Live: Pitchfork’s Indie-Rock Festival



Pitchfork Music Festival
July 29-30
Union Park, Chicago

First off: conflict of interest, obviously.

This is going to be a weird non-review, since I didn’t drop $250 on plane tickets so I could go see bands that I’ve mostly already seen. I went out to Chicago for the Pitchfork Festival for the same reasons I went to Pitchfork’s Intonation fest last year: I wanted to drink free beers and hang out with my friends and generally take advantage of the VIP-treatment shit that allows me to walk around like I’m actually somebody for one weekend a year. It makes for a ridonkulously fun weekend and a deeply weird alternate-reality concert experience. A new wrinkle with this year’s show was the lack of photo-pit access that all the writers had. We couldn’t watch the bands from right up in front of the stage, so we sort of had to crane our necks and look around at the back of someone’s head or else risk insanely hot temperatures to stand out in the crowd like normal fucking people and watch bands the way we were supposed to be doing it. (I craned my neck the whole time.) It doesn’t feel quite right to watch bands play festival sets while they’re facing away from you and out at the crowd of people you’re not really a part of; it feels like eavesdropping. And it was hot, way too hot to even consider trying to take the Whitman’s sampler approach. I really did intend to finally figure out the whole thing of Mission of Burma and understand why they’re these everlasting postpunk legends, but I stood out in that heat for like a song and a half, and nothing was wowing me, so I went back to the shade to drink free Fuze.

Anyway. There wasn’t much at stake in the festival because there’s not much at stake in circa-06 indie-rock; it tends toward pleasant-enough background music for when you’re on the internet. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s what kept the day’s music consistently fun but what kept me from witnessing any real change-your-life moments (or maybe they happened but I didn’t see because it was too hot). The real story is seeing these bands playing to maybe the biggest crowds of their entire careers at, like, 3 p.m. on a Sunday and figuring out whether they could step up and actually rock these crowds. The bands that did it best were the ones with a real open expansiveness in their sounds. Band of Horses might’ve played my favorite set of the festival; they grinned big and goofy and mumbled something about “so guys what’s up” and then unleashed big warm scratchy-voiced surprisingly-emo epics, and they sounded absolutely perfect in the early afternoon. So did Jens Lekman, whose happily drippy sugar-twee was exactly the sort of good-vibes stuff that I wanted to hear when I was just showing up on Sunday. The National‘s gothy churn worked shockingly well in the cruel sunlight, which means that the National are officially better than Interpol, who totally could not pull off their shtick in the daylight at last year’s Across the Narrows fest.

The Walkmen also had the epic-rolling thing happening, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise coming from them. In fact, there weren’t too many surprises at all; the lineup leaned pretty heavily on tried-and-true indie-lifer types. So Ted Leo did his dependably great exposed-nerve nasal-bleat pop-punk thing, and it was exactly as fun as it always is. The Mountain Goats were my favorite band on the bill, but the acoustic rage-out stomp-alongs that work so viscerally in a club didn’t quite register the same way on a big stage when there were a million shiny things around to distract me. Yo La Tengo pulled the absolute asshole move of only playing new stuff, which meant I didn’t watch much of Yo La Tengo. Devendra Banhart is deeply, deeply in love with himself, and I get closer and closer every day to forgetting what I ever liked about that guy. The Liars were bore-noying. Art Brut was fun.

It was hard to ignore the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the main-stage acts. I guess it was a step in the right direction to book Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif, actual rappers, but it felt like a safe and obvious choice, like when Lollapalooza 93 booked Arrested Development as their token rap group. It’s always weird to see those two onstage together, if only because Lif ends up having to spend a large part of the set playing hypeman to Aesop and rapping along with his intentional weirdness. I got a much bigger rush from seeing their labelmate Cage in the third-stage tent. Cage was so visibly bombed that he could barely stand, and he was on some real Darby Crash shit: falling over, writhing on the ground, slamming his head into the monitors, ignoring the beat when he rapped. I couldn’t tell whether it was real or whether he was doing it for the benefit of the guy filming everything onstage; I guess it could’ve been both. Nonetheless, there was something both repellent and compelling about finally getting to see someone get actively self-destructive and unprofessional.

Many of the festival’s most interesting moments happened out there in the tent: minimal-techno types whose stuff sounded great from where I was sitting on the ground, a Matmos set that apparently got amazing after I left. The girl from Bondo de Role dislocated her arm crowd-surfing, but I didn’t see that. I did see both the girl from CSS and Cage crowd-surfing almost immediately afterwards, though. CSS, whose record I thought was pretty lukewarm, were just a riotous blast of fun, sweating all over the place and totally devoting themselves to their thing. The DJ sets were a little weird, since most of the crowd did the thing where you watch the stage instead of straight-up dancing even though there isn’t anything onstage other than a guy playing records. Still, I skipped the Futureheads and Spoon so I could hear A-Trak and Diplo do pretty much the exact same set (not really, but they both played “Blow the Whistle”). I’ve had some less-than-complimentary things to say about the whole hipster-DJ scene lately, but A-Trak and Diplo were both responsible for my favorite moments of the festival, some euphoric epiphanies big enough to make me reconsider my jihad against white hipster DJs reappropriating Baltimore club. There’s something really powerful about being in a city a time zone away from Baltimore, a city I don’t really know, and hearing a smart DJ connect the dots between the two cities, between “Doo Doo Brown” and “Percolator,” seeing kids bug out to both.

It was a music festival organized and booked by friends and colleagues of mine. A ton of people showed up, but it wasn’t uncomfortably packed, and people could get to shade and water pretty easily. There weren’t any big gross clouds of dust choking everyone out. Nobody got beat up. I had a really good time. There was free beer.