Pitchfork Music Festival
Union Park, Chicago
July 13-15, 2007
My parents took me to Chicago once when I was maybe four, but all I remember is a vague impression of white paper snowflakes hanging from a hotel-lobby ceiling. As a sentient human being, then, I’ve been to Chicago three times, each time for the Pitchfork Music Festival. The Chicago I’ve seen probably doesn’t have anything to do with the real thing. Yesterday, my brother and I ate pizza in a downtown restaurant while the local news droned on in the background: an endless, indistinct parade of stories about policemen shooting people and getting shot. But I didn’t see any of that Chicago. The Chicago I saw is a relentlessly pleasant place where sidewalks are wider and people are more relaxed and apartments are nicer and New York’s pervasive hanging summer-garbage smell doesn’t exist. By Saturday afternoon, I was ready to move. I write for Pitchfork, and Pitchfork treats its writers well when so many of us converge on the city for that one weekend. We get to relax backstage in a wide-open heavily-shaded backstage area. There’s free beer and free Fuze, and Fuze is pretty good. This year, there was also free Chipotle, pretty awesome even if the lines were forbiddingly long. We could watch the bands from the side of the stage, standing on stage-height platforms rather than staring up from the ground. That’s a weird and atypical way to experience a music festival, of course. We didn’t have to worry much about getting sunbaked or inhaling roving clouds of dust or spending half an hour on line for an eight-dollar chicken sandwich. (From what I could tell, the festival also treats its regular attendees well: free water, cheap tickets, a comfortable sprawl that limits extreme crowding. I wouldn’t know too much about all that, though.) It’s a bit unsettling to watch someone perform to a different set of people; it’s like you’re eavesdropping. For us in the VIP section, the music became pretty secondary; we were there to get away from home, to hang out with other writers we hadn’t seen in a while, to get treated like we’re important people for once. Most of the bands that I really wanted to see were bands I’d already seen. Every year, though, one act has emerged who utterly demolished my expectations and brought a sort of left-field euphoria. The past two years, both of those acts were warm, gummy, expansive, languid-but-enthusiastic guitar-rock bands, both of which featured excited men with beards, nice-guy stuff that works perfectly on a sunny Midwestern afternoon: Band of Horses last year, Broken Social Scene two years ago. This year, though, the festival’s big surprise was someone I’ve already panned in this space: Girl Talk. When I saw him at the Mercury Lounge last year, his thing was to repurpose split-second bites of pop songs into unrecognizable rhythmless gunk. On Saturday night, though, he tried a new tactic: letting the damn song play a little longer. He still mostly dealt in mashups (“Pop Lock & Drop It,” it turns out, sounds pretty amazing over the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”), and Greg Gillis himself was tough to spot, hunched over a laptop on a stage crowded with dancers and an inflatable castle-looking thing. But what made it was a the crowd. Penned in by the festival’s sidelined third stage, they made the most of their limited space: climbing trees, sitting on fences, dancing across the street. In its infinite wisdom, this heaving mass had decided to turn some dork with a computer into a motherfucking star. For a dork with a computer, it was something to see.
There were other surprises at the fest, but they were mostly of the comfort-food variety: Iron and Wine (who’d I’d never paid much attention to because I hate the guy’s beard) and Califone (who I always get mixed up with Calexico) both succeeded by playing with a sort of sundazed Southern lilt that sounded gorgeous in turtle-time heat, especially when I could just sit behind the stage and let them soundtrack the day. Ken Vandermark’s Powerhouse Sound momentarily convinced me that I might actually like jazz as long as jazz basically consists of a bunch of stoner-metal guitar-solos played all at once. (The William Parker Quartet, who played immediately afterward, reassured me that I don’t actually like jazz when it’s just a bunch of formless tootling. Fuzzed-out guitars > saxophones.) I’ve never much liked Jamie Liddell’s fake-Curtis Mayfield schtick, and I wouldn’t have imagined I’d get much from seeing him do it onstage while playing with computers and wearing silk pajamas, but he had enough charisma to almost pull it off. The festival’s greatest pleasures, though, turned out to be the ones I saw coming miles away. Midway through Saturday, the two groups I’d been most looking forward to came interrupted the day’s blissy haze with a scathing bad-vibes one-two punch. Mastodon, muffled and blunted at Roseland a couple of months ago, roared into life with a transcendent rumble that immediately erased the memory of everything that’d come before. They looked and sounded like swamp-demons, and their splattering thunder was even more momentous in the open air, the clouds of dust that the crowd kicked up encircling them like dry ice. And Clipse, immediately afterward, brought the same fire and focus that I’ve seen in clubs, their cold and emaciated beats cutting through the air like falling icicles. Pusha: “So this is what it feel like to have the album of the year. I don’t give a fuck what they said, ain’t nothing harder than the Clipse. They know it too.” Even more miraculous: the assembled white-kid mass actually knew their songs and treated them like conquering heroes, which is what they were. Venturing out into the crowd for the MastoClipse apocalypse was the best decision I made all weekend. You can’t watch that stuff from the side of the stage and get the full effect. It’s an immersion thing.
Every year, the festival seems to get a little bit bigger even if the actual capacity remains the same. This year, both of the main stages got mini-Jumbotrons, and the third-stage tent went open-air. The biggest change, though, was the expansion to a third night. The big thing on Friday was the consecutive performances of three albums: Slint’s Spiderland, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Taken together, the three form the skeleton of a sort of alternate canon, one that prizes disruption and clangor and texture and atmosphere just as much as melody and rhythm, maybe more. It didn’t exactly form a roadmap for the rest of the festival; for one thing, there was no power-pop, unless “Teen Age Riot” counts, which it doesn’t. But that canon did delineate the rules, such as they were. The festival occupies a sort of parallel pop-music world, one in which bands that only play hole-in-the-wall clubs the rest of the year get a hint of mass adulation. It’s pretty telling that the most famous person to play the festival at all is basically reviled the world over for supposedly breaking up the Beatles. Yoko Ono may be a hard sell, but the reception she got was something close to rapture. I liked Yoko. For about the first half of her set, she wordlessly warbled and shrieked while her band played heavy psyche-rock riffs, but then she went into a quiet song about John Lennon that went “I miss you / Every night.” I don’t even really care about John Lennon, but she still got me, and it didn’t hurt that she followed it up with “Walking on Thin Ice.” She also brought out Thurston Moore for an unbearable noise-improv interlude, but she ended the set in full-on stadium-diva mode, chanting “war is over if you want it” along with the crowd while they did the power-ballad hand-wave thing. As someone pointed out to me, it was a total Rolling Stone moment, one that had basically nothing to do with a website famous (justifiably or not) for snark. But that moment didn’t come until after a whole lot of noise-spooge, and she kept the crowd with her the whole time. It was crazy.
Back to albums night: I missed Spiderland because of a delayed flight and only arrived halfway through Liquid Swords (fuck Continental). GZA and his too-many hypemen treated night’s gimmick more as loose suggestion than as doctrine. Pretty soon after I got there, they abandoned the album completely, doing “Reunited” and “Triumph” and “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” and it essentially turned into your usual chaotic Wu-Tang festival set, fun and frustrating at the same time; the only real unpredictable moment I saw came with the mouth-foaming freestyle from sole guest Cappadonna. Daydream Nation isn’t even my favorite Sonic Youth album (that’d be Goo), and so I only really paid attention through the first three or four songs, the ones I really like. The rest of the time, I wandered around and did other stuff, which is what I usually do when Daydream Nation is playing. (One thing I did notice: near the set’s end, Kim Gordon put down her bass and flailed around; she was wearing a white minidress, and she looked like she was trying to impersonate Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In. It was pretty funny.) The entire-album gimmick was probably better in concept than in reality. Albums, after all, are self-contained things. Live shows are messier, for better or for worse, though I sure wouldn’t turn down a chance to see Avail blow all the way through 4AM Friday.
Here’s something telling: if you average up the ages of all three nights’ headliners (Sonic Youth, Yoko, De La Soul), you get the magic number of 44, and frankly I’m sort of surprised it’s not higher. The headliners all deserved their venerable elder-statesman status; De La, for their part, brought out Prince Paul and turned in the most focused and entertaining performance I’ve ever seen from them. But the festival’s real intrigue came further down the bill. It’s always interesting to see which of the bands at Pitchfork manage to make small-room music translate to a larger venue. Some of it didn’t work. The Twilight Sad’s languid mope-rock just didn’t scan on a sunny afternoon. The Junior Boys have figured out how to better integrate their drummer, which meant that they sounded way more rocking than last time I saw them, but they’re exactly as visually static as you’d expect a group of studio-rats to be. The Field fell victim to that weird festival phenomenon where people watch a DJ like he’s a band rather than dancing to the music he’s playing. The three guys in Menomena worked so hard to replicate their album’s layered sounds that their performance came out looking grim and mechanistic. On Sunday, the soundman on the third stage turned the volume way down for some reason, which hurt otherwise strong sets from the Klaxons (a lot fiercer and more polished than a few months ago) and the Cool Kids (basically the indie equivalents of post-Gumby-haircut Yung Joc, and that’s not an insult). Of Montreal, by contrast, translated to a larger venue almost too well. They came out wearing totally ridiculous costumes (G-strings, lobster-claws, puffy pink angel-wings), which dominated the set to the extent that I can’t remember anything about their actual music. People love them. They’re like the gay Gwar. I don’t get it.
But those failures gave context to the bands who managed to make their sound work on larger levels. I’m not particularly fond of Battles (too many squeaky noises), but it was crazy seeing people in the crowd singing along en masse to Tyondai Braxton’s gibberish pitch-warped chipmunk-vocals. Grizzly Bear basically makes church music, and it hung in the air beautifully. And Cat Power’s new band went for a sort of late-60s-stones thing, a great look for her. Cat Power’s set came right after Mastodon and Clipse, and it made a perfect coolout soundtrack, a much-appreciated opportunity to take a breather and call my girl. I’m glad I was there the next day and I’m glad I saw Yoko, but that Cat Power set would’ve made a pretty perfect end to the festival. Indie-rock these days is a sigh, not a roar, but sometimes a sigh is all you need.
Personal note: congratulations to Marc and Angela.