in that sense, they were successful. It’s true, a good half of the bands currently in the Pitchfork stable do little else besides rip off influential 80s artists previously thought too cheesy to be hip, but Cut Copy goes too far and the lack of interesting melodies makes you feel like you’ve heard every single beat and synth line somewhere before. Frontman Dan Whitford is an occasionally endearing and always energetic presence onstage, but beyond that, his group’s name is too perfect for its own good.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
Least Surprising Awkward Moment: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (Sunday)
Following a widely-reported meltdown at Coachella in May, nobody expected a long set from Ariel Pink, especially as he made a grand display of fucking with his microphone and making his vocals sound like shit. But once you got used to the idea that this was all part of the act (and remembered that he’s not the greatest singer anyway), it became increasingly enjoyable to watch and listen to this eccentric craftsman of genius retro-pop deconstruct those same songs into something that couldn’t be remotely construed as pop. Even in its most grating moments, it was enthralling to witness. After four tunes, we were beginning to wonder if he’d withhold last year’s masterpiece Before Today album from us entirely, but even though there was no sign of “Round And Round,” we did get the three tracks that precede it on the album before Pink lost his composure and stormed off the stage, as a not-at-all-stunned silence descended over the crowd. Side note: Haunted Graffiti bassist Tim Koh was amazing.

Odd Future
Most Offensive Performance: OFWGKTA (Sunday)
They wanted me to say that, right? But the only reason this was the most offensive set was how utterly inoffensive everything else at Pitchfork was. I’m not going to argue that protesters of the California hip-hop collective are prudes; I’m sure they’re justified in their outrage, but I saw equally offensive things on t-shirts worn by scrawny white kids. Can anyone honestly say that Odd Future is more reprehensibly insensitive than N.W.A.? Still pissed at them, too, self-righteous celebrities? Unfortunately, a group that rides a wave of infamy into fame paints itself into an instant corner, and Tyler, The Creator (with a cast on his right foot) and crew weren’t able to drum up a very impressive crowd reaction here; aside from a pocket of diehards near the front, it was pretty clear that most folks were only paying attention in hopes of a story to tell, and there isn’t one. Better performers than most rappers? Yeah, I’ll give ‘em that, and they’re quite clever wordsmiths at times, but ultimately there was nothing groundbreaking or very noteworthy about the set.

Thurston Moore
Token Iconic Indie Band Singer Solo Set: Thurston Moore (Friday)
In the grand tradition of Stephen Malkmus (2007) and Panda Bear (2010), Thurston Moore played a puzzling, non-traditional (for him) set on Friday afternoon that may have thrilled hardcore fans but left most of the crowd cold. “You guys wanna hear some songs about rape, incest and carnage?” Moore asked, clearly in tribute to the recent passing of Anal Cunt frontman Seth Putnam (just kidding). He then admitted that he was on a “hiatus from noise” and proceeded to play a somewhat dismal set of quasi-chamber pop with help from violinist Samara Lubelski and harpist Mary Lattimore. The sound was better than Pitchforks past in most instances this weekend, but given the mellow nature of Thurston’s new material (the Beck-produced Demolished Thoughts came out in May), the mix was quiet and unforgiving, and if the playing was better than it sounded, the nuances must have evaporated before they hit our ears. Predictably, the biggest crowd reaction arrived via a fairly lengthy acoustic noise jam towards the end of the set - some hiatus.

DJ Shadow
Least Appropriate Time Slot: DJ Shadow (Saturday)
The biggest problem with Pitchfork is that by the time the sun finally goes down on a hot day, the event is practically over. Even though it was a highlight of the day, Shadow’s 7:25 pm set was only enough to make me dream that we were either in a dark club or at a late-night set at a festival without a brutal 10 p.m. curfew. At first, we could only see the DJ via video, but he couldn’t keep up the act, huddling inside what had to be a stifling enclosed sphere on a bright, still-hot Chicago evening. With little fanfare, the prop opened up about halfway through the set, presumably so the DJ inside could breathe. The crowd was engaged throughout, Shadow’s scratching was naturally incredible, and he made sure to include plenty of Endtroducing… hits as well as some fantastic new material (The Less You Know, The Better is due in September), but with only an hour to work with and no real possibility of a light show, it seemed a bit disrespectful to force one of the most influential musicians of the past 20 years to warm up the crowd for Fleet Foxes.

Best Singing During An All-Instrumental Set: Battles (Friday)
…Because all the singing was pre-recorded, get it? If only Battles could’ve gotten Gary Numan to actually make an appearance! But since vocalist Tyondai Braxton quit last year, the band brought in a few guest singers for the new Gloss Drop release, and these folks’ heads appeared in audio and video for the performance. That’s cool and all, but it would seem that unless they find full-time help, they’re eliminating half their back catalog. With only three guys onstage, things don’t seem to have simplified one bit; managing loops with live instrumentation is never easy, and while drummer John Stanier is a beast, even he can’t pull it all together when multiple loops slip out of synch. The wizardry it took to pull this off at all is mind-boggling, and miraculously it worked for the vast majority of the set, particularly for a choice merging of “Tonto” and new single “Ice Cream.”

Coolest Discovery: Zola Jesus/Cold Cave (tie) (Saturday)

Zola Jesus
There are more interesting artists emerging from the Wisconsin wilderness than Justin Vernon, rest assured. Nika Roza Danilova has built up a sizable following pretty quickly since her 2009 debut as Zola Jesus, The Spoils. More 80s worship to be sure, her music mixes synth pop, post-punk and goth into a hypnotic concoction that would fail miserably without a captivating and earnest singer, which it fortunately has. Danilova was magnetic onstage, a constant ball of kinetic energy, and her feral soprano was thrilling against the icy but empathetic musical backdrop. The hype, in this case, is deserved.

Earlier in the day, Cold Cave roasted onstage under plenty of black leather and a performance surely far too ferocious for their own health in the sweltering mid-afternoon humidity. As far as the 80s revival goes, industrial is perhaps the most under-mined genre, so this industrial-tinged new wave came off as very refreshing. Wesley Eisold’s vocals range from tense-melodic à la Dave Gahan to hardcore growl, and the band whooped up more visceral noise than anyone else all weekend except possibly Deerhunter. Even though Pitchfork (the website as well as the fest) is inevitably transitioning from bands-you-never-heard-of to indie’s-biggest-stars and will become the mainstream before you know it, you can still make discoveries here.

The Other Three Bands That Must Be Mentioned

Fleet Foxes (Saturday)
As mentioned, these guys were usurped somewhat by the DJ Shadow dance party that preceded them, but they still held up their end of the bargain admirably. Despite the nagging appropriateness of the smoke machines, Fleet Foxes managed to at least suggest intimacy to a sizable festival crowd. Robin Pecknold’s peculiar, Jim-James-esque voice is a dicey matter of taste, but his vocal arrangements and songs in general are a force to be reckoned with, and these are not just studio creations; the band breathed newness into them with a lively performance.

Deerhunter (Sunday)
Bradford Cox has finally developed a swagger to match his singular genius, and I’m not sure whether to be impressed or a little sad that this is what passes for a performance from him these days. Of all the outlandish garments he’s worn onstage, it hadn’t occurred to me that Serious Rock Band would fit him so well. But there he was, emerging stoic into a ten-minute noise barrage, then playing it straight for a guitar assault mostly on material from last year’s brilliant Halcyon Digest. One of the album’s mellower tracks, “Don’t Cry,” became a jagged monstrosity, and for “Helicopter,” the band obviously knew there was no recreating the lush majesty of the studio version, so they turned it into a crushing, triumphant piece of borderline stadium rock. And all of this took somewhat of a back seat to the jam out of “Nothing Ever Happened” that morphed unbelievably into Patti Smith’s “Horses;” which took my breath away. At some point, Cox had to prove that his antics needn’t be there to distract from the music. Mission accomplished. Best set of the day.

TV On The Radio (Sunday)
One of the best things a band can do is take a song you’re either sick to death of or never liked in the first place and make you rethink your position when you hear it live; this was what TV On The Radio did Sunday night with “Will Do.” The band’s performance was so much warmer and more enthusiastic than its studio albums, particularly lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe. His energy carried the band, even when singer/guitarist Kyp Malone seemed like he was barely conscious. With just over an hour at their disposal, these guys wasted little time on ballads, running through a frantic set of abrasive, cerebral pop that nevertheless had the crowd more unified in body-movin’ than any other act of the weekend.

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[Published on: 7/20/11]

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