2007 Pitchfork Music Festival
Upon arriving via the Ashland bus to Chicago’s lovely and amazing Union Park for the first night of the second annual Pitchfork Music Festival, I found it awfully hard not to bust out my Nicolas Cage Fu Manchu impression from Grindhouse (“THIS IS MY MECCA!”). That said, imagining what Mecca will be and actually experiencing Mecca are two vastly different beasts. The main difference being that one never allows for disappointment and the other is wide open to it. While night one of the Pitchfork Music Festival had many, many memorable highlights, it was also unforgivably marred by sound difficulties, particularly during Slint’s and Sonic Youth’s sets.
The first night of the Pitchfork Music Festival set expectations so high that anything other than sheer musical nirvana would have been a disappointment. In collaboration with England’s “Don’t Look Back,” the first night of Pitchfork had three seminal acts performing their most well-regarded work: Post-Rock innovators Slint first went on to perform Spiderland in its entirety.
What elevates Spiderland to its classic status is the fact that its disturbingly quiet. The whole album sounds like the soundtrack to the greatest unwritten black-and-white cult horror film. That essential quality, however, doesn't exactly translate to a compelling live performance, at least from a showmanship perspective.
I was excited as anyone else to hear the band play--mine was amongst the many cheering the opening harmonics of "Breadcrumb"--but it was clear from note one that Slint were more engaged with each other, rather than engaging the audience. That made for compelling listening, to be sure. Slint transitioned flawlessly from waltz-time to 7/4 to back again, and the crunchy, cold and trebly instrumental tones and drones that defined the album were expertly created, with all the sonic subtleties in tact. The result was that music itself was epic and lo-fi at the same time.
However, Slint themselves were stoic. In addition, the sound was too quiet. It was quite disturbing to have crowd chatter threaten to drown out the band, especially on "Don, Amon." Still, the chilling music of Spiderland no doubt sent a shiver down the spine of all members in the audience, especially on "Good Morning, Captain" (gotta love the frantic cries of "I Miss You!".
Download: GZA - "Swordsman"
Next up was GZA of the Wu Tang Clan performing his classic solo release, Liquid Swords. I'm behind in my hip-hop education, so this live performance was the first time that I've heard any material from the record. But I am most definitely familiar with the Wu Tang Clan and hearing material from Liquid Swords made me think of what Jim Jarmusch said about the Wu Tang Clan's sound on the Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai DVD: That the Wu Tang's sound is both beautiful and damaged.
I heard that quality in Liquid Swords all throughout Friday night. Also, I smelt a lot of weed smoke through the kung-fu string samples, jazz drum samples and bursting keyboard lines over rough drumbeats. The performance was one filled with humor and braggadocio and the show definitely got better as it went along. GZA showed that many years later, Liquid Swords and the Wu-Tang Clan are still nothing to fuck with.
Download: Sonic Youth - "Rain King"
Which leaves us with Sonic Youth, taking the stage to perform the entirety of its 1989 masterpiece Daydream Nation. What should have been a monumental occasion was marred by poor sound quality. The performance itself was fantastic. The band was energetic and passionate and was unafraid to re-tool some of the arrangements in their classic songs. "Silver Rocket," "The Sprawl" and "Total Trash" had their noisy jams extended and the band took ample opportunity to improvise noisy detours. However, the band also sounded like their sound was coming from a car stereo a mile away.
It took a lot of repositioning before my friends and I could hear the band at a loud level. Because of that it wasn't until "Cross The Breeze" that I could really get into the band's performance. Once I did, however, all effort on the listener's part was rewarded with spot-on renditions of "Candle," "Rain King," even "Providence." The best part was undoubtedly "Trilogy," particularly "Hyperstation." As sad as it is to hear a lyric like "we're daydreaming days in a daydream nation" still relevant after 20 years, it was thrilling all the same. Afterwards, Sonic Youth came on and did a three song encore of tracks from last year's Rather Ripped.
Download: Twilight Sad – “Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters”
I missed most of Twilight Sad's set due to the fact that the line for entering Saturday's show stretched on for almost two blocks. But I caught the last two or three songs and while I'm impressed with the barrage of distortion, canyons fill of reverb and angst-filled lyrics delivered with a thick Scottish brogue, the show itself seemed too monotonous for my enjoyment. It seemed like a wall-of-sound for the sake of having a wall-of-sound.
Download: Califone - "The Orchids"
Waiting for Voxtrot, I caught most of Califone's ethereal pop from far away. I was definitely digging their Beatles-esque melodies, mournful pianos and auxiliary percussion. It was music that was great for the mid-afternoon.
Download: Voxtrot - "Kid Gloves"
Speaking of music perfect for a summer afternoon, Voxtrot gave Pitchfork a solidly crafted set of twee-influenced indie-pop, with bittersweet minor chords and major melodies. The Austin, TX, quintet sung effervescently and effortlessly, giving a performance that had the audience spontaneously clapping up and down. Whether it was "Kid Gloves" or "Brothers In Conflict," the group combined the herky-jerkyness of They Might Be Giants with the piano-based material of Billy Joel and Ben Folds. Their bouncy grooves was definitely enough to make one Ian Anderson slap me five after the closing notes of their set. Come to think of it, the entire show felt like a huge high five from Voxtrot to the audience.
Download: Grizzly Bear - "Deep Sea Diver"
Next up were Grizzly Bear, with their atmospheric, whirring guitar tones, soaring vocals, booming drums and echo-drenched vocals. The music was perfect for the afternoon in a way that's totally opposite of Voxtrot. If Voxtrot is the band for those who use afternoons in their spare time to go do active things outside, then Grizzly Bear is the band for picnic-ers looking for a more contemplative time. Their layered sound made for a relaxing listen.
Download: Beach House - "Apple Orchard"
Beach House went on about 10 minutes after Grizzly Bear, so I only caught the tail end of their set. But as has been well-documented before, I am fan of the shoegaze influenced music, so I enjoyed the combination of the more ambient, keyboard-based of My Bloody Valentine style with Beatles-esque melodies. It was breezy, quiet music with soft, electronically enhanced drums and a delicate soprano. If Kevin Shields had developed his instrumentals for Lost In Translation, then they'd might have sound like Beach House (only with more harpsichord).
Download: Battles - "Leyendecker"
Shattering any contemplative mood set forth by Grizzly Bear and Beach House, Battles put forth an insanely intense set filled with fractured soundscapes, unrelenting drumming and polyrhythmic clusters of sound. The band as a whole sounded like a psychotic beatbox, filled with feedback and math-rock and manipulated sounds. Most of Battles music is driving by manipulated vocals. Guitars sounded like a theremin, amongst other out-of-this world sounds. Not only that, but the band expertly changed tempos and dynamics at the drop of a hat. All in all, a very intense performance filled with unique sonic experimentation.
Download: Iron and Wine - "Boy With A Coin"
Iron and Wine took the stage, then, as prophesied, was crucified by a radical group of Toby Keith fans and ended up dying for their sins.
Wait, a minute, that doesn't seem right.
Ah yes, what Iron and Wine really did was play a boat load of new material from his upcoming The Shepard's Dog album. The new material sounds similar to old stuff, but with a fuller sound. Credit that to a host of new musicians adding haunting pedal steel guitar lines, xylophone, violin and electric guitar. At times, the new songs conjured up a more mellow, old-school country influenced version of southern rock I think that the Woman King EP was a bit of a foreshadow as the what this new LP will offer fans. At any rate, Iron and Wine played in a fashion that resembled his set at Lollapalooza; that is, incorporating new songs into a set of reworked old favorites. Definitely an enjoyable set and not only that, but he encored with a solo rendition of Radiohead's "No Surprises."
Download: Mastodon- "Bladecatcher"
One of the biggest crowdpleasing sets of the day easily belonged to Mastodon (the other you'll read about right after this one). From masterful Blood Mountain numbers like "Crystal Skull" to the thunderous, monumental closing notes of "Blood and Thunder," Mastodon's set was nothing if not a triumph. Or, to use metal-friendly, if not exactly enlightened, terminology, it was fucking sweet. Judging by the mushroom cloud of of baseball diamond dirt and flying bottles of water that magically rose up from the pit, the crowd was very into it as well. And into it they should have been. Mastodon had enough polyrhythmic insanity to satisfy die-hard musicians and metal fans, but enough huge choruses and epic melodies to bring everyone else along as well.
Download: Clipse - "Keys Open Doors"
The other crowdpleasing set of the day belong to minimalist coke-rapper brothers Clipse. The duo's give-and-take with the crowd was remarkable on several occasions, including on "Keys Open Doors." Rap has a lot in common with metal, in regard to the fact that in order to get to the good stuff, you have to sift through a lot of garbage, and that both genres are unfairly maligned by people who've never spent any of their time actually listening to the music. But only Sourpuss McGhee would have not enjoyed Clipse's set, which consisted of the hits from their Hell Hath No Fury, as well as more obscure cuts from their We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series. What I really enjoyed about Clipse was hearing their voices give out. It meant that they were truly trying to give the audience as much as they could give and revel the desperation in their lives via a raspy roar or a calmer, smoother flow. They also apologized for the long gap in between albums, but reassured the P4K attendees that a flurry of new Clipse projects were on the way and that they were competing so fiercely because "we just think we're better, that's all." After Saturday's performance, it would be tough to argue otherwise.
Download: Cat Power - "I Don't Blame You"
To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed by Cat Power's performance. Her backing musicians, The Dirty Delta Blues band, gave a fantastic show filled with nuanced blue-eyed soul. Cat Power herself, however, is just too neurotic of a stage presence. She kept on apologizing for the sound quality (she was mixed too quietly, granted, but constantly fretting about it won't make matters better). It seems that for all of the progress she's made in her personal life (and good for her for doing so) she's been unable to fully shake off her legendary stage fright.
However, as a singer, she's made a great amount of progress, particularly when it came to her lower range. She really belted it out over the band's Hammond organ, thumping bass lines, bluesy guitar licks and a shuffling drumbeat and the result was something akin to slow-burn soul. Still, I only recognized the songs she played from The Greatest (The slowed down but beefed up version of "The Moon" was a highlight) and her cover of "Satisfaction." I don't know if she has a new covers album coming out but it would have been nice for her to throw us a bone or two, or at least take a deep breath before she goes out on stage.
Download: Yoko Ono - "Kiss Kiss Kiss" (Ft. Peaches)
The prospect of watching Yoko Ono made me incredibly nervous, which no doubt was caused by her unfair vilification by nostalgia-blinded baby-boomers. Not only that, but the only frame of reference I have with Ono is how she was spoofed on "The Simpsons" ("I'd like single a plum floating in perfume in a man's hat").
Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating her set.
From a historical and sociological perspective (she was, after all, a frequent collaborator of John Lennon's), Ono's set was fascinating. Ono plays so rarely that I absolutely had to watch, even if other people bolted the moment she started singing. I don't blame them. I didn't enjoy the music at all. Ono's material sounded like someone having a nervous breakdown to alt-rock influenced disco.
But here's the thing: As a performer, she's dreadful. But as a person, she's insanely intriguing. Plus, how can you be mad at a 74-year-old (74! I hope I can still rock out at 74!) woman whose entire artistic ethos is based on being adamant about the fact that she loves you? I know I can't, even if her singing sounded like a goat being strangled by Sylvester Stallone.
Eventually, Ono's performance turned into an epic battle of wills after the mass exodus of people who didn't want to be subjected to Ono's constant WaaaAAaa! WaaAaaAa! WAaaaAAAA!-ing. I had to get closer. After all, I had to answer this question myself: how does one get into Yoko Ono?
"Oh, man, the way she phrases that lyric "WAAAA! WaaaAAAAAaaa! Confusion! Confusion! WAaAAaAA!" just cuts to my very soul. I can totally relate!"
Naturally, once we got closer to Ono, she adopted a more traditional singing technique. Go figure. But still, I couldn't help but be moved by her chanting of "War is over (if you want it!)." It's odd that, for all of the avant-garde trappings of her music, the most relevant statement was the one that was the most direct.
I guess words sometimes are the best weapon.
Download: Deerhunter - "Strange Lights"
It was weird to walk up to the gates and see the festival grounds so empty (especially a day after the two-block long wait-a-thon) for Deerhunter's opening set. But hey, it's their loss. The Athens-based band played a rousing set of noisy, ambient psych-pop (the psych standing for psychedelic and psychotic) and it was quite a sight watching singer Bradford Cox undergo a symbolic metamorphosis on stage. The juggernaut of guitar fuzz and echo-y falsetto chants made for a stirring combination.
Download: The Ponys - “Poser Psychotic"
I would have enjoyed The Ponys' brand of garage-rock psychedelia had they not kept having sound problems. First, it was a self-described "bass crapout" (there's a band name if I ever heard one) and then there was an even larger, more universal, sonic crapout when the monitors went out on The Ponys. The sound eventually recovered, and the band acted professionally about it by playing more songs from their quite good "Turn The Lights Out." Renditions of "Double Vision" and "Poser Psychotic" were spot-on.
Download: Menomena - "Gay A"
Sorry, kids. Still not a Menomena fan. But their engaging, multi-tasking live performance definitely made me re-evaluate them. I guess what did it for me is the fact that all of their cutesy production clutter got cut down to the essentials. What I was genuinely surprised by was how groove-filled Menomena was. Their singer has some serious bass-playing skills. On tracks like "Wet and Rusting," the band manage to interweave harmonies deftly and handled instruments with great grace as well. Even though I didn't like Friend And Foe, I enjoyed the band's set.
Download: The Sea and Cake - "Up On Crutches"
If there hadn't been a cool breeze in the air during The Sea and Cake's set, then the band themselves could have easily provided one via their music. Playing most of the songs from their most recent set, and straightforward, Everybody, the group aptly played off each other with chiming, poppy guitar chords, smooth bass lines and singer Sam Prekop's soft, airy tenor. I'm reluctant to call the band "thinking man's easy listening" because of the connotations of that phrase, but that's the best way I can describe their music. However, The Sea and Cake also like to stretch things out, to the degree where I'm really surprised that this band hasn't been embraced by the Bonnaroo crowd yet. At the very least, the hometown crowd at Pitchfork strongly appreciated the band.
Download: Stephen Malkmus - "PostPaint Boy"
Even if Stephen Malkmus had brought out himself and Bob Nastanovich for just one song (which he did, and they played "Trigger Cut" amongst other favorites from Slanted & Enchanted, the set would have been a triumph. But we also got many, many more songs in what was truly (until Bob showed) a solo set. It's appropriate that Malkmus embraced the summery aspects of the festival. After all, he once described his old band, Pavement, as a California-ized version of The Fall. With just an acoustic guitar and his old, sarcastic self, Malkmus turned in a charming set.
Download: Of Montreal - "Suffer For Fashion"
One of the festival's highlights, easily, was of Montreal's set, if only for the elaborate costume changes (Kevin Barnes in a g-string was one of the more interesting sights of the day) and surprising Kinks encores (they covered "All Day and All Night"). Of Montreal started off with a "wow" rendition of "Suffer For Fashion" and then preceded to knock the socks of every audience member flat on their asses. The bands kaleidoscopic combination of new-wave, glam, disco and psychedelia paid rich sonic dividends. The band also debuted a new tune, "Softcore," to rousing acclaim. Of Montreal also get credit for busting out the Hissing Fauna epic "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" and reveling in all of its uncomfortable emotions, then switching things up by tossing out gold-covered footballs into the crowd. Any rock show that effectively combines humor and pathos deserves nothing but the utmost praise.
Download: New Pornographers - "Entering White Cecilla"
Speaking of the utmost praise, I would have offered anybody a million dollars if they could have found a frowning face during The New Pornographer's set. The heavenly harmonies of "Use It" carried out through the festival ground and the band's effervescent beats kept the crowd dancing throughout the entire set. If melodies were a natural resource, then The New Pornographers consumption of them would rival America's consumption of actual natural resources. The group also played many songs from the upcoming Challengers disc and surprise, surprise, they managed to match up against classics like "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism." Well done, New Pornos. Well done.
Download: De La Soul - "Buddy"
Last were mid-school hip-hop legends De La Soul. I only stayed for a little bit of their set, but I got down and smiled when they referenced A Tribe Called Quest. All in all, it was a great end to a festival that, for all the sound bumps in the road there were, still qualified as one of the best that the US has to offer devout music fans.
(Ian Anderson and Jonathan Graef)